Poetry: Osip Mandelshtam, Four Poems

Three Poems

Osip Mandelshtam



When Psyche-Life descends en route for shades
To half-translucent woods, following Persephone,
A blind swallow flings itself at one’s feet
With Stygian tenderness and a green bough.

A crowd of shades hurries toward the refugee,
Meeting the new companion with dirges,
And wring their powerless hands in front of her,
In bafflement and timid aspiration.

One holds a pocket mirror, another a perfume tin —
Since Psyche is female, she must love the trappings,
And the leafless wood of transparent voices
Is sprinkled by dry grievances, as by a light rain.

And, in the tender hustle lost as to how to start,
The soul doesn’t recognize the transparent oak dells,
She mists the pocket mirror and hesitates to hand in
The cake of copper from the foggy ferryboat.


(Trans. N. Bershadsky)



I can’t recall the word I meant to utter.
The blind swallow will return to the shades’ keep,
Its wings clipped, to play with the transparent ones.
The night-time song is chanted in delirium.

There are no birds. The immortelle isn’t in bloom,
The herd’s manes are transparent in the night.
An empty rowboat floats in a dry stream,
The word’s delirious among the grasshoppers.

It gradually extends as if a tent or temple,
And suddenly flings itself as mad Antigone,
And then dead-swallow-like falls to one’s feet,
With Stygian tenderness and a green bough.

Would that one could restore the sighted fingers’ shame
Along the sculptural joy of recognition,
I fear so much the Aonides’ sobs,
The mist, the ringing, the elision.

For mortals’ power is to love and recognize,
For them even a sound will spill into their digits,
But I’ve forgotten what I meant to say,
And the unbodied thought will go to the shades’ keep.

The transparent one, she goes on and on,
Repeating “swallow,” “girlie,” “Anitigone…”
While on my lips the memory is burning,
As black ice, of the ringing Stygian bell.


(Trans. N. Bershadsky)



(two translations)

Take from my hands, for the joy it will bring,
A little honey and a little sun.
—Bees of Persephone instructed us.

There’s no unfastening of untied boats,
Nobody hears a fur-clad shadow move,
In our thick life fear is unsurpassed.

We’ve nothing remaining but our kisses:
Shaggy themselves like the tiny bees
Leaving their hive to meet quick death.

They rustle in clear thickets of the night,
Their homeland is dense forest of Taygetus,
They feed on hours, on lungwort, and on mint.

So take my wild gift for the joy it brings—
A dry and withered necklace of dead bees
Whose magic turned their honey into sun.

(Trans. G. Kozorovitskiy)


To give you joy, take from my open palms
A bit of sunshine and a bit of honey,
As the bees of Persephone have bid us.

One can’t unfasten the unmoored boat,
One cannot hear the shadow shod in fur,
In our jungled life one cannot conquer fear.

The only thing that’s left for us is kisses,
Furry as little bees that pass away
After they take flight from their beehive.

They swish throughout the night’s transparent thicket,
Their homeland is Taygetos’ jungled woods,
Their diet is time and honeysuckle and mint.

So for your joy accept my feral present,
a dried humble necklace of the dead
bees who’ve transformed the honey into sun.

(Trans. N. Bershadsky)