The people howl, the beasts speak

The people howl, the beasts speak,
And the splendid official, who on a lark

Hopped a daytime train without his papers,
Now pickaxes ice with a quiet tribe of lepers.

Taste it, that last glass of Black Sea wine he sipped like
In the dreamreeking tavern on the road to Erzurum.

— Osip Mandelstam
(November 1930)

Consider the river

Like a late gift long awaited, winter:
Personal, palpable stirrings.

I love the early animal of her,
These woozy, easy swings.

Soft atrocity, sweet fright,
As if for ravishment one first bowed and gave thanks . . .

And yet, before the forest’s clean, hewn circle of light,
Even the raven banks.

Power more powerful for its precariousness,
Blue more blue for its ghost of white:

Consider the river, its constancy, its skin of almost ice,
Like a lullaby nullified by wakefulness . . .

— Osip Mandelstam
(December 29-30, 1936)

Maybe madness

Maybe madness too has meaning here.
Maybe conscience, knotted like a cyst,
Knowing and being known by sun and air —
Maybe life unties and we exist.

Bring to mind the mindless spider, its care
For the pillared invisible, little crystal temple,
All air and otherness:

As if a form could thank its maker,
As if every line of light back to one source were drawn,
As if, deep in wilderness
A raftered hall rose around the risen guests,
All pains purged from their faces . . .

As it is on earth, Lord, not in heaven.
On earth, and in a house whose walls are song.
Even the birds, even the littlest, fearless.
O Lord, to live so long . . .

Forgive me this, forgive what I am saying.
Whisper it, less than whisper, like someone praying.

— Osip Mandelstam
(March 15, 1937)


Then the hard blue eye grew harder
Than the cold forms and fossils of nature,
And saw, inside that law of rock and bark, creatures
Crazed and crying cries of oil and ore.

And somewhere skin under skin the fetus kicks and kinks
Like a mile made of music, hairpin hornturns of a road
headed home —
As if the forming brain became a thing space thinks,
Felt the promise of petal and the day of the dome.

— Osip Mandelstam
(c. 1935)

Rough draft

Provisionally, then, and secretive,
I speak a truth whose time is not:

It lives in love and the pain of love,
In sweat, and the sky’s playful vacancy.

A whisper, then, a purgatorial prayer,
A testament of one man, in one place:

Our bright abyss is also — and simply — happiness,
And this expanding, live-demanding space
A lifetime home for us.

— Osip Mandelstam
(March 9, 1937)

Mount Elbrus

Spiderlight, sticky expectant dread:
I turn and turn, only more entangled
In today . . .

We need bread, and we need plain air,
But we need, too, some distant unbreathable peak,
Some eye-annihilating glare . . .

If the ache is nameless, how do I ask for ease?
If the I itself is exile, can the soul survive
Such private ice?

Old touchstone, to touch a stone, but in all that I have known,
Never, not once, such clear
Dreamsweeping distillations of atmosphere . . .

We need poetry to wake the dark we are,
To find us and bind us beyond us
To an age of wakefulness

In the one day’s unentangling sun,
Our breathing easy, ancient, like the pulse and peace
Of iambs counting down to silence.

— Osip Mandelstam
(January 19, 1937)