Osip Mandelstam’s Black Earth

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who not only lived to witness the collapse of the Soviet Union but played a major role in bringing it about, once observed that, “For a country to have a great writer […] is like having another government. That’s why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” Give Stalin credit, then: he recognized greatness in Osip Mandelstam, who one evening made the fatal mistake of reading aloud a poem critical of Stalin, likening his fingers to “ten thick worms” and his moustache to “huge laughing cockroaches.” He thought he was among friends, but he thought wrong: someone copied down the satirical verses and conveyed them to the authorities, and from that moment on Mandelstam was forever looking over his shoulder. From that moment on, he was under constant surveillance, and despite the best efforts of his friends and literary allies – including Boris Pasternak – he was eventually arrested and exiled to the northern Ural region, though his stature as an eminent writer shielded him from the worst punishments of banishment. Alas, not long after his return from exile, he was re-arrested and sentenced to a further five years in a “correction camp,” but his body gave out before his sentence could be prosecuted: he died of typhoid fever while in transit, three years shy of his 50th birthday. His anonymous corpse was tossed into a mass grave. Black Earth, a new translation of Mandelstam’s selected poetry and prose, was published earlier this year to critical acclaim. The acclaimed translator, Peter France, editor of the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, no doubt deserves much of the credit: his renditions are elegant, precise, and, when needed, devastating.

Osip Mandelstam was destined to be an enemy of the regime. He was born in Warsaw to Jewish parents and given the kind of classical education, in France, Germany and Italy, that forever inoculates the soul against ideological possession. His poems are replete with allusions to Greek and Latin literature and mythology, and his imaginative escapes – in Peter France’s telling – were ancient Greece, Ovid’s Rome and Dante’s Tuscany. “I have been given a blessed heirloom – / the wandering songs of foreign bards; / now knowingly we have the freedom / to scorn the dullness of our days.” But this vision of beauty and human flourishing bequeathed to him through literature also imposed upon him a terrible burden: he could not keep silent when the Revolution he once supported and had high hopes for descended into barbarity and murder. The poems in this volume draw from his entire career, and therefore show us not only his poetic development but also his growing antipathy for Stalin and the Soviet project. Here, for example, is one of the earlier poems, from 1909:

No need to speak of anything,
no call to teach a single thing,
and the dark animal soul
feels sad or good as seasons roll:

It does not wish to teach a thing,
it cannot speak of anything,
and, like a young dolphin, it will play
in the grey gulfs of everyday.

The kind of resilient, care-free attitude on display here will all but dissipate by the end of the next decade, when he will have personal experience of “the black velvet of the Soviet night, / the velvet of the cosmic void.” In “January 1, 1924,” we get a glimpse of the alienation he began to feel as a poet among zealots, desperately trying to shield the delicate flame of art from the “tyrant-age,” filled with “treacherous and empty years”:

What agony to seek a word that’s vanished,
to life the patient’s lids, and then
with quicklime in the blood, to go by night to gather
herbs for an alien race of men.

By the 1930s, alienation gives way to fear: the regime has shown its true colors, locking up dissidents and careless critics, even murdering its perceived “enemies.” In “Leningrad,” Mandelstam makes his fear palpable:

Petersburg! I’m not ready to die quite so soon:
You have in your phone book the numbers I know.

Petersburg! I’ve addresses still fixed in my head
to find all the voices of those who are dead.

On a back stair, a black stair, I live, and the bell,
torn out by the roots, stabs my temple as well,

and I’ll wait for those guests, those dear guests, all night long,
while the fetters of door-chains keep singing their song.

The incongruity between the phrase “singing their song” and its referent, the attempt by intruders to enter and abduct, gives the poem a chilling character.

The saddest poem, in my judgment, is one in which Mandelstam bemoans the sheer inadequacy of his character to face the times before him. The time is out of joint, radicals and revolutionaries hold power, and he is only a bookish wordsmith, laughably inadequate to stand against the march:

For the noisy valor of future years,
for a lofty race of men,
I have lost my cup at the fathers’ feast,
my honor, my cheerfulness.

The wolfhound century leaps on my back,
but I have no wolf in my blood,
oh, hide me deep and warm, like a cap
in the sleeve of Siberia’s coat.

Let me see no coward, no sticky slime,
no wheel with bones and blood,
but silver foxes that shine all night
with a grace from before the flood.

Bear me off to the dark-flowing Yenisey
where pine trees stretch to the stars,
because I have no wolf in my blood,
and shall only be killed by my peers.

Every age, no doubt, produces its quantum of poetic souls, but it was Osip Mandelstam’s fate to live in a time of trouble, the “wolfhound century” that could not ignore him and would not spare him. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he once quipped. “It gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” In any other age, he would have merely been a poet; Russia made him a prophet.