Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s friends and family memorized his poems during his exile in 1934 to protect them from being destroyed or lost. Mandelstam’s poetry has since been translated by such poets as Paul Célan and the dynamic duo of W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown. Nearly eighty years after his exile, Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry magazine and author of three poetry collections, offers his own voice to the translations of Mandelstam’s poetry. Wiman crafts Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam to bring out a lyricism that has not been seen in past Mandelstam translations.
Stolen Air is divided into three chronological sections. Mandelstam’s “Early Poems (1910-1925)” introduce the reader to Mandelstam’s inner struggle with the human condition. This struggle is seen in the poem “Casino,” where the speaker begins without any hope: “Pointless any happiness that happens by plan: / To live in nature is to suffer luck.” But Mandelstam is always one to note how existence—any existence—has some sense of overseeing hopefulness, such as, “…the tight rosebuds of wine that bloom in the mind, / And the towering, scouring seagull, in whose eyes nothing is lost” (“Casino”). Mandelstam’s speakers always want to be brought “…to the brink of mountains, mystic / Dread, rapture of fear I feel and…fail.” Even when brought to this hinge between life and death, the speaker notes that, “Still: the swallow slicing blue is beautiful”—still, there is some beauty to be seen in the world (“Bring Me to the Brink”).
The collection’s second section, “The Moscow Notebooks (1930-1934)” is Mandelstam’s heartbroken stroll through his city. In “Leningrad” Mandelstam comes back to Petersburg, his quiet city, where he notices, “…the doorbell’s wired to my nerves, rooted in the meat of me, // And all night I itch untouchable…Waiting for the door to rattle in its chains.” Mandelstam’s lyric gives voice to the fall of Petersburg to the Stalinist Regime. He sees his city as full of “Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smell /…And all these red-tape tapeworms gorging on reports” (“Interrogation”). Once again, Mandelstam counters his broken heart with a call for his lover: “Come love let us play the game / Of what to take and when to run / Of come with me and come what may / And holding hands to hold off the sun.” Mandelstam’s lyric takes on the essence of the “game,” as he hopes to lead not just his lover, but the reader, towards brighter days.
The final section, the “Voronezh Notebooks (1934-1937),” are poems focused on Mandelstam’s new world of exile with its “endless nights” where he finds “All of space crushed suddenly to one dark tick” (“Tick”). Despite his exile, Mandelstam is aware that, “The mouth still moves though the man cannot” (“You Have Stolen My Ocean”). Here is a man whose body cannot enter his beloved city, and yet can still communicate. Mandelstam allows his voice to become disembodied so it may travel through the elements and fall onto the hopeful ears of others in exile, of others enduring sadness. In the collection’s final poem, “And I Was Alive,” Mandelstam ends on the joyful image of “Blossoms [that] rupture and rapture the air, / All hover and hammer, / Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot. / It is now. It is not.” Although Mandelstam endured the rest of his life in exile, he is still able to walk away from his life knowing that there is still joy to be seen in the world.
This embedded story of despair and hope can easily be applied to the idea of translation. Ilya Kaminsky introduces Wiman’s translations, noting that Wiman considers these to be versions rather than “true” translations. Although many of these translated poems have been constructed in quatrains or sets of staccato lines, Wiman could have easily compromised Mandelstam’s original forms. But there is no way to tell without having Mandelstam’s Russian poetry side-by-side, nor should this matter. More than anything, Wiman is focused on crafting poems that are alive in this century. There is no exact transaction with languages—one does not get a perfect replica of a word or meaning. Instead, Wiman allows his own lyricism to guide him through Mandelstam’s poetic world. Through invoking their shared appreciation for musicality, Wiman crafts a contemporary language out of Mandelstam’s lyrics that allows for wordplay—the “muddleduck” in “Memories of Audrey Bely,” his invocation of an entire meadow by using “meadowsweet” in “The Necklace.” With a fresh tongue, Mandelstam is able to speak through Wiman to bring his poems into a new generation. We are fortunate to receive this book now, so we can share it for years to come.
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