Friday poem III

27 11 2009

I was sorting through a couple of different poems, trying to decide which one, today.

The one from the collection published when the poet was very old? The one from the poet whose work I’d long distrusted, but felt this one tugging at me?

Then I came across this one, by Jean Valentine. I clipped it years ago from The New Yorker. I used to to do that, clip poems from magazines I owned. Perhaps I should start again.

Osip Mandelstam was one of Russia’s great poets, his life ended, like so many others, in Stalin’s Gulag. He was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, arrested again, and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. According to one account, he died of ‘starvation and madness.’

His poems, in translations, are sublime, but I have heard that Russian poems don’t translate particularly well. If I were a better person I’d learn Russian just to read Mandelstam and Akhmatova in the original.

Why this poem? This is why poems are written. This is why poems are read.

Tell Me, What Is The Soul
(Osip Mandelstam)

There is a prison room,
the floor cement,
in the middle of the room
a black pool full of black water.
It leads to an invisible canal.
Plunder is the pool. Plunder is the canal.

By the wall,
by a fire,
he was reciting, in his yellow leather coat,
the thieves were listening, they offered him
bread and the canned stuff,
which he took. . .