Vocal cycle on poems by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)
I. Today is a dreadful day*
Today is a dreadful day:
Grasshoppers don’t intone,
The shadowy cliffs’ gray –
Is grimmer than gravestones.
A ringing as arrows stream,
Oracular crows’ cries…
I’m seeing a dreadful dream,
Moment by moment flies.
Make phenomena disperse,
Demolish the earth’s cage,
Let furious hymns burst –
The brass of the secrets’ rage.
The pendulum of souls rocks –
Oblivious, straight, coarse,
And frightfully fate knocks
Into our locked doors…
I returned to my city familiar to tears,
To my vessels and tonsils of childhood years,
You returned here again, then devour and cram
The fish oil from Leningrad’s hurricane lamps.
Then at once recognize the December daytime
Where egg yolk is mixed in with road tar noxious slime.
Petersburg, no, not yet, I’m not ready to die
While you’re keeping my telephone numbers alive.
Petersburg, I still have the addresses at hand
That I’ll use to recover the voice of the dead.
I inhabit backstairs and my temple is smacked
By a door bell that’s handing out there by threads.
And throughout the night I expect house guests
Sliding shackles of door chains with latent unrest.
Translated by Dina Belyayeva
III. Help me, The Lord…***
Help me, The Lord, to live through the night.
I am afraid for life, for your slave…
Living in Saint Petersburg is like sleeping in a coffin.
ransl. by D. Smirnov-Sadovsky 2000
IV. Preserve my words forever…****
Preserve my words forever for their taste of smoke and bad luck,
For the resin of their circular patience, for the conscientious labour of their tar.
As the water of Novgorod wells should be sweet and black
So that by Christmas there will be reflected within it a seven-finned star.
And for that, my father, my friend, and my rough helper,
I, your unacknowledged brother, an outcast in the family tree,
Promise to build such thick, dark shelters
So that Tartars could lower princes in it into the sea.
If these cold executioners’ blocks would only give me love
As, throwing a bat when playing a garden game, you aim at death,
For this I’ll wear a shirt of iron all my life,
And for my Petrine execution, in the wood I’ll find an axe.
May 3, 1931
transl. by D. Smirnov-Sadovsky 19/03/2017
Corrected by Gerard McBurney
*source for translation accessed 12 Nov 2019
**source for translation accessed 12 Nov 2019
***source for translation accessed 12 Nov 2019
****source for translation accessed 12 Nov 2019