Horseshoe: Trees and Ships.

I’m once again making my way through Mandelstam (in conjunction with my reading of Lekmanov’s biography, which it turns out is available in English), and I’m rememorizing his longest poem, “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (which I translated in 2012). The first time I memorized it was in 2002 (I remember I was working on it when I started LH); that experience confirmed my sense that it was a great poem, but I still didn’t even begin to understand it. Some people read like birds flying over a text, comprehending the layout from above; I’m more like an ant, making my way laboriously through the words, from consonant to vowel to consonant, getting a feel for the structure at the micro level but oblivious to any larger meanings for a long time. This time around, I’ve managed to grasp the first two of the nine sections in a way I hadn’t before, and I thought I’d talk about it here before I forget, planting a milepost to help me next time I attempt the journey. I’ll discuss it in translation because I’m talking about sense, not sound, and out of laziness and egotism I’ll refer to my own translation, which is easily accessible to all of us.

I realized that the two sections constitute a lovely ring structure, starting and ending in the same place and establishing what I think is the main theme of the poem, the confrontation of different layers of time. At the start, we are looking at trees and saying “That forest’s for ships and masts” — we are looking ahead into a possible future. We see them in imagination as the masts they should become, standing fast, “fitted to the dancing deck,” and our thoughts turn to the seafarer making use of them to drag “over humid ruts/ The fragile tackle of a geometer.” The first section ends, and we get a mysterious gerund: “inhaling the smell/ Of tarry tears that ooze through the ship’s planking…” Who is doing the inhaling? After a few more lines, it turns out that it’s us: “We say…” We are magically transported into a different realm, in a way that reminds me of the equally magical end of Pound’s Canto IV:

And we sit here…
            there in the arena…

(The Cantos are also about the confrontation of different layers of time.) We are in that imagined future, and what do we say? “They too stood on the earth…” We are now imagining the ship’s past as trees, “Their tops forgetting their roots/ On the well-known mountain ridge” (the task of poetry being to ensure that the tops don’t forget their roots), and we imagine those trees “Unsuccessfully offering to the sky in exchange for a pinch of salt/ Their noble load and burden.” In other words, they wanted to be “Free to their very tops from shaggy burden,” in the words of the poem’s fourth line. This commodius vicus of recirculation is one of art’s reliable joys. Now if I can only get a similar handle on the rest of this long and inexhaustible poem…


  1. I won’t pretend that I understand much in that poem, but the overall arc of the second part seems to repeat the model of the first in some way. It is about a poem, which is born out of air that is trembling with comparisons, out of earth that is booming with metaphor etc.; then there is some development through various comparisons and metaphors and then the poem becomes an artifact of the past times as an old horseshoe, lips that keep the form of the last word, and finally a coin cut down by time.

  2. Very nice! Thanks, that will help me as I hack my way through the rest.

  3. I am now reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir and had some languagehat-esque fun with Mandelstam’s joke about a “kanni-fershtand”. Strangely enough, the footnote in my Dutch edition refers to an anekdot about a Russian sailor visiting Holland, and not to the Hebel story.

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