Four Poems of Osip Mandel'stam (1891–1938)

There are orioles
in the woods, and in
metric poetry
the only measure
is the length of vowels.
But only once a year
is quantity poured
into nature, as in the
meter of Homer.
That day yawns
like a caesura:
from morning on
there is a peace, and
arduous prolixities.
The oxen are pas-
turing, and there is
a golden laziness
to even take
from the reeds
the richness
of a whole note.
Sleeplessness. Homer. Taut sails.
I have counted the list of ships
halfway: that long-stretched flock, that
flight of cranes that once rose up
over Hellas.
As if a wedge of cranes on off to far-off lands —
on the heads of emperors the froth of gods —
where do you sail? If there were not Helen,
what would only Troy be to you, o Achaean husbands?
The sea, and Homer — all is moved by love.
To which should I listen then? And now Homer is silent,
and the black sea, declaiming, roars,
and with it heavy thunder nears the pillow of my bed.
Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia — God has ordained that
nations and kings should stop here!
Your dome, in one eye-witness’ words,
hangs from heaven, as if on chains.
And to all the ages is Justinian’s example —
when the Ephesus Diana let him abduct
one hundred-seven columns of green marble
for alien gods.
But, exalted in his soul and thought,
what was in your lavish boulder’s thoughts
when he laid out the apses and exedrae
pointing them to the east and west?
The temple is beautiful, and bathed in peace;
the forty windows are a festival of light;
on pendentives underneath the dome, the four
archangels are more beautiful than anything.
And the wise spherical building
will outlive nations and centuries —
and the resonant sobbing of seraphim
will not warp the dark and golden surfaces.
At a fearful height, a wandering light —
but does a star so twinkle?
O transparent star, o wandering light,
your brother, Petropolis, is dying.
At a fearful height, earth’s dreams burn,
a green star twinkles —
O if you’re a star — the water and heaven’s brother,
your brother, Petropolis, is dying.
A monstrous ship at fearful height
speeds on, spreading its wings —
o green star, in beautiful abject poverty
your brother, Petropolis, is dying.
Above the black Neva transparent spring
is shattered, the wax of immortality melts —
O if you’re a star — Petropolis, your city,
your brother, Petropolis, is dying.
[December 1965, San Francisco, CA]