We shall meet again, in Petersburg
We shall meet again, in Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there,
and then we shall pronounce for the first time
the blessed word with no meaning.
In the Soviet night, in the velvet dark,
in the black velvet Void, the loved eyes
of the blessed women are still singing,
flowers are blooming that will never die.
The capital hunches like a wild cat,
a patrol is stationed on the bridge,
a single car rushes past in the dark,
snarling, hooting like a cuckoo.
For this night I need no pass.
I’m not afraid of the sentries.
I will pray in the Soviet night
for the blessed word with no meaning.
A rustling, as in a theater,
and a girl suddenly crying out,
and the arms of Cypris are weighed down
with roses that will never fall.
For something to do we warm ourselves at a bonfire,
maybe the ages will die away
and the loved hands of the blessed women
will brush the light ashes together.
Somewhere audiences of red flowers exist,
and the fat sofas of the loges,
and a clockwork officer
looking down on the world.
Never mind if our candles go out
in the velvet, in the black Void. The bowed shoulders
of the blessed women are still singing.
You’ll never notice the night’s sun.
(Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin)
Of all the omissions from our list of poets so far, none is perhaps as surprising to me personally as the absence of Mandelstam. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.
Mandelstam, along with Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, is an old favourite. His poetry has that supra-lyrical quality of transcending understanding – a quality best seen, though in a very different way, in the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I couldn’t explain to you what it is about a poem like this one that I find moving, almost haunting. But something about it speaks to me across time and space, makes me experience a nostalgia for a lost Russian youth that I (obviously) never had. Just the first four lines of this poem are weighted with such sadness, such an intensity of longing, that they alone leave me moved and vulnerable.
I particularly love “maybe the ages will die away / and the loved hands of the blessed women / will brush the light ashes together” because it makes me think, inevitably, of Eliot: “The worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots” lines published, I remind myself, a mere 3 years before Mandelstam’s poem, which was written in November 1920.