“I sing when throat is moist” (“Пою, когда гортань сыра”), Osip Mandelstam


Mandelstam wrote this in February 1937. He was staring into the abyss. He had been exiled in 1934 for reading his “Stalin Epigram” to those he hoped were his friends. Confined to Voronezh, he now watched as the Great Purge began. He was arrested in May 1938, and died in December in a transit camp near Vladivostok.

So this impenetrable poem is perhaps explained by its context. The poet’s voice is being strangled; but with flights of the imagination he sings on.

I sing when throat is moist, and soul is dry and cold,
And when my eye is damp, and mind does not dissemble:
How healthy is the wine? And will the wineskins hold?
And what about Colchian’s bloody coursing tremble?
Demure’s my breast, it has no words – it is not bold:
My song has ceased already – lips but breaths assemble,
My ear is scabbard-sheathed, my head is deaf and old.

It is a selfless song – itself its merit’s stitch:
To friends it is a joy, to foes it is but pitch.

It is a one-eyed song, and from the moss it grows,
A one-voiced gift that stems from hunter’s occupation,
This song is sung aloft by horseman as he goes,
Who freely makes with in- and exhalation,
Who canters onwards now in truth and jubilation
To bear the young to wedding feast, released from woes.


Пою, когда гортань сыра, душа – суха,
И в меру влажен взор, и не хитрит сознанье:
Здорово ли вино? Здоровы ли меха?
Здорово ли в крови Колхиды колыханье?
И грудь стесняется, без языка – тиха:
Уже я не пою – поет мое дыханье,
И в горных ножнах слух, и голова глуха…

Песнь бескорыстная – сама себе хвала:
Утеха для друзей и для врагов – смола.

Песнь одноглазая, растущая из мха,-
Одноголосый дар охотничьего быта,-
Которую поют верхом и на верхах,
Держа дыханье вольно и открыто,
Заботясь лишь о том, чтоб честно и сердито
На свадьбу молодых доставить без греха…

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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