17 February, 2013Issue 21.3LiteraturePoetryTranslation

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Four Translations of Osip Mandelstam

Alistair Noon

..

The Greeks gathered for war.
The breath-taking island of Salamis
that hostile hands had torn from them
lay in view of the Athenian harbour.

Now friends from another island
have come to fit out our ships.
The English have never much liked
the sweet soil that is Europe’s.

Continent of the modern Hellenes,
protect Pireus! Save the Acropolis!
Gifts from the island? Who needs
a whole forest of uninvited ships?

1916

 
 
One night I was washing in the yard,
above me a sky of jostling stars –
like salt on an axe, each beam –
the barrel near-frozen to the brim.

The gates were shut and locked;
believe me, the earth is strict.
You won’t find a principle cleaner
than the truth there is in fresh linen.

A star dissolves like salt in the barrel.
The ice-cold water blackens.
A cleaner death, saltier troubles,
and the earth is more truthful and terrible.

1921

 
 
Leningrad

I’m back in the city I’d walk till I cried,
that I knew to my veins and glands as a child.

Back now in Leningrad. Quicker and quicker,
gulp down the fish oil in the lamps by the river.

Make friends with December’s daylight fast,
where a yolk is mixed into the sinister tar.

Petersburg, I’ve no wish to die just yet:
give me those phone numbers of mine you’ve kept.

Petersburg, I still know each and every address
that I’ll need to track down the voices of the dead.

I live on a dark staircase, where the doorbell
dangles from the wall and tolls into my temples.

All night, I wait for our friends to call,
as I move the chains, like shackles, on the door.

1930

 
 
What street are we on?
This is Mandelstam Road.
Damned if I know what that name means.
It’s like a bottle you can’t get the top off.
It sounds all twisted and not very clean.

The way he did things could have been straighter,
his self-control a little greater,
and that’s why this street –
well, more of a gutter really –
has a sign on which stands
the name of that Mandelstam.

1935

 
 

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a poet and essayist who lived and wrote in Russia at the time of the revolution and the subsequent rise of the Soviet Union. In the 1930s he was arrested by Joseph Stalin’s government and sent into internal exile. In 1938 Mandelstam was arrested again and sent to a camp in Siberia. He died that year in government custody.

Alistair Noon was born in 1970 and grew up in Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. Besides time spent in Russia and China, he has lived in Berlin since the early nineties, where he works as a professional translator. His work has appeared in magazines including Jacket, Poetry Wales, and World Literature Today, as well as in several chapbooks. His full-length collection Earth Records was published last year.

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