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.*
286 [THE STALIN EPIGRAM] 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:
307 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.