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Three poems by Osip Mandelstam.

New translations by ALISTAIR NOON.

Black Earth

Osip MandelstamHallowed and black, it’s all under nurture,
all horse’s shoulder, all air and care,
all of it crumbling, one huge choir –
my land and liberty’s clods of damp turf.

The black turns blue while they plough at dawn
in the home of unarmed labour, and a thousand
rumoured hills have succumbed to the foreshare:
something in the circle is not quite round.

All the same, it’s a blunder, an axe-butt, this earth
you can’t beg from however you bang on its leg.
Like a rotting pan-pipe, the ear is alert,
it tills ground for next spring, like a morning clarinet.

How well that rich layer lies on the ploughshare,
how well the steppe sits on a crankshaft in April!
So I greet you, black earth: be steadfast, sharp-eyed…
the black-river silence concealed within labour.

April 1935

The River Kama

[1]

Oh, on the Kama, the eye faints as it sees
how the towns are down on their oaken knees.

Dressed in webs, beards brushing together,
the fir-grove’s sharp and young in the water.

On a hundred and four oars, upstream, downstream,
the water flows on to Kazan and Cherdyn.

With the curtain pulled, I floated by,
with the curtain pulled, my head in that fire.

For five nights my wife didn’t sleep at my side,
five nights, and she had three escorts when she arrived.

[2]

Oh, on the Kama, the eye faints as it sees
how the towns are down on their oaken knees.

Dressed in webs, beards brushing together,
the fir-grove’s sharp and young in the water.

On a hundred and four oars, upstream, downstream,
the water flows on to Kazan and Cherdyn.

Grand as peasants, and burnt like low woods,
a shoal of logs will scatter like bullets.

The Ob splashes rafts. From the Tobol come cries.
The riverside milestones rise into the heights.

[3]

The coniferous East receded, and I saw
the Kama’s full waters bear down on a buoy.

I wanted to burn myself trenches on those slopes,
and no one would pickle what grew in the groves.

I wanted to take root here, if you follow my sense,
in the Urals’ longevity, where people had settled.

I wanted this reckless and glassy surface
in the long flaps of my overcoat and to preserve it.

April – May 1935

‘I raise this greenery to my lips –’

I raise this greenery to my lips –
these leaves glued into an oath –
with the perjurous earth that bore snowdrops,
mother of the maples and oaks.

Watch me grow strong and blind,
as I follow these humble roots.
What a park! My eyes come alive
now thunder is passing through.

Like beads of mercury, frogs
make a globe of voices, linked together;
branches form from twigs
and a milky figment from cold breath.

30 April 1937


Alistair Noon‘s translations of Osip Mandelstam have been widely published, and a full-length collection of them is in preparation. His own publications include Earth Records (Nine Arches Press, 2012), shortlisted for the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. His poems have appeared in magazines and anthologies including Jacket, World Literature Today, Poetry Wales and The Best British Poetry 2013. He lives in Berlin, where he works a translator from German.

 Revised 14 April 2014 to correct editing errors.

 

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