Today, something to soothe the collective psyche, to ward off anxiety and remind us that we cannot move through this life totally fearlessly, but we can move through this life.
Take from my palm, to soothe your heart
a little honey, a little sun,
in obedience to Persephone’s bees.
You can’t untie a boat that was never moored,
nor hear a shadow in its furs,
nor move through thick life without fear.
—Osip Mandelstam, tr. Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin
There’s more to this poem–three further stanzas–and I am re-reading it today, over and over, as if to memorize its quietly unfolding lines:
For us, all that’s left is kisses
tattered as the little bees
The poignancy of that image nearly kills me. Yet, soon enough in the poem (and elsewhere), Mandelstam’s bees die; but they also hum in the night, in the woods, “in the mint and lungwort of the past.” They make a sun out of honey. They warm the chill of winter’s approach; like kisses, they can soothe our hearts.
I have read some severe criticism of translations of Mandelstam’s poetry. Brodsky’s work, Merwin’s…Russian speakers suggest no translation adheres at all closely to the original. Rose Styron and Olga Carlyle’s version is here in Paris Review. And here’s a version (tr. uncredited) in The Atlantic. A bilingual version resides here, if you happen to know Russian and can weigh in on the translation controversy (Mandelstam himself reportedly hated reading verse in translation).
But here is why I am holding this poem close to myself today:
The poem acknowledges the fear that resides in all of us.
The poem reminds us that we have much to share. That we can soothe one another’s hearts.