“Insomnia. Homer…” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 4/?

Osip Mandelstam or Mandelshtam (1891-1938) is generally considered the greatest of the Acmeists. During the Stalin years, he was arrested and imprisoned twice and finally died in a transit camp. His poetry was banned; his wife, Nadezhda, memorized all of it just in case all copies would have to be destroyed, and worked tirelessly to promote his work after the Stalin era ended. He was also very close to (and frequently rumoured to be having an affair with) Anna Akhmatova.

This is a poem written when he was twenty-four, and I chose it partly for its timelessness — I mean, who hasn’t tried to fall asleep by reading the Iliad’s interminable Catalogue of Ships chapter? The sea being “wine-dark” is not in the original, but I couldn’t resist using it.

“Insomnia. Homer”

Insomnia. Homer. Sails growing tight.
I’ve read half the list of Ships of the Achaeans.
That lengthy flock, that train of silver cranes
That over Greece once long ago took flight.

Like cranes fly in a wedge to alien shores —
Divine foam shimmers on kings’ royal hair —
Where do you sail? If Helen weren’t there,
What’s Troy to you, Achaean men of yore?

Both sea and Homer — love may move them all.
Whom should I hearken? Homer now hushes.
The wine-dark sea in oratory rushes,
Against the headboard of my bed it falls.

Osip Mandelstam, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016 (because I felt we need more Mandelstam on this project).

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