The Poems of Osip Mandelstam, tr. Ilya Bernstein (free pdf)

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Here is Ilya Bernstein's introduction:

A Note on Mandelstam’s Poems

When Mandelstam wrote, “I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice,” he was being literal. Here is how Viktor Shklovsky, Mandelstam’s neighbor for a time in the early 1920s, described him: “With his head thrown back, Osip Mandelstam walks around the house. He recites line after line for days on end. The poems are born heavy. Each line separately.” And here is how Sergey Rudakov, a young philologist and poet who visited Mandelstam in exile in Voronezh, described him in 1935: “Mandelstam has a wild way of working… I am standing in front of a working mechanism (or maybe organism, that is more precise) of poetry… The man no longer exists; what exists is – Michelangelo. He sees and remembers nothing. He walks around mumbling: ‘Like a black fern on a green night.’ For four lines, four hundred are uttered, literally… He does not remember his own poems. He repeats himself and, separating out the repetitions, writes what is new.”

In whose company does such a poet belong, who found no company in all of Russia? Happily, in the company of Yeats, who wrote: “I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for ear alone.” Or is writing from the voice not yet the same thing as writing for the ear? In Mandelstam’s poem about the ears – “Not mine, not yours, but theirs…” – he calls them the ultimate heirs of the air, which becomes songful with their dominionship over it. This poem seemed to me to have a place already prepared for it in English when I translated it and Mandelstam’s formula for the ears as the air’s heirs received lexical welcome, confirmation, approval. And when he talks about a “breathing load” in the same poem, he imagines human lips inhaling an air heavy with what is hearable in it.

A line that is arrived at only after a hundred alternatives have been spoken out loud and pushed aside is a line that very probably has nowhere left to go but where it finally went. If such poems are born heavy, then their weight is incantatory. Each line in them imposes a far-flung silence around itself and, freed from any interference, makes itself memorable. This was a feature of Mandelstam’s poetry from first to last, and it is the truest measure of his uniqueness in Russian poetry.

“Any period in poetic speech, be it a line, a stanza, or a complete lyrical composition,” wrote Mandelstam, “must be regarded as a single word.” It was the birth of such single words, we may fairly say, that Shklovsky and Rudakov witnessed when they described how Mandelstam made poems. And it is not as texts, but as indelible single words – formally if not functionally akin to magic spells – that we possess Mandelstam’s lines and poems when we retain them in memory.

            When, after destroying the sketches,
            You diligently hold in your mind
            A period without heavy glosses,
            Intact in interior dark,
            And nothing holds it together
            But the pull of its own weight…

I would write the biography of Mandelstam as a poet in terms of the progressive amplification of these incantatory acoustics in his work. Mandelstam had architectural ambitions for his poetry when he started out – that Stone in the title of his first book was meant for building – and as a young poet he bundled them up with his poetic diction. A silence surrounds the lines of his early poems, but it is easy to interpret it, thanks whether to these poems’ subject matter, whether to their stateliness of form, as a silence that might be expected to surround classical style or elevated speech. The “pull of their own weight” is apparent in them, but it is attached to something outside itself that seems to call for such weight, and so partly supplants, partly usurps its pull.

One such poem is included here: the programmatic “Tristia,” which opens with Ovid saying goodbye to his wife and closes with Hector saying goodbye to Andromache. The poet eats the bread of departure, which is leavened by these leavetakings, and finds in it the sweetness of recognition.

It was only after he returned to poetry in 1930, after a five year absence from it, that Mandelstam fully liberated his incantatoriness from its former ceremoniality, to use two probably impossible words. Or to put it more tidily: from the silence surrounding his lines, every trace of rhetoric vanished. Or, emblematically: in his last and longest work of prose about poetry, “Conversation about Dante,” (1933), Mandelstam shows himself as devoted as ever to the image of the stone, but his architectural metaphors are replaced by geological ones. And with this poet’s leap from would-be architect to would-be geologist, which he accomplished without ever taking his hand off that same stone, began Mandelstam’s great period of 1930–1937, which undoubtedly cast a transformative light on all his earlier work.


Mandelstam has a poem that may be called an initiation. It was written in the fall of 1921 in Tiflis, Georgia, after he learned that the poet Nikolai Gumilev, his friend and mentor, had been shot. The poem begins: “I was washing in the yard at night,” and it is included here. Mandelstam also has a poem that was called (by Boris Pasternak, when Mandelstam recited it to him) a suicide. This is his epigram on Stalin, which was written at the end of 1933 and was the cause of his first arrest. I have not been able to translate it, except for its first line: “We live all but numb to the land underfoot.”

Mandelstam also has a poem that is a monstrosity: his ode to Stalin, written in the middle of his last and most creative period in the spring of 1937. Joseph Brodsky called this poem – which begins: “If I were to take up charcoal for highest praise…” – Mandelstam’s Charcoal Ode (as opposed to his “Slate Ode,” about which below). This proposed label rings true to me and makes me think of a stanza from another Mandelstam poem in which drawing with charcoal is mentioned, written three years earlier, on the occasion of the death of Andrey Bely:

            And in the crowd stood an engraver
            Preparing to transfer to true copper
            What a cartoonist charcoaling paper
            But nigglingly had time to capture.

One wonders about the copper plate engraving for which the ode to Stalin would have been just a charcoal sketch. Would it bring out different details differently? Did Mandelstam himself leave it in some other poem? Perhaps it is there in the same ode, looked at from a different angle. A Charcoal Ode, then, with a Copper Ode inside, resulting in a strange double vision – a monster poem.

This was the first Mandelstam poem I translated, and my translation was a youthful prank: I wanted to try something I called “simultaneous translation of poetry,” which involved translating a poem as quickly as possible and taking any liberties necessary, while sticking as closely as possible to the rhyme and meter scheme of the original. The translation of the ode to Stalin in this collection is the result of that exercise. I have included it because it seems to work as a poem, if read briskly, and because it seems to me that doing it as a prank was the proper way to translate a poem which in some strange way was itself a prank – or maybe an anti-prank, if one can imagine such a thing…

As for the “Slate Ode,” it is Mandelstam’s hermetic ars poetica. Written in 1923, it is an exciting poem to read in Russian, with a violently achieved conceptual compactness, which might bring to mind Hart Crane’s “Atlantis.” I have tried to do this grand syllogism justice in English. Since it quotes from no less a figure in the history of the English language than the gravedigger from Hamlet in its penultimate stanza, it deserves to be visited by English speakers.

A couple of things about this poem should be said to dispel some superficial obscurity and to leave behind only that which is genuinely dense. It was inspired by an unfinished poem that the eighteenth-century poet Gavrila Derzhavin wrote down on a writing slate three days before his death, sometimes called “On Corruptibility” (1816):

            The river of time in its rushing current
            Bears all the affairs of men away
            And drowns in the abyss of oblivion
            Nations, kingdoms, and kings.
            And if through sounding lyre and trumpet
            Something does happen to remain,
            Then eternity’s maw will devour it
            And enfold it in the common fate.

Both writing slates and the slate pencils used for writing on them were made of slate (two different kinds), so that “slate” sometimes refers to the writing implement and sometimes to the tablet – its meaning should be clear from context in the poem. After slate pencils, chalk also came to be used for writing on slate, which is also mentioned in the poem. Finally, the Russian word for slate is a loan word from the German Griffel. This sounds very close to “griffon” and gives rise to a series of obviously phonetically motivated bird images in the poem. Hence, the “shrieking of the slate stone” on a precipice above the rushing current.


The first Mandelstam poem that I translated not as a prank was the “Verses on the Unknown Soldier,” written shortly after the ode to Stalin. This poem, which Mandelstam defined as an oratorio, is an apocalypse – his Apocalypsis cum Figuris. It concludes with a roll call of the dead, among whom the poet numbers himself.

Mandelstam had already put himself in the position of one already dead, but much less anonymously dead, in a poem written two years earlier: “Yes, I lie in the earth, moving my lips…” This poem belongs to a tradition in Russian poetry of translations and rewritings of Horace’s Exegi monumentum aere perennius, which had first been translated by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1747 and then rewritten by a whole succession of poets, whose versions referred to their predecessors’ in Russian more than to the Latin original. The most famous of these rewritings, which indeed became a poem “repeated by every schoolboy” in Russia, is Pushkin’s from 1836:

            I have raised a monument to myself not made by hand.
            The people’s path to it shall not become overgrown.
            It has uplifted its unruly head higher
            Than Alexander's column.

            No, all of me will not die – my soul in the sacred lyre
            Will outlive my ashes and avoid decay
            And glory shall be mine as long as in the sublunary world
            At least one poet remains.

Grimly reimagining Pushkin’s monument in 1935, Mandelstam places himself underground, the earth bulging above him, the bulge stretching out over the earth.

During the last year of Mandelstam’s exile in Voronezh, he and his wife became friendly with a young woman named Natalya Shtempel, for whom Mandelstam wrote two poems that he described, after reciting them to her, as “the best thing I’ve written.”

            There are women who belong to the damp earth,
            Whose every step is like resounding sobbing.
            To escort the resurrected and to be the first
            To greet the dead is their calling.

Who is the resurrected? Who is the dead? Obviously, Mandelstam himself – already dead during his life, and beckoning his listener to be the first person to greet him as such; already resurrected during his life, again in her company. But death and resurrection do not follow their usual order: we are shown the poet first as newly resurrected, by means of this poem, and only after this for the first time as dead, also by means of this poem. This is not the death of one who dies namelessly among the many; neither is it a death that leaves behind a monument inscribed with an impossible name; rather, it is the death-in-life of a poet and its proper realm poetry itself.

Natalya Shtempel walked with a limp, hence the opening lines of the first of the two poems dedicated to her:

            Leveling herself upon the hollow ground,
            With loveliness in her uneven steps,
            She walks, keeping a little bit ahead
            Of her quick girlfriend and young man companion.

The young man and woman mentioned in the fourth line were simply friends of Shtempel’s with whom she and Mandelstam had gone out walking on a May night shortly before Mandelstam wrote this poem, but I like to imagine that “her quick girlfriend” and “young man companion” referred also with a sweet-and-sad smile to Shtempel’s other friends – Mandelstam and his wife themselves.

December 11, 2013\

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