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

January 11, 2021   •   By Leeore Schnairsohn


Osip Mandelstam

 Who wast thou, that through wounds so many
Art blowing out with blood thy dolorous speech?

 — Inferno, Canto XIII

Blood-the-builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things

 — Osip Mandelstam, “My Age”



In May 1933, Osip Mandelstam began his final critical essay, Conversation About Dante, at a Crimean spa. The countryside was starving, despite the martial optimism of the Soviet press, compelling Mandelstam to write the poem “Cold spring. 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. 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. 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.

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. Thus Mandelstam set in motion the final stages of his repression — but not out of a tendency toward dissidence. 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. 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. The Stalin epigram seems to have served a similar purgative purpose. 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. These are playful, erudite, tender, and weighted with mortality. They seem interstitial to Borges, prism-distillations of Proust. 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.

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. In these years of “splendid poverty,” Mandelstam wrote perhaps his finest poetry: distilled, monumental, puzzling, ceaselessly personal. 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.

Bernstein’s Poems focuses on the work of these later years, leaving out Mandelstam’s first two collections, Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). 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 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. 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.

These years also describe an arc of increasing obscurity and penury. Stone had established Mandelstam as one of Russia’s leading poets. But after the Revolution his voice was increasingly muffled as Soviet literature assumed dogmatic shapes, pushing aside the typical demands and privileges of art. Mandelstam lived hand to mouth for most of the 1920s, unread by most and unacknowledged (sometimes condemned) by the state’s cultural apparatus. 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. In 1928, the Soviet press viciously and groundlessly accused him of plagiarism: this was the last piece of fame he received during his lifetime. 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. 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). 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. 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. It remains unclear to what degree Mandelstam thought the ode exceeded its message: whether it might outlive its transactional function. Biographical accounts merely show an ambivalent artist caught in a dark age. In any case, the transaction wasn’t completed; no one wanted to publish the ode. Even now, we don’t know how to read it: as a poem of the inferno, or part of the inferno.

II. 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. In response he wrote “I was washing in the yard at night” (1921), the first translation in Poems. 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. 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:

Умывался ночью на дворе.
Твердь сияла грубыми звездами.
Звёздный луч — как соль на топоре.
Стынет бочка с полными краями.

На замок закрыты ворота,
И земля по совести сурова.
Чище правды свежего холста
Вряд ли где отыщется основа.

Тает в бочке, словно соль, звезда,
И вода студёная чернее.
Чище смерть, солёнее беда,
И земля правдивей и страшнее.


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?

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.

A few details are worth elaboration. 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. Thus in the poem, salt is bound up with washing. The stars’ reflection in the barrel suggests a rite of immersion that cleanses bloodstains, for better or worse. 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. (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. But Bernstein’s first concern is to transfer the poem’s formal features, sometimes at the expense of tightening its sense.

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. 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. 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. Meanwhile, this pedagogical gesture occupies valuable real estate: “threaded-through,” which does not correspond to anything in the Russian line, replaces “сурова (harsh, stern)” which is essential to the poem’s meaning.

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. The choice of trochaic pentameter for this poem was thus a meaningful one, with its own message — if not more than one. 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. 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. Surrounding poems — 1921’s “Concert at the Station”; 1923’s “Slate Ode,” beautifully translated in Poems — also summon Lermontov. Any Russian reader would hear these overtones and grasp the meter’s message. 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! Tyger! burning bright”), or a different foot. I wonder what invitations Bernstein might have heard in the poem had he allowed it to move further from Russian. Peter France’s 2014 version, for example, is in a more blood-beating English (cf. lines 2–3: “the heavens glowing with rough stars. / A star-beam like salt upon an ax”). 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.

But for Bernstein, the target language is not the point. 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. Bound as it is in personal tragedy, Mandelstam’s poetry is all too prone to overdetermined readings. 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.

III. 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. 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. It seems true to me: that the many worlds of association through which his poems pass are also bound up inside the poetry.

Like souls in Dante, words speak in their particular way — and not just one. A dark age for poetry comes when the word is expected to bear any fixed message. 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. A poem promises not to use language, but to be language, for as long as the poem lasts. 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.

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. Justly, then, Bernstein desires to rescue Mandelstam from the homophony of biography. 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.

Yet Bernstein does include the 1937 ode to Stalin, through which Mandelstam sought clemency. 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. Cobbled (brilliantly) out of contemporary images and tropes, designed (badly) to fulfill a particular function, the ode is inextricable from biography. 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.

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. 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. The translation of the Stalin ode in this collection is the result of that exercise. 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. He preserves Mandelstam’s iambic lines (of varied lengths, following the Pindaric tradition) and follows the original’s alternating masculine and feminine rhymes. A few lines from Stanza 1 will give a sense. 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.

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. 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. What is lost by preserving meter and rhyme, ironically, is a grounding in language of the poem’s many meanings, its modes of mastery.

As with “I was washing,” the translator crowds out textual and contextual clues to make way for Russian prosody. Thus, “wheel” in the third line misrepresents the Russian “ось” (os’), meaning “axis,” one of the most meaningful syllables in the ode as well as other poems of winter 1937. 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). 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. 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. It would lend the translation something like multivoicedness, rooted where fortune allows in the target language. 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 reader is invited to hear across several languages at once.

Bernstein would agree, I think, that the tragedy of Mandelstam is fully realized when biographical noise keeps a reader from hearing his 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. 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.

“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. / 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. Only by temporary induction — by conversation — can he understand the relation between a soul’s past and its present. Throughout Conversation about Dante, Mandelstam links conversation with conversion (this euphony is missing in Russian): like souls, words are revealed in transformation. The reader of a poem encounters them mid-dialogue, speaking not only with one another but also with their own histories. A translated word is a new arrival in Hell, fresh off the ferry. Like all immigrants, it is at a disadvantage, being a stranger to the language and local customs. It will learn them. But first it must accept that it’s no longer at home.


Leeore Schnairsohn holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, with a dissertation on Osip Mandelstam. He teaches in the Expository Writing Program at New York University.


[1] The Russian солёнее (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, “Ста сорока народов чтя обычай.” In Russian the referent of чтя (chtya: “honoring”; Bernstein’s “caring for”) is ambiguous. 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. Following Lekmanov, I find the second more convincing. 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.