Osip Mandelstam (Summer Poetry Challenge)

To take a break from Dante for a bit, I thought I would post on another poet. One reason I chose Osip Mandelstam is that he was fascinated by Dante and took The Divine Comedy with him when he was exiled. Another reason: I had never really read anything by Mandelstam. I knew he had been arrested for writing a poem that denigrated Stalin and that he had been imprisoned and then sent into the gulag system in Siberia. He died in the gulag in 1938. His wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, published Hope Against Hope, an account of their years under Stalin and the purges. I’ve decided to choose two poems, “The Stalin Epigram” which got him arrested for the first time in 1934, and “307,” which I chose because when I read it, I felt as if the wind had been knocked from me. I’m using the Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin translation.*


Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measure of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
					    [November 1933]

The contrast between the horrible and the beautiful strikes me every time I read this poem. I particularly like the line “He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries,” for it seems to capture the horror of Stalin’s sadism. I actually don’t want to say much else about the poem, because I feel that the poem speaks for itself.

The second poem I’ve chosen was written in exile in Voronezh in 1935:


You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you?  Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.
					   	 [Voronezh 1935]

What I love about this poem is that it reflects Mandelstam’s overall love and belief in the power of words. Mandelstam was also a translator, although his love of languages was turned into a form of imprisonment as he was forced to translate (at the expense of his poetry) for much of the Stalin era that he lived through. Words as weapons, words as strength, language as “swaddling clothes”: words were Mandelstam’s life and it is through his words that we continue to breathe life into him, long after his death.

*Mandelstam, Osip. The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam. Translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. 1973. New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2004.


8 responses to this post.

  1. Oh Mandelstam! You gotta love the tragic Russians. That last poem is great. The first one was very powerful, but so disgusting I can’t say that I enjoyed it. Fitting tribute for Stalin. It’s interesting that his wife’s memoir is called Hope Against Hope and her name is Nadezhda! I wonder if she was intentionally punning, or if something changed in translation. 🙂 (in case you don’t speak Russian, Nadezhda means Hope)


  2. Eva: I would love to see the original Russian version of Hope Against Hope (and Mandelstam’s poetry). That’s the thing with Russian poetry–I wonder how much has been changed. Clarence Brown, one of the editors/translators of this edition of Mandelstam’s poetry made a great point when he said that W.S. Merwin didn’t translate Mandelstam into English, he translated him into W.S. Merwin!


  3. This is interesting, I have been reading a biography of Stalin and just read about the suppression of the intellectuals in the the early days of Stalinism. Many artists petitioned Stalin to approve their art to avoid censure or exile. It sounds as if Mandelstam was not one of them. Amazingly tragic how dictatorship squeezes the spirit and freedom out of art.


  4. Ian: Oooh, which biography are you reading? I have a strange fascination with dictators (in part because I studied Russian history) but hey, everyone has quirks, right?. I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by Mikhail Bulgakov, but he’s one of my favorite Russian authors, and he, too, suffered under the Stalin regime. He wasn’t executed, but neither was he allowed to publish….


  5. I’m reading Volkogonov who is a Stalin era survivor as well. Stalin has just destroyed Bukharin politically and is about to get to work on destroying all of his “enemies” literally. Volkogonov wrote a biography about Trotsky as well which I used for an independent study this summer. I’ve been snagged once again by the Russians. I will definitely do a catalogue search for Bulgakov tomorrow. Any women writers you might suggest in addition? I’m working on completing a challenge.


  6. Ian: You should check out “The Master and Margarita” by Bulgakov (I really like the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation). As far as women go: Tatyana Tolstaya just published her first novel and she has a few collections of short stories. Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote a memoir of her life with Osip. And as far as poetry goes, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva are wonderful. Catriona Kelly and Helen Goscilo have each worked on Russian women writers from a scholarly perspective, so you might find more names in books they’ve edited (we didn’t read many women writers in my undergrad years, unfortunately). I find that no matter what I’m studying the Russians call me back time and time again. And now we’re getting into the fall, which is when I start feeling the need to read Russian literature! I’ll have to check out the Volkogonov bios…


  7. Talk about poetry driven by a mission! Great post. I’m so glad you chose some of Mandelstam’s stuff, I’m not well acquainted with it, though I have read Hope Against Hope. I’m a bit of a freak about Russian culture. The Children of Arbat should be arriving in the mail any day! Have you read Natasha’s Dance? It’s been on my TBR pile for about two years now.


  8. Ted: I’ve read parts of Natasha’s Dance, but I’m ashamed to admit that it’s been on my TBR pile for a long while as well! I really like Orlando Figes as a historian, so perhaps that will be my fall Russian reading for the month of September. I’m glad you like the post!


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