| Peter France
photo by Robin Gillanders
Here are three poems that buzz with bees and honey. All of them refer to the South, the Crimea and thence to the Greece that meant so much to Mandelstam. One (the second here) was actually written in Koktebel, where the poet was frequently the guest of Maximilian Voloshin, the other two were apparently written in Petrograd (Petropolis for Mandestam), one in the year of Revolution, the other in the winter of 1920, in conditions of poverty, cold and hunger. In all of them, it seems to me, there is a balance - or an interweaving - of fulfilment and loss; the first is no doubt the most richly positive, with its Odyssean conclusion, but even here there are signs of fragility.Three Poems
I have long loved these poems, as have many other readers. In relation to the first of them the poet Odoevtseva wrote: 'Mandelstam's voice flows like that "thread of golden honey", and I [...] become all hearing, and my heart, in the wake of the orphic melody of his verse, alternately soars up like a swallow or plunges like a top'. There is a magical play of sound here, which makes you want to translate, to prolong the poem and live with it, trying to give it a new life in another language. But you are bound to approach Mandelstam with trepidation too; his rich poems are like a sacred text, resisting translation, and at the same time attracting many translators, who buzz round them like bees round honey plants.
I have attempted quite a few of his poems, mainly from the Voronezh notebooks, jagged, enigmatic poems, but often richly sonorous too. In these, as in the poems presented here, I have backed away from a precise imitation of Mandelstam's prosody, beautiful though it is. In Russian, the first two poems are cast as anapaestic pentameters, a meter which doesn't seem to me well suited to English - though I'm sure there must be fine examples. I have aimed to convey this unhurried richness by going for long lines, with five stresses each but a fair number of unstressed syllables, so that the lines almost all have between eleven and thirteen syllables. In the first poem, but not in the second, I do what comes naturally in Russian verse, but not so naturally in English and alternate (though not regularly) masculine and feminine endings. Rhyme is the great loser. The final poem here is (happily) unrhymed in Russian; for the first two I have tried to suggest some of the patterning through the use of assonance, alliteration, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, etc.
In doing this, I hope I have made English poems that carry with them something not only of Mandelstam's thought and vision, but also of his hypnotic sound world. Like all translated poems, these are the result of a long exploration, but they still feel tentative to me. I am still not sure about the use of the definite article in stanza 2 of the third poem ('the boat', 'the shadow'). And on one point I have very consciously mistranslated the original: the word medunitsa means both the honey bee (as in line two of 'Heaviness, tenderness...', an unusual usage), and the plant lungwort, as in the twelfth line of 'Take from palms'. I don't think 'lungwort' means a great deal to non-botanists in English, and I guess that Mandelstam was attracted to the word because it contains honey (med'). So I have gone for the more familiar and more evocative 'honeysuckle' - may St Jerome forgive me!