Readers have been very supportive of my translations from Mandelstam, especially John Emerson, who periodically demands more of them. So I decided to return from my LH retrospective with a translation of his longest poem, the 1923 “Нашедший подкову“: “He Who Found a Horseshoe,” “Whoever Finds a Horseshoe,” or—as I choose to call it—”The Finder of a Horseshoe.” This is a complex and difficult poem, modeled after the Pindaric ode (when it was first published, it had the subtitle “A Pindaric fragment”), but I think its imagery and rhythm (both of which I have tried to preserve) make their impact even if the “meaning” (what the poet is “trying to say”) is endlessly debatable. To show you how debatable, I’ll quote from three critics, each of whom devotes a long essay to this poem. Clare Cavanagh, in the fifth chapter of her Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition, takes the pessimistic view:
The reality Mandelstam evokes in his poems of [the early twenties] forms a grim counterpoint to the resilient, resolutely hopeful tone of the essays, as the glittering golden currency of “Humanism and the Present” turns up, tarnished and diminished, at the end of one of his greatest and most pessimistic lyrics, “The Horseshoe Finder” [...] The essayist insists that humanistic values, now hidden underground, will return again as common currency. [...] The poet, though, tells us something else again. The past, he says, is dead and gone, and no amount of effort—the poem itself is a series of such efforts—will suffice to bring it back to life. [...] “The Horseshoe Finder” is finally a magnificent lament on the failure of the poet and his tradition to find their place in what seems destined to become the glorious world economy of the future.
Steven Broyde, in Osip Mandel’stam and his Age: A Commentary on the Themes of War and Revolution in the Poetry 1913-1923, takes an opposite view:
“Našedšij podkovu,” then, is a complex synthesis of much of what Mandel’štam has said in other contexts. Essentially, the poet here is concerned with history and art, and the relationship of one to the other. It is difficult to see how one critic could have said of this poem: “What despair in this equation of the world’s process and creative impotence.” Aside from the fact that there is no such “identification” here, it is clear that the poem asserts rather the opposite; the contrast is not in the impotence of art, but in its permanency, as opposed to history’s permutations. For it is, after all, the horseshoe that is found.
Finally, Diana Myers, in her essay “The Hum of Metaphor and the Cast of Voice: Observations on Mandel’shtam’s ‘The Horseshoe Finder’” (mentioned in this post), takes a middle path:
In the middle of the twenties it seemed to many poets that the end of Russian lyric poetry was imminent. An atmosphere had built up in which either one’s poetic voice had to be disciplined to write on topical themes, or one was consigned, still living, to the archives. Mandel’shtam indeed found himself in the position of an exiled Ovid among a ‘youthful alien tribe’ which could not understand his language, culture or values. And it is Ovid whose presence permeates the mood, imagery and subtext of the entire poem [...] However, the very fabric of the poem seems to negate this. The richness of the subtext, which is permeated with references to the Classics, affirms once more the principles of Mandel’shtam’s poetics. And its fundamental message is that a poetic word, once pronounced, becomes part of the texture of the poetic language and is retained in the memory; transformed by memory it can take on new life in a new time and in a new space, albeit metaphorical.
So make up your own minds. Without further ado:
THE FINDER OF A HORSESHOE
(A Pindaric fragment)
We see a forest and we say
“That forest’s for ships and masts.”
Those rosy pines,
Free to their very tops from shaggy burden,
They should be creaking in storms
Like lonely stone pines,
In the furious forestless air;
Beneath the salty heel of the wind the plumb line stands fast, fitted to the dancing deck,
And the seafarer,
In unbridled thirst for space,
Dragging over humid ruts
The fragile tackle of a geometer,
Collates with the earth-womb’s attraction
The rugged surface of the seas.
And inhaling the smell
Of tarry tears that ooze through the ship’s planking,
Admiring the boards
Riveted, arranged into bulkheads
Not by the peaceful Bethlehem carpenter, but another –
Father of voyages, friend of the mariner –
“They too stood on the earth,
Awkward like an ass’s spine,
Their tops forgetting their roots
On the well-known mountain ridge,
And they thrummed in the freshwater downpour,
Unsuccessfully offering to the sky in exchange for a pinch of salt
Their noble load and burden.”
So where to start?
Everything cracks and rocks.
The air trembles from comparisons.
No word is better than another,
The earth hums with metaphor,
And light two-wheeled carts,
Garishly harnessed to bird flocks dense with effort,
Are broken into pieces
Competing with the snorting favorites of the hippodromes.
Thrice blessed is whoever places a name in a song;
A song that’s ornamented with a name
Lives longer among others –
She is marked out among her friends by a band on her forehead
That cures one of unconsciousness, of a too strong stupefying smell –
Whether it is the proximity of a man,
Or the smell of the hair of a strong beast,
Or simply the breath of savory rubbed between the palms.
The air is sometimes dark as water, and everything that lives in it swims like a fish,
With fins pushing aside the sphere,
Dense, springy, barely warmed –
A crystal within which wheels move and horses shy,
The humid black earth of Néère, each night turned up anew
By pitchforks, tridents, hoes, and plows.
The air is kneaded as dense as earth –
It’s impossible to leave, and hard to enter.
A rustle runs through the trees like a green ballgame;
Children play knucklebones with the vertebrae of dead animals.
The fragile chronology of our era comes to an end.
Thanks for what existed;
I myself made mistakes, got mixed up, lost count.
The era rang like a golden ball,
Hollow, molded, supported by no one,
At every touch it answered “yes” and “no.”
So a child answers:
“I’ll give you the apple” or “I won’t give you the apple,”
His face an exact cast of the voice that pronounces those words.
The sound rings still, though the reason for the sound has vanished.
The steed lies in the dust and snorts in its lather,
But the sharp bend of its neck
Still preserves the memory of running with scattered legs,
When they were not four in number
But as many as the stones in the road,
Renewed in four shifts,
As many times as an ambler radiating heat thrusts back the earth.
The finder of a horseshoe
Blows the dust off it
And rubs it with animal hair until it shines;
He hangs it over the threshold
So that it can rest,
And no longer will it have to strike sparks from flint.
Human lips that no longer have anything to say
Preserve the form of the word they last said,
And in the hand remains the sensation of weight,
Although the jug
has splashed out half its water
while they were carrying it home.
That which I am saying now is not said by me,
But dug out of the earth like grains of fossilized wheat.
on their coins depict a lion,
Multifarious copper, gold, and bronze lozenges
With identical honor lie in the earth.
The age, trying to bite through them,
Has printed on them its teeth.
Time clips me like a coin,
And there’s no longer enough of me for myself…
tr. Stephen Dodson