Painful lessons learnt by heart

THE VORONEZH NOTEBOOKS: Poems 1935-37 by Osip Mandelstam, trs Richard & Elizabeth McKane Bloodaxe pounds 7.95
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IN 1934, after years of persecution, Osip Mandelstam was arrested for writing an unflattering poem about Stalin. Tortured and interrogated, he twice attempted suicide before finally being sentenced to three years' exile in Voronezh in central Russia. From a state of numbness and "blinding darkness", he summoned up his last burst of creative energy to evoke this town forced into being by Peter the Great, with its "muddy crops" and "eiderdown whiteness of snow".

Since 1987 over half a dozen editions of Mandelstam's poetry have appeared in Russia, some with print-runs of half a million. The 90 complementary poems of the three Voronezh notebooks, handwritten by his wife Nadezhda at his dictation, were his own "formula for breathing". Everything is in the different emotional tonalities of the voice, screaming, murmuring, excluding linear logic and all but impenetrable to translation. Elizabeth and Richard McKane, translators of Mandelstam's Moscow Notebooks, have achieved the apparently impossible in their versions of the Voronezh poems.

The McKanes' translation is faithful to Mandelstam's magnificent archaisms, his rhetorical and colloquial syntax, rich with suggestions of stolen lives, robbers' dens, knives and fateful birds. In the first notebook (February 1934 to July 1935), he calls up the power of the earth against poverty and persecution. The earth strains for the lost ideals of high art ("the fat crust of earth so pleasant against the ploughshare ... / and the sky, the sky is your Michelangelo"). "Black Earth" evokes "the damp clods of earth of Land and Liberty" - for Voronezh was also the birthplace of the 19th-century populist revolutionary group of that name.

The first notebook was followed by an 18-month silence, in which the poet was tormented by auditory hallucinations of doors closing in his head. After a violin concert, the "hum" of a musical phrase gradually formed into words which lodged into the body of new poems. Mandelstam challenged the state's claim to spiritual hegemony by assessing it as an aesthetic category. "I love the Red Army greatcoat", in the second notebook, contains echos of Tyutchev's poem "I love the sea". Taking contemporary propaganda from Soviet books, magazines and radio and placing it in exotic contexts, he deconstructed it and subordinated it to universal forms. Watching his guards read Pushkin and seeing Pushkin celebrated in the midst of terror, he wrote his "Stanzas" on the 1935 May Day parade, comparing the rapture of the festival with nature and storm, and referring back to Pushkin's "Stanzas" in praise of his tormentor Tsar Nicholas.

Mandelstam's poems of his last winter in Voronezh - "This slow asthmatic vastness", "The deadliness of the plains", "Into the face of the frost" - describe shadows, waning powers and his last love, Natasha Shtempel. In 1938 he was re-arrested. Sentenced to five years' hard labour, he died later that year in a Siberian transit-camp.

Richard McKane has gained from Mandelstam's rhythms in his own poetry, and the clear translation, with its musical assonance and internal rhyme, subtly emphasises other sonic and semantic connections, laying stress on form and making it felt while keeping Mandelstam's clarity, his lightheartedness, his harmony between form and content.

The notes following the poems should be read as a separate but essential part of the works. The notebooks end with the letter Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote to her husband in Siberia in the autumn of 1938, days before his death. Making and distributing copies of everything, she learnt by heart everything her husband wrote, repeating his words to herself through the night, with no confidence until 1956 that his works would ever be published. Since his complete works appeared in 1987, Russians have read his poems to stay alive, absorbing his images as a key to Russia's future, storing his poems as sandbags against disaster.