Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.
I’ve read to the middle of the list of ships:
this long flock, this train of cranes,
that once rose over Hellas.
Like a wedge of cranes over strange borders—
a godlike foam on the heads of kings—
where are you sailing? If it weren’t for Helen,
what would Troy itself be to you, Achaean men?
Both the sea, and Homer—everything—is moved by love.
To whom shall I listen? And here Homer is silent,
and the dark sea, orating, stirs,
and with a heavy crash rolls up to the pillow.
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.