We live

We live, and love, but our lives drift like mist over what we love.
Two steps we are a whisper; ten, gone.

Still, we gather, we gossip, we laugh like humans,
And just like that our Kremlin gremlin comes alive:

His grubworm clutch, all oil and vile,
His deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk.

Listen: his jackhammering jackboots: even the chandelier shakes.
Look: a hairy cockroach crawls along his grin

At the the cluck-cluck of turkey-lackeys, and he busts a gut
At the wobblegobble dance one does without a head.

Tweet-tweet, meow-meow, Please sir, more porridge:
He alone, his grub growing hard, goes No! goes Now! goes

Half-cocked blacksmith, he lifts from hell’s hottest forge
His latest law and with it brands a breast, a groin, a brain,

And like a pig farmer who’s plucked a blackberry from a vine,
Savors the sweet spurt, before he turns back to his swine.

— Osip Mandelstam
(November, 1933)


This poem is known as “The Stalin Epigram.” Mandelstam recited it to a number of people, one of whom informed on him. It led to Mandelstam’s first arrest, in 1934, and to his subsequent exile and eventual death.

To the translator

Forget it. Don’t tempt yourself with tongues
Whose blood is not your own.
Better to bite a lightbulb, eat an urn.

How long the haunting, how high the cost, that sky-wide
Of the bird we cannot name —
Like a happy man undone by an alley-flash of lace.

In the end, when the soul rends a man toward that timelessness
It was his whole ambition to express,
To speak a denatured thing is to fling the first dirt on your
own cold face.

Happy Tasso, bittersweet Ariosto, how they enchant us,
enchant us,
Until they don’t. And if it’s they who come, in the hour of ice,
Throbbing their blue-brained truths, their starved and larval

So: you, then. Your animal urge. Your primal pride.
To you is given this sponge dipped in vinegar, bitter wad
Of silence: you, who thought love of sound alone could lead
to God.

— Osip Mandelstam
translated by Christian Wiman

Let fly the wild

Fuck this sulk, these pansy stanzas tickling doom.
Devil me down to the roots of my hair,
And further — ah, François, le barbier débonnaire,
Scalp me back to the Paris of youth!

Odds are I’m alive.
Odds are, like a jockey gone to slop,
There’s skip and nimble in me yet,
There’s a length of neck to stake, and there’s cunning,
And there’s an animal under me running
Which, if I can hold on, will not stop.

Thirty-one years alive in cherry white,
Thirty-one years belong to blossoms.
Who hears them, the earthworms like jellied rain
Chewing through soil and the solid dead
While all of tall-sailed Moscow whips and snaps
In the instant’s wind?

Easy, boy: impatience, too, is candy,
And we are sulk-soft, silk-kneed, mild.
Let’s take the track early, and pace ourselves,
Until all the trapped acids trickle out as sweat,
And we take time between our teeth like a bit
And let fly the wild.

— Osip Mandelstam
(June 7, 1931)

My animal, may age

My animal, my age, who alive can gaze
Into those eyes without becoming you?
Who alone can use, like a kind of sacrificial glue,
Word and blood to bind and mend these centuries?

Blood the builder brings forth the future
From the garroted throat of this very hour.
Meanwhile, some worm, some parasite of power,
Slime to the tip of his larval lips, licks them.


All creatures touched to life, clutched
By life, are the beings they must be and bear.
Mindsight, spinelight, and somewhere, nowhere,
The dark wave . . .


Blood the builder brings forth the future.
From the throat of nature
Blood the builder bleeds and sings
And like a fish on fire your life lands
On the hot sands of some far shore
While from a mortared sky
Blood the builder pours
And pours indifference over your final why.


My animal, my age, ravenous in your cage,
What flute might bend the bars, bind the gnarled
Knees of days, and bring forth a world
Of newness, world trued to music —
A lullaby for human grief,
Of human grief,
While the adder breathes in time in the grass.


Wave after wave of grave aboriginal green,
And then, buds plumped to the point of bursting,
And then, again, all the soft detonations of simple
spring . . .

But not for you, my beautiful, my pitiful,
My necrotic, psychotic age.
More cruel for the weakness that taunts you,
More crippled for the supple animal that haunts you,
You stagger on,
Staring back at the way you’ve taken:
Mad tracks in a land called Gone.

— Osip Mandelstam


To taste in each leaf’s sticky oath
The broken promise that is earth.

Mother of maple, mother of snow,
See how strong, how blind I grow,
Obeying rain, intuiting roots . . .

Frogs, all ooze and noise, bellvowel
Their bodies into a single aural oil.

Are these my eyes erupting green?
This my mouth mist seeks to mean?

Mother of maple, mother of snow . . .

— Osip Mandelstam
(April 30, 1937)

And I was alive

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

— Osip Mandelstam
(May 4, 1937)

To Natasha Schtempel

As if to limp earth empty and to lift it up
With every hobbled heavened step;
As if to piece and place some delicate wreckage
Freely and fully in the space by which it’s bound;
As if the halt in her were a halt of mind:
Three friends; laughter; landscape locked in time;
And the same gray weather mothering all to nothing
But the will to walk in a world made newly whole
Because the soul of brokenness is the soul.

— Osip Mandelstam
(May 4, 1937)

Not one word

Not one word.
Purge the mind of what the eye has seen:
Woman, prison, bird.

Otherwise some wrong dawn
Your mouth moves
And a sudden pine
Needles through your nerves,

A trapped wasp crazes
In your brain,
And in the old desk’s ink stain
A forest mazes

Inward and inward
To the unpicked
And sun-perfected

Where you now and now always
Must stand,
An infinite inch
Between that sweetness

And your hand.

— Osip Mandelstam
(October 1930)

Our noisy years seem moments in the being

How strange, that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have born a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself!

— William Wordsworth
From “The Prelude”


Not the round natural world, not the deep mind,
The reconcilement holds: the blue abyss
Collects it not; our arrows sink amiss
And but in Him may we our import find.
The agony to know, the grief, the bliss
Of toil, is vain and vain: clots of the sod
Gathered in heat and haste and flung behind
To blind ourselves and others, what but this
Still grasping dust and sowing toward the wind?
No more thy meaning seek, thine anguish plead,
But leaving straining thought and stammering word,
Across the barren azure pass to God;
Shooting the void in silence like a bird,
A bird that shuts his wings for better speed.

— Frederick Goddard Tuckerman

Personal Helicon

For Michael Longley

As a child, they could not keep me from wells
And old pumps with buckets and windlasses.
I loved the dark drop, the trapped sky, the smells
Of waterweed, fungus and dank moss.

One, in a brickyard, with a rotted board top.
I savoured the rich crash when a bucket
Plummeted down at the end of a rope.
So deep you saw no reflection in it.

A shallow one under a dry stone ditch
Fructified like any aquarium.
When you dragged out long roots from the soft mulch
A white face hovered over the bottom.

Others had echoes, gave back your own call
With a clean new music in it. And one
Was scaresome, for there, out of ferns and tall
Foxgloves, a rat slapped across my reflection.

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

— Seamus Heaney


There is, I know, a science of separation
In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments,
The clockwork oxen jaws, the tense anticipation
As the city’s vigil nears its sun and end.
I honor the natural ritual of the rooster’s cry,
The moment when, red-eyed from weeping, sleepless
Once again, someone hoists the journey’s burden,
And to weep and to sing become the same quicksilver verb.

But who can prophesy in the word good-bye
The abyss of loss into which we fall;
Or what, when the dawn fires burn in the Acropolis,
The rooster’s rusty clamor means for us;
Or why, when some new life floods the cut sky,
And the barn-warm oxen slowly eat each instant,
The rooster, harbinger of the one true life,
Beats his blazing wings on the city wall?

I love the calm and custom of quick fingers weaving,
The shuttle’s buzz and hum, the spindle’s bees.
And look — arriving or leaving, spun from down,
Some barefoot Delia barely touching the ground . . .
What rot has reached the very root of us
That we should have no language for our praise?
What is, was; what was, will be again; and our whole lives’
Sweetness lies in these meetings that we recognize.

Soothsayer, truth-sayer, morning’s mortal girl,
Lose your gaze again in the melting wax
That whitens and tightens like the stretched pelt of a
And find the fates that will in time find us.
In clashes of bronze, flashes of consciousness,
Men live, called and pulled by a world of shades.
But women — all fluent spirit; piercing, pliable eye —
Wax toward one existence, and divining they die.

— Osip Mandelstam


I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.

I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly

those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
measured against
their long swords rusting,

those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams

were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue

was buoyant with hindsight —
it said that Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,

the hatreds and behindbacks
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.

It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.

Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.

Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’

— Seamus Heaney

Night Piece

Come love let us sit together
In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.
There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,
The knife is ours and the bread is clean.

Come love let us play the game
Of what to take and when to run,
Of come with me and come what may
And holding hands to hold off the sun.

— Osip Mandelstam
(January 1931)