“January 1, 1924,” by Osip Mandelstam

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Poetry by Osip Mandelstam (translated from Russian by Alexander Cigale) from our Winter 2017 issue.


He who has kissed time on its tormented temple
With filial tenderness will subsequently
Recollect how time took to its bed in a snowbank
The color of wheat beyond the window.
He who had raised the century’s inflamed eyelids—
Two giant apples swollen with sleep—
Will constantly behold the noise—when time’s rivers,
Deceptive, deaf and dumb, began to howl.

The master age with its two sleepy apple eyes
And a beautiful mouth formed of clay,
And to the warming hand of this his aging son
It, dying, will press its arid lips.
I know each passing day life’s exhalations weaken,
A bit more time and they will cease
To sing the simple song of clay resentments
And flood the lips with molten tin.

Oh, life of clay! Oh, century’s death throes!
I am afraid only he will understand you
Who wears the helpless human smile of a man
Who has exhausted himself.
How painful—to search out for a lost word,
To raise the feverish eyelids
And with quicklime in blood gather for an alien tribe
The healing grasses that grow at night.

Century. The sick son’s layer of whitewash in blood
Crusts over. Moscow sleeps like a wooden stall,
And there is nowhere to run from the master-age . . .
The snow, as of old, smells of apples.
I have an urge to dash from my doorstep,
But where? It’s dark out in the street,
And, like salt spread over cobblestone paving,
Conscience in my path turns white.

Along the alleyways, birdhouses, and huts’ eaves
Not far from here, having for once made it out—
I, a common passenger, covered in sequins of fish fur,
Am constantly struggling to button the carriage flap.
One street flashes by and then another,
And the frosty sound of sledges crackles with apples,
The flap’s tight loop will not yield,
Constantly slipping out of my fingers.

With what iron monger’s wares
The winter night rattles the streets of Moscow;
First it trundles with frozen fish, then with blasts of steam
From the pink tea houses—like a roach flashing silver.
Moscow—Moscow, it’s you again. I tell it: greetings!
Do not condemn me, it’s quite all right now,
Out of old obligations I accept the friendship
Of bitter frost and the pike’s judgment.

Flaring up in the snow a medicinal raspberry,
And somewhere the clicking of an Underwood,
The coachman’s back, and foot-deep snow:
What else do you want? They won’t lay a hand on you,
Won’t kill you. Winter a beauty, the Capricorn sky,
Dappled in scattered stars, burns bright with milk,
And with horsehair against the frozen runners
All of space abrades in rubbing jingles.

And the alleyways smoked by a kerosene stove
Swallowed the snow, the raspberry, and the ice;
Everything sloughs off with a little Soviet sonata,
As the year nineteen twenty is recalled.
Could it be I’ll resort to disgraceful ridicule—
The frost once again gives off a whiff of apples—
A wonderful pledge to the fourth estate
And a vow so huge that it makes us cry?

Who’s left for you to kill? Whom to honor?
What lies will you come up with next?
The Underwood’s cartilage: hurry, wrench a key out—
Under it, you’ll find the bone of a pike;
The layer of whitewash in the blood of the sick son
Will melt, and a splash of blessed laughter spatter . . .
But the simple tunes of chattering typewriters
Are but a shadow of those mighty sonatas of old.

1924, 1937


Image: Moscow in the 1920s. Image via vintage.es.

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