Poetry by Roald Mandelstam

Epigram

I, Mandelstam, lived here.
But I’m not that well-known Mandelstam,
That Mandelstam has long been
Somewhere there.

A Grim Guest

My friends are heroes of myths.
Vagabonds.
Drunkards.
Thieves.
The fences are spotted with
Obscene hieroglyphs
Of my prayers pounding my views
In the chumps of rams
Herding ahead.
My regular verse—
………………………………….such songs—
Are not for a wife’s ear.
—There are husbands here…
………………………………….—But are there men?
(My voice is loud and rough and straight.)
I do not sing epithalamia!
You don’t need me!
Out of my way!

1954-1955

*          *          *

………..1.

My friends are heroes of myths.
Vagabonds, drunkards, and thieves.
The fences are spotted with
My prayers of obscene hieroglyphs.

………..2.

—In the fire of sunset vestments
Let the vanity perish and light!
………—Amen!
(The darkness strangles passersby
In the streets seized by the night.)

………..3.

………..Shadows of moonlight,
………..Of lamplight:
………..Volutes,
………..Stairs,
………..Spirals,
………..Snares.

………..4.

The lamps would shake,
The shades would shudder,
The night would hurl in the face
Its prickly gothic of visions—
A case-shot of broken candies.
I pray, striped by moonlight.
My surplice is made of a tiger’s shade.
Painted with war paint,
Savage, I sing of death.

Shadows

………..1. Street Shadows

……………Shadows of moonlight,
……………Of lamplight:
……………Volutes,
……………Stairs,
……………Spirals,
……………Snare.

………..2. From the Window

The lamps would fade,
The shades would shudder,
The night would hurl in the face
Its prickly gothic of visions—
A case-shot of broken candies.

………..3. My Shadow

On the stairs along the red walls
—(greeting the doors:
Rekindle, open, Sesame!),
I’ll pluck my flat-faced shadow off the wall.
Lamps flash fishy eyes!
Shadows and eyes have the same sound,
They leave the same trace,
As if someone stepped on a roach,
A spot—like a melting meat-jelly.

6-7 April 1957

Dialogue

(Sonnet)

—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.

1954—1958

*          *          *

We are stuffed with patience,
Silent for the moment,
Like the Stone Age rats
In a junk heap of stone tubs.

Hearts are cold and thoughts are frozen,
And the shields are lacking mottos…
Houses hover from above,
And below us are the mortars

Of the plazas: Rise and cry?—
If you try—
Like the nutshell, skulls will fly
Under the grinder of iron night.

One cannot rekindle fire
In a heap of smoldering dawn,
We are trying to pierce a stone,
Wriggling like eels or worms—

We are just Stone Age rats
In a junk heap of stone tubs,
Stuffed with patience,
Silent for the moment!

1954—1955

Epitaph

To V. P. and myself*

Roaming along the snowy streets
With the skull full of sonorous lines,
I warmed up my thirst of cosmic disasters
With my hope that was barely alive.

Those from whom I wouldn’t keep secrets
Would pay me back with contempt for my love,
Those who would come to me to confess
Only aroused mean suspicions and laugh.

Shakespeare is pathetic!
What scared his Hamlet,
This tragic microcephalus, dimwit?
No, I did not rack my brains over
The problems of the Danish prince.

_______________

* The poem is dedicated to the artist Vladimir Prelovsky, who committed suicide. The cause was said to be drug addiction, along with pressure and persecution from the KGB.

Evening

A hunchbacked profile of the bridge
Is quiet, as always, my dear.
The wind threads wires
Into the sunset’s red ear.

Someone grim and old,
As if tired on earth too soon,
Was hanging as a nightmare
In the loop of streetcar wires.

In short, the evening settled down,
Plain as packthread and slightly blue,
As gray cotton wool, still,
As the perfume of roses dull.

*          *          *

I’ll forget about the light soon
Choked by a slow mold
While a blazing wind sweeps the world
With an amazing morning song…

……—Had I an hour, a minute of freedom,
I would adorn with a pattern of rhymes
The bridge guarded by the golden griffons.
—Let me be! Let me sing runes—

Sagas are so sonorous before death…
But they won’t—and the thought
Of a white sheet of paper is
Hostile to them, sick with hemorrhoids!

—My executioner, sick and grim—
A lazy old cask,
Let your lame daughter bring
Some of your wine for us.

She laughs: she got used to poets…
—How many, a lame crook,
Imagined you were an angel of light
While rifles were being loaded?

And the other one—was it she
With an exquisite false grimace
Who came to an empty grave
To read the final edict of Fortinbras?

The Elephants Are Coming

A deathly cold
In slashing showers;
The elephants are clouds! Hills!
On their black beavers are
…………..The trumpets of trunks,
They have bronze pestles of feet.

What is cowardice and courage,
What are the screams, “It’s time!”—
The elephants come, and their steps shake
The cities like an earthquake.

The waves, salty as grief
Shiver in fever and fear,
The cups of patience are full,
The ELEPHANTS are near!

Legionaries’ Song*

The moon’s samovar
Hums to a star,
The night’s chimneys moan:
……—Varus, give them back,
……—Varus, hey, Var?
……—Varus, give those legions back!
……—Ravens will caress us
Drinking eyes from skulls!—
The legions are soundlessly singing
Silent songs without words.

Hovering hawks rush the shrouds.
Faithful Gauls are going to bed
Convinced to lie down;
Latin speech is quenched dead.

Stout consuls are asleep.
There is no victor here!
……—Varus, hey, Var!
……—Varus will never reply:
……—The list of triumphs came to the end.

The moon’s samovar
Hums to a star,
The night’s chimneys moan:
……—Varus, give them back,
……—Varus, hey, Var?
……—Varus, give those legions back!

_______________

* An allusion to a tragic episode in Roman history, when three Roman legions and their Gaul allies led by Publius Quintilius Varus were defeated by the German tribes under Arminius in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. Varus committed suicide, and Svetonius writes that Augustus was in such despair that he hit his head against the doors exclaiming: “Publius Varus, give me my legions back!”

A Bluebell

I can’t believe that flowers
Are born and bloom in this land
Without any trace or sense:
—Here I stand,*
I cannot do otherwise.
I am a bluebell of a wintry land.

I was a flower in Galileo’s tomb
And in an awful loneliness of the king.
I remember all.
I know all,
I can do anything
…………………….To stand my ground
…………………….Fighting the fear of death

My weak bell rings and cries.
My guard is feather grass.
—Here I stand,
And I cannot do otherwise.
I am a bluebell of a wintry land.

17 June 1958

_______________

* A quote attributed to Martin Luther.

*          *          *

The sky is vast and silently still…
A star joins a star in the sky.
I put you for a rhyme, whippoorwill,
Your sorrowful cry.

But what is not for a rhyme!—
A broken sleep ill at ease,
A crescent moon—a concrete caisson of a well,
An evil caisson disease?

A silver silhouette of a face shines
In a blue night like a dime,
And is a swollen belly of a corpse
In black grass—for a rhyme?

Those who hurry home, hasten away,
Don’t you blame the rhyme any more:
A scrawny night lies in your beds,
A hardened sweating whore!

*          *          *

I am a witness of night violations,
And the land that I describe is
Hiding the stars of eyes, constellations
In the ornate baskets of balconies.

I live in the land of glass where
People are following their dreams:
They believe that blood is blue
And that children are brought by storks.

The ocean filled the nets with gifts
Of the orchestra’s crystalline tears,
And the arms of each bride
Embrace men as the southern hot wind.

I am a knight from a happy land,
I am from the White River town,
Where people do not know grief,
They are fishermen—everyone.

And when midnight settles down,
They celebrate the feast of the dew,
And the moonlit maidens’ eyes
Are filled with unspeakable charm.

Adoring the fishermen’s land,
The comets fall down from the sky
In the garments of starry light and
The shadows of midnight clouds

To teach the girls, stunning as birds,
A mysterious word in exchange
For the songs of their daily catch
And those about southbound birds,

But they teach the young men
To be silent and tame their pride,
To answer the call of love
And bend down speechless from joy.

I live in a wonderful land,
And the country that I have described
Does not know sorrow and grief,
Does not know how to writhe from pain.

*          *          *

The rustling wings of flocks
Fly towards familiar fences,
Whirling, crows’ croaks
Fall like black ghosts of the snowflakes.

Oh, how these bells roar and yell!—
They throw up their brazen mortal yelp,
As if a herd of hippos die
Pierced by sharp spears of belfries.

Through pain and groan I call my friends
Hoping to reach their hands,
It’s but a bad dream,
And I still hope that I will wake.

Epilogue

A heavy echo
Swallowed the streams of a lucent laughter,
And then a long silence fell,
The night came,
And no one heard
In a joyless gloom
How sang and laughed
May be the last
Poet on earth.

Bios

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 called himself “the last poet on earth” in his last poem, entitled “Epilogue.” In fact, he was perhaps the last romantic poet, a sparkling splinter of the Russian Silver Age. There is an evident affinity between the poetry of R. Mandelstam with the poetry of the Silver Age—first and foremost, with the poetry of Blok, Gumilev and Osip Mandelstam, but Roald Mandelstam’s work differs from theirs due to his unique syncretic imagery, vision, and intonation. Moreover, he is an existential poet and, as such, he continued the highest traditions of the Russian poetry from Derzhavin and Tiutchev to Gumilev and O. Mandelstam. He was one of the first postwar underground poets in Leningrad, a forerunner of the brilliant constellation of poets that included the so-called Leningrad Philological School, Leonid Aronson, Vladimir Uflyand, and Joseph Brodsky, as well as the poets of his circle, Victor Krivulin, Elena Shvarts, and many more.

Ian Probstein

Ian Probstein is assistant professor of English at Touro College, New York, a bilingual English-Russian poet, and a translator of poetry. He has published eight books of poetry in Russian, one in English, and more than a dozen books of translation; compiled and/or edited more than 20 books and anthologies of poetry in translation; in all, has around 300 publications in several languages (translated poetry from English, Spanish, Italian, and Polish into Russian and from Russian into English). He compiled, edited, and contributed translations to a bilingual English-Russian edition of the Complete Poems and Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound (St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2003). Mr. Probstein is the editor, one of the major translators, and the author of introduction and commentary for the Russian edition of Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot, published in Moscow (AST, 2013). Recently he published Spiritual Soil, a book of essays on Russian Poetry (Moscow: Agraph, 2014), and Gordian Knot, a book of poetry (Milan: 2014).

Copyright (c) Roald Mandelstam, 1954-1958. English translation copyright (c) Ian Probstein, 2015.