Solemn magic in translated poetry

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: October 07, 2012

Stolen Air

The Selected Poems

of Osip Mandelstam

Selected and translated

by Christian Wiman

Introduction by Ilya Kaminsky

Ecco. 128 pp. $15.99

Reviewed by Frank Wilson

This is a book not simply to read, but also to treasure.

It takes the form of a triptych, Ilya Kaminsky's introduction ("Osip Mandelstam: A Lyric Voice" and Christian Wiman's translator's note ("Secret Hearing") bracketing Osip Mandelstam's poems.

Kaminsky's introduction is itself a kind of prose poem, which is hardly surprising. Although he writes in English, he was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and moved with his family to Rochester, N.Y., in his teens. Ten years ago, he published a collection of poems called Musica Humana. The title poem is a deeply moving and insightful elegy for Mandelstam. Kaminsky not only knows Russian, but also embodies the Slavic poetic sensibility, which seems to have less to do with literary art than with the art of living.

The key to his introduction is the question, "What is a lyric poet?"

His answer:

A lyric poet is a self-professed "instrument" of language who changes the language. . . . [N]o great lyric poet ever speaks in the "proper" language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn't write in "proper" English grammar, but in a slanted music of fragmentary perception. . . . The lyric poet wakes up the language: The speech is revealed to us in a new and unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth.

But even the lyric poet must respond "to the epic events of his time," and Mandelstam's was a bad time indeed: "The Russian empire is now the land of Five Year Plans, with political purges, kolkhozes [collective farms], starvation in the Ukraine," and Mandelstam

asks the secretary at Litfond (a financial foundation for supporting Soviet writers) about the costs of a coffin. Why? He doesn't want a coffin of his own; when he dies, they can bury him without one. . . . He wants to be paid for his death up front.

The early poems collected here, written between 1910 and 1925, read like premonitions. There is this, for instance, from "Cathedral, Empty":

I crawl diabolical

To the foot of the cross

To sip the infinite



From destroyed


And this, from "My Animal, My Age":

. . . my beautiful, my pitiful

My necrotic, psychotic age.

More cruel for the weakness that taunts you,

More crippled for the supple animal that haunts you,

You stagger on,

Staring back at the way you've taken:

Mad tracks in a land called Gone.

Finally, this, from "You":

It's all the same,

Whoever one was,

Wherever one goes,

The cluelessness

And the youlessless

As the last tram

Lets one in,

So warm the eyes

So easily close.

The mood and the tone grow distinctly darker, though, throughout "The Moscow Notebooks," the second section, written between 1930 and 1934. Witness "Interrogation": "Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smells . . . And all these red-tape tapeworms gorging on reports."

Or "Not One Word":

Not one word.

Purge the mind of what the eye has seen:

Woman, prison, bird.


The trinity of woman, prison, and bird is all the more terrifying for not being elaborated.

This second section includes, crucially, "We Live," the poem that proved Mandelstam's undoing, what has been called "a 16-line death sentence" or "The Stalin Epigraph." In it, Mandelstam makes mention of "our Kremlin gremlin" with "his jackhammering jackboots" and how "a hairy cockroach crawls along his grin," a snook cocked at the Stalin 'stache. Mandelstam had no intention of speaking truth to power, only truth about power, but recited the poem to, among others, an informer.

When he was arrested, his interrogation left him a broken man. He was exiled to Cherdyn, in the northern Ural region, the sentence later reduced to banishment to a city called Voronezh. In May 1938, he and his wife were allowed to vacation near Moscow. But he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. He died in a transit camp near Vladivostok in December 1938, age 47.

Throughout it all, somehow, poetry sustained him:

We need poetry to wake the dark we are,

To find us and bind us beyond us

To an age of wakefulness

In the one day's unentangling sun,

Our breathing easy, ancient, like the pulse and peace

Of iambs counting down to silence.

Soul-demanding is the term Christian Wiman applies to Mandelstam in his translator's note: "How could one man be so alive in the midst of so much death? . . . How could such creedless cries seem as faithful as any saint's?" Kaminsky, who Wiman acknowledges gave him word-by-word versions of many of these poems, demonstrates the effectiveness of, for instance, the frequent alliteration by providing a phonetic version of some lines that certainly sound richly alliterative. Wiman himself says some of the poems are close to their originals, while "others are more like liberal transcriptions of original scores, and still others are more like collisions or collusions between . . . Mandelstam and me."

Somehow it all seems to work. There is a solemn magic to these words that makes most other poetry seem, in the words of Paul Verlaine (another poet intimate with suffering), "mere literature."

Frank Wilson is a former book-review editor

of The Inquirer. E-mail him at, or visit

his blog at

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