Of Osip Mandelshtam's (1891-1938) Poems, which appeared in 1928, Robert Chandler writes that they "register a disintegration so absolute that the magnificent tragedy of Tristia is no longer possible, for tragedy presupposes the existence of generally accepted values." (Selected Poems, p. 90) The poem below shows that disintegration, the outer world of Stalinist persecution pressing in like a tumor, or a vise, on the poet's perceptions, such that the stars that Rilke could see shimmering through sky and skin and wall are, to Mandelshtam's eye, dissolving like salt into the troubled solvent of the world around him. 10 years after the appearance of this volume, he would be dead, in a gulag, a "transit camp," named "Vtoraya Rechka," near Vladivostok, Russia. Up to this point he was gaining a waxing reputation as one of the greatest poets of his generation. He went through several formal shifts: initially a populist poet, he became one of the foremost symbolists of the Acmeist group, even writing its manifesto, The Morning of Acmeism (1919), before turning to neo-classical models. He also wrote critical essays, memoirs, and imaginative prose. Throughout, his crystalline precision, deft associativeness, and vivid imagery endure.
In 1933, he wrote a poem considered critical of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, which he delivered in private circles, but the fact of the poem, as well as his career up that point, spelled certain doom, and by the end of the year, he was arrested. His punishment was neither death nor the gulag (yet), but exile to the Urals. After he attempted suicide and because of the intercession of Nikolai Bukharin, he and his wife Nadezhda were allowed to "choose" to move to Voronezh. He continued to write, including a poem clearly praising Stalin, but this was not enough to counter the inventiveness and freedom of his work, which led to the Soviet literary hackdom's 1937 condemnation of him and his work for "counterrevolutionary" activities, another arrest, and a subsequent sentence of five years in a correction camp. He never made it out. His published work, as well as the poems his wife Nadezhda, friends and editors preserved, are testimony to his exceptional talents, as well as his capacity for revealing the beauty in truth, bleak as it sometimes--often--is.
[I was washing at night in the courtyard]
I was washing at night in the courtyard,
Harsh stars shone in the sky.
Starlight, like salt on an axe-head--
The rain-butt was brim-full and frozen.
The gates are locked,
And the earth in all conscience is bleak.
There's scarcely anything more basic and pure
Than truth's clean canvas.
A star melts, like salt, in the barrel
And the freezing water is blacker,
Death cleaner, misfortune saltier,
And the earth more truthful, more awful.
Copyright © Osip Mandelstam, from Selected Poems, selected and translated by James Green, Forewords by Nadezhda Mandelshtam and Donald Davie, Introduction by Donald Rayfield. London: Penguin, 1991. All rights reserved