To Cassandra (Кассандре), Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam with Akhmatova
Mandelstam with Akhmatova

Apparently, Cassandra here is Anna Akhmatova. Mandelstam is hugely difficult to translate (see here for an article about the challenges – though for what it’s worth I side with Brodsky in rejecting free verse translation…) Mandelstam himself wrote: Any word is like a sheaf, with its meaning protruding in different directions, and it therefore cannot be tied to a single meaning. When we say “sun”, we do so as if we are making a grand journey to something with which we are so accustomed that it sends us to sleep. Poetry is distinguished from spontaneous speech in that it vibrates in the centre of a word. Thus it becomes clear that the journey is much longer than we had expected, and we remember that the meaning of what we say is always at a point along the road. (My translation)

In this case that point is in the very far distance. Mandelstam’s anxiety is clear, however – and in 1917 it was not without justification…

At moment’s blooming I was not then questing,
Cassandra, for your lips, Cassandra, for your eyes,
But we’re December’s solemn wait digesting –
We’re hounded by our memories’ lies.

In 1917 in mid-December
We find we’ve lost love and it all;
The people’s will will some of us dismember,
And others hold themselves to wall.

And time will come in city’s madness
Amidst some Scythian orgy on the river bank
And in the dancing din and out of badness
From lovely head they’ll grab scarf with a yank.

If necessary madness is our mortal meaning
And high constructions make an ocean full of trees,
I fell for you, disarming victory’s overweening
And plague is borne by winter breeze.

And on the square I see a fellow,
Amidst the armoured cars he scares
The wolves, as chucking burning blocks he issues bellow
That freedom, law and right are theirs.

O sick and silent, dear Cassandra,
To understand this can’t be done.
Oh why shone sun of Alexander
A hundred years ago on everyone?


Я не искал в цветущие мгновенья
Твоих, Кассандра, губ, твоих, Кассандра, глаз,
Но в декабре торжественного бденья
Воспоминанья мучат нас.

И в декабре семнадцатого года
Всё потеряли мы, любя;
Один ограблен волею народа,
Другой ограбил сам себя…

Когда-нибудь в столице шалой
На скифском празднике, на берегу Невы
При звуках омерзительного бала
Сорвут платок с прекрасной головы.

Но, если эта жизнь — необходимость бреда
И корабельный лес — высокие дома,—
Я полюбил тебя, безрукая победа
И зачумленная зима.

На площади с броневиками
Я вижу человека — он
Волков горящими пугает головнями:
Свобода, равенство, закон.

Больная, тихая Кассандра,
Я больше не могу — зачем
Сияло солнце Александра,
Сто лет тому назад сияло всем?

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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