29 June 2014

Mandelstam: The Horseshoe Finder

(A Pindaric Fragment) 

                         by Osip Mandelstam

We look at a forest and say:
Here’s a forest for ships, for masts,
Rose-shadowed pines,
Right to their very tops free of shaggy burdens,
They ought to creak in a windstorm,
Like solitary Italian pines,
In the furious forestless air.
Beneath the wind’s salt heel the plumline holds, set in the dancing deck,
And a seafarer,
In his insatiable thirst for space,
Dragging the brittle instrument of the geometer across sodden ruts,
Collates against the pull of earthly breast
The ragged sheet/surface of seas.
But drinking the scent
Of resinous tears, which show through the ship’s planking,
Admiring the timber,
Riveted, well-jointed into bulkheads,
Not by that quiet carpenter of Bethlehem, but another—
The father of voyages, the seafarer’s friend,—
We say:
They too once stood on land,
Ungainly, like a donkey’s spine,
Their tops overlooking their roots,
Upon the ridge of some renowned mountain,
And clattered beneath fresh cloudbursts,
Suggesting vainly that the heavens exchange their noble burden
For a pinch of salt.
Where shall we start?
Everything cracks and reels.
The air shivers with similes.
One word’s no better than another,
The earth drones with metaphors,
And light-weight carts
Harnessed garishly to flocks of birds dense with strain
Burst to pieces,
Competing with the snorting favorites of the hippodrome.
Thrice blessed, he who guides a name into song;
The song adorned with nomination
Lives longer among the others—
She’s marked among her friends by a fillet on her brow,
Which saves her from fainting, from powerful stupefying smells,
Whether it be the closeness of a man,
Or the smell of fur from a powerful beast,
Or merely the scent of savory, crushed between palms.
The air grows dark, like water, and all things living swim through it like fish,
Fins thrusting aside the sphere,
Compact, resilient, barely warm,—
A crystal, in which wheels spin and horses shy,
Damp humus of Neaira, furrowed anew each night,
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, and ploughs.
The air is mixed as solidly as the earth:
One can’t get out of it, to enter it is difficult.
A rustle runs along the trees like some green ball.
Children play at knucklebones with vertebrae of dead animals.
The fragile chronology of our era is drawing to its close.
Thanks for everything that was:
I made mistakes myself, fell astray, botched my reckoning.
The era rang, like a golden sphere,
Hollow, molded, sustained by no one,
At every touch responding “Yes” or “No.”
It answered like a child:
I’ll give you an apple” or “I won’t give you an apple”,
Its face a perfect copy of the voice that speaks these words.
The sound’s still ringing, though the source of sound has vanished.
A horse slumps in the dust and snorts in a lather,
But the sharp turn of its neck
Still keeps the memory of racing forward with its out-flung hooves—
When there weren’t only four of them,
But numerous as stones upon the road,
Rekindled in four shifts,
As numerous as the ground-beats of the racehorse blazing heat.
The finder of a horseshoe
Blows off the dust
And burnishes it with wool, until it shines.
He hangs it over the threshold,
To take a rest,
So it no longer needs to strike out sparks from flint.
Human lips,
for which there’s nothing more to say,
Retain the form of their last-spoken word,
And weight continues tangible in the hand
Although the jug,
                 spilled half
                               while carried home.
What I’m saying now, I do not say,
But has been dug from the earth, like grains of petrified wheat.
                 portray a lion on their coins,
                a head.
Assorted copper, gold and bronze lozenges
Lie with equal honor in the earth.
The age, which tried to gnaw them through, imprinted teeth on them.
Time lacerates me, like a coin,
And I’m no longer ample for myself.

Moscow, 1923 

[Translator identification mislaid -- help requested]


  1. What a wonderful poem: I did not know this one. Mandelstam is one of the greatest reasons I rue not having learned Russian. I assume you know the monumental books by his wife (Nadezhda). My brother-in-law is a scholar of Russian poetry--I'll bet he can track down the translator. I enjoy both your blogs enormously: thanks!

  2. I am thinking this was the translation by Steve Willett that he sent me some years ago, but I don't know why I wouldn't have made a note of it.


No Anonymous comments, please.