June 7, 2006 by AK
Two years ago or earlier I made a point to translate into English what I consider one of the most meaningful Russian poems of the 20th century, Osip E. Mandelstam’s Lamarck. It’s still work in progress but it’s time to share it with the world. The poem must have to do with evolutionary theodicy — its impossibility — with the pain of Evolution, or Nature herself leading its creatures into a hopeless blind alley.
I have tried to rhythmicize the English text slightly, but I’d rather have it sound like an awkward translation than a proper, meaningless English poem.
There was an old man shy like a boy,
an awkward, timid patriarch.
Who’s the fencer for Nature’s honor?
Well of course, the fiery Lamarck.
If all that lives is but an ink-blot
after a short escheated day,
on Lamarck’s moving stairway
I’ll take the last footstep.
I’ll go down to the tubemakers and barnacles,
having rustled past the lizards and the snakes,
along the springing gangways, down the flexures
I will contract; like Proteus, disappear.
I’ll don a mantle of horn,
refuse hot blood,
grow suckers overall, and helix-like
bite into the ocean foam.
We passed the ranks of insects
with wineshot cups of eyes.
He said: “All Nature is in chasms,
there is no vision — it’s the last time you have seen.”
He said: “Enough sonority,
you’ve loved Mozart in vain,
arachnoid deafness is descending:
this lapse is stronger than our strength.”
And Nature has retreated from us
as if for us She had no use,
and She put up an oblong brain,
as if a foil, into a darkling sheath,
and She forgot — was late — to pull down
a drawbridge for
those with a green grave,
red breath, a supple laugh.
One example of what’s lost. Prodol’nyj mozg is literally “longitudinal brain;” the immediate meaning implied is most likely “medulla oblongata.” Pod”emnyj most is “drawbridge”. Although “brain” and “bridge” alliterate, the effect is lost because of the “draw” part. Prodol’nyj mozg and pod”emnyj most sound remarkably similar.