Three poems from Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh Workbooks
My weapon’s the vision of thin-bodied wasps
that osip about as they suck the earth’s axis.
I root it all out, and as I think back
I sense it again and all of it’s lost.
Unable to draw, unable to sing,
boss about a dark-voiced bow, I like
to envy the wasps, their cunning and might,
but all I keep doing is thrusting my sting.
Leaving out sleep and death as factors,
if only that barb, that chirr and the warmth
of summer, oh yes, could some time force
my listening towards that terrestrial axis.
8 February 1937
Inside the lion’s den, behind the door
that seals the dungeon, deeper and deeper I descend
and hear these sounds of a trembling downpour
outdoing lions and Pentateuchs in strength.
Your call before the tribe’s commandments,
how close I hear it now, before the early
shoots, as meek as Tahitian baskets,
resembling strings of ocean pearls . . .
Overthrust me with low and lush-voiced places,
maternal land mass where lashes sing!
Foremother, the sweetly savage faces
of rich daughters aren’t worth your fifth finger.
My time’s not yet been set: I too have walked
beside the universe’s grandeur,
as an undertone in the organ’s chord
is a female voice’s companion.
12 February 1937
Compare away – your classifications won’t succeed.
I felt a gentle fright as I
agreed the levelled earth is what the living need:
a sickness arched across my sky.
I went to see the air, that lowly clerk,
expecting it to help me, slip me news,
got ready for a journey, sailed the arc
of trips whose tickets I could never use.
I’ll wander where they’ve left me sky, I’m willing.
Clear-yearning dusks won’t let me skip the company
I’ve found among the young Voronezh hills
for those that brighten every human mind from Tuscany.
16 March 1937
––translated from the Russian by Alistair Noon
Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) grew up in St. Petersburg and published his first book, Stone, in 1913. One more volume followed before he began encountering publishing difficulties in the Soviet Union. He wrote poetry, prose, and children’s verse, and also translated (chiefly from French), if largely as a necessity rather than a passion. In 1934 he was sentenced to three years of internal exile, most of which he spent in the central Russian city of Voronezh. He was re-arrested in 1938 and deported to the Soviet Far East, where he died in a Gulag transit camp.
Alistair Noon’s publications include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both Nine Arches Press. His translations from the Russian of Osip Mandelstam, Concert at a Railway Station: Selected Poems, appeared from Shearsman Books in 2018; two further volumes, The Voronezh Workbooks and Occasional and Joke Poems, are forthcoming from the same publisher in mid-2022. He lives in Berlin.