Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Poem No 395

Osip Mandelstam

Through Kiev, through the streets of the monster
some wife's trying to find her husband.
One time we knew that wife,
the wax cheeks, dry eyes.

Gypsies won’t tell fortunes for beauties.
Here the concert hall has forgotten the instruments.
Dead horses along the main street.
The morgue smells in the nice part of town.

The Red Army trundled its wounded
out of town on the last street car,
one blood-stained overcoat calling,
“Don't worry, we’ll be back!”

What is the most remarkable about this poem is that it exists at all. In 1934, Osip Mandelstam was arrested in Moscow on Stalin's personal orders, effectively for the crime of writing ideologically non-conformist poetry: art instead of propaganda. He was exiled to Voronezh in Siberia, where this poem was written some three years later - May 1937 to be exact. 

I include this poem, rather than any other, because it is the tyranny of art that it condemns with Truth that which is untruthful; and then is condemned itself by Lies. Mandelstam died in 1938, on his way to a labour camp; for fifty years after his death all his writings were suppressed. That copies survived at all seems now miraculous; that the Soviet Empire died so quickly perhaps more so. After Gorbachev, there remains Mandelstam, testimony to the power of the word to endure. I include it, not because it was his best poem, but because it was his very last, and that last line becomes transformed into prophesy precisely by the poem being so.
As to that postumous life, when he did come back, few writers of the Soviet era endured with greater respect and honour that Osip Mandelstam:- 

Yevgeny Yevtushenko (whose "Babi Yar" is also in this collection - click here - and himself in my "Book of Days" - click here) tells briefly, in his novel "Wild Berries", how he "stood in line all night at the Writers' Bookstore to buy the one-volume Mandelstam, but didn't get it. I found it on Nevsky for fifty, from book scalpers" Nevsky Prospekt, in what was no longer Leningrad, but now, once again, St Petersburg

Varlam Shalamov, in the penultimate story in his "Kolyma Tales", recounts the last days of a man in a labour camp near Vladivostok, not named as Mandelstam, but clearly Mandelstam from the detail - Shalamov was the principal inspiration behind Solzhenitsyn, when he decided to take the life-risk of writing his novels about the Soviet labour camps, "The First Circle" and "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch", as well, in "Cancer Ward" as daring to pen a severely critical account of Stalin - it was for doing precisely that that Mandelstam was originally arrested. 

Boris Pasternak speaks endlessly of Mandelstam in his letters, autobiography and diaries - it was at Pasternak's apartment in Moscow that Mandelstam wrote what is now known as "The Stalin Epigram", and it was Pasternak who, receiving a telephone call from Stalin about that poem, did his utmost to protect his friend from persecution. There are strong hints throughout the novel that Pasternak had Mandelstam in mind when he created his otherwise entirely fictional Dr Zhivago.

Finally there are Nadezhda Mandelstam's extraordinary memoirs, "Hope Against Hope" and "Hope Abandoned", and his fellow Acmeist Anna Akhmatova's poem in tribute to him, about which I have also written in this blog - click here.


  1. Thank you David.
    I have just received
    The selected poems of Osip Mandelstum
    And The first poem I read
    Was poem no.395.
    I am too small to write any comment
    about the Heart breaking poem .
    The book shall be a treasure
    in my small collection of poetry books.

  2. I am happy that there are people in the world still reading him, and thank you for posting a comment