Alistair Noon writes: Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938) grew up in St. Petersburg and published his first book, Stone, in 1913. One more volume followed before he began encountering publishing difficulties in the Soviet Union. He wrote poetry, prose, and children’s verse, and also translated (chiefly from French), if largely as a necessity rather than a passion. Sentenced in 1934 to three years of internal exile in the central Russian city of Voronezh, he was re-arrested in 1938 and deported to the Soviet Far East, where he died in a Gulag transit camp.
These three poems from Mandelstam’s Third Voronezh Workbook (to date usually translated as Notebooks) each take a city as their starting point: Paris, Rome and Kiev. Mandelstam had spent a period as a student in Paris, and some time in Kiev during the Russian Civil War (where he met his wife Nadezhda Mandelstam, who would later preserve and edit his work). He took a keen interest in Italy, learning enough of the language to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in the original, but never, as far we know, visited Rome. The Voronezh Workbooks were written during Mandelstam’s exile in that city. Given the circumstances, it’s easy to see how other cities, foreign or otherwise, might loom in the imagination, but the results are not wistful yearnings for faraway places. All three have elements of lightness, but political violence pervades them all: France’s July Revolution of 1830, Mussolini’s dictatorship, and the Red Army’s tactical withdrawal from Kiev in 1919.
The below poems appear in Osip Mandelstam: The Voronezh Workbooks, translated by Alistair, published by Shearsman in April, and available here. In parallel, Alistair’s translation of Mandelstam’s Occasional and Joke Poems appeared simultaneously from the same publisher, and is available here.
* I plead for your honeysuckle, France, and your soil, for their mercy and alms, for the truth of your doves, the contortions of dwarf vintners in gauze partitions. Of means independent, pruned and resentful, your air is frosty, though Decembers are gentle... In jail, they go mad from a violet’s infinity. The chanson whistles, girl taking her liberty, along those twists of the street – one July, that street had seethed as kings were swept by... But a new sovereign rules in Chartres and Arles, in Paris, a Monsieur Chaplin (Charles): hinge-swinging away with the Flower Girl, he rolls all his courage up, in his ocean-going bowler. Her cobweb shawl (with a rose on the breast) sets in the stone where a double spire sweats: it’s a pity the aerial carousel slews round as it bows in gratitude, inhaling the town – so lower your neck, mademoiselle who fears no god, whose golden eyes are a goat’s, and take the French “R” of your crooked shears to tease the clusters of tight-fisted roses.
3rd March 1937
Rome Where the fountain frogs once woke, unable to sleep a wink more, and wept, having splashed and croaked, from all of their throats and shell-sinks, and amphibian drips then sprinkled the city of assenting roars – light-summered, its cheeky antiquity greedy-eyed, flat-soled as it mimics the intact Ponte Sant’Angelo’s flat steps across waters gone yellow – over-the-topped and black-dusted, in its outgrowth of houses, their drums, blue city where swifts from the cupola pick alleys and gusts for their sculpture, you brown-blooded mercenaries, puppies of dead Caesars – vicious, black-shirted – have made this a nursery of murder... Michelangelo, all of your orphans are draped in stone and shame: Night’s damp with the tears it’s brought forth; young David’s light-footed and blameless; his beard an immovable waterfall, here’s Moses, laid out on his bedframe – free might and a lion’s proportions are silent in slavery’s hushed pain. Rome the Human raised into the air the yielding ledges of wrinkled stairs whose channels gush into a square, not as disfigured comforts like lazy sea-dwelling sponges, but for steps to resound like acts done. They’ve dug out the pits at the Forum, let Herod back in through the gates, and a hell-descended dictator’s chin sags down over Rome.
16th March 1937
* Oh somebody’s wife is off after her hubby in Kiev, down Gogol’s demonic streets, and not one tiny tear wells up to trickle her waxy cheeks. No gypsies are telling the beauties their fortunes, no violins filling the parks with their sounds. Along the Khreshchatyk the horses have fallen; death reeks in the villas’ grounds. The Red Army left with the final tram, abandoned the city and marched right out. The overcoat screeching away was damp: “We’ll be back. Of that there’s no doubt.”