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)
translated by Bernard Meares (revised)
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.