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Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938)


I have learnt by heart the lesson of goodbyes
In bareheaded laments in the night.
Oxen chew, waiting lengthens,
The last hour of the watch in the city.
And I bow to ceremonial cock-crowing nights
When lifting their lading of grief for the journey
Eyes red with crying search the horizon
And singing of Muses blends with the weeping of women.
Who can know from the word 'goodbye'
What kind of separation lies before us,
Or what the cock's clamour promises
When a light burns in the acropolis
And in his stall the lazy ox chews:
Why the cock,
The herald of new life,
Beats on the city walls with his wings?
And I like the way of weaving:
The shuttle comes and goes, the spindle hums,
And--flying to meet us like swan's down--
Look, barefooted Delia comes!
Oh how meagre the basis of life,
How threadbare the language of elysium!
Everything existed of old, everything recurs anew,
The flash of recognition is all that we welcome.
So be it: a translucent manikin
On a clean clay plate--
A squirrel's stretched-out skin:
Bent over the wax, a girl examines it.
Not for us to guess at Grecian Erebus:
For women wax, what bronze is for men.
On us our fate falls only in battles;
Their death they die in divination.

When Psyche, Who is Life, Descends Among The Shades
When Psyche, who is life, descends among she shades,
Following Persephone into half-transparent forest,
The blind swallow hurls itself at her feet
With Stygian affection and green twig.
Phantoms in a throng speed towards their new companion,
They meet the fugitive with lamentations.
In front of her they wring thin hands,
Perplexed with diffident expectations.
One holds out a mirror, another a phial of perfumes--
The soul likes trinkets, after all is feminine.
And dry complainings, like fine rain,
Sprinkle the leafless forest with transparent voices.
And not knowing what to do in this friendly hubbub,
The soul senses weight and size no longer.
She breathes on the mirror and is slow to hand over
The lozenge of copper to the master of the ferry.

Lightheartedly Take From The Palms Of My Hands
Lightheartedly take from the palm of my hands
A little sun, a little honey,
As Persphone's bees commanded us.
Not to be untied, the unmoored boat;
Not to be heard, fur-shod shadows;
Not to be silenced, life's thick terrors.
Now we have only kisses,
Bristly and crisp like bees,
Which die as they fly from the hive.
They rustle in transparent thickets of night,
Their homeland thick forest of Taigetos,
Their food--honeysuckle, mint, and time.
Lightheartedly take then my uncouth present:
This simple necklace, of dead, dried bees
Who once turned honey into sun.
Translations by James Greene