Unfit for Prison: On Ilya Bernstein’s Edition of Osip Mandelstam’s “Poems”

Thus in the poem, salt is bound up with washing.  — Inferno, Canto XIII
Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things
 — Osip Mandelstam, “My Age”
I. The reader of a poem encounters them mid-dialogue, speaking not only with one another but also with their own histories. Thus, “wheel” in the third line misrepresents the Russian “oсь” (os’), meaning “axis,” one of the most meaningful syllables in the ode as well as other poems of winter 1937. When the poetry around you is doing more talking than attending, when poems are too busy saying something to be something, when poems can be paraphrased to demonstrate things you might believe in, when you are tempted to quote a poem in a tweet or status update — in other words, when you can agree or disagree with a poem, and this kind of thing strikes you as normal — then you might be in a dark age. In short order, he had done something: written a vicious satire in verse about Stalin and his inner circle, and on at least 17 separate occasions recited it to a terrified listener, at least one of whom reported the event to the police. What is lost by preserving meter and rhyme, ironically, is a grounding in language of the poem’s many meanings, its modes of mastery. The pairing of “earth” and “thread” in the English line points to Mandelstam’s affinity for palindrome, a signal feature of his poetry, which however does not appear as a structural principle of this poem, nor take any part in the Russian line six. Surrounding poems — 1921’s “Concert at the Station”; 1923’s “Slate Ode,” beautifully translated in Poems — also summon Lermontov. ¤
[1] The Russian сoлёнee (Bernstein: “more bitter”) is literally “saltier,” and by extension (I imagine through tears) “harder to bear.” A quick sample of rival translations (Clarence Brown, James Greene, Alistair Noon, Peter France) votes with one voice for “saltier.”
[2] A more academic observation concerns the final quoted line, “Стa сoрoкa нaрoдoв чтя oбычaй.” In Russian the referent of чтя (chtya: “honoring”; Bernstein’s “caring for”) is ambiguous. Like all immigrants, it is at a disadvantage, being a stranger to the language and local customs. III. In any case, the transaction wasn’t completed; no one wanted to publish the ode. In a Q-and-A at Globus Books this past October, he explained: “My interest in translating Mandelstam, over many years […] has been to try to reproduce or to point to the relation of his poetry to language, in Russian: to carry that over into English.” That this focus is both useful and delightful is plenty clear in the deep, illuminating essay that Bernstein appends to his translations, called “A Note on Mandelstam’s Poems.” Importantly, he illustrates Mandelstam’s encounter with the great verse innovator Velimir Khlebnikov, arguing that Mandelstam increasingly incorporated Khlebnikov’s poetics of “associating words semantically based on phonetic association” over his mature years. It would lend the translation something like multivoicedness, rooted where fortune allows in the target language. These are playful, erudite, tender, and weighted with mortality. This span can be considered Mandelstam’s mature period, when his poetics of reinvention shifted from a historical and mythological focus toward the present day, with the labor of poetry becoming a tireless coming to terms with the nauseous world in which the poet found himself. Os’ connects Osip with Iosif (Stalin) and points to one of the Voronezh notebooks’ key poems, beginning “Armed with the vision of the subtle wasps / That suck on the earth’s axis, the earth’s axis.” “Armed with the vision” was composed at the same time as the ode and contains nine instances of os’/os/oz over its 12 lines, including four instances of the word os’ (axis). Peter France’s 2014 version, for example, is in a more blood-beating English (cf. In these years of “splendid poverty,” Mandelstam wrote perhaps his finest poetry: distilled, monumental, puzzling, ceaselessly personal. Moving Targets
Mandelstam famously composed his poems “from the voice”: walking with his head thrown back, muttering, repeating, varying, working through sound and sense in a performative churning-up of language. According to Oleg Lekmanov’s biography of Mandelstam (published in Tatiana Retivov’s English translation in 2010), “salt thrown on an axe” refers to the disinfection of a blade after cutting meat. It will learn them. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University. It seems true to me: that the many worlds of association through which his poems pass are also bound up inside the poetry. Bernstein explains in “A Note” that this was “the only serious poem written in praise of Stalin by any major Russian poet who lived under him,” and also finds his method of translation appropriate to the poem’s history:
I wanted to try something I called “simultaneous translation of poetry,” which involved translating a poem as quickly as possible and taking any liberties necessary, while sticking as closely as possible to the rhyme and meter scheme of the original. It remains unclear to what degree Mandelstam thought the ode exceeded its message: whether it might outlive its transactional function. A dark age for poetry comes when the word is expected to bear any fixed message. Tristia was panned out of the gate; the poet himself had been too busy dodging fate (arrested by the Whites as a Bolshevik, he complained to a guard that he was “unfit for prison”) to have finalized the poems’ order, or even chosen a title for the book. But first it must accept that it’s no longer at home. The choice of trochaic pentameter for this poem was thus a meaningful one, with its own message — if not more than one. The translation of the Stalin ode in this collection is the result of that exercise. ¤
Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. But for Bernstein, the target language is not the point. For Nadezhda Mandelstam, the poem’s “twelve lines — in an unbelievably condensed form — manifest the worldview of a man who has come of age.” In Bernstein’s understanding, “the death of a friend and mentor inspired a stark vision of the earth as a stage for a sacrifice.”
Here is Mandelstam’s poem, with the Poems version below:
Умывaлся нoчью нa двoрe. The stars’ reflection in the barrel suggests a rite of immersion that cleanses bloodstains, for better or worse. Here and overall, the translation gives a sense of the poem’s perch on the edge of prank: its meanings are both ironized and deathly. All these poems make up a ‘Lermontovian cycle,’ as we call it, which begins with [the 19th-century Romantic poet Mikhail] Lermontov’s ‘I go out alone upon the road.’” Doubtless Mandelstam had Lermontov in mind as he composed the poem — the occasion of solitude at night, the theme of the outcast under the stars, the fate of a fellow poet who had died young in the Caucasus (Lermontov was killed in a duel in 1841, at the age of 26) all make this orientation clear. Throughout Conversation about Dante, Mandelstam links conversation with conversion (this euphony is missing in Russian): like souls, words are revealed in transformation. Thus Mandelstam set in motion the final stages of his repression — but not out of a tendency toward dissidence. While the ode’s linguistic and poetic characteristics are worth studying — and have been studied, extensively and interestingly, since the 1970s — it is an occasional, functional poem, born solely out of biographical circumstances, and takes little part in the musical maturity that Bernstein ascribes to the poems of the 1930s. Breadless, humble Crimea.” In fall, he returned to Moscow to find his poetic travelogue Journey to Armenia pulled from publication and attacked in Pravda, the Party’s central organ, for being out of touch with the advances of Soviet culture. lines 2–3: “the heavens glowing with rough stars. A few details are worth elaboration. Mandelstam lived hand to mouth for most of the 1920s, unread by most and unacknowledged (sometimes condemned) by the state’s cultural apparatus. They seem interstitial to Borges, prism-distillations of Proust. The Stalin epigram seems to have served a similar purgative purpose. Even now, we don’t know how to read it: as a poem of the inferno, or part of the inferno. The artist is masterfully, edgily in the service of his instrument: in terms of world literature, he is leading a pack that has not yet come to be. Charting the ode’s features — its classical rhetorical gestures, its redeployments of contemporary images and locutions — we can gauge the immense labor of its composer. Following Lekmanov, I find the second more convincing. The countryside was starving, despite the martial optimism of the Soviet press, compelling Mandelstam to write the poem “Cold spring. We find the poet considering how he might draw a true portrait of Stalin:
So that the features might reflect the Real,
In art that would be bordering on daring
I’d speak of him who shifted the world’s wheel
While for the customs of a hundred peoples caring. I have included it because it seems to work as a poem, if read briskly, and because it seems to me in retrospect that doing it as a prank was the proper way to translate a poem which in some strange way was itself a prank — or maybe an anti-prank, if one can imagine such a thing …
Indeed, Bernstein’s ode is a great brisk read. In the months following the epigram, there came a spate of new poetry, including the 11 “Octaves,” all featured in the new edition of Ilya Bernstein’s Mandelstam translations, Poems. A translated word is a new arrival in Hell, fresh off the ferry. JANUARY 11, 2021
 Who wast thou, that through wounds so many
Art blowing out with blood thy dolorous speech? Like souls in Dante, words speak in their particular way — and not just one. HELL ON EARTH
In May 1933, Osip Mandelstam began his final critical essay, Conversation About Dante, at a Crimean spa. Звёздный луч — кaк сoль нa тoпoрe. The literary scholar Kiril Taranovsky proposes that “dozens of Russian poems have been written in trochaic pentameter with a dynamic theme of travel and a static theme of life. A poem promises not to use language, but to be language, for as long as the poem lasts. Tyger! In Bernstein’s version of “If I were to employ charcoal for highest praise,” we find the translator again occupied with musical and (anti-)biographical questions. Стынeт бoчкa с пoлными крaями. These years also describe an arc of increasing obscurity and penury. Either, as in the given translation, Stalin is honoring the customs of a hundred Soviet nations (Mandelstam uses the typical figure 140), or the poet is honoring the custom of those nations in praising Stalin. Nadezhda Mandelstam reports that the work came hard: the poet who usually composed in his head now sat down to write with pencil and paper, jumping up to mutter the lines he was really working on, which ended up in the poems of the second Voronezh notebook. He preserves Mandelstam’s iambic lines (of varied lengths, following the Pindaric tradition) and follows the original’s alternating masculine and feminine rhymes. Only by temporary induction — by conversation — can he understand the relation between a soul’s past and its present. While prospects for publishing his new Dante piece dwindled, Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda lucked into a private two-room apartment, a surprise for someone obviously out of favor. Yet, as scholars have pointed out, it shares lexical features and images not only with the Soviet press of late 1936 and early 1937, but also with the private universe of the second Voronezh notebook, whose poems Mandelstam was simultaneously composing. Creative Necessity
Mandelstam was in Tiflis when he got news that Gumilyov, his friend and literary mentor, had been shot by a Cheka firing squad. Bernstein wonders in his “Note” if this performative winnowing somehow purifies Mandelstam’s poems: “They […] contain no noise: their only accompaniment is silence.” For such a relentlessly associative poet, this means that Mandelstam’s many subtexts lose something of their value when regarded outside the poem, or outside Mandelstam’s poetry as a whole. Perhaps more interesting vis-à-vis the poem’s relation to language is its meter, which Bernstein preserves where possible. Mandelstam did not often use trochaic pentameter, and none of the poems that surround “I was washing” take this form. “I know not who thou art,” a shade tells Dante in Hell’s farthest circle, “but a Florentine / Thou seemest to me truly, when I hear thee. Чищe прaвды свeжeгo xoлстa
Вряд ли гдe oтыщeтся oснoвa. In 1928, the Soviet press viciously and groundlessly accused him of plagiarism: this was the last piece of fame he received during his lifetime. The book borrows its cover art from Stone’s 1923 third edition, and takes its title from a 1928 retrospective that turned out to be Mandelstam’s last published book of poetry. Bernstein’s Poems focuses on the work of these later years, leaving out Mandelstam’s first two collections, Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). On the other hand, trochaic pentameter offers English ears no such associations: to reground the poem in a local verse tradition would take tetrameter (“Tyger! Yet Bernstein does include the 1937 ode to Stalin, through which Mandelstam sought clemency. Meanwhile, this pedagogical gesture occupies valuable real estate: “threaded-through,” which does not correspond to anything in the Russian line, replaces “сурoвa (harsh, stern)” which is essential to the poem’s meaning. Нa зaмoк зaкрыты вoрoтa,
И зeмля пo сoвeсти сурoвa. Justly, then, Bernstein desires to rescue Mandelstam from the homophony of biography. It may be that Mandelstam felt culpable for Gumilyov’s death — not directly, of course, but as a participant in the unthinkably harsh reality that led his friend to execution. Stone had established Mandelstam as one of Russia’s leading poets. Bernstein would agree, I think, that the tragedy of Mandelstam is fully realized when biographical noise keeps a reader from hearing his poems.  
I was washing in the yard at night
The stars in the sky were coarsely brilliant
Not a ray, but salt thrown on an axe —
The barrel cool and full to overflowing
All the gates are shut and fastened tight
And the earth is threaded-through with conscience
What more pure foundation can there be
Than the truth of fresh and untouched canvas? Even though it leaves the other os associations buried (perhaps remediable elsewhere), “axis” throws a line from the oft-disgraced, biographically dominated ode to the mature “born-pregnant” poetry of the Voronezh notebooks, and even a spidery thread back to the salt-strewn “axe.” [2] Allowing the ode’s axis to show would do more than return some of the poem’s voice. Твeрдь сиялa грубыми звeздaми. / A star-beam like salt upon an ax”). Any Russian reader would hear these overtones and grasp the meter’s message. A few lines from Stanza 1 will give a sense. Bernstein’s selection is bookended by death: it opens with a poem written in response to the shooting of Mandelstam’s fellow poet Nikolay Gumilyov in 1921 and closes with a sepulchral meditation from 1937, in which he imagines himself speaking from the grave. Cobbled (brilliantly) out of contemporary images and tropes, designed (badly) to fulfill a particular function, the ode is inextricable from biography. More and more, the poet trusted that aural echoes would lead to profound meaning, that the prime units of poetic energy were not words in their found forms but “clusters of sounds that remain open to many meanings and fluctuate easily among them.” But while Mandelstam’s essays expound and exploit this poetic philosophy through the 1920s and ’30s, Bernstein believes “it was not until his exile in Voronezh (1935-37) that Mandelstam came to assimilate [Khlebnikov’s insights] as skills, to incorporate them fully into his own voice.” Indeed, Poems devotes more than half its pages to the Voronezh poems, further revealing Bernstein’s detective interest in the “relation of [Mandelstam’s] poetry to language.”
I think this interest motivates line six above. Mandelstam’s own poetics has a place for translingual luck: the “Note” points out associative leaps in Mandelstam’s Russian that occur by way of French or German homophony. A poem from that moment — “The apartment is quiet as paper” — reflects Mandelstam’s frustration with a literary apparatus that traded perks for hackwork, his sense of culpability for enjoying such a perk while others starved (with concomitant fear that he might be a hack), and his growing need to do something about it all. A literary who’s who from the same year offers this effective eulogy: “After 1923 [Mandelstam] occupied himself almost exclusively with translations.”
In December 1936, the newspapers were full to bursting with praise of the leadership, centered on the proceedings of the Eighth All-Union Congress of Soviets and the adoption of the new Soviet Constitution. / Thou hast to know I was Count Ugolino.” On this speech, Mandelstam comments: “‘Thou hast to know’ — ‘tu dei saper’ — is the first thrust of the cello’s bow, the first protrusion of a theme.” Dante’s task in Hell is to become acquainted. Чищe смeрть, сoлёнee бeдa,
И зeмля прaвдивeй и стрaшнee. burning bright”), or a different foot. The poem’s charge is to build its own speaking, as if from scratch: to posit its terms, suggest its shape, gesture at a beginning and end. But after the Revolution his voice was increasingly muffled as Soviet literature assumed dogmatic shapes, pushing aside the typical demands and privileges of art. In the barrel, a star melts like salt,
And the water, cooling, becomes blacker —
Bitter fate more bitter, death more pure,
And more frightening the earth — and truer. Bound as it is in personal tragedy, Mandelstam’s poetry is all too prone to overdetermined readings. In response he wrote “I was washing in the yard at night” (1921), the first translation in Poems. There’s no indication in the poem of what custom the 140 nations shared that Stalin might have been honoring, while by writing the ode Mandelstam was indeed following the example of the 140 nations whom he saw in the newspapers endlessly hailing the triumphs of the Congress and Constitution. Тaeт в бoчкe, слoвнo сoль, звeздa,
И вoдa студёнaя чeрнee. But Bernstein’s first concern is to transfer the poem’s formal features, sometimes at the expense of tightening its sense. Biographical accounts merely show an ambivalent artist caught in a dark age. II. In 1929, after five years of poetic muteness, he’d written the furious Fourth Prose, in which he declared himself finished with literature, and immediately began composing again. Mandelstam, at a nadir of poverty and isolation in Voronezh, got the idea to join this wave and perhaps gain some favor, and over a few weeks in January 1937 eked out his Pindar-styled ode to Stalin, “If I were to employ charcoal for highest praise” (included in Poems). After the exile reached its term, Mandelstam would be allowed nearly a year of freedom (from which little writing survives), then rearrested and sent to the eastern edge of the USSR, where he died in late 1938. Boris Pasternak, an auditor of the fateful poem, called it a suicide; indeed Mandelstam’s act seems like one of self-destruction, but also creative necessity. France’s line six (“and conscience gives sternness to the earth — ”) threads a trans-Germanic pun (star-Stern), sinking the poem more deeply in the target language without sacrificing the sense of the original. The author does not ascribe to himself any covert power — there is no sense he expects to fool anyone — yet the breadth and variety of rhetorical moves suggest a master showing off. The Soviet era became a dark age for poets when poems were required to say things in one voice; and a funhouse echo of this injustice emerged years later as Western audiences came to appreciate (indeed, to envy) the political power of the poetic word in those repressive regimes. Were os’ rendered as “axis” instead of “wheel” in the ode, a reader might hear the connection in “Armed with the vision,” a few pages away in Poems. In fact, the tragedy becomes the reader’s own: while she was trying to behave ethically by honoring the poet’s suffering, she missed the equally pressing task of honoring his poetry. I wonder what invitations Bernstein might have heard in the poem had he allowed it to move further from Russian. Poems should bring to English-language readers some “involvement in linguistic matters and poetic matters, rather than […] a reflection of [the poet’s] life.” This may be the reason he leaves out the Stalin epigram that occasioned Mandelstam’s 1934 arrest — the shadow of tragedy is too thick; it might keep us from seeing the poem. A reader is invited to hear across several languages at once. As with “I was washing,” the translator crowds out textual and contextual clues to make way for Russian prosody. The risk in trying to deliver Russian music in English lines is that the translations may end up burdened with their own biography: counterintuitively, honoring their past may keep them from speaking for themselves in the present. Raising the curtain on a poet at the threshold of maturity, “I was washing” takes stock of a world in which the thematic heroes of Stone and Tristia — artistic creation and the reinvention of history — can no longer remedy a world whose conscience is cruelty, whose behavior is observed not in the domesticating spirit of man but in the hostile gaze of the stars. This poetic harvest was interrupted the following spring, when the second consequence of the Stalin epigram took effect: Mandelstam was arrested by the secret police, interrogated, and sentenced to internal exile first in Cherdyn (where he attempted suicide), then in Voronezh till 1937. At Globus, he discounts all Mandelstam translations he’s read because they ignore what he calls “Mandelstam’s overall music,” which makes them “difficult for my ears to accept.” This is an appropriate reaction from a lover of one’s native poetry — especially when the poetry in question is obscured by its author’s tragic biography. If we are often tempted to confuse the poems’ meanings with the facts of Mandelstam’s life, it may be worth letting go of some literality to bring out more music. (This resonates with the feeling of complicity that would lead to “Cold spring” and “The apartment is quiet as paper.”) It might have been useful for the translator to follow the Russian more closely in line six (something like: And the earth is harsh by conscience) and especially line 11 (Death is purer, disaster saltier [1]) to tighten the salt-washing connection and further reveal the pull of the axe, its terror and guilt, on the poet’s mind.