Introduction & Translation by Benjamin Rozonoyer
Osip Mandelstam (4 January 1891 – 27 December 1938) was a Russian and Soviet poet, a foremost member of the Acmeist school of poetry that fractured away from the vagueness of symbolism and emphasized clarity and direct expression through images. His collection The Stone (1912) is a crowning example of Acmeism, and even his earliest poetry conveys his perception of imminence, fragility, and fatalism. In 1933 he wrote the “Stalin Epigram” which he read at a few private gatherings and which led to his arrest by the NKVD. His wife’s and his contemporaries’ intercessions saved him from execution, and he was sentenced to exile from Moscow and chose for himself the city of Voronezh where he spent 3 years and composed the Voronezh Notebooks. Very soon after the conclusion of his exile, in 1938, he was arrested a second time outside Moscow (discreetly so as not to trigger another intercessory campaign), and sentenced to five years in labor camps. He died in a transit camp in the Far East of typhoid fever and exhaustion at 47 and was buried in a mass grave.
Mandelstam’s playful poems are filled with an unmediated perception of the world and knowledge of himself, and continue to stun me every time I read them in Russian. The first three poems I translated come from The Stone, and the last one is perhaps his most iconic poem, written in 1935 with a full awareness of the cup he was drinking.
O sky, o sky, you’ll come to haunt me later!
It cannot be you’ve fully lost your seeing
And day burned up like one white sheet of paper:
A bit of vapor and a bit of cinder!
Today is a bad day; The grasshoppers’ choir sleeps, Crepuscular cliffs’ shade More gray than coffin slabs. Flickering arrows’ chime, Oracular crows’ cry... I’m seeing a bad dream, Time flash by flash flies by. Appearances’ part fringe, Terrestrial cell blast, A furious blare hymn — Riotous mysteries’ brass! O, strict is the souls’ clock — It oscillates mute, straight, And fate with passion strikes Our inward outlawed gate...
Of Thy form, tormenting and unsteady, I could not catch hold within the fog. “Lord!” I uttered accidentally, Not myself intending to say so. God’s name, like a large bird unfurling, From out of my breast took flight. Ahead of me — dense fog is curling, And an empty cage is left behind.
For the clattering valor of ages to spring, For the dignified race of mankind, At the feast of my fathers I forfeit my drink, And the glee and respect that was mine. On my shoulders the wolfhound, my century, leaps — But I am no wolf by my birth; Better stuff me inside, like a hat in a sleeve, The hot coat of Siberian earth. Not to witness the coward, the watery filth, Nor the bones in the wheel defaced; That the glimmer of snow-fox my nighttime might fill With its sky-blue primordial grace. Lead me into the night where the Yenisei flows, And the star by a fir is attained. Because I, who am not by my breeding a wolf, By my equal alone shall be slain.
Introduction & Translations: Copyright 2022 by Benjamin Rozonoyer. All rights reserved.