TRANSLATIONS OF FIVE POEMS BY OSIP MANDELSTAM
Cold this spring. Crimea breadless, shy.
As if Vrangel were back, guilty just like then.
Earth just stubble, patches on sackcloth,
the same sour, cantankerous smoke.
All the same it’s good, the absent-minded distance:
the trees, with buds swelling a little,
standing like newcomers, the Easter foolishness
of a decked-out almond prompting remorse.
Nature won’t know its own face,
and the terrible shades of Ukraine and Kuban –
on the matted felt of earth, hungry peasants
guard the gate, but do not touch the ring.
In our sacred youth’s blood
there are pretty good songs –
like lullabies and battle-cries
against the rich man’s wrongs –
As for me, I’ve noticed
my songs are almost there:
I rock a kolkhoz cradle,
I sing the kulak’s share.
Tatars, Uzbeks and Nenets,
and all the Ukrainian nation,
even the Germans of the Volga
queue up for translation.
And maybe right now
I’m being put into Turkish
by some man from Japan
and he’s broken into my soul.
Somehow today’s yellow-beaked,
a hatchling, I can’t understand –
the gates to the sea are peering
at me, through fog and anchors.
Quietly the warships pass
through discoloured water.
Under ice the narrow pencil-case
canals stream blacker, blacker.
Not mine, not yours — it’s theirs,
the entire strength of gender endings:
the air is singing through their porous reed,
and gratefully the snails of human lips
will bear their breathing burden.
They have no names. If you enter their cartilage,
you will inherit their fiefdoms
For sake of people and their living hearts,
wandering the twists of sulcus and gyrus,
you’ll portray their pleasures, and what
gnaws at them, — in ebbs and tides.
[Keith Sands spent several years living and teaching in Russia and now lives in Cambridge. Some of his previous translations from Osip Mandelstam have been published in the pamphlet 17 Voronezh Poems (Equipage) and in SNOW 1 and SNOW 2 (Allardyce, Barnett).]
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