Who? Osip Mandelstam, poet, Tsar of the extended metaphor.
What? A bunch of Mandelstam’s typically-nuanced, slightly surreal, shimmering poetry, plus a genuinely-fun and rather stylish essay about Dante, chucked in for nowt.
When? Pre-Revolution right up to 1937, height of the Terror, the same year the Soviet government finished him off. His story is one of the most depressing in the history of Soviet poets – a feat.
How? How, I’ve learnt, is by far the hardest qualifier of all. How what, exactly? How what? If it wasn’t for the fact that removing it would disrupt the roundedness of the review, it would already have been rolled away. And it begins with an H, rather than a uniform W. How irritating.
Why? It may because I am overdosing on Russian verse at the moment (why withdraw a row of five in sequence from the biblioteque?), but it is not in Mandelstam’s poetry that I find my greatest joy. For me, the prose (demonstrated by his babbling, colour-soaked Conversation about Dante) far outshines it; here, as in The Egyptian Stamp (one of the world’s great genius nonsenses) it is the extension and super-contraction of minute images and neologisms that furnish Mandelstam’s powerful intellect: the ‘lemon Neva’, the ‘wolfhound century’, etc. He is a playful, labial smithy ala Nabokov, but bolder and more fun. His poetry is bolstered by this juggler’s wit, and the prose made poetry. This feeling can be attributed to my bias towards prose and my desire for the surprising; regardless, alongside Marina Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam remains incomparable.
The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam is available as an NYRB Classics paperback in translation by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin.
10 April 2017