Nahrain Al-Mousawi

Nathan Cranford

Lony Haley-Nelson

Janice Mabry

Leeore Schnairsohn

Karen Yang


Translation of Selections from Osip Mandelstam's Second Voronezh Notebook (1937)

Leeore Schnairsohn
Princeton University

Osip Mendelstam broke a long poetic silence after attending a violin concert in the city of Voronezh, some 300 miles south of Moscow, where he had been exiled after his first arrest in 1934. It is unclear exactly what happened, but the torrent of poetry that followed—all composed in the face of literary disrepute, social isolation, and extreme poverty—is some of his most original and commanding verse. The difficulties for a translator are manifold, not least of which is deciding when to stop reading and to begin to write. Questions present themselves at every step of the process, and every answer threatens to be a mistake—but the poems' essential elements can nevertheless be carried (in part, at least) from Russian to English: their compaction and inventiveness, their conflation of the linguistic and the semantic, their sense of meticulous urgency.

В лицо морозу я гляжу один,—
Он—никуда, я—ниоткуда,
И все утюжится, плоится без морщин
Равнины дышащее чудо.

А солнце щурится в крахмальной нищете,
Его прищур спокоен и утешен,
Десятизначные леса—почти что те...
А снег хрустит в глазах, как чистый хлеб безгрешен.

I stare into the face of frost, alone—
He—nowhere bound, I—from nowhere
And all is ironed, plaited, wrinkleless:
The steppes' breathing marvel.

The sun squints in starched poverty,
His squint easy and hushed;
Billion–fold forests, just like the ones . . .
And snow crunches in my eyes, sinless as fresh bread.


Что делать нам с убитостью равнин,
С протяжным голодом их чуда?
Ведь то, что мы открытостью в них мним,
Мы сами видим, засыпая, зрим,
И все растет вопрос: куда они, откуда
И не ползет ли медленно по ним
Тот, о котором мы во сне кричим,—
Народов будущих Иуда?

The plains are murdered: resplendent,
Long hungry—and what can we do?
There's nothing in them we won't see
When we fall asleep—and always grows the question:
Where are they going?
Where have they come from? And there—
Crawling through them—
Isn't that the one we dream about,
And cry out: the Judas of future nations?


Как землю где-нибудь небесный камень будит,—
Упал опальный стих, не знающий отца;
Неумолимое—находка для творца—
Не может быть другим—никто его не судит.

Like a heavenly stone somewhere waking the ground,
A verse, disgraced and fatherless, fell.
What can't be changed is a creator's find—
It won't be judged: it can't be otherwise.


Как женственное серебро горит,
Что с окисью и примесью боролось,
И тихая работа серебрит
Железный плуг и песнотворца голос.

As feminine silver, wrestling
Oxide and alloy, burns—
Quiet labor silvers
The iron plough and the poet's voice.


Вооруженный зреньем узких ос,
Сосущих ось земную, ось земную,
Я чую все, с чем свидеться пришлось,
И вспоминаю наизусть и всуе...

И не рисую я, и не пою,
И не вожу смычком черноголосым:
Я только в жизнь впиваюсь и люблю
Завидовать могучим, хитрым осам.

О, если б и меня когда-нибудь могло
Заставить, сон и смерть минуя,
Стрекало воздуха и летнее тепло
Услышать ось земную, ось земную...

Armed with the eyesight of slender wasps
that suck the axis of the earth, the axis
of the earth—Calling up rote memories
in vain, I smell the things I've seen.

I don't paint, or sing, or draw
a black–voiced bow; I only pierce
the skin of life, and love
to envy wasps, powerful and sly . . .

I wish that someday I too could be forced
By a sting of air and summer heat,
To pass over sleep and death, and hear
The axis of the earth, the axis of the earth . . .


О, этот медленный одышливый простор—
Я им пресыщен до отказа!—
И отдышавшийся распахнут кругозор—
Повязку бы на оба глаза!

Уж лучше б вынес я песка слоистый нрав
На берегах зубчатых Камы,
Я б удержал ее застенчивый рукав,
Ее круги, края и ямы.

Я б с ней сработался—на век, на миг один—
Стремнин осадистых завистник—
Я б слушал под корой текущих древесин
Ход кольцеванья волокнистый.

Oh, this slow, gasping vastness . . .
I'm stuffed; no more!
The horizon is unfurling, wheezing . . .
Get me a blindfold!

I'd rather endure the sand, the moods
Of layered banks on the snag-toothed Kama;
I'd hold back a bashful stream,
Its ripples, brims, and hollows.

We'd work together, for a moment or an age—
Jealous of besieged rapids,
I'd hear fibrous encirclement
Under the bark of floating timber.


Не сравнивай: живущий несравним.
С каким–то ласковым испугом
Я соглашался с равенством равнин,
И неба круг мне был недугом.

Я обращался к воздуху–слуге,
Ждал от него услуги или вести,
И собирался плыть, и плавал по дуге
Неначинающихся путешествий.

Где больше неба мне—там я бродить готов,
И ясная тоска меня не отпускает
От молодых еще воронежских холмов
К всечеловеческим, яснеющим в Тоскане.

Don't compare—what lives is incomparable.
I agreed to the steppe's evenness
With a tender sort of fear,
A disease of horizon.

I summoned the servant air,
expecting service or some news,
and set a course along an arc
Of journeys not yet begun.

I'll roam where there's more sky . . .
But this clear longing won't let me
Leave these young Voronezh hills,
To join mankind, brightening in Tuscany.


Куда мне деться в этом январе?
Открытый город сумасбродно цепок...
От замкнутых я, что ли, пьян дверей?—
И хочется мычать от всех замков и скрепок.

И переулков лающих чулки,
И улиц перекошенных чуланы—
И прячутся поспешно в уголки
И выбегают из углов угланы...

И в яму, в бородавчатую темь
Скольжу к обледенелой водокачке
И, спотыкаясь, мертвый воздух ем,
И разлетаются грачи в горячке—

А я за ними ахаю, крича
В какой–то мерзлый деревянный короб:
—Читателя! советчика! врача!
На лестнице колючей разговора б!

Where should I drop in this January?
The city's open, luridly insistent;
Am I getting drunk on secretive doors?
All these locks and bolts make me moo.

In the runny stockings of barking alleyways,
And the storerooms of distorted streets,
Gangsters scramble into hideaways,
And spring out of dark corners.

Deep in a crater, among warty shadows,
I slide towards an icy water tower,
And eat the dead air, stumbling,
Rooks scattering in a fever;

But I gasp after them, rapping
On a frozen wooden tub:
—Reader! advisor! doctor!
A conversation, please, on this barbed staircase . . . !

Osip Mandelstam's Voronezh notebooks, a body of poetry composed during the poet's exile between 1935 and 1937, survived to see daylight despite repressions and the second World War. They first appeared in the collected works edited by Gleb Struve and Boris Fillipov in 1955, and had to wait another eighteen years before a careful excerpt could be published in the Soviet Union. Mandelstam's period in Voronezh, where he lived with his wife following his arrest in 1934, is often regarded as his most productive, but the work he produced there is undoubtedly his most abstruse. Not to say that Mandelstam's poems of the 1920s are not also difficult: indeed, they are intertextual labyrinths of literary echoes and overtones, the traces left by the poet's shoes betraying a unique and sometimes maddening path—but the scholar at least knows what his task is, and has some idea of how to use the tools at his disposal.

The Voronezh poetry doesn't represent a break with Mandelstam's earlier poetry so much as the resurrection of his voice in an altered, compromised body. Following a scandal at the end of the 1920s over a translation of Till Eugenspiegel, in which Mandelstam was publicly accused of plagiarism and essentially stripped of what remained of his literary reputation, and then a lull in publication and composition, he was arrested and subjected to the infamous hell of the Lubyanka prison. According to eyewitness accounts as well as the official records of his imprisonment and interrogations, the Lubyanka broke him physically and mentally; his recovery was still not completed when he was arrested again in 1938, dying in an eastern transit camp not long after. His widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, asserted that his poetry of the 1930s did not acquire its brilliance from the trauma and trials of imprisonment and exile, but rather lashed out against them. Nevertheless, a reader will inevitably bear witness to a certain exilic coloration in this late verse, and a scholar will most likely allow some biographical details to guide textological investigation.

However, in the Voronezh poems, the textological and the biographical can grow too close for comfort; the world library against which we could check the poet's own gestures largely fades away. Perhaps an even greater obstacle is the loss of Mandelstam's own critical accompaniment. From 1909 to 1933, he wrote dozens of articles of critical prose: dense and allusive, these not only shine light on general literary problems but also reflect and distill ideas and concerns that were driving Mandelstam's poetry. In Voronezh, there is nothing of the sort, perhaps because he had no place to publish it. Of course, there was no hope of publishing the poetry either, and his circle of listeners was limited to his wife and a scant number of friends. His circle of references appears also to have been radically condensed—not to suggest that he tailored his poems to his readership, but rather that he must have felt he was writing into a void, and the intense presence of emptiness (which is obvious in these poems) forced new potential into the word, gave it greater density.

The best bet is to read these poems with as much help as possible from every source available. These are principally biography, though this is dominated by Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs; lexical and thematic connections between these poems and others from the Voronezh period; and theoretical connections with any and all of Mandelstam's critical texts. For example, we know that the poet suffered terrible breathing problems: this understanding can not only deepen our reading of the theme of suffocation in the Voronezh poems but also help us imagine their metrical and phonological landscape as determined by intense concentration and anxiety about inhaling and exhaling. We know that he loved the sea and the freedom associated with it: this makes it easier to imagine the despair with which he may have gazed over the furrowed plains of Voronezh, cruelly mimicking the expanse of the ocean. These two concerns together can help us read the images in Oh, this slow gasping vastness . . . which fuse suffocation with expanse, breathing with sight.

More immediate, and more trying for the translator, are linguistic clues in the surrounding texts. In Voronezh especially, Mandelstam wrote in cycles, poetic impulses that produced variant after variant, some of which developed into discrete poems. Mikhail Gasparov in his study of Mandelsam's civic verse of 1937 fixes the second Voronezh cycle as surrounding Mandelstam's composition of an ode to Stalin, basing this conclusion on clues both thematic and lexical. The former include possible references to Stalin (including one Judas of unborn nations); the latter comprise the cluster os which, Gasparov points out, is shared by the given names of both Mandelstam (Osip) and Stalin (Josef). Readers of Russian will only have to look at the original text of Armed with the eyesight of narrow wasps to pick up on it (most strikingly in the Russian words for wasp (оса, osa) and axis (ось, os'). These clues can sharpen the background of the poems' composition; they help us imagine the stuff into which the impulse (the spirit, if you will) was introduced and in which it found its form.

Pavel Nerler sees Mandelstam's cycles as enfoldments of time, as in Bergson's fan. Nerler posits that the cycle as such corresponds to Mandelstam's obsession with the power of poetic discourse to preserve phenomena against the passage of time, which he formulated (in part) as a play of burial against resurrection. Poetry is the plough that turns up time, he writes in a 1921 essay, and in the Voronezh poems layers of earth are clearly visible: in furrows, pits, hills, mounds, the depths of riverbanks, even the earth's core; and often linked with ideas of time and language. Mandelstam's muse may have decided to reappear in Voronezh not out of desire, but out of necessity—this plough may have been the only tool with which the poet could come to terms with his new landscape.

Works Cited

Gasparov, Mikhail. O. Mandel'shtam: grazhdanskaya lirika 1937 goda [Civil poetry of
Moscow: RGGU, 1997.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope: A Memoir. Trans. Max Hayward. New York:
        Atheneum, 1970.

Mandelstam, Osip. Unpublished verse. In Osip Mandelstam: Sobranie Sochinenii
        [Collected Works]
. Ed. P. Nerler and A. Nikitaev. Vol. 3. Moscow:
        Mandel'shtamovskoe Obshchestvo, 1993.

–––. Slovo i kul'tura [The word and culture]. In Osip Mandelstam: Sobranie Sochinenii
        [Collected Works]
. Ed. P. Nerler and A. Nikitaev. Vol. 1. Moscow:
        Mandel'shtamovskoe Obshchestvo, 1993. 211-216.

Nerler, Pavel. O kompozitsionnykh printsipakh pozdnego Mandel'shtama. (K
        postanovke problemy) [On compositional principles in late Mandelstam. (Towards
        the establishment of problems)].
Osip Mandel'shtam: K 100-letiiu so dnia
        rozhdeniia. Poetika i tekstologiia.
London, 1991. 326-342.

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