“The Swallow” by Osip Mandelstam

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky appended lines from Osip Mandelstam’s poem “The Swallow” as an epigraph to the final chapter of his seminal treatise in psycholinguistics, Thought and Language (1934). It wasn’t a heedless literary allusion. In A Word is the Search for It, I read the epigraph as a carefully considered subtext that skirted the proscription of Stalin’s Great Terror: “words that are cut off from motive are dead things; words that return to motive, like the fluttering swallow, are renewed and can come alive again. Like the search for a word, a back-and-forth movement through the planes of thought and language, the renewal of motive is a continual process.”

The Swallow

What had I wanted to say? I forgot.
The blind swallow flies back to Pluto’s palace
on amputated wings, and plays with transparent souls.
Night songs sing in unconsciousness.

But no birds sing. Flowering evergreens aren’t in
flower.
Night’s horses have transparent manes.
An empty canoe drifts in the dry river.
The grasshoppers’ password is: be unconscious.

Growing, slowly, like a tent, a temple,
now throwing itself to the side, suddenly, like mad
Antigone, now like a dead swallow throwing itself
at your feet with Stygian tenderness and a green branch.

Oh, if I could give back the shame of sensate
fingers, the shameful joy of knowing.
Niobes’ tears terrify me,
and the fog, the ringing, the gaping opening.

And men can love, men can know,
even sound pours itself into their fingers,
but I forgot what I want to say
and the unbodied thought goes back to the palace of ghosts.

That transparent thought keeps repeating the wrong thing,
keeps fluttering like a swallow, my friend, Antigone. . .
and echoes of Stygian ringing
burn on her lips, black like ice.

Osip Mandelstam

[Source: Complete Poetry of Osip Emilevich Mandelstam. Trans. Burton Raffel and Alla Burago. Introduction and notes by Sidney Monas. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1973.]

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