A little honey, a little sun

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.

Ann E. Michael honeybee


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.



4 comments on “A little honey, a little sun

  1. KM Huber says:

    It must be a day for it, as I am feeling the same. We do have so much to share with one another. Thanks, Ann.


  2. Namaste, Ann! Blowing you tattered bee kisses.


  3. Lou Faber says:

    Brodsky did not hate his own translations. What set them apart, he once argued, was his ability, given his fluency in Russian, to retain the rhyme and meter found in Mandelstam’s originals and that, above seemingly all else was critical to getting Mandelstam right. One only wishes that Nadezdha Mandelstam had weighed in on the subject. But perhaps Yevgeny Yevtushenko had said it all:

    Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.

    Or as Umberto Eco put it without hint of misogyny, “Translation is the art of failure,”


  4. […] a blog post some time ago, I discussed this poem and the problems of […]


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