Thursday, October 09, 2008

Poem of the Week 8/25/2008: Tristia


I have taken to heart the lesson of goodbyes
In bareheaded laments in the night.
Oxen chew, waiting lengthens,
The last hour of the watch in the city.
And I bow to ceremonial cock-crowing nights
When lifting their lading of grief for the journey
Eyes red with crying search the horizon
And singing of Muses blends with the weeping of women.

Who can know from the word 'goodbye'
What kind of separation lies before us,
Or what the cock's clamour promises
When a light burns in the acropolis
And in his stall the lazy ox chews:
Why the cock,
The herald of new life,
Beats on the city walls with his wings?

And I like the way of weaving:
The shuttle comes and goes, the spindle hums,
And -- flying to meet us like swan's down --
Look, barefooted Delia comes!
Oh how meagre the basis of life,
How threadbare the language of elysium!*
Everything existed of old, everything recurs anew,
The flash of recognition is all that we welcome.

So be it: a translucent manikin
On a clean clay plate --
A squirrel's stretched-out skin:
Bent over wax, a girl examines it.
Not for us to guess at Grecian Erebus:**
For women wax, what bronze is for men.
On us our fate falls only in battles;
Their death they die in divination.

Osip Mandelstam 1918
translated by James Greene

*In Greek mythology, Elysium was a section of the underworld, the great field which held the souls of heroes and those with virtue.
**In Greek mythology, Erebus or Erebos (Ancient Greek: Ἔρεβος, English translation: "deep blackness/darkness or shadow") was the son of a primordial god, Chaos, and represented the personification of darkness and shadow, which filled in all the corners and crannies of the world. He was the offspring of Chaos alone.
(Thank you Wikipedia for the information in the footnotes, which I have introduced)

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