Of bow and stern — the bow,
Of a violin — the bow,
The eye of Horus on prow,
The eye of pearl held low.
The bridge of stem to stern,
The bridge of a violin,
Where traverses begin
And pivot to return.
The lighter the load, the tenderer the wherry;
The faster the tremolo, the more the rowers crave
To capture the depths that sound in bows and waves;
Then galley masters beat with bars and staves,
And lifted for the downstroke, taut and wary,
Let sweep their dominant triads down and carry
All before them; arcs in a maelstrom serried
Sever the air, oh trireme and guarneri.
NOTES for Students of English
Bow and Stern – The forward part and rear part of a ship; “bow” rhymes with “now.”
Eye of Horus – An amulet painted on the prows of boats by the Egyptians, and other cultures in antiquity. The Greeks and Romans painted protective eyes on the sides of their triremes.
Eye of Pearl – The handle of a violin bow (called the “frog”) has an inset “eye” made of mother-of-pearl.
“The bridge of stem to stern” – The bridge of a ship is the raised transverse platform from which it is steered; the stem is the front end of a ship.
Tender – As an adjective referring to boats, it means “unstable, tippy.” Wherries, dories, and other rowboats designed to haul fish and cargo are more stable with weight in them than they are unloaded.
Tremolo – Rapid bowing of small strokes on the same note or two notes, often used to produce an effect of suspense.
“…Beat with bars and staves,” – Puns: “To beat” means both “to hit” and “to beat time”; “bars” is the plural of both an iron bar and a musical bar which is an interval of time; and “staves” refers both to a cudgel and to the musical staff.
Downstroke – When the violin bow is pulled starting at the “frog” end.
Dominant Triad – A play on words meaning both a strong 3-note musical chord and the three levels of rowers in a trireme.
Trireme – An ancient Greek or Roman warship with three levels of oarsmen.
Guarneri – A violin made by a famous 17th century family of craftsmen by that name, rivals of Stradivarius.
This poem is mentioned in a Hertz letter c. 2009:
“…Knowing how much I love Mandelshtam’s Концерт на Вокзале, you asked whether “A Concert at the Port” had been influenced by it. Much as I dislike the whole academic literature “influence” game, I have to admit that Концерт на Вокзале might well have been at the back of my mind. In that wonderful poem, the train IS the orchestra; that’s the marvelous thing. The concert is performed by the train; all the sounds are produced by the train: the play of скрипичный and скрипучий, павлиний крик и рокот фортепьянный. The connecting rods ARE the violin bows, right down to the crank pins — the зрачки смычков blinded by the steam. And even though their etymological roots are not the same, doesn’t a stopped дышло suggest нельзя дышать? (As a non-native speaker, I’m entitled to be honorably wrong.) Although discussions of this poem often refer to and rely on Mandelshtam’s prose, that’s not necessary and is even misleading. The poem itself is self-contained and self-evident. It stands on its own. And it’s no mystery. The equation of the train and the orchestra is startling in its clarity, forcefulness, beauty, and originality.”