Perhaps the whisper was born before lips,
And the leaves in treelessness circled and flew,
And those, to whom we impart our experience as bliss,
Acquire their forms before we do.
—  Osip Mandelstam, from “Octaves”, translated from the Russian by Ian Probstein

“And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,    
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.    
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering    
And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?    
What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,    
All hover and hammer,    
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.    
It is now. It is not.”

—Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman from the program “Remembering God.”

(Photo by Universal Pops/Flickr)

‘We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,’

We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
ten steps away they evaporate, our speeches,

but where enough meet for half-conversation,
the Kremlin mountain man’s our occupation.

They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
his words, as solid as weights of measure.

In his cockroach moustaches there’s a beam
of laughter, while below his top boots gleam.

Round him a mob of thin-necked henchmen,
he toys there with the slavery of half-men.

Whoever whimpers, whoever warbles a note,
Whoever miaows, he alone prods and probes.

He forges decree after decree, like horseshoes –
in groins, foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.

Wherever an execution’s happening though –
there’s raspberry, and the Georgian’s giant torso.
—  Osip MandelstamStalin Epigram

Take from my palms, to soothe your heart,
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.

You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.

For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
that die when they leave the hive.

Deep in the transparent night they’re still humming,
at home in the dark wood on the mountain,
in the mint and lungwort and the past.

But lay to your heart my rough gift,
this unlovely dry necklace of dead bees
that once made a sun out of honey.

—  Osip Mandelstam, The Selected Poems

Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.
I’ve read through half the list of ships:
This spun-out brood, this train of cranes
That once ascended over Hellas.

A wedge of cranes to foreign shores,-
Your kings’ heads wreathed in spray,-
Where are you sailing? Were it not for Helen,
Achaeans, what would Troy have been to you?

The sea and Homer - love moves all.
Where should I turn? Here Homer is silent,
While the Black Sea clamors oratorically
And reaches my pillow with a heavy roar

—  Osip Mandelstam
Think of Mandelstam, think of Pasternak, Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Mizoguchi, and you’ll realise what tremendous emotional power is carried by these exalted figures who soar above the earth, in whom the artist appears not just as an explorer of life, but as one who creates great spiritual treasures and that special beauty which is subject only to poetry. Such an artist can discern the lines of the poetic design of being. He is capable of going beyond the limitations of coherent logic, and conveying the deep complexity and truth of the impalpable connections and hidden phenomena of life.
—  Andrei Tarkovsky; Sculpting in Time