Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem from Osip Mandelstam

The taunting form of your face
eluded my grasp in the cloud.
God, I called out by mistake—
I’d never called him aloud.

God’s name unfurled from my chest
like a bird from a cage and
soared through the thick, swirling mist.
Behind the bare cage I stand.

                  trans. Holly Woodward

Osip Mandelstam's poem

My mouth is frozen cold—

my skin is shivering,

but the sky dances gold,

commanding me to sing:

Weep, suffer love, know it,

and don’t drop the frail ball,

you tormented poet,

that I’ve lightly let fall.

So this is the real tie

to heaven’s secret realms,

in this heavy, dark sky—

the sadness overwhelms.

What if, above that shop,

this star shining so hard

were suddenly to drop

through my heart like a shard?

translated by Holly Woodward

Two judgments bookend Mandelstam’s work:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses and was about to dismiss them. But Makovsky said that he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” He turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He then had to publish the poems.
A second judgment came n 1934, under Stalin’s escalating reign of terror. Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. He never wrote the lines down.
When a copy arrived on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow knew it. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked him, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”