Five Poems from The Voronezh Notebooks

* * *

January 19 – February 4, 1937

Where is that chain-bound, nailed-up moan?
Where now Prometheus—the cliff’s support and subsidy?
And the raptor, where?—its yellow-eyed pursuit
Of talons flying out from under brow.

It will not be: the tragedies, we cannot bring them back.
But these fast-advancing lips—
These lips lead straight into what is the marrow
Of Aeschylus the porter, Sophocles the woodcutter.

It is the echo and hello, the milestone, no—the ploughshare.
The airy hewn-stone theater of expanding eras
Found its footing, and all crave to see all—
Those born, those doomed to die, those without death.

* * *

January 20, 1937

The way, somewhere, a sky stone wakes the earth,
Knowing no father, falls the fallen verse.
The inexorable—the artist’s revelation—
Can be no other, no one judges it.

* * *

January 21–22, 1937

I hear it clear, the early ice
Rustling under the bridges
And recall the bright hops,
How it floated over our heads.

From hardened stairs, from city squares
With their boxy palaces,
Alighieri sang the whole
Circle of his Florence
More fiercely with wearied lips.

And so my shadow gnaws
With its eyes that gritty granite
And sees at night a row of stumps
That in daytime seemed like houses.

My shadow, twiddling his thumbs,
Yawns a little in your company,

Or makes noise amid the crowd,
Basking in their wine and sky,

Feeding crumbs of bitter bread
To the ever-nagging swans.

* * *

February 1, 1937

This January, nowhere to go.
Wide open city, recklessly tenacious…
I’m drunk—what, from locked doors?
Driven to moans from all these locks and catches.

Barking alleys with their hanging socks,
Low cellars, mangled streets—
Hooligans hide hastily in nooks,
Dart out from every crook and cranny.

Toward the ice-encrusted water pump,
Slipping into a ditch, its warty crown,
And stumbling, I eat dead air,
And the rooks fly off in a fever.

Gasping after them, I screech
Into some frigid wooden box:
Bring me a Reader! Counsel! Doctor!
If only we could talk on this barbed stair!

* * *

February 4, 1937

Gone deep into this numbing time, like Rembrandt,
Martyr of the play of light and shadow,
The bite of my burning rib
Is guarded neither by those watchmen,
Nor the soldier, who sleep under the storm.

Will you forgive me, magnificent brother,
Master and father of the black-green crown—
But the eye in the falcon’s feather
And fiery chests by midnight in the harem
Disturb neither for good—nor with goodness—
With twilight’s bellows our agitated tribe.


Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891 in Warsaw to a well-to-do Jewish family. He studied at the Sorbonne and in Heidelberg before finishing his education in St. Petersburg. In 1913, he published his first book, Stone, after helping found Acmeism (a movement set up in opposition to both Symbolism and Futurism). After the Civil War and the emergence of the new Soviet state, unwilling to change his writing for the sake of the socialist cause, Mandelstam was marginalized as a cultural figure. For a time, he survived with the help of such political and literary figures as Nikolai Bukharin and Boris Pasternak. In 1934, Stalin sent Mandelstam into exile, eventually to the city of Voronezh in central Russia, because of a poem in which the poet depicted the dictator’s body in the language of “worms” and “cockroaches.” After interrogations, prisons, exile, and two attempted suicides, Mandelstam died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938.

John High and Matvei Yankelevich

John High is a poet and translator. The author of eleven books, he is the chief editor of Crossing Centuries: The New Russian Poetry (Talisman House) and a former member of the Moscow Poetry Club. He has translated several contemporary Russian poets, including Nina Iskrenko, Ivan Zhdanov, and Alexei Parschikov. His most recent book of writings, vanishing acts (the last part of a tetralogy) was published by Talisman House, and a new book is forthcoming from Wet Cement Press in 2020. He has received four Fulbright and two NEA fellowships as well as grants from IREX and The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. He has an NEH Fellowship to complete a new translation of Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks in collaboration with Matvei Yankelevich.

Matvei Yankelevich's books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His translations include Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Ardis/Overlook), and he is the co-translator (with Eugene Ostashevsky) of Alexander Vvedensky's An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets), which received a National Translation Award. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a founding member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective where he curates the Eastern European Poets Series. He teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

English translation copyright (c) John High and Matvei Yankelevich, 2020.