Three Poems

Osip Mandelstam


The grey Spring of asphodels
is still far off and transparent.
Perhaps the wave still boils
and you'll catch the rustling of the sand.
But here, like Persephone, my soul
has begun to circle round,
and the kingdom of the dead will hold
no shapely, sun-tanned hands.

Why then do we entrust
the urn's burden to a boat,
across the water's amethyst
for our festival of black roses?
Through the fog, the course of my soul
is set, out past Meganom,
and after my burial, the black sail
will return from that cape where it's gone.

How rapidly the beams run over
the ridge that lay unillumined,
and the flakes of those black roses
flutter beneath the moon's wind.
The edge of that huge flag
of recollection, the bird
of grief and death will drag
on behind the cypress stern.

The melancholy paper fan
of past years opens with a rustle.
Towards the spot in the sand
where an amulet hid with a warm shudder,
through the fog, the course of my soul
is set, out past Meganom,
and after my burial, the black sail
will return from that cape where it's gone.


Concerto at a Railway Station

There's no way to breathe, and the night sky teems
with worms. No star's voice comes through,
although there's a music above that God sees.
The station shivers with the singing of the Muses –
filled with violins amid the steam,
torn by whistles, once again the air fuses.

A sphere of glass. A park's proportions.
An iron world whose entrancement is deep.
A coach speeds off with a peacock's call,
to a noisy feast in misty Elysium,
victorious, it makes a forte-piano roar.
I'm late. And afraid. And asleep.

Violin chords in the bustle and crying.
Into the station's glass forest I go.
The night choir's first notes are wild,
the rotting hotbeds keep the scent of roses,
and this is where my shadow spent the night
beneath a glass sky, among crowds of nomads.

Everything seems to be music or foam.
It shivers like a beggar, this world of iron.
I lean into glass hallways. Like violin bows,
our eyes feel the hot steam and go blind.
Where are you off to? At the wake for the shadow
the music sounds for us a last time.



You brute of a century, who could look
into the centres of your eyes
and with their blood glue back
two centuries to a severed spine?
Blood the builder flows from the throat
of everything terrestrial.
It's only on the era's threshold
that the parasite will tremble.

As long as creation stays alive,
it hauls around its vertebrae.
A wave will play, as if its rise
were the spine that we can't see.
The century's new-born lands
resemble the soft gristle of a child.
Dragged by the head, like a lamb,
life heads off to the knife.

To free the century from confinement,
so that the new world might appear,
we'll have to take a flute to bind
the knees of our tangled era.
This is the century that heaves
human anguish like a wave,
and in the grass the viper breathes
by the century's golden ratio.

The buds continue to swell,
the green leaves of crops will splash.
Hey, my terrible, splendid century,
your spine's now thoroughly smashed.
Cruel and weak, with that senseless smile,
you turn your eyes back towards us,
a wild beast that used to be lithe,
now on the trail of its own claws.

Blood the builder flows from the throat
of all terrestrial things,
the warm gristle of the ocean
laps at the coast like a hot fish.
And from the birds' high gauze,
the moist masses in the blue,
indifference pours and pours
onto your fatal wound.


translated from the Russian by Alistair Noon

Read the original in Russian

Read translator’s note

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891 and grew up in St. Petersburg. Part of the concentration of outstanding artists and poets in Petersburg in the pre-First World War period, he was a member of the Acmeist group along with Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. From the mid-1920s onwards, Mandelstam faced increasing difficulties in publishing his work and fell near-silent. In 1930, Politburo member Nikolai Bukharin arranged for him to travel to the Caucasus, resulting in more poetry and prose, but with Stalin's consolidation of power, Mandelstam was exiled to the city of Voronezh, and eventually deported to a labour camp in the Soviet Far East, where he died in 1938. He published two books of poetry, Stone and Tristia, in his lifetime, while other work has appeared posthumously as The Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks: Poems 1930-1937.

Alistair Noon translates from the Russian and German. His translations include Pushkin's The Bronze Horseman (Longbarrow Press), Monika Rinck's 16 Poems (Barque), and The Last Drop: Versions of August Stramm (Intercapillary). His own poems have appeared in a full-length collection, Earth Records (Nine Arches Press), as well as chapbooks and magazines, including World Literature Today, Poetry Wales, and Jacket. He lives in Berlin.

These three poems show Mandelstam, a poet with an avowed agenda to create work for eternity, rooted in the present of composition – perhaps not such a paradox if you consider some sense of a historical moment as being an enabler of wider significance.

Meganom is a cape on the Crimea, near Koktebel, a favourite haunt of Russian poets, writers and artists in the early twentieth century, including Mandelstam.

"Concerto at a Railway Station" contrasts with Mandelstam's famous architectural poems such as "Hagia Sophia", "Notre Dame" and "The Admiralty," poems fundamentally in admiration of the building achievements of the past. The sense here is fearful, the tone elegiac. The sense of impressions cascading over the speaker is matched in the triple rhymes of the original, which I aimed to approximate. The night sky has been described by many poets, but seldom as "teeming with worms": as so often in Mandelstam, the image is irresolvable.

Lastly, "Century" is a full-on attempt to grasp the reality of the contemporary world, which in 1922 was still reeling from the First World War and Russian Civil War. Mandelstam really goes for it in terms of intense metaphor and unusual image, and all the translator can do is the same.