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Osip Mandelstam - Five Fables, translated by Alistair Noon

Osip Mandelstam

Five Fables

Once a sub-colonel, ex-White Guards,
who ladies considered a gent,
decided the moment had come
to order himself to go on a personal Lent.
Three or four days then passed
before he munched so much as a crumb.
He fasted so hard
that even his tapeworm came out at last.

But if fasting were deemed an Olympic event,
the victor would be whoever reads Our Stronghold Fast
on an empty tum.

Around 1923


The Fibber and the Fathers

It’s well known Catholics think
divorce a sin.
An Italian barber made a trip
to the episcopal court to discuss
an important matter regarding
its hairstyle needs.
But from his eyes the dean could suss
that this was a fib:
“My son, leave now in peace.
We will not accept your parting.”



It seems that they’ve become so rare, oh
those who respect the departed, today.
Where ancestors quietly fester away,
one entered a vault and doffed his sombrero.
Within those ancient walls he gave
the sign of the holy cross, just like on
Sundays, right in front of the icon.
He paid his debt to past generations,
then swilled his nibbles with due moderation
on the train back home. Post-expiration,
he was found on the floor, having gone to the grave.
The thief had robbed him down to his hat.

Readers! Don’t drink with men you meet like that!



Some citizen neither totally plastered
nor wholly sober
installed an organ in his flat.
The instrument thundered, sparking
an immediate meeting of neighbours not down with that.
They called the head of the building, who called over
Sebastian the porter and started barking
at Seb to demolish the organ. Which Seb did,
as well as the teeth of the organ’s owner,
that antisocial git.

The problem’s not that Seb’s a bastard.
The problem, of course, was all that barking.

1934 (?)


A tailor with a decent head
was sentenced to be got quite dead.
What could he do?
Ever the pro,
he took out his tape and drew
a line from head to toe.

He’s alive and well to this day, it’s said.

1 June 1934


Translated by Alistair Noon


“Once a sub-colonel, ex-White Guards”: Our Stronghold Fast renders the original’s Na Postu, the name of the organ of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) from 1923 to 1925. The journal’s full name was Na Literatornom Postu (“At Our Literary Posts”), its shortened form unintentionally punning, give or take a preposition, on the Russian for “on a fast”.

“The Fibber and the Fathers”: In the original, the potential divorcee offers to build the priests an aquarium, and the text puns the Russian for “to breed” and “to divorce”.

“Some citizen neither totally plastered”: According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, this poem aroused the interest of OGPU operatives during their search of the Mandelstams’ flat in May 1934 when arresting the poet.

“A tailor with a decent head”: written at Sverdlovsk railway station en route to Mandelstam’s first point of internal exile, Cherdyn, a small town in the Urals.


Alistair Noon's translations of Mandelstam, Concert at a Railway Station, were published by Shearsman in 2018.

Translation copyright © Alistair Noon, 2021

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