Sunday, January 15, 2017

"Our lives no longer feel ground under them"

Osip Mandelstam was born on January 15, 1891 and died in December, 1938, essentially killed by his satirical poem known as "The Stalin Epigram." Mandelstam defiantly recited it at gatherings where informers were present, which led to his imprisonment, exile, and finally death in a transit camp on the way to serving a five year sentence. Stalin, like most tyrants, did not tolerate mockery.

There are many English translations of "The Stalin Epigram." This one by W.S. Merlin and Clarence Brown is probably the most well known:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.


There's an interesting article about the context of the poem and the challenge of translating it here, and you can read several more translations here. (The Merwin/Brown translation at that second link is slightly different from the one above, which comes from the Academy of American Poets website.)


This short film is almost too reverent toward Mandelstam, but it's moving nonetheless. It's in Russian, and you might need to take it to full screen to read the subtitles.

*Mandelstam's poetry has appeared several times on the blog, including this post and this one and this one.

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