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Feature: Back From the USSR
Eugene Ostashevsky

from The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi

Poem 7

The pirate sails the Squeamish Main
with a glass of muscadet:
Oh where can I get a good parrot
to sing me “Yesterday”?

In came the pirate’s parrot:
a very learnèd parrot was he.
I can sing you “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein”
but not “Yesterday,” perdy!

In came the pirate’s parrot,
widely read in philosophy:
A song I can sing you many a one
but I will not sing “Yesterday”!

The pirate dove into the water
and paddled with both arms
until the waves that hit his face
grew large and scary as barns.

A teardrop fell from each his eye,
he would not shed a third:
You should have been a raven,
you Pallas-bespattering bird!

The pirate smoked a cigarette,
got cancer and suddenly died.
They smashed his chest open with axes
and found a heart inside.

The heart, the heart was the cause of death
in its capacity
as the admittedly metaphorical
organ of memory!

Parrot, why didn’t you sing him
what he requested of you?
You stinted to satisfy his soul;
now the body lies here all bloody and blue!

You valued your principles above
your friend’s psychology.
Tomorrow and tomorrow you shall dearly wish
you sung him “Yesterday.”

You maun change your bright feathers for weeds,
you maun learn to cry “Nevermore!”
by the bruisèd sky, the cold cold wave,
the heather on the moor.

Poem 9

Is there a history of loneliness?
asks the pirate,
I mean, are people lonely at different times in different ways?
Do you, parrot, feel what I do as you drift
between the starry sky and the categorical imperative?
What does it mean, this my talking to you,
do you really hear me? I mean,
hear me hear me? And those snatches
of inaudible music, who plays it
and shall it untune your sky? Sometimes
I almost can read it, parse
its moans letter by letter. To whom it may concern,
it appears to say, your loves are illusions,
that which is real you do not notice,
why? Because you recycle
the progeny of your loneliness, O messy
Scythian or maybe saturnine Thracian or whoever,
I mean your cogitations
form a closed system,
what’s so hard to understand? I don’t want
to be so hard to understand, parrot, I don’t want
my soul placed so much inside me
that there is, so to speak, an infinite distance
between it and these words, these worlds.


Osip Mandelstam
Translated from the Russian by Eugene Ostashevsky

January 1, 1924

Whoever kissed time on its tormented head
With filial tenderness shall again
Remember how time lay down to sleep
Into the wheaten snowdrift outside.
Whoever lifted the century’s sickly eyelids –
Two large and round sleepy apples –
He always hears a din – how rivers roared
Of times false, deaf and dead.

Two sleepy eyes, two apples has the headman
Century, and a lovely earthen mouth,
But dying he’ll adore
The mildly recoiling hand of his senescent son.
I know: each day life’s exhale becomes fainter.
A little longer – they will break
This simple song about earthenware sorrows
And seal the lips with lead.

O earthenware life! O dying of the century!
I fear you may be known
Only by someone with the errant smile
Of those who’ve lost themselves.
What an ache it is – to search for the word lost,
To lift up sickly eyelids,
With quicklime in the blood to pluck
Night – blooming grasses for an alien tribe.

Time: century. Lime sediment grows thick
In the sick son’s blood. Like a wooden coffer
Moscow slumbers. There's nowhere to run
From the headman century. Snow smells of apples
As in the old days. I want to run from my threshold.
But where? It’s dark outside
And, like salt sprinkled over cobblestones,
Conscience gleams white before me.

Along the byways, starling-houses, roof eaves,
Not far to go, barely ready,
I, private passenger in a fish-fur coat,
Keep trying to button up the sleigh rug.
One street, another flickers past,
The sleigh’s crunch in the frost sounds like an apple,
The buttonhole resists all efforts
And slips out of my grasp.

As what metallic ironmongery
The winter night clangs down Moscow streets,
Raps like a frozen fish or whistles pockets of steam
From pink teahouses – like silvery schools of roach.
Moscow. Moscow again. I say, hello,
Don’t be so judgmental, it’s not so bad now,
We go way back, and I accept the terms
Of bone-deep frost and pikefish justice.

The pharmacy flares raspberry on the snow.
Somewhere an Underwood clicks and clacks.
A cabman’s back. Half-a-yard of snow.
What else do you want? No one shall touch you,
No one shall kill you. Gorgeous is winter,
The goat sky star-scattered and glistening
Like milk. The sleigh rug rubs its horsehair
Against the gelid runners, ringing.

Who was it blackened crooked lanes with kerosene,
Gulped down snow, raspberry, ice?
They’ll ever rasp their scaly Soviet sonatina,
With nineteen-twenty on their tongues.
Could I commit to foul equivocation –
Again the frosty air smells of apples –
Oaths of allegiance to the fourth estate
And vows so great we wept?

Whom else shall you kill? Whom else, celebrate?
What other lies shall you invent?
There’s the Underwood's gristle – quick, rip out a key!
And you’ll find a pikefish bone.
That sediment of lime in the sick son's blood
Shall then dissolve. And out spurt rapt laughter.
Yet these typewriters’ simple sonatina
Is just a shadow of sonatas other, greater.

1924, 1937



Eugene OstashevskyEugene Ostashevsky is a Russian-born American poet and translator. His two-and-some-odd books of poetry include Iterature; and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza, both released by Ugly Duckling Presse. He also edited and co-translated OBERIU: An Anthology of Russian Absurdism; containing the writings of 1930s poets and philosophers like Alexander Vvedensky and Daniil Kharms.   Look for videos of his work on YouTube; and for recordings at Fishouse.


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