Osip Mandelstam: Octaves; translation by Ilya Bernstein

Editor's note: For the foreseeable future, Calque will be periodically offering selections of Ilya Bernstein's extensive Osip Mandelstam translations. This is the second post of the series. The first can be found here. This poems are presented in English only, due to their length and the wide availability of Mandelstam's work in Russian online.

In 1933-1934, Mandelstam wrote a sequence of philosophical eight-liners about creativity — creativity as it emerges in writing, in culture as a whole, in biological evolution, and in being in general. Ironically, for poems concerned with the precise manner in which the creative gesture unfolds, their own order was left undetermined by the poet. They are arranged here after the fashion of Russian dolls, starting out in the small world of the poet, passing through the intermediate realms of culture and biology, and ending up in the big world of space and time.


I love the formation of tissue
When after two, after three,
Or after four attempts at inhaling
I draw an unbroken breath.

And tracing the arcs of racing
Sailboats and sketching green shapes,
Like a child that has never known a cradle,
Space sleepily plays with itself.


I love the formation of tissue
When after two, after three,
Or after four attempts at inhaling
I draw an unbroken breath.

And I feel so sweet and tormented
When that moment arrives
And suddenly an arc is extended
Through this muttering of mine.


When, after destroying the sketches,
You diligently hold in your mind
A period without heavy glosses,
Intact in interior dark,
And shutting its eyes, it is resting
On its own momentum alone,
It stands in the same relation to paper
As a dome to the empty skies.


O butterfly, O Muslim maid,
Wrapped in the shreds of a shroud,
Lady Alive and Lady Dying,
So large — so you as you are!

A big biter with large whiskers
And your head inside a burnoose —
O shroud unfurled like a banner!
Fold your wings — I dare not look!


The toothed paw of the maple
Is bathed in rounded angles.
Out of butterflies’ speckles
Pictures are made on walls.

Certain mosques are alive
And I can now surmise:
Perhaps we are Hagia Sophia
With countless numbers of eyes.


Tell me, draftsman of the desert,
Geometer of the Arabian sands,
Can unbounded lines really prevail
Against the blowing wind?
“Its Judaic tremor
Never enters my thoughts!”
His memory mirrors his murmurs,
Murmurs from memory wrought...


Schubert in water, and Mozart in birdsongs,
And Goethe whistling on the winding path,
And Hamlet reasoning with timid footsteps,
Measured the pulse of the crowd and believed the crowd.

Maybe before there were lips, there was already a whisper,
And leaves circled around in treelessness.
And those to whom we dedicate our learning
Prior to any learning acquired their traits.


The sixth sense in a tiny appendage
And the lizard’s parietal eye,
The snails and bivalves in their cloisters,
Or what the shimmering cilia say —

The inaccessible, at such close distance!
And you cannot untie the knot, you cannot look —
As if you have been handed a message
That must be answered without being read...


Overcoming the rigidity of nature,
The hard-blue eye penetrated into its laws.
Minerals riot in the earth’s crust
And the cry strains at the breast like ore.

And the blind preformation struggles,
As if along a road that curves like a horn,
To grasp space and its inner surplus —
The implied petal, the implied dome.


And into the overgrown garden
Of magnitudes, I step out of space,
And I tear the unreal consistency
And self-consciousness of causes.

And your textbook, infinity,
I read without people, on my own —
A leafless, wild medical manual,
The problem book of enormous roots.


Out of pin-like, poisonous goblets
We drink the delusion of causes,
And our hooks touch magnitudes
As infinitesimal as easy death.
And where the jackstraws have coupled
The child says not a word —
In little eternity’s cradle
Slumbers a big universe.

November 1933 - July 1935


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rashid1891 said...

And, why do they call it root beer? Is it made from roots? 'Cause it does have the prevalent dash of dirt flavor present in root vegetables.
it is very interesting story
is a very good picture