for Veronika Bowker
Raven: vóron; nozh: blade, winds me out, re-winds me:
The blade must fall, the raven’s free yet binds me.
Returns, re-venues, misses me and finds me,
Vorónezh, ravensblade whose whim defines me.
Vóron, a raven, nozh, a snitch: ditched by
Voronezh, like unstitched leaves, reached by
Voronezh, rehitched, stitched up by the bitch
Voronezh, the raven with the snitch.
Ravensditch, Ravensbruck, Ravensbeak,
Let me go, let me come, or else you will seek
me in vain, Voronezh, having dropped my life
on a whim, raven whose beak is sharp as a knife…
Alternatively: Crow, the Crow’s bright blade.
Will you crow now Voronezh, now I have gone…?
Will you drop me or gather me in your masquerade,
crow, joker, with your sharp beak of black crow-shade.
Thieving magpie, Voronezh, black and sharp as night.
Will you drop your loot or pick it up and punish
your son with it, as a raven or magpie might,
you who are only a joke yourself, Voronezh?
This is no joke, Voronezh. I am not Poe’s Raven.
I will not come knocking for you to drop the latch
and lock me out. I have no knife to prise my way in.
but I will return Voronezh, sharp as a raven’s snitch.
Let me go, return me to my lost home,
Voronezh, I’m still yours though you drop me
you black joke, Voronezh, you cannot stop me
singing, even under your crow-black dome.
Notes on this poem
I was introduced to this particular Mandelstam quatrain by a friend, Veronika Krasnova. I do not read Russian and knew Mandelstam only from various translations into English. Veronika was keen to explain the many possible readings of it. It springs out of the poet’s exile to Voronezh in 1935, the poem itself written in the April of that year. It is an extraordinarily playful quatrain playing chiefly on the name Voronezh that breaks down into ‘voron’ (raven), and ‘nozh’ (knife). The voice is ironic, almost clowning, yet remains deadly serious. The poem is elegant in form, the sound ‘Voronezh’ returning time and again as pun, as echo, as haunting, as threat. As Peter Zeeman puts it in his book on Mandelstam’s later poems, ‘it cannot be rendered satisfactorily in translation’.
That is true of poetry generally since poems depend on ambiguity and the power of suggestion for their full effect but – one might argue – it is particularly true of this brief, crammed and yet somehow lucid poem that is almost a squib. One might further argue that since we know that no one translation of a poem can ever be wholly satisfactory there might be greater satisfaction in reading more than one version of it and that, by reading the various translations, in effect superimposing them on each other, one might build up a stereoscopic effect, or at least help convey the variousness of the poem itself.
That is what I tried to do with the sometimes terrifying help of Veronika’s copious notes and explanations. I decided to make several versions, some freer than others, but, since I don’t think complexity of manner and therefore also of form is indivorcible from complexity and form of meaning, I wanted them all to be as formally elegant as I could make them, responding to the puns, echoes and ambiguities of the Russian with puns, echoes and ambiguities in English – and,since the poem was personal, allowing myself to introduce the name of Ravensbruck (Voronsbruck), the concentration camp where my own mother was interned and which she survived. The raven brought in Edgar Allan Poe too. The aim, as it developed, became to make a series of dark jokes as if by a kind of extended legerdemain. None of the variations is intended to be a straight translation of the poem, though the first is probably the closest.