Hard Night

Hard night. Homer. Homeless sails.
I’ve listened to the list of ships in my own voice.
I’ve seen, as my own voice fails,
Those strange cranes arrowing sorrowing over Hellas.

Ever alien, ever more interior, these shores,
And the sun-flecked, god-picked wings glinting spray —
Anxiety’s army, ghost souls of Achaea,
Without your one longing, what is dying for?

The singer and the sea, all things are moved by love.
But what is that to me? Homer is dead.
And a wall of silence, eerily eloquent,
Breaks like a black wave above my bed.

— Osip Mandelstam


By torchlight burning bewildered with purpose
Into the cellar of the six-toed untruth:
Well, my pretty, she says,
Lifting the hairy turnip of her head:
Are you hungry, or are you dead?

She sighs like a vent in earth,
Slicing pickled mushrooms with old men’s faces,
Ladling out a gloopy tuberous stew
Of afterbirth.

A heave of hot air, heaving floor,
But the door is indivisible dirt,
Aswarm with worms.
Eat, eat . . . there’s always more.

Lice in moss, nice and quiet, really,
And the light’s motes such pretty little flies —
Sing us the old lullaby of alibis,
Sugarmonster, bugmother, me . . .

— Osip Mandelstam
(April 4, 1931)


I was a child in the churning world,
Flinching at the unflinching sentries,
Terrified of the all-eyed oysters.

Nothing in me, if I was in me, wanted that.

To pose under the portico in a nimbus
Of self and with a dead animal for a hat,
To hear the minksqueaking pitter-pat of a little gypsy girl,
Her firelithe body eating money by the lemon river.

A child could feel it, the age’s blade being sharpened . . .

And so I learned, and painfully earned, on the beaches of the
Black Sea,
The European allure of sorrow
Sensualized in quotations, flirtations, some random clavicle
Cutting through me like a scalpel.

A man returned, or almost . . .

Petersburg, pitiless city,
With your fire-scarred towers and frostburned poor,
Your insolent adolescence,
Your furious frivolous doom,

What ancient claim do you make on me?

A child enchanted by a moonskin nude
Astride a storybook stallion cries out her name
To a man muttering through old streets near dawn
Godiva, good-bye Godiva, Godiva Godvia gone . . .

— Osip Mandelstam
(January 1931)


You, with square windows,
Squat houses in rows,
Hello gentle,
Hello winter,
Petersburg, Petersburg,
A thousand hellos.


To stick in the instant
Like a fish,
Like a dead fish,
Like winter-picked ribs

That up through the ice
Upset the blades;
To sing flinging
Skates down skate-cluttered hallways . . .


Once upon a time
In a time still near
A potter and his fire
Floated like a tiny pyre
Farther and farther
On the red-shadowed water.

Tested by darkness,
Wrested from darkness,
A simple cup,
A plain well-made plate,
Sold on the stone stoop
Of any street.


Walk, work boots.
Get going, goners.
Past the Guest Yard,
The fields packed hard,

Where the ripe mandarin
Peels itself for your pleasure
And a measure of coffee
Crackles ecstatic

In your hands,
Smuggled from the cold
And ground to golden,


Chocolate chocolate
Brick brick
House house
Sweet Petersburg!


And the living rooms
With their pulseless silence,
All the unplunked pianos,
Sunken chairs, mingled airs
Of science and séance
As the doctors are treating people
— or maybe feeding people? —
With the Neva‘s deathless prose . . .


After the bath,
After the opera,
After the after,

It’s all the same,
Whoever one was,
Wherever one goes,

The cluelessness
And the youlessness
As the last tram

Lets one in,
So warm the eyes
So easily close . . .

— Osip Mandelstam


I have come back to my city, so known my very being weeps:
Old illness, old comforts, gauzy dreams, swollen sleeps.

Now, now, child, little one, take your medicine, drink it down:
A little sip of fish oil from the streetlamps that light this dark

Look alive: it’s December, remember how near you are
To night: already the yolk of light marred with toxic tar.

Petersburg! I don’t want to die.
I watch my telephone with a watched eye.

Petersburg! I know every floor, every door the dead
Do not answer: one by one they open in my head.

I have come back to my city, quietly, so quietly,
But the doorbell’s wired to my nerves, rooted in the meat of

And all night I itch untouchable, as with a paraplegic’s pains,
Waiting for the door to rattle in its chains.

— Osip Mandelstam
(December, 1930)