In an interview from 1976, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, was asked if she had any favorite poems. She mentioned two, both written in the winter of 1937: “Verses about an unknown soldier,” and “Wasps.” “Not bees.” she explained, speaking in English, “Wasps. Wild.”

 

Equipped with the vision of narrow wasps,
Sucking the axis of the earth, the axis of the earth,
I feel everything I was forced to witness,
And remember it all by heart and in vain.

And I don’t paint, and don’t sing,
And I don’t draw the bow of my black-earthed voice.
I just pierce into life, and devoutly
Envy the mighty, clever wasps.

Oh, if only someday, passing through dream and death,
The air and summer warmth
Would goad me
To hear the axis of the earth, the axis of the earth…

February 8, 1937

If you’d like to hear the poem in Russian, I recited it, set to music:

Вооруженный зреньем узких ос,
Сосущих ось земную, ось земную,
Я чую всё, с чем свидеться пришлось,
И вспоминаю наизусть и всуе.

И не рисую я, и не пою,
И не вожу смычком черноголосым,
Я только в жизнь впиваюсь и люблю
Завидовать могучим, хитрым осам.

О, если б и меня когда-нибудь могло
Заставить — сон и смерть минуя —
Стрекало воздуха и летнее тепло
Услышать ось земную, ось земную…

8 февраля 1937

–Osip Mandelstam, translated by J. Wade


Poetry

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