This edition of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks, recently published by the New York Review of Books, is a collection eighty nine verses the Russian poet wrote while he was exiled to the city of Voronezh. During the early 1930’s Mandelstam wrote and published poetry that mocked and criticized Stalin and so it is no surprise that he was arrested and sent into exile. During part of his exile he was allowed to live in Voronezh which was a bit more civilized as far as Russian exiles were concerned. He was lucky that his wife Nadezhda was allowed to go with him and if it were not for her then much of his poetry would have been lost to us.
The first notebook contains poetry written between April and July of 1935. All of the poems are numbered as well as dated. In this first series of poems we understand that Mandelstam is relieved to be in Voronezh although he by no means feels at home in this city. He lives is a crowded boarding house that he describes as a “coffin” in the first poem. He and his wife have no privacy and they hear every movement and sound of their neighbors. In the third poem he begs Voronezh to have mercy on him and “restore” him but throughout these poems we get the sense that he feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and hopeless.
The second Notebook beings in December of 1936 and goes through February of 1937. The imagery of winter that one encounters in these poems are particularly striking. He describes this season as a “postponed present” because the length of its extent is always uncertain. Poem #37 is one of my favorites from this collection; he admires the goldfinch who “curses the sticks and perches of his prison.” He admires this bird who makes so much noise and is “disobedient.”
The final notebook is written between March and May of 1937. As I have already hinted at through his writing of winter and the goldfinch, Mandelstam’s lines abound with images of nature and the forest. In the introduction to this volume, Andrew Davis, the translator, tells us that Mandelstam composed these verses in his head while he was walking. He seems to have done a great deal of exploring his natural surroundings and appreciated, even for a few hours, the illusion of freedom which they provided. But Mandelstam realizes that his stay in Voronezh is not his own choice and he is still a captive of a fascist regime. In Poem #72, for example, he writes of the night sky and the stars which he is fighting against as they hem him in and suffocate him; although the sky appears limitless, he is stuck under the sky that only encompasses this city. In Poems #76 he declares, “I am ready to roam where the sky is greater.”
Finally, in his introduction to the collection Davis points out that the Notebooks were saved through the extraordinary efforts of his wife who, even after his death, saved pieces of them in teapots and other small places hidden around her apartment. Each day she would practice memorizing them and Davis explains that “she made it her life’s work to preserve her husband’s poetry.” Because of her act of devotion and bravery this seemed to me like a fitting collection to review as we celebrate and acknowledge those we love on this upcoming Valentine’s Day.
About the Author:
Osip Mandelstam was a Russian poet and essayist who lived in Russia during and after its revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. He was one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets. He was arrested by Joseph Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930s and sent into internal exile with his wife Nadezhda. Given a reprieve of sorts, they moved to Voronezh in southwestern Russia. In 1938 Mandelstam was arrested again and sentenced to a camp in Siberia. He died that year at a transit camp.
The translator has written a wonderful article about the difficulties of translating Mandelstam’s poems from Russian to English that I encourage everyone to read: https://psa.fcny.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/own_words/Osip_Mandelstam/