Osip Mandelstam




Peace – that word we deleted
at the start of an injured age,
that lamp in the depths of a cave,
the air in the Alps – is now ether;
an ether we were neither willing
nor even able to breathe.
Once more, the goatish reeds
of the shaggy pipes are singing.

While the lamb and the bullock
strayed over fertile fields,
and friendship-loving eagles
perched on the slumbering rocks,
an eagle was reared by the Teutons,
a lion was tamed by the British,
and there – well, how could you miss it? –
rose the crest of the Gallic rooster.

But now, the savage has mastered
Heracles’ sacred club,
and the black earth has dried up,
ungrateful as the ground of the past.
I’ll steal us some fire: I’ve found
a stick that is small and dry.
Out with you into the soundless night,
you animal that I’ve roused.

The rooster and the frowning lion,
the eagle and the tender bear:
we’ll build a cage for this war, and there
we’ll shelter their animal hides.
But I sing the wine of the Ages –
Italian, spouting from a crack.
And the Slavic and Germanic flax
lies in the Pre-Aryan cradle.

Italy, how can you still find the energy
to harass the chariots of Rome
with the cackle of a goose that has flown
up and over its wicker fence?
Dear neighbours, can you forgive us?
Feathers bristle on the eagle’s back.
What will you do if the rock
for your sling’s too heavy to lift?

When we’ve locked the animals in their cages,
the Volga’s course will grow broader,
the Rhine’s current become brighter,
now our fears will stay assuaged.
When a stranger comes, no act of will
shall be needed for those now wise
to greet him like a demigod, with a wild
dance on the banks of great rivers.

1916, 1935

– Translated from Russian by Alistair Noon

Photo: Osip Mandelstam shortly after his arrest by the NKVD in 1938


ALISTAIR NOON‘s first full-length collection Earth Records is available from Nine Arches Press. Links to other Mandelstam translations of his can be found at myspace.com/alistairnoon. He lives in Berlin.


Read more work by Alistair Noon:

Earth Records
Reviewed by Peter Riley
Archive of the Now