slow literature

Bright Nostalgia: Poems for Osip Mandelstam

Poems by Katherine E. Young, from Archipelago

In keeping with the interesting project we are producing with the poet and translator Katherine E. Young, here, we re-present a handful of poems which she allowed us to publish in Archipelago, Vol. 10, Nos. 3-4. They remain bright in our eyes and suffused with aching beauty. -Ed.

 

 

 

Bright Nostalgia:  Poems for Osip Mandelstam

 

 

 

Red Vineyard, 1888: A Painting by Van Gogh

 

If I ever get back, the first thing I shall do is go and see
the French [paintings].
                                      — Osip Mandelstam in exile

Vtoraya rechka (“Second Little Stream”) is the transit 
camp where Mandelstam is believed to have perished.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

I remember his vermilion, color

with the grandest name.  It tasted of tree

trunks, a work blouse, tang of grapes harvesting

in the vineyards of Arles.  He captured the sun

and hung it, toasted gold like blini

hot and hot from the stove, to wester there

beyond the fields.  If I ever get back,

though the path may lie through the transit camps,

through Vtoraya rechka, misbegotten

little stream. . . .  Pity, instead, the man who

surveyed this spot, doggedly reducing

the great East to a chart, chilly fingers

inscribing, there, “First Little Stream” and, there,

“Third Little Stream” — equally prosaic

names for the places they send men to die.

Understand this: there is no other road,

no roundabout crossing, no safer way.

There is Death, too, in that sunset— but not

yet.  On the wet-black walk, chalk soil and rain

conspire to trace upon the pavement

the fragile antonym of a leaf.

 

 

Italian Hours

 

. . . And I prepared to swim, and floated on the arc
Of unbeginning journeys.
        — Osip Mandelstam, Voronezh, 1937

M would invite me to stroll in imagination with him
round the Baptistery in Florence. . . .
        — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope

 

A silence falls, sweeping the swells,

schooling the hollows and velvet

hills, the cypress stands, the empty

road to a place that is not — yet —

Canaro.  Same old moon, same stars,

give or take a planet or two.

 

“Due ore!” wails a woman

who asked a man who had talked to

the conductor.  Due ore —

as if all Eternity were

quicker or more certain than

the homebound train’s arrival at last.

 

All travel’s exile, the shedding

of self, a losing and finding,

the possessing of new things.  Past

is present — in gondola rides

through fetid canals, light, water,

air shared with Campanile loons

 

proclaiming “Republic!” too late,

or too soon — in encounters with

selves left standing at the crossroads,

with ghosts asking after Dante

in accents unknown to the shades

who frequent the Baptistery….

 

Headlights at the crossing.  No fear,

no regret, no yearning keener

than the one that blooms as the night

train passes, ripe moon throbbing through

the sheep-foul fields, the olive groves,

the Akrons of the soul, through Voronezh.

 

 

(The remaining poems are here.)