Poems by Roald Mandelstam

In the Hermitage Museum

When the roofs turn brown in silver rays
I enjoy that which no one enjoys,
I’ve known nostalgia for what has never been:
A starry vine is evergreen.

And I was given to you by an unknown painter,
And we can never break away from fairy tales,
Where along the chains of enchanted isles,
The towns of hairy Hellenes chime.

A soft light and tapestry in the passageways,
Homer, who was resurrected for me, says:
Troy did not perish of Helen’s beauty,
But Priamid lost his game of bridge.


Oh, laugh, the laughers!
Velimir Khlebnikov

In the quiet of a library dusk
Ancient leaves glimmer,
They are forbidden like drugs,
Like poisonous flowers.

The life is there, but a different life.
The brush is bold, the color is bright,
The fiery fairy-tale is true,
The tale is real, life is a dream.

It’s true, but the echo will not bring
A joyous din, will not reply.
The Earth, unused to laugh, to sing,
Rides on business along the sky.

Don Quixote

From a letter to Arefiev

Remember, we used to play in childhood
As knights always faithful to the chosen dame,
We dreamed of the Grail and knighthood,
Of a noble fight with an honest foe.

In youth, we believed in the happiness of people,
In people’s heroes, old and new.
We thought: those who lose freedom
Do not have anything else to lose.

What has happened? — The sky overhead
Is the same — with countless stars.
Why does a slice of stale bread
Cost more than the honor of ours?

Perhaps the knights were killed in a battle
Or they might have lost their minds:
The Grail was replaced by the cup of a beggar,
A beggar’s bag became their banner?

No, daily bread isn’t the only wisdom,
No, the eyes are not for the money count.
Thousands of spears will illumine dawn,
A hidden thunder burns in the night.

We will return from faraway countries —
A stirrup to a stirrup, and arms to arms,
Remember, we used to play in childhood
As knights always faithful to the chosen dame.

(June 1958)


The day retreats as a torero
(A white cloak over a blue world) --
An ill-starred torero,
In a fight he broke his sword.

An arena paved with stone
Is crowded with starry quadrilles;
The night's lips bubble with foam --
In her black neck hang banderillas.

     -- A dying warrior, throw
A bloody muleta away --
Let the winner own
The whole world, the black day!

Romance About Moon, Moon

O, moon, moon!
The light of blue nights,
I wish I could always sail
In the stream of your rays.

O, moon, moon!
Don’t hide in the clouds, stay,
For I am full of your sad dream,
O moon! — A golden stream!

O, moon! Give me your ray,
For I rush to a date
With you, where your languid spring
Sprays ringing like a golden string.
Don’t hide in the clouds, stay,
O, moon! — A golden stream!
O, moon.


Drowned in silver fog,
The town drowses, sunset cries,
Thus a golden cramp-fish
Glimmers in the ocean’s depth…

A night led
Legions of dreams,
A night forced to sing
A brazen bell beater —
A heavy bell beater —
A bell brass of the moon.

A stony town —
The depth of the ocean,
Red dawns —
Blue wounds —
A wind lulls the sleepers,
Keeping their peace.

The pearls of the stars
In the buttons of the night,
The wind laughs —
The morning is near.
The leaves fall
In the rustle of ovation,
The yellow leaves
Of hallucination.



With the hooves of black horses
The ringing night mints the stars,
Riding her majestic maestoso
Along the bowls of resonant squares.

Over the weeping orchestra,
Over the deceased day swing
The tails of the black maestro,
Blacker than a raven’s wing,

And blacker than Moors’ souls
(If they ever have one)
Is the march that falls rustling
On the sidewalk’s kettle drum.

A City-Fisherman
(A sketch)

Having thrown
His belfries-rods
In the sky —
Catching blue and verdant stars
And a brazen, yellow, lemon moon.

New Holland

The smell of stones and metal
Sharp as a wolf's fang --
                                 -- remember? --
The phantom of a lost hand
In the curve of the canal        --
                                 -- see? -- 

The trees pour the last gold
Upon the rooftops of the houses.
In New Holland	      --
                                 -- hear?
Goblins forge leaves.

Absorbing the fall
In the goblets of her plazas,
The City lies as Danae
In the golden rain. 



A barefoot autumn
In the skin of a Thespian lioness,
In the feathers of brazen pines
(The arrows of Stymfalian birds).

The wind is sowing coins…


The manes of the gardens grow bald.
The midnight elevator neighs.



The evening air is resonant and clear,
Entire town is glass and stone,
The sky poured down onto the square
Through a lane of alluring blue tone.

An alley cat, lean, dry and quick,
As the last star-fall of the year,
Turning from a sidewalk to the park,
Rushes to my puss-puss, comes near.

Shining like an old gold,
Every leave is a slice of moon,
October blows without a break
In his moon horn…



A Golden Horde of clouds
Is waiting for a new dawn.
Golden street lamps shine
In my pre-dawn town.

The morning is far, far away,
Those drunk with sleep don’t know
That spring flew over gardens today
In a chariot drawn by blue winds.

A moonlit town turned porcelain,
It shines like snow-white clay,
But it’s not a Chinese who painted
In azure its gray kaolin.

It was not a Chinese, who likes wine,
That opened it for people to share
And cut the lemon of moon
On the dish of a night square.

But those drunk with sleep don’t know
The magic of other drinks, and in vain
Spring presents them a gift
Of uselessly beautiful days.



A Golden Horde of clouds
Adorns the Fire-Bird’s feathers at dawn —
Our windows are darker than loopholes,
Our towns less assailable than rocks

(With parks full of nesting crows) —
They don’t sparkle with flower-beds of hopes,
Yet spring set upon the crowns,
Like the verdure of ancient gowns.

Let rows of dazzling mirrors
Multiply it — a lonely bird,
Our windows are darker than loopholes
In the towns less assailable than rocks.


My many-towered town
In a coastal granite vale:
Dark copper of statues,
Pale marble of columns.

Austerity of royal lines
In the kingdom of austere figures.

The Golden Horde of clouds
Puts up its camp in quiet suburbs.
Golden street lamps shine
Till the second coming of the day.

Silence went down
Countless stairs.

(14 March 1959)


A coat drenched in the night,
A collar, heavy and wet,
Trimmed by a purple cloud,
Sunrise droops behind the roofs.

One face burns with fever
When everything else burned down,
When nightmares in the streets forever
Bellow like mad mules.

When darkness blinds as a glint of glass,
One dream is always bright:
Go to St. Nicholas belfry
And silently strike the bells...

Let a hole gape in the ears,
Let each house be pierced all through!
         -- What for? -- For everything! For all!
         -- Why? -- Don't know, but only
             Beat, beat, beat! 


A Tolling Night

This is no robbers’ prowl —
A ringing steed treads,
That’s how the city spreads
Its stony powerful palm.

Moving its wet breasts,
It lulls the roofs to sleep:
A thawed night. Solitude.
The city longs for spring.

As if spreading along the sky
Through a grinder its crucified fig,
A hanged man kept
His tongue in a dark skirt.

A bell hid his languid belly
In a brazen dress,
The glory of fellow bells
In a clapping of pigeons’ wings.

— Hey, mountains, spread,
Dissolve in a bell’s toll!
This is no robbers’ prowl —
A ringing steed treads.


Alba (Morning)

The entire block is swept and chilled,
A wet wintry city dreams of dawn,
Dropping into azure pools
Chains of golden lamps.

The masts, severed from sails, dry,
The belfries, longing for gods, raise
Their yearning arms to the sky
Above the roofs which look like hay stacks.

For a charming hour of your cool,
Eos, a rosy-fingered dawn,
I cast joyous treasures of street-lamps
As a glowing amber string

And greet a dazzling sunrise
With a new song —
A morning with cock fights
Slowly passes by my gate.


Moon Hares

Like green feverish fumes
The moon poured in a hospital ward.

She silently dressed
In a transparent curling venom
The boy who was sleeping there.

Gasping in a yellow nightmare,
I saw through tattered dreams
A pack of moon hares
Come down to my pillow from the wall.

I was happy to hide my face
In their warm long ears;
They whispered, “Hey, boy, look here,
Golden stars are falling everywhere…”

They said, “Boy, dear,
We’ll take you to dazzling star storms,
To the exciting moon tides.
We’ll take you away from here.

We’ll take you at dawn where
Long-tailed comets wander among
The stars in a blue silver light
In a burning purple sunrise.

Blue lightning is brighter there,
It plays with a ringing ray.
Hurry on, dear boy,” said the hares,
“You won’t miss anything here.”



— A night violet is our skies,
Casting a blue shadow upon our house —
A silver jackdaw of midnight flies
Over the iron-ribbed bridge.

Our clouds are warm as a featherbed,
Our cities are doomed to boredom…
The falling leaves as golden ballerinas
Are flying over orchards day and night.

Our people forgot about honor,
They like their cheap comfort,
And our children grow up in gloom,
Dreaming of some vague revenge.

— Today you are like a herd of mules —
Drug addicts, rascals, villains, and fools.



I am sick, and my verse is sick too.
One can’t love me but can’t help loving my poems,
More lucid than a morning moon,
More desolate than a deserted street.

You’ll certainly find in my verse
A poisoned fish on the rod of strife,
And anyone tortured by thirst
Will find a dry lightning — a smile.



Roald Mandelstam

Roald Mandelstam (1932-1961), who died of tuberculosis and intestinal hemorrhage at the age of twenty-eight, was a gifted and singular poet who unfortunately was not published in his short lifetime. He was rediscovered by Mikhail Shemiakin, who published Mandelstam's poetry in the almanac Apollon-77, and K. Kuz'minskii, who published selected works in the anthology U Goluboi Laguny (At the Blue Lagoon). From 1982 to 1997, four books of his poetry were published in Israel and Russia, including Complete Poems (St. Petersburg: Ivan Limbakh Publishing, 2006), which was compiled and edited by the poet's sister, Mrs. Helene Petrov-Mandelstam. She and Ian Probstein are currently compiling a bilingual English-Russian edition of Roald Mandelstam's Selected Poetry. Probstein's introductory essay, "Ringing Vanity of Songs": On the Poetry of Roald Mandelstam (1932-1961)" has been published in Russian in The Coast 17 (2008).

Ian Probstein

Ian Probstein is assistant professor of English at Touro College, New York and a bilingual English-Russian poet, translator, and critic. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow) and an MA in English and comparative literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has published seven books of poetry in Russian and one in English, and more than a dozen of books of translation. He has compiled and/or edited more than twenty books and anthologies of poetry in translation. He is the first translator of Thomas Traherne's poems as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Germany" into Russian. Complete Poems and Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound in Russian Translation: A Bilingual Edition (St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2003), which he compiled, edited, and contributed to as a translator, was named Russia's best book of translation and poetry in 2003 by Book Review and EX Libris NG. His poetry, translations, and essays have appeared in Salonika, International Poetry ReviewSpring (the journal of the E.E. Cummings Society), The McNeese Review 46, and the books Vita Nuova (Philadelphia: R.E.M. Press, 1992) and Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2008).

English translation copyright (c) Ian Probstein, 2011.