"The poem ["Epigram Against Stalin"] had cost Mandelstam his life; writing it was an act of incredible recklessness, bravery, or artistic integrity. In the years since, I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and one thought has never left me in peace: though I labored long and patiently over my translation, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the results...Described by one critic as the sixteen lines of a death sentence, this is perhaps the twentieth century’s most important political poem, written by one of its greatest poets against the man who may well be said to have been the cruelest of its tyrants....When Mandelstam is taken prisoner on the night of May 13, 1934, the NKVD does not yet have a definitive version of the poem. The presiding judge asks the poet to write out an authorized version of the poem for him and the poet obligingly does so....He wrote out the poem with the same pen the judge used to write the sentence that sealed his fate."---José Manuel Prieto (From pages 1 and 3, New York Review of Books, 6-10-10)EPIGRAM AGAINST STALINWe live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away.
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man.
His greasy fingers are thick as worms,
his words weighty hammers slamming their target.
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker,
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
Mandelstam hated the Bolshevik tyranny from the day it took power, and with a crazy courage that still takes the breath away, he made his feelings known. One night he saw a secret-police official swilling vodka in a public house and drunkenly transcribing the names of political undesirables on a large stack of execution writs. Outraged, the pint-sized poet charged across the room, snatched up the warrants, ripped them to shreds and ran out into the night...
Ovid's poetry had made him a leading figure in the social and literary circles at Rome, when in AD 8 he was suddenly banished by Augustus to Tǒmis on the western shore of the Black Sea and his books removed from the public libraries. (He suffered only relegatio, which meant that he retained his property and civic rights at Rome, not the more severe exsilium.) According to Ovid himself the grounds for this sentence were two, carmen and error, that is, a poem and a blunder; the poem was the Ars amatoria, published eight years before. The error, which Ovid refers to only obliquely, but insists was not scelus, ‘a crime’, was connected with the Julian family to which Augustus belonged; Ovid seems to have been present when something culpable was done, perhaps being involved in one of the adulteries of Augustus' granddaughter Julia, also banished in AD 8. The error must have provided the occasion for the emperor to satisfy his resentment at the poem, which ran counter to his moralistic legislation and had been published and won enormous success soon after Augustus discovered his daughter Julia (see (4)) to be a notorious adulteress (2 BC).
You will go, my little book, without me to the city, but I don't envy you. Go on--go to the city forbidden to me--forbidden to your master.
Ovid is a writer's writer, and many great poets have studied his poetry. Even children read selections from Ovid's Metamorphoses such as "Daedalus" and Icarus" and "Pyramus and Thisbe." Mandelstam, who undoubtedly sought to emulate the words and deeds of the Roman poet Ovid, also composed a 1918 poem titled "Tristia." (Scroll down to read a translation of Mandelstam's "Tristia" in English or the original in Russian.) But Ovid, unlike his disciple Mandelstam, probably did not anticipate the tragic consequences of mocking the Emperor.
Mandelstam had recited the poem in private to Pasternak, always the more cautious and astute of the two (Pasternak would die in his bed, in the privileged writers’ villa of Peredelkino). His response was:
"What you have just recited to me bears no relationship whatsoever to literature or to poetry. This is not a literary achievement but a suicidal action of which I do not approve and which I do not wish to have any part in. You have not recited anything to me and I did not hear anything and I beg you not to recite this to anyone else ever."
Nevertheless, the poet did so, and on more than one occasion.
1.In 1996, the Mexican historian Jean Meyer asked me to translate a poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (born in Warsaw in 1891; died in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, near Vladivostok, in 1938). The poem was the celebrated “Epigram Against Stalin,” which begins with the line “My zhivem pod soboiu ne chuia strany” (“We live without feeling the country beneath our feet”). In 1980, I’d moved from Havana, my birthplace, to Siberia to study engineering at the University of Novosibirsk, and like anyone else who lived in Russia through the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, I knew the poem well. I had often recited it aloud in admiration of its formal qualities, in particular that first line, whose words have an almost magical force.No version of the poem then existed in Spanish; the French translation that had just appeared in Vitaly Shentalinsky’s La parole ressuscitée made so impoverished a contrast to the extraordinary beauty of the original that I immediately began translating a more satisfactory variant, trying to capture the poem’s charm while preserving its severe gravity. I worked on it for several days and came up with a translation that Jean Meyer included in his history of Russia and its empires, and that I posted on the wall over my desk.The poem had cost Mandelstam his life; writing it was an act of incredible recklessness, bravery, or artistic integrity. In the years since, I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and one thought has never left me in peace: though I labored long and patiently over my translation, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the results. The poem simply would not take; the translation felt like a pallid copy of the original Russian, which is as beautiful and powerful as if it had been carved in stone. Unlike the work of Joseph Brodsky, whom I’ve also translated extensively, Osip Mandelstam’s poetry is amazingly concentrated and not particularly discursive. It was virtually impossible to translate its sonorities, or the richness of many images that don’t come through or resonate in the target language—in my case, Spanish. As the poem moves from one language into another, the aura of meaning and allusion that was absolutely transparent to the Russian listeners is lost. It’s as if the poem were a tree and we could only manage to transplant its trunk and thickest limbs, while leaving all its green and shimmering foliage in the territory of the other language.In any case, my translation of Mandelstam’s poem was well received. Years passed without my looking at the translation again until recently, when I had the idea of including it in a personal anthology of Russian poetry I’m working on. After an attentive rereading I didn’t think it was possible to change any of the solutions that in their moment I had hit upon, but I decided it would be fitting to add some commentary, as another way of transmitting that halo of meaning.In Russia, the poem is known as the “Epigram Against Stalin,” a title some consider inadequate and belittling. Others say the title resulted from a maneuver by Mandelstam’s friends (among them Boris Pasternak) to make the poem seem nothing more than a kind of pithy, off-the-cuff quip meant to sting or satirize, in the genre that found its highest expression in Martial, the Latin poet of the first century AD.Described by one critic as the sixteen lines of a death sentence, this is perhaps the twentieth century’s most important political poem, written by one of its greatest poets against the man who may well be said to have been the cruelest of its tyrants.
Мы живем, под собою не чуя cтраны,Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,А где хватит на полразговорца,Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,Тараканьи смеются усища,И сияют его голенища.А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих воҗдей,Он играет услугами полулюдей.Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,Как подкову, кует за указом указ:Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.Что ни казнь у него—то малинаИ широкая грудь осетина. [Read the whole article. More later, perhaps.]