Shut up: to be alone is to be alive,
To be live to be a man —
Even hazied, even queasied by this madsmash hinterland,
Lost and locked in the sky’s asylum eye.

This is my prayer to the air
To which I turn and turn expecting news or ease,
Nerves minnowing from shadowhands
Toward shadowlands inside of me. This is my prayer

To be of and under a human-scale sky,
To suffer a human-scale why, to leave
This blunt sun, these eternal furrows,
For the one country that comes when I close my eyes.

— Osip Mandelstam
(January 18, 1937)

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)