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Recurrence in Another Tongue:
Homage to "Tristia" and Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam
translated by Eleanor Wilner

Noch, úlitsa, fonár, optéka. . .
And everything will recur as before
night street lamppost drugstore

—Aleksandr Blok

You can hear the slow methodical chewing
of the oxen, the soft slap
of their lips, the dull grinding
of teeth like the stones that grind wheat
to a fine powder. Like the grain,
I have mastered the art of separation.
I am chaff in the wind; for the rest,
no matter. That was grist for the mill
of Stalin. Such men are the same, they recur.
While, endlessly changing, I am
a glimmer of dust in your lamplight, a flurry
of pollen on the open, illegible
page, an obscure song you can almost
remember, swaying shadows of flame, blank
eyes of a painted, candle-lit saint—
black-centered, staring, almost blind
with vision, with accusation. And the Muse?
Her voice marries the wailing of women:
song agony song.

After all, it was going to be a new life.
Remember? Hope wandered the streets
like a drunk, befriending everyone.
What did we know of separation, of the night
coming bareheaded, hat in hand, begging
for another hour of dark? How could we know
of the mornings to follow, when each said
goodbye to the others, for no one knew
who would return in the evening, who would be
taken away? For us, it was dawn. Though
the rooster, herald of the new day,
astride the city wall,
was wildly flapping his wings.
And the oxen, the oxen were grinding
their slow stone jaws.

To sing of the rituals of yarn: the carding, the spindle.
the shuttle, the spinning, the air filled
with furious lint, the silken
dross of the thread, the down
of a swan, the steppes filling with snow—
and barefoot, running always towards us
Delia, whose body the wind sculpts with her dress
into the shape of desire, language
impoverished by bliss.
If everything could recur as before—
for that instant of sweet recognition,
would we suffer it all again?

Nadezdha, who had me by heart, hoarding
my words, running, carrying herself
from one corner of Russia to the other, like an urn
full of ashes, waiting for her chance
to scatter them abroad. . .dust, ashes, noch,
úlitsa, fonár, optéka... a translucent figurine
on a white clay plate, squirrel pelt
nailed flat and spread to dry: effigies
of a century of wax and bronze—we, who could not
have guessed the crowds of dead in the dark
of Erebus, who died foretelling
a great future, women and men alike, thrown
into a common ditch, wax to cast bronze
for the headless statue of our murdered hope.

But the ashes are scattered, the words, a cloud-
burst of wings, the cage doors standing open.
And everything may recur as before
but not these ashes, not this air.

"Recurrence in Another Tongue," by Eleanor Wilner, from Otherwise (University of Chicago, 1993).

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An Anthology of Translations

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