songs of samizdat






A rustling of leaves in the walls,

the interleaving of wrinkled typing pages pounded,
imprinted by steel Cyrillic keys of secret publishers

narrowcasting for selected ears.

The sacred keys for secret-

once they’ve spoken with ink
they cannot repeat what they’ve seen or heard,
can never relay the order of words they have
discreetly conveyed.

they cannot betray.


Another poet in a room next door in time
hears through the paper of the wall

the sound –
not of time but of one mumbling of it and
of his age,

that broken and caged

that snapping, enraged
denizen of dustbins.

to the sound of a voice and its words as
a bear to bees and their honey,

as though listening, ear cupped
to the tympanum between,
to the man whispering, humming

to himself –
a man dying yet living each day,
singing his way out –

the songs are foreign,
the voice, human.

Not kenning the words’ meaning yet
gleaning the cry of the heart behind them,

he wrote them down, he wrote their music
and the lyrics he wrote were
echoes, responses

to the calls he heard –
his own song singing the words his heart heard.


Echoes passed through you
as light passing through glass stained
is changed and changes the glass by adding
its own colors to the ones it finds:

the sound of his singing soul,
the hum of his murmuring heart.

Hear the right song long enough and
though the words are in another’s tongue,
your own tongue writes new words to match
how the song makes you feel.

Singer answering singer,
a new harmony for
a prior melody:

and so the flatness of time and
its only direction are
bent back on themselves and beaten –

curved until united,
hammered until harmonized.




What is “samizdat”? It is a Russian term that essentially means “self-published”. It particularly applies to those writers under the Soviet Union who were not free to publish what they had to say any other way because of censorship by the state. Copies were made by hand or typewriter, and distributed (carefully, selectively) by hand to trusted friends. It was a dangerous business, and much of Osip Mandelstam’s writing was only “available” through samizdat for many years.

I want to emphasize two or three things here.

First, this is a poem inspired not by Mandelstam’s poetic style (or an attempt to emulate it) but by the translations (or versions) of them written by Christian Wiman, as well as by Mandelstam’s life and method of writing. It does not purport to be a representation of how Wiman wrote his versions. He did, in fact, have literal translations of the poems, and he used both the meanings of Mandlestam’s words and their Russian sounds, attempting a pleasing synthesis of the two. Based on the preface to his collection, Stolen Air, many previous translations, perhaps, relied not so much as he has on the sound of the poems read aloud as on the sense of the words and their scanning across the page.

All writing is translation. And something is always lost in translation, especially when it’s from another language. Other things are gained, of course – for both good and ill. In a certain sense, translating a poem from another language is a type of (usually unwilling) collaboration. Not speaking Russian, I have no way of knowing how close Mr. Wiman’s versions are to Mr. Mandelstam’s originals – but I can say that I have enjoyed most of them more than any translation I have previously read.

Secondly, I hope to write another post on the poet himself, Osip Mandelstam. (Mr. Wiman is a fine poet in his own right, and was a long-time editor of Poetry magazine.) I have a troubled – not to say troubling – relationship with poetry, and Mandelstam did not write the style of poetry that I typically like. He mostly fascinates me for his strength of character and insight, and the way he led his life through singularly difficult times, under the repression of the Soviet Union. His widow wrote two lengthy biographies, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. The first has more to do with their life together, the second is more about her life after his death in a transit camp on the way to a labor camp in Siberia.

I cannot do justice in this space to why I like his poetry, not really having the words at the moment. If you’ve read my poem (thank you 8^), you will at least have seen a number of references to his poems, his method of writing them, and the way he and his wife had to live. Only scratching the surface, though. Later this week I will post some short excerpts from some of my favorite poems of his.

If you have any interest in biographies of poets – particularly from the perspective of a spouse who also happens to be an excellent observer and writer – then Nadezhda Mandelstam’s two books are priceless. Epic in length, but they were well worth reading for me. Very clear-eyed, funny, and acerbic, she did not suffer fools gladly. As my mother would say, “She culls nobody.” A very telling memoir of the “glory days” of the Soviet Union, that President Putin so seems to lament and so wishes to bring back. The Soviets were the conquerors for many years, and so wrote many of their own hagiographies – echoed by too many in the West. It’s good to read how the people actually lived under them.

Finally, although I highly recommend Wiman’s take on Mandelstam, there are a number of other very good translations, particularly by James Greene and Clarence Brown. “Give a hoot – read a book.”


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