Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Political Poem of the Century

In the June 10 issue of the New York Review of Books, there is a beautiful translation and a fascinating exploration of one of the great political poems of the 20th century called "Epigram Against Stalin" by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam apparently recited this poem publicly for the first time at Boris Pasternak's home in 1934 even though he knew that under Stalin's repressive rule doing so could prompt his arrest and even his execution. His decision to share this brief poem has been called an "act of total insanity" and a "16-line death sentence." Six months later, Mandelstam was arrested and then, surprisingly, not long afterwards released. Yet, the poem continued to be circulated and the pressure for holding Mandelstam accountable for this blot on the State continued to mount. He was arrested again in 1937 and eventually perished of an incurable illness in one of the USSR's great gulags. As one commentator has noted, Mandelstam's own commentary about this poem was ultimately vindicated:

"Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

Here is the poem as translated into English (by Esther Allen) from the brilliant Spanish translation by the novelist and critic Jose Manuel Prieto, who also wrote the article:



We 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
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
he toys with the favors of such
One hisses, the other mewls, one
groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among
them, showering them with
Forging decree after decree, like
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.

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