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Osip Mandelstam


The Man who Finds the Horseshoe

          (A Pindaric fragment)

Let’s look at the forest and say:
This is a boat forest, a mast forest,
with its rosy fir-trees
free of their furry burden up to their tops.
They should give a good creak in a storm,
those solitary pines,
in that furious, treeless air.
Fixed on the splashing deck, that plumbline
                         withstands the salty heel of the wind;
in the limitless thirst of the expanse,
the navigator
drags that fragile geometrical instrument
across the wet ruts
and checks the rugged sea surface
against the gravity of the earth’s embrace.

But as we inhale the scent of the resin's tears
that have oozed through the skin of the ship
and admire the planks
riveted and arranged in bulkheads –
not as Bethlehem’s peaceful carpenter would have,
but as the father of voyages, the friend of seafaring –
we'll say:
They too once stood on the earth,
earth as comfortable as a donkey's backbone,
their tops forgetting their roots
on a glamorous mountain ridge.
Noisy in the downpour of fresh water,
they'd offer the sky in vain
to give up their precious load
for a pinch of salt.

How shall we start?
Everything creaks and rocks.
The air trembles with similes.
No word’s better than the next.
The earth hoots with metaphor,
and light chariots –
with their gaudy harness of birds
in flocks dense with effort –
splinter into pieces,
competing with the snorting favourites of hippodromes.

Thrice-blessed be those who put a name into song;
a song lives longer
ornamented with a name.
Friends remember the tune the way a bandage round a head
restores you from unconsciousness, that stupefying smell
like a man's proximity
or the fur of a fierce animal
or simply the scent of savoury, crushed in the hand.

The air stays dark as water, life swims in it like a fish
forcing apart that dense,
warm, elastic sphere with its fins –
a crystal where wheels move and horses shy,
Neaera's damp black earth that pitchforks, tridents, hoes, shares
plough up once more each night.
The air as stiffly kneaded as the earth –
impossible to leave and difficult to enter.

A rustle goes through the trees like a green lapta bat.
Kids play knucklebones with the spines of dead animals.
Our era’s fragile counting of summers nears its end.
My thanks for the things that have been.
My mistake, my false move, my wrong score.
The era clinked like a golden ball,
cored and cast, held up by no one.
When touched, it would answer ”yay” or ”nay”,
the way a child might answer:
”One apple for you” or ”No apple for you” –
its face a faithful mould of the voice pronouncing these words.

The sound resounds, though its origin's gone.
The stallion lies in the dust and a lather of sweat, snorting.
But the steep arch of its neck
preserves the memory of galloping legs flung about –
not four in number
but as many as the stones on the road,
refreshed in four changes,
the number of times the earth repulses
that ambler, panting with heat.

the man who finds the horseshoe
blows off the dust
and rubs the iron with wool till it shines;
he hangs it above the doorway
where it can rest
and never chip sparks from the flint again.

Human lips
          with no more to say
keep the shape of the last word said,
a sensation of weight will stay in the hand
though half the jug
                        has splashed out
                                                by the time it's home.

The things I say aren't said by me:
they're dug from the earth like grains of petrified wheat.
          put lions on their coins,
          put heads.
These biscuits of copper, silver and bronze
lie in the earth in their various shapes
and with the same honours.
Trying to gnaw through them, the Age leaves the print of its teeth.
And time cuts at me, as if at a coin,
and even I find my value too low...



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