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The Beekeeper

December 18, 2007

Osip Mandelstam near Vladivostok, 1938

The beekeeper wavers across the creaking slats
like a train across Siberia.
From the shallow bowls in his unstung hands,
the soup drips through the cracks onto his fingers.
The spoons are just as shallow, their edges sharp.

The man on the cot he stops at refuses to eat.
This is the poet who’s chosen to die. His voice
creaks and dwindles until it sounds like nothing
but a disappearing winter train,
nothing but a bee at the edge of hearing.

The beekeeper spills the soup in Siberia.
He cuts his lip on the spoon. His still-damp fingers
absently scratch at the lice. The poet will die
when the lice in his clothes are dying like bees

to be born again in the Crimea,
to sweeten the tongue with their impoverished summers,
their miming of such buzzing at the edge
of hearing, of the beekeeper’s creaking steps.

by Andrew Shields

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Author’s note: This poem was inspired by Ralph Dutli’s Mandelstam biography, Meine Zeit, mein Tier (Zurich: Ammann, 2003), which is unfortunately not yet available in English translation.

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  1. December 18, 2007 at 9:18 am

    Thank you! I enjoyed this.

  2. December 20, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    I’ve been fascinated by Mandelstam’s work and life for a number of years, and very much appreciated this poem.

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