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)

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)


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)