“HEAVINESS, TENDERNESS . . .”
By Osip Mandelstam
Translated from the Russian by Eugene Serebryany
Heaviness, tenderness—sisters, your traits are alike.
Honeybees drink a rose that is tender and heavy.
Someone passes away. Once-warm sand cooling down . . .
They are carrying yesterday’s sun in a shroud.
Heavy honeycombs, webs of tenderness—
Lifting boulders is easier than repeating your name!
All that remains is one care in this world,
A golden care: how to flee from the burden of time.
I drink clouded air; I drink it like dark water.
Time was plowed up, and a rose became earth.
Like a slow-moving vortex of soft tender roses,
Heaviness, tenderness—sisters—prepared the wreaths.
(Today’s poem originally appeared in AGNI Online and appears here today with permission from the translator.)
Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was born into a Polish-Jewish family in what was then the Russian Empire. He became one of the great poets of the Russian Silver Age, with a keen sense of the melodies of spoken language. He often spoke a finished poem before, or even instead of, writing it down, and many of his lines became proverbial. He was persecuted in the Soviet Union for his political views, especially a 1933 poem satirizing Stalin. He died in Siberia while being transferred between prison camps.
Eugene Serebryany grew up in Moscow, Russia. He attended Yale University, where he studied translation with Peter Cole. He is currently a graduate student in biology at MIT.
Editor’s Note: It is not easy to translate poetry, to capture the lyric, the sonic, the original meaning and the hidden. But in today’s translation Eugene Serebryany has done a masterful job translating not only the words, but the essence of Mandelstam’s heartbreaking lyric. Serebryany studied under one of modernity’s greatest translators, Peter Cole, and his natural gift coupled with superb training shines through in today’s piece. As for the poem itself, Mandelstam captures the experience of loss in a way that exemplifies the gift international poets often have for wrighting art from mere words. At once loss is both devastatingly beautiful and devastation itself.