In Memoriam: Osip Mandelstam, December 1938


They marched in the first snow; the angry wind
Tore at his rags; they had given him a spade
To dig a hole in Asia, but he stood
Listening, strangely alert and staring blind.
“My mad Aonides have come,” he said;
“Their singing is this sobbing of my blood.”

He had reached that final moment when the frames
Of time and space reel inwards and collapse.
Floating on air, granite Petropolis,
Just as he had foretold, went up in flames
—or was it Ilium ablaze, perhaps?—
And surely that undaunted head was his

Clairvoyant Cassandra—in Troy or in Tashkent?
The images fused and wavered to confuse
Yelabuga with stony Troezene;
A black sun raging in the firmament
Half showed Marina choking in the noose,
Half Phædra in her death-throes, hapless queen.

A guard’s voice crashed through with a harsh command;
He set the spade’s edge in the frozen ground
And saw the pebbles through his transparent boot,
The wooden haft through his translucent hand
Persephone’s bees with a sad murmuring sound
Swarmed from a cavern that opened underfoot.

And throwing back his head, he laughed aloud
And cupped his hands in the archaic pose
Of suppliants bringing offerings to a tomb,
Saying: “Lady of the dark star and the bright cloud,
Out of the house of exile, at this close,
I have learned at last the art of coming home.

“I come, my sister, as Pindar came,” he said,
Because he had not yet made you any song,
To celebrate your divinity with one
In which I praise the labours of the dead.
Take from my palms gifts which to you belong:
A little honey and a little sun!”

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