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Translated from the Russian by Joan Aleshire
Published: Tue Jan 30 2018
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.

I was washing at night in the yard—
the firmament shone with rough stars.
The starlight was like salt on an axe,
the barrel cooled from its full brim.

The gate’s closed with a lock,
and the earth’s as bleak as its conscience—
finer than truth, the fine canvas
where the weave barely appears.

A star melts, like salt, in the barrel,
and the freezing water is darker,
death is purer, trouble saltier,
and the earth truer and more terrible.

See what's inside AGNI 48

Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) was born into a Polish-Jewish family in what was then the Russian Empire. He became one of the great poets of Russia’s Silver Age, with a keen sense of the melodies of spoken language. He published his first book, Stone, before the Russian Revolution of 1917. His poetry was celebrated from early on, even in an era rich with great poets. However, as the aims of socialism crystallized in tyranny, Russia, and Russian writers in particular, came to live under relentless terror. By the 1920s, he was shunned by the Soviet establishment for refusing to write in praise of the state. Few poets escaped premature death, whether by privation, suicide, or judicial murder. He died in a prison camp in Siberia in 1938; his poetry and prose was preserved by his wife and friends and published in New York in a collected edition in 1955. Mandelstam dove deep beneath the bleak surface of his era to reveal both the luminosity of the living past and the all-consuming brutality yet to come.

Joan Aleshire is the author of three books of poems: Cloud Train (Texas Tech), This Far (QRT), and The Yellow Transparents (Four Way), and has taught in the MFA Program at Warren Wilson College since 1983.
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