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 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 it 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 forty years after his death all his writings were suppressed. That copies survived 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.

My thanks, once again, to Ze'ev for the cartoon.


  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