Image credit: Frida Maureen Hultberg

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Against the kind of pale blue enamel

That is conceivable in April,

Birches raised their branches

And inconspicuously duskened.


A fine-spun microscale pattern,

The spindly net grew still,

Like a porcelain plate painting

Sketched with precision,


When the beloved artist traces it

Upon the glasspane of the sky,

Conscious of a momentary power,

Oblivious to dismal death.





A body has been given to me.

What am I to do with it—

       so singular

       so mine?


Tell me whom to thank for this,

The quiet bliss

      of breath

      of being alive?


I am both gardener and flower.

In this greenhouse dungeon of the world

      I am not alone.


      My breath

      my warmth

Has already settled

        on the panes of glass eternity.


A pattern will be traced upon it,

Unrecognizable of late.


And even if the murky vapor

       of a moment streaks away—

That precious pattern

       won’t be blotted out.






A mellow and more languid hive of snow,

Crystal-clearer panes of window glass,

And a turquoise veil

Tossed carelessly across a chair.


This material, besotted with itself,

Softened by the light’s caresses,

It experiences summer

As if untouched by winter;


And if the frosts of endless time

Swarm and flow in frozen diamonds,

Here—there is the fluttering of dragonflies,

Quickliving, cyan-eyed.






A meager ray with gelid measure

Sows its light in forest dampness.

Slowly in my heart I carry

A gray bird, a sadness.


What shall I do with it, this wounded bird?

The sky fell silent, died.

Someone took the bells down

From the fog-enshrouded spire,


And now that mute and orphaned height

Stands tall—just like

A white and empty tower,

Where there is fog and silence.


Morning, fathomless with softness—

Half-appearance, half a dream,

Unquenched unconsciousness—

The hazy ring and resonance of thoughts…





Today is a bad day:

The grasshopper choir sleeps,

And the shroud of dim cliffs

Is more grim than slabs on graves.


Darting arrows ring,

Oracular crows shriek…

I see a bad dream:

Each moment hounds the next.


Push out the frame of events!

Tear down this earthen cage,

And thunder a fierce hymn—

Rioting secrets’ brass!


The swaying of souls is strict:

A pendulum—dull, straight;

As fate fervently pounds

On the barred door, to us…






Perhaps I am not necessary for you,

Night. From the world’s abyss

I’m thrust upon your shore

Like a shell that has no pearls.


Indifferently you froth your waves,

Singing uncomplyingly;

But you will love—you will esteem—

The lies of this unnecessary shell.


You’ll lie down next to her along the sand,

You’ll dress her in your garments,

And you will bind to her a ceaseless

Seamless giant bell of rippling waves;


The walls within this fragile shell—

Like the home of an unlived-in heart—

You’ll fill them to the brim with foamy whispers,

And with fog, with wind and rain…





Sky, sky—I will dream of you!

It cannot be that you’ve become pitch-blind,

And that the day has burned away like a white page:

A bit of smoke, a bit of ash!




На бледно-голубой эмали,

            Какая мыслима в апреле,

            Березы ветви поднимали

            И незаметно вечерели.


            Узор отточенный и мелкий,

            Застыла тоненькая сетка,

            Как на фарфоровой тарелке

            Рисунок, вычерченный метко,


            Когда его художник милый

            Выводит на стелкянной тверди,

            В сознании минутной силы,

            В забвении печальной смерти.






Дано мне тело – что мне делать с ним?

Таким единым и таким моим?


 За радость тихую дышать и жить,

 Кого, скажите, мне благодарить?


 Я и садовник, я же и цветок,

 В темнице мира я не одинок.


 На стекла вечности уже легло

 Мое дыхание, мое тепло.


 Запечатлеется на нем узор,

 Неузнаваемый с недавних пор.


 Пускай мгновения стекает муть –

 Узора милого не зачеркнуть.














Медлительнее снежный улей,

            Прозрачнее окна хрусталь,

            И бирюзовая вуаль

            Небрежно брошена на стуле.


            Ткань, опьяненная собой,

            Изнеженная лаской света,

            Она испытывает лето,

            Как бы не тронута зимой;


            И если в ледяных алмазах

            Струится вечности мороз,

            Здесь – трепетание стрекоз

            Быстроживущих, синеглазых.






Скудный луч, холодной мерою,

Сеет свет в сыром лесу.
Я печаль, как птицу серую,
В сердце медленно несу.


Что мне делать с птицей раненой?

Твердь умолкла, умерла.
С колокольни отуманенной
Кто-то снял колокола,


И стоит осиротелая
И немая вышина —
Как пустая башня белая,

Где туман и тишина.


Утро, нежностью бездонное —

Полуявь и полусон,
Забытье неутоленное —
Дум туманный перезвон. . .





Сегодня дурной день:

Кузнечиков хор спит,
И сумрачных скал сень —

Мрачней гробовых плит.


Мелькающих стрел звон

И вещих ворон крик. . .

Я вижу дурной сон,
За мигом летит миг.


Явлений раздвинь грань,

Земную разрушь клеть,
И яростный гимн грянь —

Бунтующих тайн медь!


О, маятник душ строг —

Качается глух, прям,
И страстно стучит рок
В запретную дверь, к нам. . .






Быть может, я тебе не нужен,

Ночь; из пучины мировой,

Как раковина без жемчужин,

Я выброшен на берег твой.


Ты равнодушно волны пенишь

И несговорчиво поешь;
Но ты полюбишь, ты оценишь

Ненужной раковины ложь.


Ты на песок с ней рядом ляжешь,

Оденешь ризою своей,
Ты неразрывно с нею свяжешь

Огромный колокол зыбей;


И хрупкой раковины стены —

Как нежилого сердца дом —

Наполнишь шепотами пены,

Туманом, ветром и дождем. . .






О небо, небо, ты мне будешь сниться!

Не может быть, чтоб ты совсем ослепло,

И день сгорел, как белая страница:

Немного дыма и немного пепла!



Translator's Note


Microscale Patterns of the Mind: Seven Early Poems by Osip Mandelstam

Many of Osip Mandelstam’s (1891-1938) best known poems are moored to particular realities: his ekphrastic lyric about the Hagia Sophia, a poem dedicated “To Anna Akhmatova,” the satire savaging Stalin that led to the poet’s arrest, exile, madness, and death. Even the more abstract “Insomnia, Homer, taut sails”—a poem well known to post-Soviet high school graduates, who were tasked with memorizing it—is structured around the concrete experience of reading the Iliad’s ship catalogue. His first poems, however, embark on freer forms of introspection. Stone (Kamen'), Mandelstam’s first published collection of verse, contains 83 poems he composed as a very young man, between 1908 and 1915. The earliest poems in this collection are possessed by an impulse to retrace the first forays of an innocent mind into the wider world. Memories, feelings, realizations, impressions—of children’s books and fairy tales; of life, then of mortality—all of this becomes lastingly etched upon the surface of the soul. 

There is a conspicuous absence of particularity in these early poems. Alighting on no proper names, secured to no specific places, Mandelstam’s short lyrics glide unimpeded through sheer unmarked expanses of experience. In an especially rapturous line, Mandelstam describes this expansive space as “unquenched unconsciousness” (Poem 21). Through contact with the world, the inner environment of the mind reaches out beyond itself and becomes filled with “the hazy ring and resonance of thoughts.” And these thoughts rush in along with a dawning awareness that loss, confusion, mortality, and pain also reside within the world’s framework.

Although these early poems do not form an explicit sequence, when read together they reveal recurring motifs and concerns. As they dwell meticulously on a room, a view, the night, the sky, and the body, these poems recreate what it feels like for a young mind to emerge from innocence, to encounter itself through its surroundings, to stretch out and begin testing the world’s rhythms and structures and limits. Mandelstam’s poems identify points of contact between mind and world, which turn out to be not points at all—but surfaces. Such surfaces cannot be tidily classified as internal or external, subjective or objective. And they are not inert. The porcelain of the sky, the window-glass of eternal time, the fragile inner walls of a hollowed-out shell—the many surfaces outlined in these poems are bearers of patterns, patterns that have been crafted through an ambiguous collaboration between mind, body, poem, and world. These patterns have an artisanal, lapidary quality. One poem exquisitely traces a “fine-spun microscale pattern,” like a painting on a porcelain plate, that has been “sketched with precision”—either by a mind observing nature, or by nature revealing itself to a mind, or by both (Poem 6). Another poem lingers over transparent surfaces of time, declaring that the pattern of warm breath that settles on the glasspanes of eternity “won’t be blotted out,” even when “the murky vapor of a moment streaks away” (Poem 8).

These early poems pose beautiful, impossible challenges for a translator. Description, memory, and time are so thoroughly enlaced in Mandelstam’s Russian that even the non-semantic materiality of specific words becomes woven into the texture of poetic experience. For instance, Poem 13 is a virtuosic meditation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen,” an intertext whose sharp, terrifying edges glint in the poem’s “hives of snow,” “frozen diamonds,” and “frosts of endless time.” The first stanza performs a movement stilled: a bee-like flurry of snowflakes becomes subdued—through memory, perhaps, or magic (in Andersen’s tale, the Snow Queen rules over a swarm of white “snow bees,” controlling their movement with her will). The poem’s first word is medlitel’nee, a comparative adjective meaning “more slow, more languid;” this allows Mandelstam to smuggle in the word “honey” (mëd), which hides in plain sight at the beginning of the poem (medlitel’nee). This moment of subtle paronomasia adds taste, color, and texture to the poem’s description of an increasingly reluctant, viscous flow of time—like honey that refuses to slide off a spoon. It is very difficult to reproduce all of this in translation. “A mellow and more languid hive of snow” attempts to salvage some of these effects by recourse to another language (mel in “mellow” means “honey” in Latin) and through other kinds of associative wordplay (“mellow” hints at “yellow” honey, and, when spoken, the word “languid” in the mouth feels like a thicker, more sluggish form of “liquid”). The final stanza breaks free from icebound infinity, pivoting back to life: dragonflies with bright blue eyes suddenly dart and flutter, insisting on their existence—however brief that span—with their very capacity for movement, enacted in the poem’s final line with two brisk and lively adjectives: “Quickliving, cyan-eyed.” But the poem’s last word still belongs to winter. The dragonflies are “cyan-eyed” (sineglazye), a Russian compound whose first sounds effortlessly melt into “snow” (sneg, in sineglazye). English at best only approximates this effect with “cyan-eyed” (instead of the ordinary “blue-eyed”), which faintly echoes some of the sounds of “snow.” To make up for this poor approximation, the translation sows seeds of winter elsewhere (“swarm and flow in frozen diamonds;” “quickliving, cyan-eyed”).

Other effects are easier to render in translation. Poem 23 reverberates with rhythms of funereal inevitability: each Russian line is weighed down by three somber slab-like stresses, the last falling most heavily of all (thud thud boom). It is possible to replicate this in English: “Todáy is a bád dáy;” “orácular cróws shríek;” “each móment hóunds the néxt.” The complete interthreading of rhythm and meaning is acknowledged by the poem itself in the final stanza: “The swáying of sóuls is stríct: / A péndulum—dúll, stráight; / As fáte férvently póunds / On the bárred dóor, to ús….” These darker tones seem to anticipate Mandelstam’s later poems and later life, which would be haunted and forever mangled by forces viciously concrete (see, for instance, the devastating “Leningrad” of 1930). Surfaces of mind and world are fragile spaces. Too easily can they become brittle, corroded, deformed. But in these first poems, brighter patterns shine on resilient surfaces. Here, the young poet’s belief in the permanence of the mind’s patterns, and in the durability of its surfaces, has not yet been extinguished.

Jane Mikkelson


In the Classroom