Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Two Early Poems by Osip Mandelstam (Translated by Alistair Noon)


Parishioners are the children of dust.
No icons: here they have slabs.
Only the psalms’ chalk numbers
still talk to Johann Sebastian.

What clashes of sound reside
in disorderly pubs and cathedrals,
but Bach, you triumph like Isaiah:
nobody trumps you in reason.

High-level squabbler, I guess
you found the mind good footholds
right in the middle of the evidence
when you played your grandchildren chorales.

And Sound? Old man, you're stubborn,
and none of those sixteenth portions
are pain, they're just your grumbling
in the polysyllabic cry of the organ.

Now, the Lutheran preacher
ascends to his pulpit, all black,
and blends the sound of his speeches
with yours, that you spoke in anger.


The Decembrist

‘When the heathen senate’s your witness,
your deeds will never perish!’
He ruffled his gown. His pipe was lit.
Two friends carried on with their chess.

He'd swapped his ambitions for felling timber
in Siberia – that giant lesson in silence –
then a fancy pipe at his poisonous lips
that had told a harsh world what was right.

Europe was weeping, clenched in a snare,
the noise of German oaks was just starting.
Black quadrigas reared into the air
on the tops of the victory arches.

Once, as the blue punch gleamed in beakers,
and we heard the roar of the samovar,
our Lady of the Rhine would softly speak,
that liberty-loving guitar.

‘Around the sweet liberty of citizenship,
living voices still move in waves.
What those who made sacrifices want now though isn’t
a blind heaven but life and labour.’

It all gets colder by degrees,
and what way now is there to say
we’re in a mess? Repeat it sweetly:
Russia, Lethe, Loreley.

June 1917

These two poems, respectively from Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922,) are representative of the wider concerns in Mandelstam’s work. “Bach” (a composer who wrote church music) refers not only to music but to architecture, something that connects it with Mandelstam’s more famous "architectural" poems, “Notre Dame,” “Hagia Sophia,” and “The Admiralty,” to his notion of poetry as architecture. It also references Lutheranism, to which Mandelstam had recently converted as a means of obtaining university entry (Jews being subject to restrictions in this regard inTsarist Russia) and perhaps also as an expression of his particular affinity to German culture.
The latter also plays a role in the later poem, “The Decembrist”. The title refers to a participant in the failed coup attempt led by liberal-minded officers in 1825 against Tsar Nicholas I. Given the date of composition (June 1917,) it must be read in the context of that revolution, and seems to express a deep ambivalence for it: a yearning for political freedom, frustration with the political impasse of the Provisional Government, a recognition of the Decembrists’ sacrifices in Siberia – to which many were exiled –but also a suspicion of the revolutionary as a human being subject to failings and caprices like any other. The translations are from a planned collection of Mandelstam’s poetry covering all periods of his writing life.
Osip Mandelstam is generally acknowledged as one of the most important poets of the 20th century. You can find some of Noon's other translations from the Russian here and from German here. Also please see a review of his own book, Earth Records. An original poem and writings on things cultural (travels in Russia, China, and Germany) are here and here. He lives in Berlin.

-- Alistair Noon

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