translated with an afterword by Holly Woodward
Six Poems by Osip Mandelstam
Do not speak! Never, to no one, nothing—
There in the fire’s ashes, time is singing.
Dressed in a light shawl, you
came to me in the hall—
so swiftly no one knew,
nor heard the soft footfall.
The taunting form of your face
eluded my grasp in the cloud.
God, I called out by mistake—
I’d never called him aloud.
God’s name unfurled from my chest
like a bird from a cage and
soared through the thick, swirling mist.
At the empty iron bars I stand.
When the moon comes over the city,
and the thick town slowly awakes,
and night deepens the melancholy
copper and wax songs, which rough time breaks,
the cuckoo weeps in her stone tower,
the pale reaper comes to this dead realm,
softly stirs the stiff shadows like straw,
then scatters the chaff to the hard ground.
My mouth is frozen cold—
my skin is shivering,
but the sky dances gold,
commanding me to sing:
Weep, suffer love, know it,
and don’t drop the frail ball,
you tormented poet,
that I’ve lightly let fall.
So this is the real tie
to heaven’s secret realms,
in this heavy, dark sky—
the sadness overwhelms.
What if, above that shop,
this star shining so hard
were suddenly to drop
through my heart like a shard?
I say this in a whisper,
for the time has not yet come—
only with long, hard labor
may obscure heaven be won.
Our sky is temporary,
and never forget this fact:
heaven’s a house you carry
forever on your back.
Two judgments may serve as bookends to Mandelstam’s life as a poet:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems immediately and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If they thought they did not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses, found them dull, and was about to dismiss them. But then, Makovsky said, he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” The editor turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He was then obliged to publish the poems, giving Osip his literary début.
A second judgment shaped the end of his writing life. In 1934, a harrowing year in Stalin’s long reign of terror, Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. Osip never wrote the lines down.
One listener recorded the lines and delivered them to the Soviet secret police. When they landed on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow already knew that Mandelstam was doomed. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”
Mandelstam was arrested and tortured, then sent into exile. That winter, Mandelstam died in a Gulag transit camp. His wife, Nadezhda, saved many poems by carrying them in memory for decades.