My Library Journal colleagues have already posted their favorite poems for Poem in Your Pocket Day in our weekly What We’re Reading feature. I was delayed because I couldn’t find a particular book, with a particular translation, that I really wanted. Yes, I finally located that beloved Mandelstam collection this morning and include two poems below. With all the poems that cross my desk as poetry editor here, I truly couldn’t choose from among my contemporary favorites. So I opted to feature some poems that changed my way of thinking about poetry when I was young.
I hate the light
of monotonous stars.
Here I am, my age-old fever—
growth of a lancet tower:
stone, be lace,
become a cobweb,
wound the sky’s empty breast
with a fine needle.
My turn will come—
I can hear the beat of a wing.
So—but where will the arrow
of living thought go?
Perhaps, my journey and my time
Exhausted, I will return: there
I could not love.
Here I am afraid to love.
—Osip Mandelstam, tr. by David McDuff
I say this as a sketch and in a whisper
for it is not yet time:
the game of unaccountable heaven
is achieved with experience and sweat.
And under purgatory’s temporary sky
We often forget
That the happy repository of heaven
Is a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere.
—Osip Mandelstam, tr. by David McDuff
On nights like this all cities are alike,
with cloud-flags hung.
The banners by the storms are flung,
torn out like hair
in any country anywhere
whose boundaries and rivers are uncertain.
In every garden is a pond,
The same little house sits just beyond;
The same light is in all the houses;
And all the people look alike
And hold their hands before their faces.
On nights like this my little sister grows,
Who was born and died before me, very small.
There have been many such nights, gone long ago;
she must be lovely now. Soon the suitors will call.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. by C.F. Macintyre
When in the night I await her coming
My life seems stopped. I ask myself: What
Are tributes, freedom, or youth compared
To this treasured friend holding a flute?
Look, she’s coming! She drops her veil
And watches me, steady and long. I say:
“Was it you who dictated to Dante the pages
Of Hell? and she answers: “I am the one.”
—Anna Akhmatova, tr. by Stankey Burnshaw
A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Dawn in New York has
four columns of mire
and a hurricane of black pigeons
splashing in the putrid waters.
Dawn in New York groans
on enormous fire escapes
searching between the angles
for spikenards of drafted anguish.
Dawn arrives and no one receives it in his mouth
because morning and hope are impossible there:
sometimes the furious swarming coins
penetrate like drills and devour abandoned children.
Those who go out early know in their bones
there will be no paradise or loves that bloom and die:
they know they will be mired in numbers and laws,
in mindless games, in fruitless labors.
The light is buried under chains and noises
in the impudent challenge of rootless science.
And crowds stagger sleeplessly through the boroughs
as if they had just escaped a shipwreck of blood.
—Federico Garcia Lorca, tr. by Greg Simon & Steven F. White