p o e m s

o s i p   m a n d e l s h t a m 

I am cold. Transparent Spring

Wraps Petropolis in its green feathers.

But like jellyfish,

The Nevaís waves sicken me.

Along the riverís north bank

Cars flash their headlights,

Dragonflies and steel beetles fly,

And stars flash their golden pins.

But no star will ever kill

The wavesí heavy emerald.


We will die in transparent Petropolis,

Where Prosperpina rules over us.

With each breath we taste deathís air.

Each hour celebrates our death.

Harsh Athena, goddess of the sea,

Cast off your helmet of stone.

We will die in transparent Petropolis

Where Proserpina reigns, not you.

I have studied the science of parting

In the bareheaded laments of night.

Oxen chew, the waiting drags on

As the vigil stretches the nightís last hour.

I honored the ritual of the crowing night

When I took up the travelerís heavy grief.

I saw in a womanís distant eyes

Tears mingling with the musesí song.

Who can tell from the word parting

What kind of separation lies before us,

What awaits us in the roosterís call

When a fire burns in the acropolis?

And at the dawn of a new life,

While the oxen chew lazily in the barn,

Why the rooster, herald of the new day,

Beats its wings on the city wall?

I love the routine of spinning wool,

The shuttleís glide, the spindleís hum.

Look, drifting towards us like swanís down,

Barefoot Delia comes flying!

How poor the foundation of our lives,

How plain the language of joy!

Everything has come before and will again,

But only the moment of recognition is sweet.

So be it: a transparent shape

Lies on a clean, earthen dish

like the stretched hide of a squirrel.

A girl, bending over the wax, reads it.

It is not ours to tell the future of Greek Erebus:

Wax is for women as bronze is for men.

Our lot is to fall in battle,

Theirís to die by prophecy.

On the rocky spurs of Pierius

The Muses led the first dance,

So blind lyrists, like bees,

Could give us gifts of Ionian Honey.

A cold, lofty wind began to blow

From a girlís prominent forehead

So that distant grandsons might discover

The tender coffins of the Archipelago.

Spring dashes in to trample Hellasí meadow,

Sappho puts on a motley shoe,

And the hammering cicadas

Forge a little ring, just like in the song.

The sturdy carpenter has built a tall house.

The chickens have all been strangled for the wedding.

And the clumsy cobbler has stretched

All five of his ox hides into shoes.

The slow tortoise-lyre

Barely, just barely creeping along,

Plunks itself down in the sunshine of Epirus,

Quietly warming its golden belly.

Who will caress it now?

While it sleeps, who will turn it over?

Forseeing the touch of dry fingers,

It waits for Terpander.

The oaks are watered from a cold, earthen pot.

The bareheaded grass rustles.

The honeysuckles smell sweet to the wasps.

Oh, where are you sacred islands,

Where no one eats broken bread,

Where there is only honey, wine, and milk,

Where grinding labor does not cloud the sky,

And the wheel turns easily?

I forgot the word I wanted to say.

The blind swallow flies back to her hall of shadows

On clipped wings, to play with the transparent ones.

A night song is sung in forgetfulness.

Birds are not heard. Immortelles are not blossoming.

There is a herd of nightmares with transparent manes.

Among the grasshoppers, the word is forgotten

And slowly grows like a tent or a temple,

And suddenly falls on its side like wild Antigone

Or falls at the feet, like a dead swallow

With Stygian tenderness and a green twig.

Oh, if I could give back the shame of divining fingers

And the great joy of recognition!

I am afraid of the Aonides weeping,

Of mist, chimes, and the void.

But the dark power to love and to recognize

Is for mortals, the sound spills in rings around their fingers.

But I forgot what I wanted to say

And the thought flies back to the hall of shadows.

Always, the transparent one repeats the wrong thing.

Always, swallow, friend, Antigone. . .

But on the lips, like black ice,

Burns the memory of Stygian chimes.

When Psyche-Life follows Persephone

Into the shadows of the transparent forest,

A blind swallow throws itself at her feet

With Stygian tenderness and a green twig.

A crowd of shades hurry forth

To greet their new companion with laments,

Wringing their weak hands before her

In shy and astonished hope.

One carries a mirror, another perfumeó

The soul, after all, is a woman and enjoys trifles.

The dry laments, the transparent voices

Fall in a drizzle upon the leafless woods.

The soul does not recognize the transparent oaks.

In a gentle daze of confusion

She breathes on the mirror, not wanting to trade

Her copper token for the misty crossing.

Because I could not restrain your hands,

Because I betrayed your tender, salty lips,

I must await morning in the dense acropolis.

How I hate these ancient weeping willows.

Achaian men outfit their horses in the dark.

With rough saws they cut deeply into the walls.

The bloodís dry frolicking will not subside.

And for you there is no name, no sound, no mold.

How bold to think you would return!

Why was I cut off from you so soon?

The gloom still hasnít lifted. The cock hasnít crowed.

The burning axe has yet to cut the wood.

Resin seeps through the walls like a transparent tear

And the city feels its wooden ribs,

But blood flooded the staircase and set off on attack

And thrice the men dreamed of the seductive figure.

Where is sweet Troy? Where is the kingís, the maidenís home?

Priamís starling coop will be destroyed.

Arrows will fall like a wooden rain

And then sprout from the earth like a hazel grove.

The last starís sting is painlessly extinguished.

A gray swallow will scratch at the window

And slow day will rise like an ox in the straw

Awakened from a long sleep in the haystack.

©translations, Kevin Kinsella


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