‘Твой зрачок в небесной корке’ (‘Let it be blessed’) by Osip Mandelstam

The reserve of weak,
sensitive eyelashes protects
your pupil in its heavenly rind,
as it looks into the distance and down.

Let it be blessed
and live long in its homeland –
cast the surprise pool
of your eye to catch me!

Already it looks willingly
at the ephemeral ages –
bright, rainbowed, fleshless,
still pleading.

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам
(Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam)
(His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam)
(2 January 1937)
from the second Voronezh Notebook
translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane

‘Твой зрачок в небесной корке’

Твой зрачок в небесной корке,
Обращенный вдаль и ниц,
Защищают оговорки
Слабых, чующих ресниц.

Будет он обожествленный
Долго жить в родной стране —
Омут ока удивленный,—
Кинь его вдогонку мне.

Он глядит уже охотно
В мимолетные века —
Светлый, радужный, бесплотный,
Умоляющий пока.

Additional information: The translators chose to use the first line of the second stanza as a title for the unnamed piece rather than the first line of the first stanza as most would do with untitled poems for reference purposes. Hence the discrepancy in the title of this post between the Russian and English. Aside from this they numbered this poem as the seventeenth entry in the second of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks but I don’t know if that is a officially recognised convention when referring to the unnamed pieces in the three notebooks (as you might use regarding, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets).

The notebooks were written while he was in exile, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh, which was a reprieve of sorts after he had been arrested during the repression of the 1930s. Mandelstam and his wife chose Voronezh, possibly, partly, because the name appealed to him. In April 1935, he wrote a four line poem that included the pun – Voronezh blazh‘, Voronezh voron, nozh meaning ‘Voronezh is a whim, Voronezh – a raven, a knife.’

The apartment building he resided in during his exile, located on Friedrich Engels Street next to the Orlyonok Park, was recently given special status.

Ленинград (Leningrad) by Osip Mandelstam

I returned to my city, familiar as tears,
As veins, as mumps from childhood years.

You’ve returned here, so swallow as quick as you can
The fish oil of Leningrad’s riverside lamps.

Recognize when you can December’s brief day,
Egg yolk folded into its ominous tar.

Petersburg! I still don’t want to die:
You have the numbers of my telephones.

Petersburg! I still have addresses,
By which I can find the voices of the dead.
I live on the back stairs and the doorbell buzz

And all night long I wait for the dear guests,
Rattling, like manacles, the chains on the doors.

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам
(Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.)
His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam)
(December 1930)
translated by Bernard Meares (revised)

The poem recited by Konstanin Raikin who is a Russian actor, theatre director and the head of the Moscow Satyricon Theatre (since 1988)

Ленинград

Я вернулся в мой город, знакомый до слез,
До прожилок, до детских припухлых желез.

Ты вернулся сюда, — так глотай же скорей
Рыбий жир ленинградских речных фонарей.

Узнавай же скорее декабрьский денек,
Где к зловещему дегтю подмешан желток.

Петербург, я еще не хочу умирать:
У тебя телефонов моих номера.

Петербург, у меня еще есть адреса,
По которым найду мертвецов голоса.

Я на лестнице черной живу, и в висок
Ударяет мне вырванный с мясом звонок.

И всю ночь напролет жду гостей дорогих,
Шевеля кандалами цепочек дверных.

Additional information: Leningrad was the name of St Petersburg during the Soviet era. The poem was written in 1930 when Mandelstam had just returned from the Caucasus to his hometown of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). ‘Dear guests‘ was a euphemism for the political police who now patrolled the city upon his return.

Basic breakdown of the poem: In the poem, the speaker happily announces his return home, but at the same time has a slight anxiety due to a new government having appeared in St. Petersburg. He compares the atmosphere of the city with tar but still tries to find something bright and pleasant in everything. He admits that Leningrad remains his hometown (where Mandelstam grew up when his family moved there soon after his birth) because of the addresses he has of friends and relatives there. A man very much wants to see his loved ones, so he lives on the stairs consumed with hope. However, despite all this each doorbell reminds him of a blow to the temple and the door chains remind him of heavy and unpleasant shackles.

The poem reads as an elegy in which Mandelstam mourns the changes he sees in the city he has returned to. He wants to show that it is not the best of times when a new government comes to the city. Also he reveals the anxiety felt by people during this period of change. He talks about how dear his hometown is to him but, despite his remaining connections, he does not feel safe there anymore.

The main theme is that he feels disaster is gradually approaching the city and, for him, St. Petersburg has already changed in his absence although he finds links to his past remain. Overall, the poem demonstrates Mandelstam’s pain and despair as if there is a tragic denouement regarding everything familiar he encounters but has grown hostile and anxiety inducing to him.

“Ты, меня любивший фальшью…” (You, who loved me) by Marina Tsvetaeva

You, who loved me with the deceptions
Of truth – and the truth of lies,
You, who loved me – beyond all distance!
– Beyond boundaries!

You, who loved me longer
Than time – your right hand soars! –
You don’t love me any more:
That’s the truth in six words.

by Марина Ивановна Цветаева
(Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)
(12 December 1923)
from Uncollected Poems
translated by David McDuff

Ты, меня любивший фальшью…

Ты, меня любивший фальшью
Истины – и правдой лжи,
Ты, меня любивший – дальше
Некуда! – За рубежи!

Ты, меня любивший дольше
Времени. – Десницы взмах!
Ты меня не любишь больше:
Истина в пяти словах.

The poem recited by the Russian actress Alla Demidova

Additional information: The final line translates more accurately as ‘(the) truth in five words’. ‘You, who loved me – don’t’ is as close as I can, clumsily, get to five words (although you could use ‘anymore’ instead of ‘any more’ too) for the penultimate line while maintaining the structural consistency of the translator’s preceding lines. Then again it’s easy to be a critic. This is David McDuff‘s professional translation so ignore my amateur criticisms – I just found some of the translation choices he made unusual.

Гражданская война (Civil War) by Maksimilian Voloshin

Some rose from the underground,
Some from exile, factories, mines,
Poisoned by suspicious freedom
And the bitter smoke of cities.
Others from military ranks,
From noblemen’s ravished nests,
Where to the country churchyard
They carried dead fathers and brothers.
In some even now is not extinguished
The intoxication of immemorial conflagrations;
And the wild free spirit of the steppe,
Of both the Razins and the Kudaiars, lives on.
In others, deprived of all roots, is
The torn fabric and sad discord of our days –
The putrefied spirit of the Neva capital,
Tolstoy and Chekhov, Dostoyevsky.
Some raise on placards
Their ravings about bourgeois evil,
About the radiant pure proletariat,
A Philistine paradise on earth.
In others is all the blossom and rot of empires,
All the gold, all the decay of ideas,
The splendor of all great fetishes,
And of all scientific superstition.
Some go to liberate
Moscow and forge Russia anew,
Others, after unleashing the elements,
Want to remake the entire world.
In these and in others war inspires
Anger, greed, the dark intoxication of wild outbursts –
And in a greedy pack the plunderer
Afterward steals to heroes and leaders
In order to break up and sell out to enemies
The wondrously beautiful might of Russia,
To let rot piles of wheat,
To dishonor her heavens,
To devour her riches, incinerate her forests,
And suck dry her seas and ore.
And the thunder of battles will not cease
Across all the expanses of the southern steppes
Amid the golden splendor
Of harvests trampled by horses.
Both here and there among the ranks
Resounds one and the same voice:
“Who is not with us is against us!”
“No one is indifferent, truth is with us!”
And I stand one among them
In the howling flame and smoke
And with all my strength
I pray for them and for the others.

by Максимилиа́н Алекса́ндрович Воло́шин
(Maksimilian Voloshin)
(22 November 1920)
from the cycle ‘Strife
with Wrangel
Koktebel, Crimea
translated by Albert C. Todd

Гражданская война

Одни восстали из подполий,
Из ссылок, фабрик, рудников,
Отравленные тёмной волей
И горьким дымом городов.

Другие — из рядов военных,
Дворянских разорённых гнёзд,
Где проводили на погост
Отцов и братьев убиенных.

В одних доселе не потух
Хмель незапамятных пожаров,
И жив степной, разгульный дух
И Разиных, и Кудеяров.

В других — лишённых всех корней —
Тлетворный дух столицы Невской:
Толстой и Чехов, Достоевский —
Надрыв и смута наших дней.

Одни возносят на плакатах
Свой бред о буржуазном зле,
О светлых пролетариатах,
Мещанском рае на земле…

В других весь цвет, вся гниль империй,
Всё золото, весь тлен идей,
Блеск всех великих фетишей
И всех научных суеверий.

Одни идут освобождать
Москву и вновь сковать Россию,
Другие, разнуздав стихию,
Хотят весь мир пересоздать.

В тех и в других война вдохнула
Гнев, жадность, мрачный хмель разгула,
А вслед героям и вождям
Крадётся хищник стаей жадной,
Чтоб мощь России неоглядной
Pазмыкать и продать врагам:

Cгноить её пшеницы груды,
Её бесчестить небеса,
Пожрать богатства, сжечь леса
И высосать моря и руды.

И не смолкает грохот битв
По всем просторам южной степи
Средь золотых великолепий
Конями вытоптанных жнитв.

И там и здесь между рядами
Звучит один и тот же глас:
«Кто не за нас — тот против нас.
Нет безразличных: правда с нами».

А я стою один меж них
В ревущем пламени и дыме
И всеми силами своими
Молюсь за тех и за других.

The poem, in it’s original Russian form, recited by Boris Chenitsa.

Addition information: Voloshin‘s poem – published on the centenary (plus one year) of the poem’s creation!

The ‘with Wrangel’ mentioned in the poem’s accreditation I believe refers to Pyotr Wrangel who was a Russian officer of Baltic German origin in the Imperial Russian Army. During the later stages of the Russian Civil War, he was commanding general of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Southern Russia. After his side lost the civil war in 1920, he left Russia. He was known as one of the most prominent exiled White émigrés and military leader of the South Russia (as commander in chief).

Razin refers to Stepan (Stenka) Razin (ca. 1630 – 1671), a Don Cossack who led a peasant rebellion in 1670 – 1671. Celebrated in folk songs and folktales, he was captured and publicly quartered alive.

According to my book’s notes “Kudaiar refers to a legendary brigand celebrated in folk songs”. However translating it myself from the Russian root Кудеяр it is actually better Latinised/transliterated to Kudeyar regarding a Russian legendary folk hero whose story is told in Nikolay Kostomarov‘s 1875 novel of the same name. It should be noted there were apparently several Cossack robbers who adopted this name. In a letter to tsar Ivan IV a Muscovite boyar, from Crimea, reported that “there is only one brigand left here – the accursed Kudeyar“. The name is apparently Persian, composed of two elements standing for “God” and “man”.

The Neva capital refers to St Petersburg. Its location on the Neva River was the constant feature of the capital, whose name was changing from St Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad during the era.

Koktebel is an urban-type settlement and one of the most popular resort townlets in South-Eastern Crimea. It is situated on the shore of the Black Sea about halfway between Feodosia and Sudak and is subordinated to the Feodosia Municipality. It is best known for its literary associations as Voloshin made it his residence, where he entertained many distinguished guests, including Marina Tsvetayeva, Osip Mandelshtam, and Andrey Bely (who died there). They all wrote remarkable poems in Koktebel. Another prominent literary resident of Koktebel was Ilya Ehrenburg who lived there circa 1919 while escaping from anti-Semitic riots in Kiev.

Voloshin, whose real surname was Kirilenko-Voloshin, was born into a noble family that included Zaporozhskie Cossacks and Germans Russified in the seventeenth century. He studied law at Moscow University, though he was unable to complete a degree because of his participation in student protests in 1898. He continued to study extensively in Paris from 1903 to 1917 and traveled throughout Europe and Russia. Voloshin settled in Russia for good in 1917, just before the February Revolution, and spent the rest of his years in Koktebel in the Crimea.

Voloshin always stood alone against literary currents and intrigues. The hospitality of his home in Koktebel, which has been turned into a museum, was open to all; during the Civil War both a Red leader and a White officer found refuge in it. Voloshin’s position was neutral but not indifferent, for he condemned but the excesses of the Red Terror and the bloody actions of the White Guards. His response to the Revolution, however, never slipped into spite or petty argument or pessimism, as did the opinions of many of his literary colleagues. His response was much like Aleksandr Blok’s poem “The Twelve” (see page 71), in which a white apparition of Christ rises above the Red Guards marching through a blizzard.

Voloshin based his writing to a large extent on French poetic models, but in his best works – particularly in the Civil War period – he freed himself from literariness and plunged into the maelstrom of Russian events. In these poems he tried hard to stand above the conflict, “praying for the one side as much as for the other”. Nevertheless, his sympathies were not on the side of obsolete tsarism but with the future of Russia, its people, and its culture. His celebrated poem “Holy Russia” was misinterpreted by Proletkult critics as anti-Bolshevik; its lines “You yielded to passion’s beckoning call / And gave yourself to bandit and to thief” refer not only to the Bolsheviks but to the gangs of anarchist-bandits who roamed through Russia. Voloshin’s interpretation of Russian history is controversial, subjective, and sometimes mystical, but it always conveys an undoubting faith that Russia will emerge from its fiery baptism purified and renewed.

By the time of his return to Russia from Paris in 1917, Voloshin had become a sophisticated European intellectual, more philosophical, and more socially and historically minded. Enormous intellectual and artistic daring was needed for him to call Peter the Great the “first Bolshevik.” After his return, his poetry became viewed by Soviet critics with dogmatic narrowness and in the latter years of his life went unpublished. A single-volume Soviet edition of Voloshin’s work in 1977 unfortunately made him appear an aesthete, not the chronicler of the civil war of Russia. Yet it was in the latter role that he grew into a great poet; indeed, a series of definitions from his poem “Russia” could serve as a philosophic textbook for the study of the nation’s history. Voloshin made himself a great poet by never succumbing to indifference, by his understanding of the historical laws of a social explosion, and by his courage to bless and not to curse.

Biographical information about Voloshin, p.33 – 34, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.

Зима (Winter) by Bella Akhmadulina

Winter, to me your gestures are
cold and careful: yes, in
winter there is something
gentle as medicine,

or why else would sickness
put out trusting hands
into that season, from its own
torture and darkness?

Weave your magic then
my love, let the kiss
of one curl of ice
brush over my forehead.

Soon I shall trust any
deception, and look without fear
into the eyes of dogs, as I
press close to the trees:

And forgive, playfully, with a
run, turn and jump; and
after a bout of forgiveness
forgive again,

become like a winter’s day:
empty and oval, though
in comparison to such
presence, always small.

I shall turn to nothing, and
so call over the wall,
not some shadow of myself, but light
I shall not block at all.

by Бе́лла (Изабе́лла) Аха́товна Ахмаду́лина
Белла Әхәт кызы Әхмәдуллина
Bella Akhatovna Akhmadulina
(1950)
translated by Elaine Feinstein

Зима

О жест зимы ко мне,
холодный и прилежный.
Да, что-то есть в зиме
от медицины нежной.

Иначе как же вдруг
из темноты и муки
доверчивый недуг
к ней обращает руки?

О милая, колдуй,
заденет лоб мой снова
целебный поцелуй
колечка ледяного.

И все сильней соблазн
встречать обман доверьем,
смотреть в глаза собак
и приникать, к деревьям.

Прощать, как бы играть,
с разбега, с поворота,
и, завершив прощать,
простить еще кого-то.

Сравняться с зимним днем,
с его пустым овалом,
и быть всегда при нем
его оттенком, малым.

Свести себя на нет,
чтоб вызвать за стеною
не тень мою, а свет,
не заслоненный мною.

A recital of the poem in Russian by Maria Selivanova.

Additional information: Bella (Izabella) Akhatovna Akhmadulina (10 April 1937 – 29 November 2010) was a Soviet and Russian poet, short story writer, and translator, known for her apolitical writing stance. She was part of the Russian New Wave literary movement. She was cited by Joseph Brodsky as the best living poet in the Russian language. She is known in Russia as “the voice of the epoch“.
Despite the aforementioned apolitical stance of her writing, Akhmadulina was often critical of authorities in the Soviet Union, and spoke out in favour of others, including Nobel laureates Boris Pasternak, Andrei Sakharov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. She was known to international audiences via her travels abroad during the Khrushchev Thaw, during which she made appearances in sold-out stadiums. Upon her death in 2010 at the age of 73, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev hailed her poetry as a “classic of Russian literature.”

The main themes of Akhmadulina‘s works are friendship, love, and relations between people. She wrote numerous essays about Russian poets and translators, some devoted to her close friend, Bulat Okudzhava. Akhmadulina avoided writing overtly political poems, but took part in political events in her youth, supporting the so-called dissident movement.

Akhmadulina wrote in an apolitical style making use of imagery and humour in her work. She used rhymed quatrains in her early works, which discussed ordinary, yet imaginative occurrences from daily life in language that was full of both archaisms and neologisms. Religion and philosophy became her themes as she aged and she wrote in longer forms.

Of mixed Tartar and Italian descent, Bella Akhmadulina was born in Moscow into a middle-class family. At the age of eighteen she married Yevtushenko, a fellow student at the Gorky Institute of Literature, from which she was expelled. Her second husband was the well-known short-story writer Yuri Nagibin, with whom she collaborated on a film scenario. Her third marriage weas to the playwright and children’s writer Gennadi Mamlin.

Akhmadulina’s first collection, String, was published in 1962 and criticized by the Party as ‘superfluous’, too intimate, etc. It was composed mainly of short lyrics, witty, whimsical, well-turned – strongly influenced by Ahmatova in their sobriety of form and preoccupation with individual emotions. Though Akhmadulina’s work appeared thereafter in magazines and almanacs from time to time, it was not until 1969 that her second collection, Music Lessons, was published. In 1963 a fragment of her long poem ‘A Fairy Tale about the Rain’ was published in Literary Georgia. ‘Rain’ marked a high point and and is still her most ambitious work to date. Since then she appears to have done more translating, especially from Georgian, than original writing, though the indications are that she has again entered a more creative period. Akhmadulina has perhaps major potentialities (Yevtushenko regards her as the foremost woman poet in Russian since the death of Akhmatova). Her work became rapidly more complex after the early short lyrics, and in ‘Rain’ it gained a weight of symbolic meaning that indicates considerable poetic endurance and power. Her subject in this poem, and in many others leading up to it, is nothing less than her relationship to her own poetic inspiration, symbolized by the Rain.

As Christine Rydel says in her illuminating analysis of Akhmadulina’s symbolic system, ‘The Metapoetical World of Bella Akhmadulina’ (Russian Literature Triquarterly, No.1): ‘Where most poets look to love for inspiration, Akhmudalina looks to inspiration for love.’ Like Tsvetayeva, with whom, as in ‘Music Lessons’ and ‘I Swear’, she identifies explicitly, Akhmadulina is uncomfortable, uneasy in the world. There is a plaintive, complaining tone to all this that can be irritating, but her verbal power, her technical accomplishment, allied to her capacity, by remote control as it were, to enter into and share in the destiny of her distinguished women predecessors, accurately and agonizingly conveys the struggle of creativity in an alienating environment.

Biographical information about Akhmadulina, p.227- 228, Post-War Russian Poetry (1974), ed. Daniel Weissbort , published by Penguin Books Ltd.
‘Bella Akhmadulina: Meeting in the Ostankino Concert Studio’ (1976)‎. It’s about an hour and a half long featuring her doing recitals of her poetry and talking about various subjects. If you have time it’s worth watching (It’s in Russian obviously but the auto-translated subtitles will let you get the gist of many parts).

Among Akhmadulina’s ancestors on her mother’s side were Italians who settled in Russia, including the professional revolutionary Aleksandr Stopani, after whom a street in Moscow was named. On her father’s side were Tatars. In 1955, when her first verses were published in the journal Oktiabr’, it was immediately obvious that a real poet had come on the scene. She entered the Gorky Literary Institute the same year and became its queen. All of the young poets there were in love with her, including the compiler of this anthology who became her first husband. Her talent was also admired by poets of the older generation – Pavel Antokolsky, Mikhail Svetlov and Vladimir Lugovskoi. She encountered Boris Pasternak once while walking down a country path; he recognized her and invited her to visit him the next day when guests were coming, but she was too shy and respectful to come.

After mastering the assonant “Yevtushenko” rhyme, she took a sharp turn in the opposite direction, into whispers, rustling indeterminacy, and, at times, such intimacy as to be incomprehensible. Many of her major poems establish links to the memory on the great Russian poets on the past, especially Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam and Aleksandr Pushkin.

With Anna Akhmatova’s death, Akhmadulina became known as the most brilliant woman poet writing in Russian. She is an absolute sorceress with poetic form, though she has a tendency to spin intricate verbal webs. Probably no one in Russian poetry at the present has such an innate feeling for words. Akhmadulina’s poetry is somewhat private and she has a reputation of being apolitical, as assessment that misses the point. One can discern in such poems as “I Swear”, “St. Bartholomew’s Night,” and “A Fairy Tale About Rain” a social conscience permeated with a hatred for the vile politics that degrades people. Her fragile, gentle hand has signed any and all letters in defense of dissidents or anyone in trouble in the Soviet system. She was unafraid to cross police lines to visit Sakharov while he was in exile.

Akhmadulina writes elegant prose, placing refinement of language above all else, as she does with her poetry. She was awarded the State Prize for literature in 1989 and was the first of her generation to be elected an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Biographical information about Akhmadulina, p.873 – 874, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.