Osip Mandelstam


Born in January, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a prominent leather merchant and his mother a teacher of music. Mandelstam attended the renowned Tenishev School and later studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of St. Petersburg, though he left off his studies to pursue writing. He published his first collection, Kamen,or Stone (1913), when Russian Symbolism was the dominant persuasion. Like Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, who cleared the ground for Russian Futurism, Mandelstam departed from this old mode of expression in favor of a more direct treatment of thoughts, feelings, and observations under the aegis of Acmeism, a program that included Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. As translator Clarence Brown observes, Mandelstam's variant of Acmeism was a mixture of poetics and moral doctrine, the former based on an "intuitive and purely verbal logic of inner association" and the latter on a kind of "democratic humanism." His second book, Tristia (1922), secured his reputation, and both it and Stone were released a year later in new editions.

Yet the Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. The poet published three more books in 1928—Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, a book of prose—as the state closed in on him. Mandelstam spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago.

Source: Poets.org: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/698


The Stalin Epigram


translated by W. S. Merwin

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 measures 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 meows, 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.
 

 

A flame is in my blood 

 

A flame is in my blood
burning dry life, to the bone.
I do not sing of stone,
now, I sing of wood.

It is light and coarse:
made of a single spar,
the oak’s deep heart,
and the fisherman’s oar.

Drive them deep, the piles:
hammer them in tight,
around wooden Paradise,
where everything is light


Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight

Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight –
the great, darkening year.
Into the seething waters of the night
heavy forests of nets disappear.
O Sun, judge, people, your light 
is rising over sombre years 

Let us glorify the deadly weight
the people’s leader lifts with tears.
Let us glorify the dark burden of fate,
power’s unbearable yoke of fears.
How your ship is sinking, straight,
he who has a heart, Time, hears.

We have bound swallows
into battle legions - and we,
we cannot see the sun: nature’s boughs
are living, twittering, moving, totally:
through the nets –the thick twilight - now
we cannot see the sun, and Earth floats free.

Let’s try: a huge, clumsy, turn then
of the creaking helm, and, see - 
Earth floats free. Take heart, O men.
Slicing like a plough through the sea,
Earth, to us, we know, even in Lethe’s icy fen,
has been worth a dozen heavens’ eternity.