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Translators' Note: “Alone I stare into the frost’s white face”

BY JOHN HIGH AND MATVEI YANKELVICH

 

Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?
     — Osip Mandelstam

Always on the fringe as a poet after the revolution, in 1933 Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem about Stalin in which he portrayed the dictator in the language of "cockroaches" and "worms." If it were not for a phone conversation between Stalin and Boris Pasternak following his arrest, Mandelstam would have surely been sent immediately to the gulag and certain death. Instead, Stalin exiled him from Moscow to the province of Voronezh.

Born in 1891, Mandelstam had become integral to the Russian literary scene with the publication of his first collection of poems, Stone, in 1913, and his subsequent book, Tristia, in 1922. Associated with Acmeism, a literary movement he helped shape with Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, he sought to return to poetry a language of reality seen through ordinary things.

The poetry he wrote in exile consists of three "notebooks" written from April 1935 to the beginning of May 1937. Mandelstam referred to the poems written after his arrest as "the new poetry" (commonly known as "the later poetry" in the West)—a complex fusion of classicism, high modernism, and Soviet popular culture. The poetry is layered with subtle references to nineteenth-century literature, the crisis of the emerging Soviet regime, and the metaphorically disguised codes of the poet's "resurrection" in verse. In effect, the notebooks present a marriage of Mandelstam's Acmeist past with his experimental, almost Futurist tendencies, which pushes the poetry toward an ontological, proto-postmodernist vision of reality.

Mandelstam eventually came to see his own fate inextricably bound to the "mounds of human skulls" (Notebook III) he imagined in the black soil of the Voronezh steppes and, with time, consoled himself through the very associations that haunted and, eventually, destroyed him. After three years in exile, he returned to Moscow only to be rearrested again shortly thereafter. He died in a transit camp near Vladivostok in 1938. —JH & MY

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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