Poetry Review: “54” by Osip Mandelstam

osip-mandelstamOsip Mandelstam is an artistic martyr, a saint of the imagination. No poet sacrificed as much for his art. No poet paid more dearly for believing in the power of language and beauty and the freedom of imagination.

Exiled and incarcerated often in Soviet Russia for what he wrote, Mandelstam reminds us that words domatter. That one of the first casualties of the demonic is beauty and pleasure.

While Mandelstam is probably read and admired by westerners more than any other Russian poet, I still do not think he is read enough.

On a bleak, wet May morning Mandelstam seems like just the thing.

Enjoy!

 

54 (trans. by W.S. Merwin)

Poison in the bread, the air drunk dry.
Hard to doctor the wounds.
Joseph sold into Egypt
grieved no more bitterly for home.

Bedouins under the stars
close their eyes, sitting their horses,
and improvise songs
out of the troubles of the day.

No lack of subject:
one lost a quiver in the sand,
one bartered away a stallion…
the mist of events drift away.

And if the song is sung truly,
from the whole heart, everything
at last vanishes: nothing is left
but space, the stars, the singer.

 

Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

And if the song is sung truly,
from the whole heart, everything
at last vanishes: nothing is left
but space, the stars, the singer.

 

In these lines I hear echoes of Yeats’s Cuchulain Comforted, “They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.”

Here we have, in the Mandelstam’s own words (rendered beautifully by Merwin), his artisticcredo, his faith in the ultimate power of poetry and imagination. And the best explanation for why evil will always try to destroy art.

 

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