translated from the Russian by Eugene Serebryany in memory of Michele Dufault
In the yard at night I wash my face.
Rough-hewn stars in the heavens shimmer.
Starlight glints like salt on the axe-blade.
The barrel is cold and brimming.
The gate is locked with a padlock.
The earth is honest and harsh.
Save for the truth of a sheet of canvas,
What will suffice to build on?
Starlight melts in the barrel of water
Like salt, and the cold water blackens.
Death becomes purer, grief becomes bitter,
And the earth—full of truth, and of terror.
Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) was born into a Polish-Jewish family in what was then the Russian Empire. He became one of the great poets of Russia’s Silver Age, with a keen sense of the melodies of spoken language. He often recited a finished poem before, or even instead of, writing it down. Many of his lines became proverbial. He was persecuted in the Soviet Union for his political views, especially after a 1933 poem satirizing Stalin. He died in Siberia while being transferred between prison camps.
Eugene Serebryany is a graduate student at MIT. This is his first published translation. He is grateful for the advice and mentorship of Peter Cole at Yale University. (4/2012)