Posts By Alex Cigale

“In the forests the gilded leaves” by Osip Mandelstam

This video is from a series of Slavyansky Bank television commercials using works of famous Russian Silver Age poets. The dramatization of Osip Mandelstam’s poem is by the Kazakh Russian film director Timur Bekmambetov (see the Night Watch trilogy for more information on the director).

Сусальным золотом горят
В лесах рождественские елки,
В кустах игрушечные волки
Глазами страшными глядят.

О, вечная моя печаль,
О, тихая моя свобода
И неживого небосвода
Всегда смеющийся хрусталь!


In the forests the gilded leaves
of the Christmas pines are on fire,
And from the bushes the toy wolves
Glower with their terrifying eyes.

Oh, my never ending sadness,
Oh, my barely whispered freedom,
And of the dispirited horizon
The eternally mocking crystal!


This occasion represents an opportunity for me to develop my thoughts toward an introduction to Osip Mandelstam’s particular symbolic vocabulary, having just received two acceptances of my translations that between them span his whole life’s work. Cardinal Points is taking 2 early miniatures (like this one, from 1908-1910) along with two late ones and 3 of his children’s verses from the mid-20s, when he’d given up on verse and wrote critical prose and poetry for children (the only things he could publish and have a source of income from). And Modern Poetry in Translation is taking a selection of his last poems, from the so-called Voronezh Notebooks. The thing is, the significance of this one is all subtext, one of the earliest efforts of a 17-year-old, newly-minted Symbolist which may yet be said to come to define his entire life’s work (a kind of teleology, holographic anamorphosis in respect to time, an enfolding and unfolding of fate.)

Most (perhaps almost all) Russians have been and are mystified by the meaning of this one (and the rest of Mandelstam’s work) and react to it on an almost instinctual, emotive, gut level, as though it were a piece of pure Impressionism (or rather the Expressionism that chronologically was still to come). This video, in a totally anachronistic fashion, which yet works perfectly so that the poem almost seems to reflect Mandelstam’s foreboding-filled reading of his own fate, envisions a juxtaposition between a scapegoating of a Jewish youth that is then somehow malevolently enacted through the mature poet’s antagonistic relationship with Stalin. Or rather the reverse, the youth a flashback, as though the poem was in reality written to refer allegorically to the political woods and wolves.

But no, this was not so! The date of composition is 1908, indeed one of his very first poems. How eerie then! Just as the smallest part of a hologram contains the whole image, so the epiphany relative to time, not déjà vu but its opposite, a sense of projection into future time, a moment of existentialist tunnel-vision that envisions in sum total a life lived, a time capsule that is then opened exactly 30 years later at the moment of the poet’s death! Just as each cell contains in its double-helix strands of DNA , later transcribed and regulated, in toto at least the instructions for the whole human being, so the woof and warp of fate are to a degree predetermined; as the saying goes, character (regulated by environment, nurture, and circumstance) is fate. It is as though each poet is born to do the work that only she was born to do.

In Mandelstam’s case, this work announces itself in 1911 with a departure from Symbolism and the formation of The Guild of Poets (aptly named for its emphasis on the element of craft), or Acmeism (in the Parnassian sense of “the best of world culture,”) for which Mandelstam then becomes the leading proponent and exemplar. This break with Symbolism however was not a radical one, nor even intended as a disavowal but rather a modification, its primary intention being to shift the focus of symbolism away from the ethereal to the mundane, to the world of objects (“direct expression through images,”) toward “Beautiful Clarity” in the words of the poet and critic Mikhail Kuzmin, from the Dionysian back to the Apollonian. Mandelstam’s symbolic vocabulary I mention at the outset consists of words like “tree,” “candle,” “forest,” “building,” “stone.” It may also be said then that the present early poem initiates the shaping of a world-view, of a symbolic vision that then pervades the remaining 30 years of Mandelstam’s life’s work, and more specifically his complicated and never resolved relationship to Judaism and Christianity.

Sometime during 1911, Mandelstam surreptitiously and almost certainly for practical reasons converts (perhaps on a visit to Finland) so as to avoid the racial quotas and enter St. Petersburg University to complete the studies he had begun at Heidelberg. Being from a thoroughly secularized family, Mandelstam had never felt any Jewish inclinations and because of the “disability” was, if anything, always conflicted about his race. On the other hand, having had no spiritual education, Christianity held out at least the promise of a spiritual life. A conversion to Orthodoxy however, because of the appearance of compulsion and of unethical convenience, not only held little appeal but was likely distasteful, so that even the choice of the conversion (variously cited, to Methodism or Lutheranism) was a source of dis-ease. In all of this, there is a remarkable similarity to Mandelstam in the religious content of Joseph Brodsky’s life and work, so that both of them may be, and have been, viewed as essentially Christian poets.

Now, I must admit that I am projecting in all of this an element of psychologism, but in my defense will say that the act of translation, that reading par-excellence, is above all an act of empathy. Also, a poet myself, I understand that much of a life’s work is not by design but a matter of enactment of unconscious content. Support for such broad assertions would require an analysis of the following poems (see notes,) something that is of course outside the scope of this introduction (but which has certainly been undertaken in the academic context.)

Collection of Osip Mandelstam links:

10 extant audio recordings of Mandelstam reading his own poems.

Video of Joseph Brodsky’s analysis and reciting (in Russian) of Mandelstam, in comparison to Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Pasternak and in the context of the catastrophic times of World War, Revolution, and Socialist conformity.

Bruce McCleland’s translation of Mandelstam’s book Tristia with facing, transliterated (“sounded-out”) texts.

Another early cryptic miniature, “Thin cross” (1910,) in Offcourse selection of 6 of my translations of Mandelstam miniatures.

A few more Mandelstam (& Tsvetaeva) miniatures in my translation, including 4 from the Voronezh Notebooks that (though not in these) often contain Christian symbolism.

The seemingly ambivalent, post-conversion “The Lutheran” (1912), with its penultimate line: “We neither worship heaven nor fear hell….”

Mandelstam’s book of children’s verses, Primus, with my English translations.

Epilogue (from Requiem) by Anna Akhmatova

This film is an artifact from a performance called Black Over Red, “a multi art-form choral work combining live music, dance and video on a grand scale with a cast of 25.” It was staged in 2001, a co-production of the Latvian Radio Choir and the Scottish dance/theatre troupe Cryptic, directed by Cathie Boyd, who uploaded the video. The composer was Anthea Haddow.

Epilogue (from Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem)


I know now how the faces have fallen,
How from under lids gazes out terror,
How cuneiform’s coarse pages are
Incised by suffering upon their cheeks,
How curls from ashen and black turn
In a single moment completely silver,
And a smile withers on defeated lips,
And in dry laughter shudders fear.
So that now I pray not for myself only
But for us all, who stood there with me
In the intense cold and in July’s heat
Under that red and blinded wall.


The eternal flame, a memorial for the spilled blood of the innocent that burns throughout the middle, third minute in the bottom of the trinity of images that form this film, accompanied by the spine-tingling bass hum of the choir and the mournful vatic tones of Akhmatova’s own slowed down, staggering, ponderous reading, do honor in their faithfulness to her poem as a whole. The black (& white) documentary images of the upper third corner, while tonally appropriate, may be misleading to anyone who has no context for this, perhaps Anna Akhmatova’s best known single poem, through which she has become identified with the fate of all Russia. As she says in the prologue:

I remained with my own people then,
Where my people, in their misfortune, were.

Unlike the source images here, referencing the destruction visited upon Russia by the German Wehrmacht during WWII and, more specifically, some of the worst of it wrought upon Akhmatova’s adopted hometown, St. Petersburg during the 900-day siege in which a million people perished, most starving to death, the context of the poem is the auto-cannibalistic predation by Stalin and his henchmen upon his own people during the various purges of the late 30s. The red wall is that of the Crosses Prison, referred to earlier (in part 4,) outside which the women (mothers, wives, sisters) of the mostly male political prisoners day after day awaited news of the condemned. Again from the preface: “During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repression, I spent seventeen months in Leningrad prison lines.” And from part 4:

Three hundredth in line, care package in hand,
Under The Crosses prison wall you’ll stand
And with the heated waters of your tears
Dissolve the surface of Christmas-time ice.

The images of Orthodox churches and icons quite appropriately suggest the unifying theme of the poem as a whole which, in calendaric and apostolic fashion, consists of 12 parts and in which Akhmatova and her prisoner son are transformed into the universal mother and child so that what is symbolically enacted here is the Passion Play.

The concluding images of St. Petersburg are again faithful to the crux of the poem in that they represent a particularly Russian self-identification of the Poet with her People, Akhmatova as Russia’s conscience and Muse, a Mother Russia so to speak, an ethical, nurturing balance for the Fatherland that requires sacrifice. As she wrote in one of her most famous miniatures, contemporaneous with Requiem:

In Memoriam

And you, my close friends till Judgment Day!
I have been saved as though to mourn you,
To not be stilled as a weeping willow above
your graves but to cry aloud your names
For the whole world to hear. Enter the Saints;
All fall to your knees!–the light breaks through,
In smooth rows stream the citizens of Leningrad,
Living with the dead. For God there are no dead.

August 1942



Other translations and musical settings of Akhmatova’s Requiem:

There’s an extensive literature comparing the available translations; here’s a summary by Wendy Rosslyn (via Google Books). See also the paper by George L. Kline. Lastly, I’m curious but have yet to track down Robert Lowell’s version that appeared in Atlantic Monthly 214 (1964) pp. 62-65.

Akhmatova may be heard reciting the Requiem in its entirety here [mp3] and may be seen reciting “Muse” in a YouTube snippet from a feature film. A complete collection of Akhmatova audio files in Russian are also on the web. Finally, here are five more of my own translations of Akhmatova miniatures.

Potets (The Sweater) by Alexander Vvedensky

This masterful animation by Alexander Fedulov is of the Russian Absurdist Alexander Vvedensky’s poem “Potets,” “The Sweater” or, rather, a neologism for “He Who Sweats,” referring to “death’s dew.” I had previously translated Vvedensky’s powerful prison prose (which stands up well, I think, in comparison to Kafka and Camus) as well as a different long poem, “The Meaning of the Sea” (as yet unpublished). I suggest reading the former to get a sense of the proto-existential themes particular to all of Vvedensky’s work (“I’m dying…. I’m dying.”) From his late 20s, Vvedensky (1904-1941) faced repeated arrest, perishing in transport to one of Stalin’s Gulag concentration camps. His insistent trochees of course represent a sense of the absurdity and powerlessness before such impersonal forces of doom.

Fedulov’s work here is a prime example of Russian animation’s long and honored tradition. His imagery, inspired by Vvedensky’s other poems, such as “The Meaning of the Sea,” speaks well for the work as a whole and I will only offer my translation of a few of the beginning verses (through minute 3:00 of film) as a way into the poem; its insistent driving rhythms, what Frost had called “sound sense,” say most of what can be said about life’s irrevocability.

“The sons cease their dancing — you can’t have fun forever, and quieting down sit silently by the father’s extinguished bedside. They look into his fading eyes. They want to repeat everything. The father expires. He becomes engorged like a cluster of grapes. We are afraid to keep looking at what is called his face. The sons covertly and silently enter each into his own superstitious wall.” So ends Part 1 (of 3) at minute 7:00 with the following message slowly revealed in materializing letters: “The Sweat is the cold perspiration that is produced on the forehead of a dying man. It is the dew of death; that is the meaning of The Sweat.”

And here is the beginning of Part 1:

The sons stood by the wall, their feet sparkling
shod in spurs. They turned joyful and intoned:

Divulge to us, oh dearest father,
What is the meaning of a Sweater.

The father, sparkling with his eyes, replied:

My sons I say, do not confuse
Day’s end with daughter of spring.
The Sweat is terrible, grey and blue.
I’m your father, angel, and saint.
I’m acquainted with his cruelty,
My own death is drawing near,
On my head can be seen gaping
Tufts of hair, bald spots, melancholy.
And if life continues then soon enough
None of the following will remain,
Neither falcon nor a single hair.
Just to know that death is nigh,
Knowledge, sight is woe and blight.

The sons, having rung the church bells,
Began to thunder into their tongues.
We’re asking about something else entirely!
We are wearing out our thoughts like imps.
Will you just tell us already father,
What is the meaning of a Sweater.

And the father exclaimed: the Prologue!
In the Prologue, the main thing is God.
Now my sons you must go to sleep
So that your answer comes in dreams….

The verse sections alternate with scenario-like prose paragraphs in the manner of a play (which are acted out as interludes in the animated film without being sounded). An example from the beginning of part 2: “The father hovers over the writing table, but do not think that he’s a spirit.” And a bit later: “The father ceases to speak in verses and lights up a candle, holding it in his teeth like a flute. At the same time he slides into the armchair like a pillow.” And so forth; until the final words: “But of course, we knew all this from the beginning.”

See the complete text of “Potets” in Russian. For full credits on the film, see the notes at Vimeo. For more on Vvedensky, in addition to Alex’s translation of his prison prose mentioned above, see also “Vvedensky in Love” by Thomas Epstein and Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of “The Demise of the Sea.” And for more on Alexander Fedulov, see the Russian-language blog maintained by his son, Kirill Fedulov.