“I’m given a body” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 16/?

This is eighteen-year-old Osip Mandelstam, optimistic and self-reliant even as he muses. At the time, he would just have gone to the University of Heidelberg after completing a year at the Sorbonne in France. By 1911, as his family’s finances started to collapse, he would need to return to Russia and try to complete his education at the University of Saint-Petersburg — which had a strict quota on Jews, so he converted to Methodism (a very rare religion in Russia). Despite this, his studies would suffer, and he would never complete a formal degree.

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I’m given a body — what should I be trying
With it, so one and only, and so mine?

I ask, who should I thank for quiet elation,
For joy of life, of breath, of inhalation?

I am the gardener, I am the bloom,
I’m not alone in this world’s dungeon gloom.

My warmth and breath’s already come to be
Laid on the glass panes of eternity.

And on them now a pattern is incised.
Since recent times it can’t be recognized.

So let the muck of moments flow apace,
But that dear pattern cannot be erased.

Osip Mandelshtam, 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

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