Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam: Selected and Translated by Christian Wiman

Stolen Air
Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam
Selected and Translated by Christian Wiman
Copyright 2012 by Christian Wiman
Softbound, 81 pages,  $15.99
ISBN 978-0-06-209942-6

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Translations of poets, particularly Eastern European and even more particularly Russian poets are often difficult for any number of reasons: circumstances under which the poems were written, the difference in language and idioms and most often as we read in English translations of poets like Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam we are reading the translator’s version of what he or she thinks brings an accurate representation to us. I have read such complaints in the past about Rilke’s poetry and Neruda’s. Often I dismiss these complaints because I would have no access to the poet and the poems were they not translated by enterprising translators willing to take on such daunting tasks.

A number of years ago I purchased The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. (New York Review of Books, 1973). These renderings I often found sparse, harsh the way I imagined Mandelstam may have meant them. However, Brown in his introduction makes clear that Merwin has translated Mandelstam into Merwin in the same way Lowell and Nabokov translated Russian poets into Lowell and Nabokov.

So here I am with Wiman’s translation, Stolen Air, Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam accompanied by Ilya Kaminisky’s introduction, which by way of personal preference I find more interestingthorough.  For example, Kaminsky calls Mandelstam a lyric poet which Brown and Merwin clearly did not. Plus Kaminisky spends far more meaningful time on Mandelstam’s Jewish background. 

But all that has In the Merwin version, for example, the poem Black Earth begins thusly:

            Manured, blackened, worked to a fine tilth, combed
            like a stallion’s mane, stroked under wide air,
            all the loosened ridges cast up in a single choir,
            the damp crumbs of my earth and my freedom!

Wiman, however, first changes the poem from four line stanzas thus his opening lines read as follows:

            Earthcurds, wormdirt, worked to a rich tilth.     
            Everything air, star; everything earth.

            Like a choir acquiring one clean sound—brief ringing
            These wet crumbs claim and proclaim my freedom.              

Clearly there is a difference, not only in style but in language, Wiman making, I believe, Mandelstam not only lyric, but more accessible to those who have either not read Mandelstam previously or have struggled with previous translations.

In another poem Wiman brings American sensibility of beauty to stark Russian language which, we must remember, was in its original written in the worst of times for many Russians.  Czarist Russia was not a happy play land, especially for Jewish poets, and Stalinist Russia was certainly not an improvement, and in fact for Mandelstam, his poetry proved to be his undoing, sent off to Siberia he died at the age of 47.

Here is one of my favorite versions by Wiman:

Bring me to the brink of mountains, mystic
Dread, rapture of fear I feel and …fail.
Still: the swallow slicing blue is beautiful.
Stil: the cloud-tugged bell tower’s frozen music.

There is in me a man alive, a man alone,
Who, heart-stopped above a deep abyss,
Can hear a snowball grow one snowflake less,
The clock-tick accretions of dust becoming stone.

No. I am not that man, not that sadness
With its precise ice, its exquisite rue.
The pain that sings in me does not sing, and is true.

O whirlwind, O real wind
In which the avalanche is happening,
All my soul is bells, which will not ring.

With Stolen Air Wiman brings a modern sensibility, a beauty of language previous editions of Mandelstam may not have attempted or succeeded in fulfilling. Yes,Wiman’s is a new Mandelstam, a revision of what has come before and a pace setting for what may come after.  Highly recommended.


Zvi A. Sesling
Author, King of the Jungle and  Across Stones of Bad Dreams
Editor, Muddy River Poetry Review
Editor, Bagel Bards Anthology 7


  1. awesome review of mandelstam's translated poetry and in showing the reader how different translations can be. thanks zvi

  2. Anonymous7:24 AM

    A fine translation--how do we define 'fine'?--can bring a new perspective and understanding even, or perhaps especially, to a careful reading of a poem in its original language. I suspect that is the case with Wiman, and I'm happy this review has brought him to my attention for that reason. I'm impressed with these translations. I know I must return to Mandelstam now. Great review.