There is a Moment in every Day that Satan cannot find,

Nor can his Watch Fiends find it; but the Industrious find

This Moment & it multiply: & when it once is found

It renovates every Moment of the Day if rightly placed.

William Blake

…and where death, if shed,

Presumes no carnage, but this single change,-

Upon the steep floor flung from dawn to dawn

The silken skilled transmemberment of song;

Permint me voyage, love, into your hands…

Hart Crane

Sometimes there is nowhere else to turn but to eternity, to a present that will not become past. Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks are such a powerful statement of their time and place that it is sometimes easy to forget that they are not only of their time and place, that Mandelshtam’s uncanny power which may have even intrigued Stalin with its mastery involved a politically dangerous excess, his inability to be only a Stalinist or a Soviet or even a Russian poet. Marina Tsvetaeva, for a brief time Mandelshtam’s friend and lover, wrote to Rilke in 1926 that she did not “understand why people speak of French, Russian, etc., poets”: “I am not a Russian poet and am always puzzled when I am seen as one. This is just why one becomes a poet… in order not to be French, Russian, etc.” In a similar spirit, one might say that Mandelshtam wrote poetry during his internal exile in Voronezh (Summer 1934 – Spring 1937) so that he would not be of his time – not only in exile in Voronezh. In 1933, he had written of Dante that “it is inconceivable to read Dante’s cantos without directing them toward the present [sovremennosti]. They were created for that purpose,” for a “present-day [that] is continuous, incalculable and inexhaustible,” a presentness, one might add, that also enabled Dante to escape the Italy of his time which has now been relegated to footnotes.

“A past charged with now-time [Jetztzeit],” that is how Walter Benjamin in 1941 described a presencing from the past. Was it this freedom from time and place that constituted the most unsettling political offense in Mandelshtam’s poetry. As Mandelshtam wrote in the Stalin Ode, in the Soviet Union of the 1930s “the mounds of human heads recede into the distance” and he “fade[s] with them,” but in the now-time of the poem – as Mandelshtam composes it and as we are reading it – Mandelshtam is also resurrected: “my resurrection says the sun is shining.” When “centuries surround” him “with fire” at the end of the Unknown Soldier, he is at once a victim of his time and a magus who makes the ring of fire timeless. “Isn’t he [Mandelshtam] master, isn’t he the master?” Stalin asked Pasternak in 1934, and to me it is as master that Mandelshtam can write in one late draft of the Unknown Soldier that “all of life,” that “all the living name me”:

But conscience chooses, too much

death decrees, the roll-call ends, vanished

like the news without a trace. I stand

in a strange country, accompanied

by all the living for whom resurrection is a calling –

standing at the reckoning – a feral child,

frightened by the light-world,

in union with the inmates

in this universe of friendships.

All of life – all the living name me…

In this way, I think, Mandelshtam finds a moment where the Kremlin’s agents like Satan’s “Watch Fiends” cannot find him.

When I first began to read Mandelshtam’s poetry about ten years ago, he seemed to me to recall Blake’s Los, the prophet-artist of eternity, and when Raina Kostova and I began to translate Mandelshtam’s poetry, it was in part to understand how Mandelshtam, like Blake’s Los, transfigured history – at least extremities that in retrospect became history – tranformed them into a poetry that is no longer merely historical but a “skilled transmemberment” (Hart Crane’s phrase). We wanted to understand this metamorphosis, and in practice what we found turned out to be an approach to translation, not only of finding an adequate version of Mandelshtam in contemporary American English but of discovering how the transmemberments in his poetry could transform American English. If Mandelshtam’s poetry like Tsvetaeva’s, could be in Russian without being Russian, could a translation of his poetry be in American English without being merely American or English.

For Blake’s Los, “not one Moment / Of Time is lost… [E]very fabric of Six Thousand Years / Remains permanent… [Though] all things vanish & are seen no more, / They vanish not from me & mine.” How in practice does a translator engage the “transmemberments of song” and the eternities they offer. The Russian equivalent for Crane’s “transmemberment” is prevrashchenie, a word Mandelshtam uses repreatedly, which could also be translated by the English words “metamorphosis” and “transmutation.” In the 1933 Conversation about Dante, Mandelshtam says that what causes transmemberment in poetry is its poryv (impulse, thrust, breath), that it is this transmembering force or energy that turns language into poetry and frees it from its time and place. From the perspective of an American English this freedom might be reflect “self-reliance” whose power, as Emerson says, is in “living” and “not in having lived… in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting of an aim.” In 1922, Mandelshtam wrote of America’s most Emersonian poet, Walt Whitman, that he was “like a new Adam,” that out of “philological reserves brought over from Europe,” he “began giving things names” and discovered an “American poetry of nomenclature.” In 1922, Mandelshtam regretted that “Russia is not America; we have no philological imports,” but Mandelshtam in America might begin naming again. At least in an American context, Mandelshtam’s sense of words can seem deeply Emersonian or Whitmanesque:

Any given word [utterance] arrives with a bundle,

and meaning sticks out of it in various directions,

without aspiring toward any single [homogeneous] official

end. In pronouncing the word “sun,” we are, as it were,

undertaking an enormous journey to which we are so accustomed

that we are travelling it in our sleep [dream]. What distinguishes

poetry from automatic speech is that it startles us and wakes us

in the middle of a word. Then it turns out that the word takes much

longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak [signify, testify]

means to be on the road [in route] forever.

When Mandselshtam’s “resurrection says the sun is shining,” the “sun” also rouses from our sleep.

According to the 1933 Dante essay, “poetic utterance” is an “intermingling [or crossing, skreshchennyi protsess] of two expressions” Only one is ostensibly material or voiced, a “sounding [zvuchashchei],” that for want of a better term we find ourselves calling the “expression itself.” The other “taken in itself is absolutely mute [without sound, silent].” It moves through the words like a wave, as “a pace in its impulse”. While absolutely inaudible, without this impulse, what we might mistake for poetic expression will not be a “metamorphic instrument [orudinoi metamorfozy]” for either the poet or the reader, but will instead be merely “amenable to paraphrase to my mind,” Mandelshtam says, “a sure sign of the absence of poetry,” that “the sheets have never been rumpled,” and “poetry… has never spent the night.” In Mandelshtam’s Russian, the words are Russian, but the impulse is not, it is only in Russian. In an English translation the words may be American English, but the impulse must be only in American English.

As another translation for poryv’, Elena Glazov-Corrigan, offers the Greek word pneuma. One might also say, translating Mandelshtam, that what renders expression poetic is “breath,” a palpable sense of “spirit.” Indicative of this spirit might be the “now-time” or presentness that Mandelshtam found in Dante, and given this presencing, a task for translators of  Mandelshtam’s poetry will be for its now-time, its impulse, to rumple the sheets in the translation as well as the original. Otherwise, however accurate the paraphrase, Mandelshtam’s poetry will not have spent the night nor the word “sun” startle awake. Of Dante, Mandelshtam writes, that he “is a master of the instruments of poetry… not a manufacturer of tropes… [but] a strategist of transmemberment [strateg prevrashchenii].” As Virgil is Dante’s master, and Dante, Mandelshtam’s, so the translator of Mandelshtam will find in his poetry a “skilled transmemberment” to play in English. “What is important in poetry,” the Dante essay says, “is only the understanding which brings it about [ispolnyayushchee, performs it] not at all the passive, reproducing, or paraphrasing understanding. Semantic adequacy is equivalent to the feeling of having fulfilled a command.” Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalls that for her husband and his close friend Anna Akhmatova, poems began as a kind of insistent alienness that arrived initially as sound (as an interrupting, humming noise), not yet verbal, a pre-semantic verbal energy or auditory hallucination: “I imagine that for a poet auditory hallucinations are something of an occupational disease,” Nadezhda Mandelshtam writes:

…I sometimes saw M. try to get rid of this kind of ‘hum [pogudki, drone, buzz, hoot],’ to brush it off and escape from it. He would toss his head as though it could be shaken out like a drop of water that gets into your ear while bathing…

But nothing helped. At some point words formed… and then the lips began to move… The whole process of composition is one of straining to catch and record something compounded of harmony and sense as it is relayed from an unknown source and gradually forms itself into words.

If one engages the humming as an imperative that carries the poetic impulse, then perhaps for a translator, Mandelshtam’s Russian also hums until it gradually finds itself transmembering English words. As a translator, my experience is that as English equivalents emerge, among these words one or more phrases will also emerge carrying an impulse from the Russian. At that moment there is the recognition that the Russian has begun to rewrite itself in English – or that the now-time in the Russian has found the English as well.

I am not aware of any specific description by Mandelshtam of his own creative process, but in Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak recreates the moment of composition in a way I imagine is desciptive of Mandelshtam’s poetry as well – for the poet, perhaps, but also for his translator. Here too impulse, its transmemberments, occur in practice: After two or three stanzas and several images by which he himself was startled, the work took possession of him and he felt the approach of what is called inspiration.

At such moments the relation of the energies that direct creative work is, as it were, overturned. The priority is no longer with the state of mind that a man seeks to express, but with the tongue – the language-what it wishes to express. Language, the motherland of beauty and of sense, begins to think and voice for itself in ways that are beyond the individual; it turns wholly into music, not outwardly at first in terms of sound vibration but inwardly, in terms of the impetuousness and power of its inland stream [vnutrennego techeniya, intrinsic tendency]. Then like the rush of a vast river torrent as it turns wheels and polishes stones, the flow of speech itself in passing, through its own laws, creates meter and rhythm and countless other forms and formations, which are even more important but which as yet remain unrecognized, unspecified, and unnamed.

Like “river torrent [rechnogo potoka]” becoming “speech-flow [l’yushchayasya rech’],” to find in English the transmemberments of a Russian poem – ”the impetuousness and power of its inland stream” – can be to find an intrinsic music in English as it too “begins to think and voice for itself” and offer its release from time and place.

The translations that follow are responses to Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks. While they can be read as a record of the devastations he endured (“herding / with the crowd as one” while “with my bloodless mouth I whisper”), I hope that they have also found a way to offer an intrinsic music. When Raina Kostova and I began to translate these poems ten years ago, I found that Shostakovich – in particular his Second Piano Trio (op. 37) – helped me to sense energies that seemed to me to impel Mandelshtam’s rhythms. Recently, having returned to the notebooks again – and to rereading and reworking the earlier translations – a different music in an American idiom has also seemed to offer these energies. In this case it has been the 1950s jazz of the pianist Bud Powell. Harold Bloom recalls that in the 1950s as he listened to Bud Powell he was moved by affinites between Powell’s music and Hart Crane’s poetry – specifically between Powell’s masterwork Un Poco Loco and Crane’s death poem The Broken Tower. In the past when I had looked for Mandelshtam in English, I had sometimes heard Crane and his “impacted density” (Bloom’s phrase). Now I also hear Bud Powell. Are such affinities another way of finding Mandelshtam’s eternity.

Here is Crane in The Broken Tower:

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;

And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave

Membrance through marrow, my long-scattered score

Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping

The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!

Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles outleaping –

O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And here in English is a poem from Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks:

If not yesterday’s – superfluous – if I do not exist

in vain – you, who stand over me – 

if it is you who pour the wine and bear the cup –

give me the strength – not empty foam – 

to toast the whirling tower – 

hand to hand – the wild azure…

The dovecotes – darknesses – the starlings’ houses –

blackness – patterns of the bluest shades,

the vernal ice, sky ice, spring ice,

the clouds – warriors of fascination-quiet!

They are leading a storm-cloud with a bridle.

The accumulating intensities in both Crane and Mandelshtam can seem to offer what Emerson calls the “shudder… in each clear moment when we recognize the metamorphosis,… a surprise at the heart of things.” Crane’s poem suggests a possibility for Mandelshtam’s in English.

Of The Broken Tower Bloom writes that “the bells are the poetic gift in Crane, the tower is not just his body but his entire consciousness,… and the poetic gift is murdering him.” And of Un Poco Loco: you “feel as in The Broken Tower that everything is breaking apart, that the mind has reached its limits,” and that the “gift was too great for Powell.” And of Mandelshtam? In English and in an American idiom at the beginning of the 21st Century (does this century also encircle him with fire?). If in the Soviet context Mandelshtam’s poetic gift was also “murdering him,” perhaps it was because it was also too great, if not for him, then perhaps for his time? As it may also be for ours. Like the excess in Powell’s playing, what Crane calls “the bells” and what Bloom calls “the poetic gift” may be another way of translating Mandelshtam’s transmemberments. In a 1932 poem “To The German Language,” Mandelshtam wrote that “an alien tongue will be my membrane”:

Sounds have narrowed, the words hiss and mutiny,

but you are living, and from you I am composed.

The 1932 poem can seem proleptic of Paul Celan’s translations in the 1950s, but perhaps it can also be Mandelshtam’s offer to the English language as well, that is insofar as he can also say from English that “from you I am composed.”

An imperative for Mandelshtam’s translators will always be the eternities which for him were offered to the future but for me have a feeling of the present, the “resurrection [that] says the sun is shinning.”

Translations by Tony Brinkley and Raina Kostova from THE FIRST VORONEZH NOTEBOOK

Voronezh – deliver, injure, 

cancel, quicken or retrieve 

me – voron, raven – nozh,

your knife – Voronezh caprice…

April 1935, Voronezh

We live by supreme measures – 

Chinese dresses, Chinese blouses

in palmated, butterfly materials –

strolling a Soviet city.

The clippers’ caustic trick

gathers a chestnut bribe –

judicious locks of hair

fall on polite napkins.

Such fair, such touching

clippings – our comet is

about to be – to write in stars

its astral tails with violet, lucid ink.

25 May 1935

Wave after wave, breaking the next wave’s 

back, pitched at the moon, a slave in mourning,

young janissary depths – vigilant, unsleeping, 

a metropolis of waves’ distortions fling 

and dig their trenches into sand.

Through air like dusky cotton, the future’s walls 

with their serrations glimmer – teething – under 

suspicion, the sultan’s soldiers, falling and dying 

on foaming stairs – squandered and discarded –

while eunuchs coldy hawk their poisons.

27 June 1935


To wonder still a little longer –

at children, snow, the light-world,

how an unfeigned smile is like a journey

and a way to disobey but no one’s servant.

December 1936–1938 (?)

The idol in the mountain dozes quietly, in

storage, in a mountain chamber. Oozing

from his neck, grease pearls in necklaces

protect the ebb-tints and the flow of dreams.

Once a boy – with peacocks for

companions – he fed on Indian rainbows,

milk in rose-clay dishes dyed unsparingly

with red from dried, crushed insects.

Sleep ossified, tied and knotted in a bundle –

knees, hands and shoulders of a man –

he smiles broadly – conceiving bone – feeling

for his forehead, he remembers that he once

seemed human.

10–26 December 1936


When the sorcerer wakes 

the bays or chestnuts –

whispering colors –

in the downcast limbs –

a lazy, tarnished warrior

has no wish to sing –

he is too small, too powerful –

a winter bullfinch –

and I settle hastily

beneath a threatening sky, 

under the arch of heaven’s eyebrows,

on a lilac sleigh…

9 January 1937, Voronezh

I am listening to the early ice

that stirs beneath the bridges –

I recall how bright intoxications

swim, drifting above lightly.

From calloused steps, from city squares, 

from angled courts – the awkward palaces – 

with greater force through satiated lips,

circling his Florence,

Alighieri chanted.

And so my shadow teethes at granite

with its eyes, gnaws the grain –

the rows of logs it sees at night

appear by day to be our homes  

Or else the shadow idles, 

yawns for you,

or stirs among the servants – 

warmed by heaven, heated by their wine, 

and feeds insistent swans

the bitter crumbs…

22 January 1937, Voronezh

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