Osip Mandelstam is one of the most prominent Russian poets of the 20th century. Born in 1891, he grew up in St. Petersburg, and published two collections, Stone and Tristia, before his work began running into publishing difficulties in the 1920s due to his political and aesthetic views, largely at odds with the powers-that-were of the Soviet Union. These poems are among the last ones he wrote, during a period of internal exile in the city of Voronezh in the mid-1930s, and form part of what are usually referred to as his Voronezh Notebooks. Though Mandelstam never saw the Mediterranean, he was a frequent visitor to the Crimea, and the Hellenic world was a crucial part of his poetic outlook. He died in a Gulag transit camp in 1938.
Alistair Noon’s previous translations of Osip Mandelstam, Concert At A Railway Station, appeared from Shearsman Books in 2018. His own poems have been published in two collections from Nine Arches Press (Earth Records, 2012; The Kerosene Singing, 2015) and a dozen chapbooks from various presses, including QUAD (from Longbarrow Press, 2017). Hellenic Post is forthcoming from Knives Forks And Spoons Press. He lives in Berlin.
With the sea on your lips, you regard
the clay that rejoiced in the kiln;
the sea and the eye share the shards
of a vessel whose power has chilled.
Crete on the wing, blue shape,
return what’s mine, it’s my labour.
Let lactating deities feed
that vessel revered in the heat.
Ever bluer, these things they’d sing
long before any Odyssey’s lines,
before anyone quibbled that drink
or food could be yours or mine…
Let your beams ripple out and revive,
star in the ox-eyed skies.
Like a flying fish, it’s a guess
when the water will call out “Yes”.
Wise pimp to the water and wine,
guilty debtor to lips long parched,
as the music sounds, your fruit crop ripens,
young goats on your flanks at their dance.
The furious pipes that curse and shriek
among your black and red shapes weigh in:
There’s nobody here to mend this beaker’s
catastrophes, denting its rim.
21 March 1937
Nereids of mine, you daughters
of wrongs in the Mediterranean,
complaints your food and water,
you wail now I’ve joined in your pain.
Iota and theta, the flute
of the Greeks gives no recitals –
unsculpted and short of repute,
it toils over trenches to ripen.
You can’t let it out of your grip:
clench your teeth, you won’t subdue it.
You can’t pull its form from your lips.
No tongue can force words through it.
The flautist knows no rest:
he believes he’s alone, that one day
he moulded that birthplace he left,
his Aegean, from violet clay.
With a whisper from lips that love honour,
that resound and recall in whispers,
he hurrieth to practice economy
and picks out his tones, tight-fisted.
He takes steps we’ll never reprise,
just clay in the sea’s open hands,
and as soon as the sea’s at my eyes,
my counts turn into a cancer.
I don’t even love my own lips –
murder hangs too from that vine –
helpless, I let the flute dip
its equinox into decline…
7 April 1937
© Translations in this post published
with the permission of Alistair Noon
photo of Alistair Noon by Karl Hurst