‘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.

Cирена (Siren) by Anna Prismanova

In that land we tried to speak
of thirst, unquenchable thirst,
of a mournful cry that pierced us in the dark
and was halted in mid-flight.

But in the silence there reaches out for us
a steamboat’s cry, the crying of its soul,
it pulls us in, inviting and in parting,
as it sails into the age-old twilight.

This high-flown, antediluvian howl,
that the head and insides both absorb,
that even soaks into the legs –
is the union of peace and anxiety.

The steamboat sails off into the darkness and the night.
But it’s as if the siren’s wail died long ago.
As in the time of crusades when knights
were blessed on their way by ringing church bells.

And we, my dear, will leave like this, exactly,
having spent our last small ounce of arrogance,
we’ll leave – moving restlessly into the night,
we’ll have taken little and won’t have weighed the consequences.

The siren awaits us at the end of the earth,
and I know already the torment that she bears:
she wants us all to follow in her footsteps,
and wishes too we’d leave her all alone.

And so the steamboat howls, and howls the darkness.
I’ve not the strength to counteract these howls.
It’s possible that I myself am howling
inside the funnel of just a boat as this.

by Анна Семёновна Присманова (Anna Semyonovna Prismanova)
a.k.a. Анна Симоновна Присман (Anna Simonovna Prisman)
(Date unknown – before 1953)
translated by Bradley Jordan
from the poetry collection Трубы (Trumpets/Tubes/Pipes)

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Additional information: There is a dedication in the Russian version, ‘В. Коpвин-Пиотpовcкому‘, omitted from the translation. This refers to Vladimir Lvovich Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891 -1966) who was a Russian poet, novelist and playwright.

I am unsure of the exact date of the poem but a Russian website listing the poetry collection it is from has an end note stating “The poem was included in the anthology In the West: An Anthology of Russian Foreign Poetry. Comp. Y.P.Ivask. New York. Ed. Chekhov. 1953. p. 226.” which refers to the book published in 1953, under the title Na zapade; antologiia russkoi zarubezhnoi poezii (In the West; an anthology of the Russian émigré poetry).

Prismanova is considered comparable to her contemporary, the American poet, Louise Bogan and challenged traditional ideas of femininity in her poetry.

Prismanova’s origins and early life are obscure. She appears in emigration in Paris in the mid-1920s, and her first published collection, Ten’ itelo (Shadow and Body) (1937), contains poems beginning in 1929. She and her poet husband, Aleksandr Ginger, remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Responding to the wave of patriotic feeling and longing for Russia that appeared among emigres after the war, they both accepted Soviet passports, though they continued to live in Paris.

Prismanova was best known in the emigre world for intimate lyrics that manifest her spiritual searching for real truth in herself, in language, and in literary form. Prismanova’s poem “Vera” (1960), about the heroic, revolutionary populist Vera Figner (1852-1942), amazed readers by its portrait of a figure so unlike the poet and her intimate lyrical themes. Overshadowed by the more vocal figures of emigration, she was nevertheless a highly intelligent, subtle, and sensitive poet.

Biographical information about Prismanova, p.342-343, ‘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.

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Cирена

В. Коpвин-Пиотpовcкому
Cтаpалиcь мы cказать на cей земле
о жажде и ее неутоленьи,
о кpике cкоpби, pвущем наc во мгле
и оcтановленном в cвоем cтpемленьи.
Но нам навcтpечу тянетcя в тиши
влекущий наc, пpизывный и пpощальный,
кpик паpоxода, кpик его души,
уже плывущей в cумpак изначальный.
Вбираемый нутpом и головой,
пpоcачивающийcя даже в ноги,
cей выcпpенний и допотопный вой
cлияние покоя и тpевоги.
Во мглу и в ночь уxодит паpоxод.
Но cтон cиpены как бы замеp в оном.
Так pыцаpи в кpеcтовый шли поxод,
напутcтвуемые цеpковным звоном.
И мы, душа моя, вот так, точь-в-точь,
утpатив до конца оcтаток cпеcи,
уйдем – вдвигаяcь неотcтупно в ночь,
немного взяв и ничего не взвеcив.
Cиpена ждет наc на конце земли,
и знаю я – томленье в ней какое:
ей xочетcя и чтоб за нею шли,
и чтоб ее оcтавили в покое…
Так воет паpоxод, и воет тьма.
Пpотиводейcтвовать такому вою
не в cилаx я. Я, может быть, cама
в тpубе такого паpоxода вою.

Кошка (Cat) by Inna Lisnianskaya

Where is your cat, walking
On its own,
Lapping the milky mist
Amid September?

Where its leopard tread,
Its phosphorescence,
Where is your cat and your truth
Where on this earth?

Where is the cat, still not found,
Where the roof and the leak in it?
Where is the hoarse speech
Broken by the speed of sound?

Where is your clairvoyant autumn
and corn-bins of dreams?
Where is your phosphorescent cat
and you yourself?

by Инна Львовна Лиснянская (Inna Lvovna Lisnyanskaya)
(1983)
from В пригороде Содома (In the Suburb of Sodom) / Вдали от Содома (Far from Sodom)
translated by Daniel Weissbort

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Кошка

Где кошка твоя, гуляющая
Сама по себе,
Молочный туман лакающая
В густом сентябре?

Где поступь её леопардовая
И фосфор во мгле,
Где кошка твоя и где правда твоя
На этой земле?

Где кошка, ещё не отловленная,
Где крыша и течь?
Где скоростью звука надломленная
Охриплая речь?

Где осень твоя ясновидческая
И снов закрома?
Где кошка твоя фосфорическая
И где ты сама?

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Additional information: Inna Lisnianskaya was the wife of Semyon Lipkin. There isn’t much about her in English so if you want to know more you may have to research her husband initially and work from there for biographical details. However one collection of her poetic works titled ‘Far from Sodom‘ is available in English should you wish to read more of her writing.


She was born in Baku and published her first collection in 1957 then moved to Moscow three years later. In 1979 she and her husband resigned from the Union of Soviet Writers in protest to the expulsion of Viktor Yerofeyev and Yevgeny Popov from it. The following seven years her works were only published abroad though from 1986 she was able to publish regularly and was awarded several important prizes.