Osip Mandelstam: Ode to Stalin translation by Ilya Bernstein

"Any unit of poetic speech," wrote Osip Mandelstam, "be it a line, a stanza, or an entire lyrical composition, must be regarded as a single word." And in the 1930s he wrote poems each of which reads like one long word, all of its parts held together by some mysterious force. The one exception to this rule is his Ode to Stalin, written in 1937, which is held together by no force at all, but is composed heterogeneously of great lines that are completely Mandelstam's own and expressions that are completely alien to the rest of his work. The result is "a combination of poetry and untruth," as the poet Vladimir Gandelsman has called it, which is impossible to forget because of the seriousness of the poetry and impossible to like because of the loathsomeness of the untruth.

My translation belongs to the genre of "simultaneous translation of poetry," which involves translating a poem as quickly as possible—come what may—while sticking as closely as possible to the rhyme and meter scheme of the original.

—Ilya Bernstein

Ode to Stalin

If I were to employ charcoal for highest praise —
For the unalloyed gladness of a picture —
I’d cut up the thin air with the most subtle rays,
Feeling of care and of alarm a mixture.
So that the features might reflect the Real,
In art that would be bordering on daring
I’d speak of him who shifted the world’s wheel,
While for the customs of a hundred peoples caring.
I’d raise the eyebrow’s corner up a bit,
And raise it once again, and keep on trying:
Look how Prometheus has got his charcoal lit ­—
Look, Aeschylus, at how I’m drawing and crying!

I’d make a handful of resounding lines
To capture his millennium’s early springtime,
And I would tie his courage in a smile
And then untie it in the gentle sunshine;
And in the wise eyes’ friendship for the twin,
Who shall remain unnamed, I’ll find the right expression,
Approaching which, you’ll recognize the father — him —
And lose your breath, feeling the world’s compression.
And I would like to thank the very hills
Which bred his hand and bone and gave them feeling:
Born in the mountains, he knew too the prison’s ills.
I want to call him — no, not Stalin — Dzhugashvili!

Painter, guard and preserve the warrior with your paint:
Surround him with a blue and humid forest
Of damp attention. Not to disappoint
The father with images that are unwholesome, thoughtless.
Painter, help him who’s everywhere with you,
Reasoning; feeling; always, always building.
Nor I nor anyone else, but all mankind, that’s who —
Homer-Mankind will raise his praise’s ceiling.
Painter, guard and preserve the warrior with your paint;
The woods of humanity sing after him, growing thicker —
The very future itself, the army of the sage —
They listen to him ever closer, ever quicker.

He leans over from the stage, as from a mount on high,
Into the mounds of heads. The debtor far surpasses
The suit against him: strictly kind the mighty eyes;
The thick eyebrow at someone nearby flashing;
And I would draw an arrow to point out
The firmness of the mouth — father of stubborn speeches;
The plastic, detailed eyelid, and about
Its outline, framing it, a million ridges;
He is all frankness, recognition, copper, and
A piercing earshot, which won’t tolerate a whisper;
At everyone prepared to live and die like men
Come running playful somber little wrinkles.

Squeezing the charcoal in which all has converged,
And with a greedy hand seeking only a resemblance —
Trying to find only the resemblance’s hinge —
I’ll crumble up the coal, pursuing his appearance.
I learn from him, not learning for myself.
I learn from him to show myself no mercy.
And if unhappiness conceals the plan’s great wealth,
I will discover it amid chaos and cursing.
Let me remain as yet unworthy to have friends,
Let me remain unfilled with tears and with resentment;
I still keep seeing him in a greatcoat, as he stands
In an enchanted square, with eyes full of contentment.

With Stalin’s eyes a mountain is pushed apart.
The squinting plain looks far into the distance:
Like a sea without seams, the future from the past —
From a giant plow to where the sun’s furrow glistens.
He smiles a reaper’s smile, the smiling friend,
Reaper of handshakes in a conversation
Which has begun and which will never end
Smack in the middle of all of Creation.
And every single haystack, every barn
Is strong and clean and smart — a living chattel,
A mankind miracle! May life be large.
Listen to happiness’s axis roll and rattle.

And six times over in my consciousness I keep,
Slow witness to the labor, struggle, and harvest,
His whole enormous path — across the steppe,
Across Lenin’s October — to its kept promise.
Into the distance stretch the mounds of people’s heads:
I become small up there, where no one will espy me;
But in kindhearted books and children’s games, instead,
I’ll rise again to say the sun is shining.
The warrior’s frankness: there exists no truer truth.
For air and steel, for love and honor,
One glorious name takes shape on reader’s tongue and tooth,
And we have caught it and have heard its thunder.

January-March 1937


tttito said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tttito said...

"impossible to forget because of the seriousness of the poetry and impossible to like because of the loathsomeness of the untruth." Quite so, but then it's not poetry's job to be likable.
Thanks for the fine translation. It will assist me in my umpteenth attempt to wade through Mandelstam's terrifying original.

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RA said...

Complex, fascinating, ambiguous. Joseph Brodsky wrote: "...after the ‘Ode,’ if I were Stalin, I would have slit Mandelstam’s throat immediately. I would have realised that he’d violated me, he’d moved in, and there’s nothing more frightening or shocking than that.”

Anonymous said...

Slava Stalin!

Jesse Brennan said...

Slava Stalin!