Archive for Osip Mandelstam
Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for — and jealousy of — brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. The words and influence of this ‘Kremlin crag-dweller’ and ‘peasant-slayer’ on literature were, as Mandelstam wrote in his famously scabrous poem denouncing Stalin, ‘leaden’, his ‘fat fingers…greasy as maggots’. But, ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge. Stalin never ceased caring about poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, ‘In Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it.’
The ex-romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism but promoted his distorted version of Romanticism, Socialist Realism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He talked endlessly about the Georgian poets of his childhood, and he himself helped edit a Russian translation of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin, delicately translating some of the couplets himself and asking modestly: ‘Will they do?’
Stalin respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill Party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam’s arrest Stalin ordered, ‘Isolate but preserve.’ He would preserve most of his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at other times denouncing and impoverishing them. When he called Pasternak in one of his telephonic lightning-strikes from Olympus, he asked about Mandelstam: ‘He’s a genius, isn’t he?’ Mandelstam’s tragedy was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse — the medium of the dictator’s own childhood dreams — but also by Pasternak’s failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was not sentenced to death, but nor was he preserved, perishing on the dystopian road to Gulag hell. But Stalin did preserve Pasternak: ‘Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.’
–From Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore
You are the guilty debtor of a long thirst,
the wise procurer of wine and water,
on your sides, the young goats dance
and the fruits ripen to the music.
The flutes whistle, swear and are angry
at the trouble on your black and red rim
and no one can take you up
and put this trouble right.
–Mandelstam trans. McKane
The state shame of the Egyptians
was adorned with pedigree dogs –
the dead were endowed with all sorts of things
and the pyramid stuck up – a mere trifle.
He lived mischievously alongside the gothic,
and spat on the spider’s rights,
the insolent schoolboy and robber angel,
the incomparable François Villon.
–Mandelstam trans. McKane
I’ve many years to live before I’m a patriarch.
I’m at an age that commands little respect.
They swear at me, behind my back,
in the senseless, pointless language of tram fights.
‘You bastard!’ Well, I apologize,
but deep down I don’t change at all.
When you think of your connection with the world
you can’t believe it. It is nonsense.
A midnight key from someone else’s flat,
a silver penny in the pocket
and stolen film.
I hurl myself like a puppy at the hysterical
ringing of the telephone.
I hear greetings spoken in Polish,
a gentle long distance rebuke,
or an unfulfilled promise.
You’re always thinking about what you really desire
in the midst of all the crackers and fireworks.
Then you burst, and all that’s left
is confusion and being out of work.
Just try even getting a light for a cigarette from that.
I smile at times, at times I timidly dress up
and go out with my white-knobbed cane.
I listen to sonatas in the backstreets.
My mouth waters as I pass by food-stalls.
I leaf through books in muddy doorways,
and I’m not living but somehow I am.
I shall walk to the sparrows and the reporters
and the street photographers who will take my picture,
and in five minutes pull it out
like a wet spade from a child’s bucket,
and I’ll look at my likeness
against the backdrop of the purple Shah mountain.
Or I’ll go on errands
into the steamy basement laundry
where the clean, honest Chinamen
eat fried dough balls with chopsticks
and play with narrow cut cards,
and drink vodka as the swallows sip the Yangtse.
I enter the robbers’ paradise of museums
where Rembrandt paintings gleam
like rubbed Cordoba leather.
I’ll gaze at the Titian priests in tricorn hats,
and wonder at Tintoretto’s thousand squawking parrots.
And how much I want to be carried away by play,
to have a conversation, to speak the truth,
to blow my depression to the mist, the devil and to hell,
to take someone by the hand and say to him ‘Be kind-
we’re on the same road.’
–translation Richard & Elizabeth McKane
22 OCTOBER 1938
Osia, my beloved, faraway sweetheart!
I have no words, my darling, to write this letter that you may never read, perhaps. I am writing in empty space. Perhaps you will come back and not find me here. Then this will be all you have to remember me by.
Osia, what a joy it was living together like children – all our squabbles and arguments, the games we played, and our love. Now I do not even look at the sky. If I see a cloud, who can I show it to?
Remember the way we brought back provisions to make our poor feasts in all the places where we pitched our tent like nomads? Remember the good taste of bread when we got it by a miracle and ate it together? And our last winter in Voronezh. Our happy poverty, and the poetry you wrote. I remember the time we were coming back once from the baths, when we bought some eggs or sausage, and a cart went by loaded with hay. It was still cold and I was freezing in my short jacket (but nothing like what we must suffer now: I know how cold you are). That day comes back to me now. I understand so clearly, and ache from the pain of it, that those winter days with all their troubles were the greatest and last happiness to be granted us in life.
My every thought is about you. My every tear and every smile is for you. I bless every day and hour of our bitter life together, my sweetheart, my companion, my blind guide in life.
Like two blind puppies we were, nuzzling each other and feeling so good together. And how fevered your poor head was, and how madly we frittered away the days of our life. What joy it was, and how we always knew what joy it was.
Life can last so long. How hard and long for each of us to die alone. Can this fate be for us who are inseparable? Puppies and children, did we deserve this? Did you deserve this, my angel? Everything goes on as before. I know nothing. Yet I know everything – each day and hour of your life are plain and clear to me as in a delirium.
You came to me every night in my sleep, and I kept asking what had happened, but you did not reply.
In my last dream I was buying food for you in a filthy hotel restaurant. The people with me were total strangers. When I had bought it, I realized I did not know where to take it, because I do not know where you are.
When I woke up, I said to Shura: ‘Osia is dead.’ I do not know whether you are still alive, but from the time of that dream, I have lost track of you. I do not know where you are. Will you hear me? Do you know how much I love you? I could never tell you how much I love you. I cannot tell you even now. I speak only to you, only to you. You are with me always, and I who was such a wild and angry one and never learned to weep simple tears – now I weep and weep and weep.
It’s me: Nadia. Where are you?
It is your fate, for your narrow shoulders to turn red under the lashes,
red under the lashes, to burn in the frost,
for your childish hands to lift the iron,
to lift the iron and tie bundles,
for your tender bare feet to tread on glass,
to tread on glass and on the bloody sand.
And as for me, I burn after you like a black candle,
burn like a black candle and dare not pray.
— Osip Mandelstam, February 1934