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P1040855Princeton University Press 1965, hardbound in dust jacket.

Few Eastern European writers can hit you as hard as this Russian born author/poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) who by some is considered the finest Russian poet of the Twentieth Century.

Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, Poland, raised in Imperial Russia of Jewish descent, and formed through study in the multi cultural cities like Paris, France and Heidelburg, Germany and the fine University of St. Petersburg in Russia. Yet at the time of his life he was hardly known in Russia and tragically banned by Stalin to one of the Soviet Gulags where he perished in miserable circumstances.

P1040856The book has an extensive 65 page introductory essay by Professor Brown that forces you to climb deep into Mandelstam’s work, and I suffered a bit in writing this post trying to convey the uniqueness of this author.

The poetryfoundation.org puts it this way:

“In 1928 Mandelstam, despite continued antagonism from state officials, managed to produce three more volumes: The Egyptian Stamp, a surreal novella about the sufferings of a Russian Jew; Poems, another verse collection, one that marked Mandelstam’s continued maturation as a poet; and On Poetry, a collection of critical essays. The Egyptian Stamp, commented Clarence Brown in Slavic and East European Journal, is “the single example of Mandelstam’s narrative prose and one of the few examples of surrealist fiction to be found in all of Russian literature.”

This is not an easy book to read and perhaps should be read twice to comprehend the erudition which Clarence Brown uses to illustrate the importance of Mandelstam’s work.(note that in Russian Mandelstam can be spelled in different ways).

In 1976, Dutch television produced an excellent documentary that includes the only public interview on television given by Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda Mandelstam. The documentary offers enormous insight into the difficult times during which the poet lived and the many hardships he and his family had to endure. His widow conserved his poetry by memorizing much of it. For his wife the poet wrote the following poem:

This is what I most want

un-pursued, alone

to reach beyond the light

that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there-

no other happiness-

and learn, from starlight,

what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,

light becomes light,

because our murmuring

strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you

my little one, whispering,

I can only lift you towards the light

by means of this babbling.

(courtesy http://www.poetryintranslation.com )

The Dutch documentary offers a rare insight into the feelings by his widow who does not shy away in her late seventies to discuss sex, religion and the life of authors in general, and the Soviet curse many writers had to deal with.

Perhaps the best way to dive into this great poet’s life in my opinion is by looking at this extraordinary piece of film below. A secondary fact is that the film uses Mandelstam’s Russian poetry in a translation authored by Professor Clarence Brown.

If you are spell bound by the video you will soon realize what uniqueness means, you have my word on it.