The Berries to Stalin
Osip Mandelstam: New Translations
Ilya Bernstein, ed.
Ugly Duckling Presse
It cannot have occurred to anyone that Stalin thought executions “were the berries”. One poem is translated twice, another thrice, a third five times by five different hands. This points up Bernstein’s “must necessarily become elusive” and his “triangulated grasp of the complex outlines”.
The early poems go well and are admirable. With 1931, the first doubling. Mandelstam contemplates Siberia, and between Fridman and Halberstadt a good idea of his plight is obtained. Probstein gives “Impressionism” cleanly, Gritsman’s “Old Crimea” lacks a note or two. Some of the “Octaves” later. “I live among high-minded vegetable gardens” is like a scene from David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago. Now the trio of wintry desolation again unfolds the meaning of Mandelstam’s eight lines.
The quintuplet of translations on the bare plain in winter and the poet’s heroism bespeaks a certain form of discretion, as in another way (after the following spring poem) Bernstein’s treatment of the last poem, gliding over the oxymorons of satire and the deeper contradiction of the second, final stanza.
So much for an overview. “Hagia Sophia” is imperishable, “Notre Dame” a model of composition, Homer the very thing. From these acmes, then, to “Moscow’s five-domed cathedrals, bathed in their / Italian and Russian spirit, seem / Like bright Aurora rising in the air, / But in fur coat and with a Russian name.” Greece before Christ, “The Tortoise” of the lyre, “Where no one breaks the loaf in two and bites, / Where there are only milk, honey and wine”, evoked with Villon’s snow. He concludes the decade in 1920 by resolving on an art “to ease the burden of time.” Straightaway he exercises it on Venice, “Venetsya... Venetyanka... Susannah must await the elders.”
“Leningrad”, a famous poem, is like Nabokov’s nightmare of return. He is in exile, the wolves are about but there is a fine interlude of summer.
“Octaves” represents perhaps a change of startled expression, “All we are is Hagia Sophia / With an infinite many of eyes.” He needs them, to bear witness, yet “see how I go blind, become strengthened / bowing to the smallest of roots? / Are my eyes not blown apart / by the exploding trees?”
There is “an uneven sweetness in her steps / She walks—running a bit ahead // ...carried forward by a constrained freedom / Owed to an animating shortcoming / And it may well be that a lucid guess” etc., answered in the second stanza by the women at the tomb, the permanence of sky and earth and promise.