no room for Osip Mandelstam


Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam

From: Without End: New and Selected Poems by Adam Zagajewski

In the encyclopedias once again no room for
Osip Mandelstam again he is
homeless still it’s so difficult to find a flat
How to register in Moscow it’s nearly impossible
The Caucasus still calls him Asia’s lowland forest
roars these days haven’t arrived yet
Someone else picks up pebbles on the Black Sea beaches
This shifting investigation goes on though the uniform
is of a new cut and its wooden-headed tailor
almost fell over bowing
You close a book it sounds like a gunshot
White dust from the paper tickles your nose a Latin
evening is here it snows nobody will come tonight
it’s bedtime but if he knocks at your thin door
let him in

–Adam Zagajewski


Let us, at least here, at Spectral Lyre, be hospitable to Osip Mandestam, the Dante of 20th-century Russian poets.

A respected reader has requested the translation of a favorite Mandelstam poem. This poem, entitled simply 394, was composed on May 4, 1937, while he lived in exile in Voronezh. Mandelstam was born on January 15, 1891, so he wrote the poem at around age 46. Mandelstam died less than 2 years later, on December 27, 1938, in a camp in the Gulag Archipelago.  The poem was dedicated to Natasha Stempel, a young teacher who later preserved, during a time of censorship and at great risk to her own personal safety, a portion of his archive, much of it within her own memory.

According to a family friend, M. L. Gasparova, “Natasha introduced her fiance to Mandelstam; they dined together…and strolled around Voronezh. The next day he presented her with a pair of poems on the eternal cycle of death and the resurrection of the earth and of man….”

Natasha Stempel herself told the tale in this way:

I went to Osip Emilievich’s and told him that I needed to go be with Tusia, my friend and colleague. Osip went with me. On the way back, he asked, “Does Tusia see with only one eye?” I answered, I don’t know, that we had never discussed this…. “Yes,” said Osip Emilievich, “People who have physical defects don’t like to talk about them.” I argued with him, saying I didn’t notice this and that I always spoke openly about my limp. “What are you talking about, you have a beautiful gait, I can’t imagine you otherwise!” exclaimed Osip Emilievich.

On another day, after an evening walk I left the college and went to visit Mandelstam. Nadezhda Yakovlevna was in Moscow. Osip Emlievich sat on a bed in his usual pose, crossing his legs Turkish-style and leaning back with one elbow onto his back. I sat on the couch. He was serious and focused. “I wrote this poem yesterday,” he said. He read it to me. “What is it?” he asked. I didn’t understand the question, and remained silent. “This is a love poem,” he answered for me. “This is the best thing I’ve ever written,” and he handed me the page…..(N. B.: Natasha claimed Mandelstam then told her), “When I die, send this in place of my will to Pushkin House.” And then, after a short pause, he said, “Kiss me.” I went up to him and touched my lips to his forehead. He sat there like a statue. Somehow, it was very sad.

…When I arrived in Moscow in March 1975, and read the manuscript … to Nadezhda, she said: “Natasha, you have not said everything about these poems; they are not farewell poems. Osya pinned great hopes on you.” She quoted the verse: “… Accompanies the resurrected and is first/to welcome the dead–it is their calling…”

(N.B.: Pushkin House refers to the Institute of Russian Literature in St. Petersburg, where very little of Mandelstam is actually housed.)


Natasha Stempel, 1936

Farewell Poems – Osip Mandelstam:
Classics in a Non-Classical Time




Into the empty earth ever sinking,
with the sweetness of an uneven gait
she limps – barely overtaking
a swifter girl, and a younger man.
A demure freedom enlivens her,
as if en-souled by this very defect,
and it may be that some clear enigma
desires to be caught within her step–
the enigma, that this spring weather
for us, is the fore-mother of the grave,
and that it will eternally begin this way.

There are women so akin to the moist earth,
that their every step—an echoing sob–
accompanies the resurrected, and is first
to welcome the dead: it is their calling.
To demand their caress would be a crime,
and yet, to part from them is unthinkable.
Today—an angel—tomorrow—a grave-worm,
and the day after, only an outline remains;
that which was a step—now unreachable;
flowers are immortal, heaven is whole,
and all that will be, is merely a promise.

May 4, 1937



К пустой земле невольно припадая,
Неравномерной сладкою походкой
Она идет – чуть-чуть опережая
Подругу быструю и юношу-погодка.
Ее влечет стесненная свобода
Одушевляющего недостатка,
И, может статься, ясная догадка
В ее походке хочет задержаться –
О том, что эта вешняя погода
Для нас – праматерь гробового свода,
И это будет вечно начинаться.


Есть женщины, сырой земле родные.
И каждый шаг их – гулкое рыданье,
Сопровождать воскресших и впервые
Приветствовать умерших – их призванье.
И ласки требовать от них преступно,
И расставаться с ними непосильно.
Сегодня – ангел, завтра – червь могильный,
А послезавтра только очертанье:
Что было поступь – станет недоступно:
Цветы бессмертны, небо целокупно,
И всё, что будет, – только обещанье.

“I want to tear myself away from our conversation.”

–Osip Mandelstam

“Я вырваться хочу из нашей речи.”

Осип Мандельштам

(Translation from the Russian by Jillian Parker)

Credit belongs to Gregory Ganzburg for the quotes from Natasha Stempel, Nadezdha Mandelstam, and M.L. Gasparova.

4 thoughts on “no room for Osip Mandelstam

  1. The second stanza of “394” straddles faith and a conviction somewhat removed, but just as deep – one is the depth of an ocean – the other of the cavernous sky. Both hold an alluring promise.


  2. Hi Lekh. Thanks so much for coming by and reading. Your comment, “one is the depth of an ocean – the other of the cavernous sky” is lovely. To me, the poem is nearly inseparable from the history–the sorrow-filled story of a brilliant man who dared (one of only a very few) to stand up to Stalin, and was cruelly crushed for this stance. In spite of it all, he clung–amazingly–to his love for life. The other remarkable thing is that both Nadezhda, his wife, and Natasha, his friend memorized his poetry to keep it alive for future generations. Knowing this makes it all the more poignant.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s