Monday, 30 December 2013

A New Translation of Osip Mandelstam's 'Tristia'

Osip Mandelstam at the time of his arrest in 1934

On 27 December, it was 75 years since the untimely death of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). This previously unpublished translation of Mandelstam's 'Tristia' has been kindly contributed by Mark L Mosher, a California-based translator with whom I occasionally correspond about poetry and especially poetry in translation. He has already appeared on the blog as Leif Hendrik, with his translation of Georg Trakl's 'Decline', and he blogs at Nordic Mountain. You can read his translation of 'Tristia' below, as well as the original Russian poem, and Mark's biography.

'Tristia' is a complex, subtle poem beloved of many poets and readers. With its meditation on "the science of parting", it feels very personal, but it is suffused with the uncertainty following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Through its title and subject matter, it also references the Tristia of the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote a series of laments while in exile. The poem contains allusions to traditional Russian divination practices, which took place particularly around New Year's Eve, such as the attempt to see shapes in wax or the future in a mirror. The cockerel, too, could be a reference to such practices, or to the dawning of a new day and life - but the poem is constantly ringed round with uncertainty, like the women's attempts to see the future.

This poem made me think of a comment by poet and critic Ilya Kaminsky: "I don’t think there exists a poet on this planet without a duality. Duality is a mother of metaphors." 'Tristia' is all about duality, which makes me it particularly appropriate for the end of one year and the beginning of another, a time when people naturally look both forwards and back. (January is named after Janus, the Roman god with two faces, who looks ahead and behind.) It reads like a palimpsest - past, present and future overlaid, the ancient Roman setting visible through the contemporary reality of 20th-century Russian political and personal upheaval. All of its times, settings and themes are both ghostly, and real. Science and superstition, women and men, literal and metaphorical death - all are present. "All happened long ago, all will happen again,/Only recognition of the moment is sweet", says Mandelstam. Paradoxically, in the fusion of prophecy and contemplation which comes naturally to poetry, such moments of pure being can emerge. 'Tristia' feels like a moment both peaceful and unsettling, in the eye of the storm.

TRISTIA (Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Mark L Mosher)

I have learned the science of parting
In bare-headed laments of night.
The oxen graze, the waiting goes on - 
The final hour of vigils in town,
And I honor the rituals of cockerel night,
When, bearing the weight of a journey endured,
Tear-stained eyes gazed into the void
And a woman's cry mixed with singing of the muse.

Who can know, with the word 'farewell',
What kind of separation awaits?
What promise for us in the cockerel's cry,
When fire in the acropolis burns,
And at the dawn of some new life,
When the ox chews lazily in its stall,
Why does the cockerel, herald of new life,
Beat its wings upon the city wall?

And I love the habits of weaving:
The shuttle twists, the spindle hums.
Look, like swan's down,
Barefooted Delia already runs forth!
O, meagre foundation of our life,
How pitiful the language of joy!
All happened long ago, all will happen again,
Only recognition of the moment is sweet.

Thus will it be: a transparent shape
On a clean porcelain plate,
And, like a squirrel's spread-out pelt,
A girl leans over the wax and gazes in.
The Greek Erebus is not for us to divine,
Wax is to woman what bronze is to man.
Our lot falls only in battle,
While for them divination is the death. 

Я изучил науку расставанья 
В простоволосых жалобах ночных. 
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье — 
Последний час вигилий городских, 
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи, 
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз, 
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи 
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз. 

Кто может знать при слове «расставанье» 
Какая нам разлука предстоит, 
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье, 
Когда огонь в акрополе горит, 
И на заре какой-то новой жизни, 
Когда в сенях лениво вол жуёт, 
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни, 
На городской стене крылами бьёт? 

И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи: 
Снуёт челнок, веретено жужжит. 
Смотри, навстречу, словно пух лебяжий, 
Уже босая Делия летит! 
О, нашей жизни скудная основа, 
Куда как беден радости язык! 
Всё было встарь, всё повторится снова, 
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг. 

Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка 
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит, 
Как беличья распластанная шкурка, 
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит. 
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе, 
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь. 
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий, 
А им дано гадая умереть. 


Mark L Mosher is a freelance translator. Beginning with Two Brothers, his translation of a play by Mikhail Lermontov (California State University, 1996), he has published translations from Russian, German, Spanish and Danish. His translation of excerpts from the memoirs of Mikhail Nesterov was published by Atlantis Magazine in 2004. He has participated as a translator in three exhibitions sponsored by the American-Russian Cultural Cooperation Foundation (Washington and Moscow, 1999-2009). His poem 'Doña Alba on the Ranch' recently appeared in 200 New Mexico Poems, an official project of the New Mexico Centennial Commission in cooperation with the University of New Mexico Press. He is currently working on an English translation of Johannes Vilhelm Jensen's Himmerland Stories. He lives in San Francisco, California and writes on topics literary, cultural and personal at

Translation © Mark L Mosher, 2013.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Translating Emile Nelligan's 'Winter Night' (Soir d'hiver)

Emile Nelligan photo: Laprés & Lavergne

This is my translation from French of 'Soir d'hiver' by Emile Nelligan (1879-1941), one of Quebec's great poets. You can also find the original poem below.

The story of Emile Nelligan is tragic in the extreme. The son of an Irishman and a Quebecois woman, he was influenced by the Symbolist poets such as Verlaine and Baudelaire, and published some of his poems in Montreal when he was only 16. He had already produced a considerable and impressive body of work by the time he was 19, when the sensitive poet suffered a massive mental breakdown from which he never recovered. Nelligan lived into his sixties, but was never able to write any more new poetry. Despite this, he is considered a great French-Canadian poet and romantic figure.

I found this poem quite challenging: that said, it's probably one of Nelligan's most straightforward and accessible poems, and certainly one of the most famous. I attempted to preserve a similar rhyme scheme, but I admit that in places it is a loose or free translation, in terms of wording. I hope I captured some of the spirit of the poem, at least.

(I have titled my translation 'Winter Night', though it may be that 'Winter Evening' is actually more accurate. The imagery is just so dark...) 

WINTER NIGHT (Emile Nelligan, translated from the French by Clarissa Aykroyd)

It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!
My window's blooming, a garden of frost.
It has snowed and it has snowed...
The spur of life seems all but lost
To this agony in me, in me...

Every lake is gripped by ice. Where am I,
And which way, through my soul's black night?
All my hopes are cold, bled dry:
I am the new North, the Arctic heights
From which the midnight sun has fled.

Weep, birds of winter,
For the deadly chill through all.
Wail, February birds - 
Tears must fall like roses fall
Through the sharp juniper branches.

It has snowed, oh, how it has snowed!
My window's blooming, a garden of frost.
It has snowed and it has snowed...
The stab of life seems almost lost
To all the dread in me, in me...

SOIR D'HIVER (Emile Nelligan)

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
A la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai !

Tous les étangs gisent gelés,
Mon âme est noire : Où vis-je ? où vais-je ?
Tous ses espoirs gisent gelés;
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
D’où les blonds ciels s’en sont allés.

Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Au sinistre frisson des choses,
Pleurez, oiseaux de février,
Pleurez mes pleurs, pleurez mes roses,
Aux branches du genévrier.

Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre.
Ah ! comme la neige a neigé !
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
A tout l’ennui que j’ai, que j’ai !...

Translation © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

My Favourite Poems Of the Last Few Years...More Or Less

I'm not really one for end-of-year lists. The timing of this list-oriented entry may seem suspicious, but it's (more or less) coincidental; at any rate, it's not a "best of 2013".

While I've often written about classic poems on this blog, I particularly wanted to highlight some of the new (or new-ish) poems that I've discovered and loved since I started The Stone and the Star - or at least, that I've discovered in recent years.

Vague enough? Well, let's say the list that follows includes ten of my favourite poems of the last few years, or at least not too long ago (so if something is five or ten years old, don't write to me in protest). Some of them I've written about already, and where links are provided they should either take you directly to the poem, or to an entry I've written about them (which should contain either the poem, or a link to the poem). Where I haven't yet written about these poets, you may see more of them in 2014 on the blog. The main thing to know is that these poems are a good way to spend some time.

Travel Papers (Carolyn Forché)
Fast Is the Century (Nikola Madzirov)
At Roane Head (Robin Robertson)
Man Praying, King's Cross, 34° (Toby Martinez de las Rivas)
Hennecker's Ditch (Kate Kilalea)
Vita Contemplativa (Adam Zagajewski)
Migration (Karen Solie)
How To Build Your Dream Garden (Kapka Kassabova)
Author's Prayer (Ilya Kaminsky)
Garden Statues (Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi)

The countries represented include the United States, Macedonia, Scotland, England, South Africa, Poland, Canada, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, and Sudan, and three (four?) of the poems are in translation from other languages. This international range was not at all deliberate, by the way, but I think it's pretty interesting. It certainly highlights the fact that my exciting poetic discoveries of recent years have often been international and/or in translation.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Theodore Roethke: "In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See..."

Gustave Doré, 1857, from Dante's Inferno
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;   
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,   
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
-Theodore Roethke, from 'In a Dark Time'

Roethke's 'In a Dark Time' walks the reader through some of the most fundamental images of the subconscious/unconscious; it's at one and the same time highly immersive (I feel like Dante heading into the dark wood, in those opening lines), and extremely self-aware, even self-observing.

I appreciate this poem, and Roethke's poems generally, for their keen psychological insights. Above all, this poem tells me that we can make use of the dark times. It reminds me of Rumi's famous words: "Don't turn your head. Keep looking at the bandaged place. That is where the light enters you." The dark time is when the eye begins to see.

IN A DARK TIME (Theodore Roethke)

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Matthew Arnold's 'Dover Beach'...On Dover Beach

Dover Beach, photo © Clarissa Aykroyd, 2013

About a month ago I went to Dover with a friend who was visiting London and wanted to see the White Cliffs. I warned her that Dover might not be everything she had always hoped for, but we went, and we had fun, despite getting rained on quite a bit.

This picture was, of course, taken on Dover Beach. Dover is quite industrial, and the cliffs were a bit distant. But you stand there, and you think of all that Dover has seen, in history. And then you think of Matthew Arnold - and that's never a bad thing.

DOVER BEACH (Matthew Arnold)

The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Nomination for the 2015 Pushcart Prize!

To my great surprise and delight, I learned this weekend that Muse-Pie Press has nominated my poem 'Battersea Park, December' for a Pushcart Prize. The poem appeared earlier this year in Shot Glass Journal.

I will save the champagne until I actually win something, but in any case this is a very nice vote of confidence, and further inspiration to get writing and send out some more poems.