Osip Mandelstam’s Last Poems

* * *

I’m holding these leaves close to my lips —
Their light-green and glutinous oath,
And this oath-breaking earth — the mother
Of snowdrops and maples and oaks.

Look at how I’m growing stronger
Going blind by obeying the roots.
Isn’t it just too much of a splendor
That the garden put forward for us?

Croaking frogs, like the beads of quicksilver,
Merge their voices into a bigger ball,
And the sticks become twigs, little by little,
And the vapor becomes a milky fable.

* * *

The range of round coves, the ridge, the endless blue,
The slowly moving sail extended by a cloud —
Too early, as it goes, I was cut off from you:
Sea grass is longer than an organ fugue
And bitterer too — it smells of lies aloud,
The head is spinning touched by a tender hue,
And rust eats gingerly the shore devoid of crowds . . .
Why am I given then so different a ground:
Broad-shouldered Volga, or full-throated Ural,
Or this flat region? — I don’t have a clue,
Yet I must breathe them deeply, in and out.

* * *

Where is the chained and tightly bound moan?
Where is Prometheus — the rock’s collaborator?
And eagle — where? Where is it with its claws
And sullen yellow eyes that slice like razors?

It’s over — tragedies would not endure.
But those lips, advancing and evolving,
But those lips lead us directly to
The loader Aeschylus and Sophocles, the logger,

Like echo and salute, a post — no, like a plough . . .
The theater made of stone and time and air
Jumps to its feet,  all watching everyone —
Begotten, doomed, immortal, unaware.

* * *

Armed with the vicious vision of the wasps
That suck at the earth’s axis, the earth’s axis,
I’m mindful of whatever came across
And do remember it by heart — for nothing.

I neither draw nor sing — and never did.
I don’t disturb strings with a moaning bow.
I cherish life, and digging into it
I envy wasps, these mighty smart fellows.

The summer warmth put me under a spell
Denying death, denying morbid slumber.
Oh, if I only could somehow get as well
A feel of the earth’s axis, the earth’s axis . . .

* * *

What is next? — I got lost in the heavens.
Answer me, you, to whom they are close!
Dante’s nine discuses, reverberating —
Better not to be swindled by those.

Life and I cannot be separated
‘Cause to kill also means to caress
Filling ears, and eyes, and eye sockets
With the Florentine longing and rage.

Do not put, do not put on my temples
A sweet-smelling and sharp-leafed laurel,
Better tear my heart to pieces,
To the sounds of a fractured bell.

When my journey is finally over,
Bonds of love will not fade right away,
And the heavens’ response still will hover
Over heads, over grave, over death.


Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was born in Warsaw and grew up in St. Petersburg. He attended the prestigious Tenishev School from 1900 to 1907. Continuing his education abroad, he attended the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Heidelberg in Germany. After returning home, Mandelstam studied at the St. Petersburg University. His first poems appeared in the journal Apollon in 1910. As a poet, Mandelstam gained fame with the collection Kamen (1913), which was followed by Tristia (1922) and Stikhotvoreniya 1921-25 (1928). In the 1920s, Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating. In 1930, he made a trip to Armenia, and his  Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his lifetime. The Soviet authorities became increasingly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolsheviks' rule, and in 1934 he was arrested for his poem "Stalin Epigram" and exiled to Cherdyn. After a suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in Voronezh, where he wrote his Voronezh Notebooks. He returned to Moscow in 1937, but the following May he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. He died in the transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938. In the years since his death, Mandelstam has come to be recognized as one of Russia's greatest and most inspiring poets. His work has been published widely in post-Soviet Russia and in translated collections throughout Europe and the United States.

Boris Kokotov

Boris Kokotov is a poet and translator. He is the author of several poetry collections in Russian. His Russian translations of German Romantic poetry were published in the anthology The Century of Translation in Moscow. His Russian translation of Louise Glück's The Wild Iris (Vodoley, Moscow, 2012) was nominated for the best translation of the year in Russia. His English translations of selected poems by contemporary Russian poets have appeared or are forthcoming in Adelaide, Blackbird, Ezra, Poet Lore, Washington Square Review, and InTranslation, among others. He lives in Baltimore.

English translation copyright (c) Boris Kokotov, 2020.