The Slate Ode

The Slate Ode

A star with a star is a mighty joint,
A flinty way from the old song,
The tongue of flint and air,
Flint with water, a horseshoe signet ring.
A milky slate-sketch is drawn
On a soft schist of the clouds–
Not an apprenticeship of the worlds,
But a hallucination of sheep’s dream.

We sleep on foot under a dense night,
Beneath a warm sheepskin hat,
A stream babbles back to its source,
Like a foamy warbler, a chain, a speech.
Here terror writes, here a shift writes
With a leaden milky stick,
Here a draft grows ripe
Of the disciples of flowing water.

Steep goatish towns,
A mighty layering of flint,
Yet, there’s another ridge on height–
Sheepish villages and churches!
There a plumb-line preaches,
Time gnaws, water teaches,
And a transparent wood of air
Has had a surfeit of them all.

Like a dead hornet from a hive,
A pied day is swept off with disgrace.
A hawkish night carries a burning chalk
And feeds the slate to erase
A day’s impressions away
From the iconoclastic board,
And shake off transparent visions
Like nestlings from the hand!

The fruit was swelling. The grapes grew ripe.
The day was raging like most days.
A tender game of knucklebones first,
The furs of fierce sheepdogs at noon.
The inner side of green images
Is like dross of the icy heights,
The hungry water flows and spins,
And plays like a cub of a wild beast.

And like a spider crawls up to me–
Here each joint is drenched in moonlight,
I hear shrieks across the slate board
On the astonished steep height.
I break the night, a burning chalk,
To make a steadfast instant note,
I trade the noise for the arrows’ song,
I trade harmony for a bustard’s wrath.

Who am I? I am not a straight stone mason,
Neither a shipbuilder, nor a roofer,
I am a double-dealer, with a double soul,
A friend of night, and a daymonger.
Blessed is he who called flint
A disciple of the flowing water,
Blessed is he who tied the strap
Of the mountains’ feet on firm soil.

So, now I study a record
Of the summer scratches on the slate board,
The language of flint and air,
With a layer of darkness, a layer of light;
And I yearn to put my fingers
In the flinty way from the old song,
As in a sore–to weld and join
Flint with water, a horseshoe with a ring.


A version with omitted stanzas [between 6 & 7] :

It is only by the voice that we’ll know
What scribbled and struggled there
And lead a stiff lead pencil where
The voice will point out.

I break the night, a burning chalk
To make a steadfast instant note,
I trade the noise for the arrows’ song,
I trade harmony for a strembling wrath.


Fear and Awe: “The Slate Ode”

(Ian Probstein)

The “Slate Ode” is one of the most esoteric poems in Mandelstam’s creativity. The poet is known for his exceptional manner of hiding allusions and destroying bridges-associations.

Omry Ronen in his profound book An Approach to Mandelstam made diachronic and synchronic analyses of “The Slate Ode” and “January 1, 1924.”(1) While restoring the bridges in these of Mandelstam’s poems written in 1923, Ronen hit the right target and even created a kind of a history of the Russian verse from Lomonosov and Derzhavin to the twentieth century on the one hand, and connected Mandelstam’s prose, essays, and poetry on the other, by thus achieving a striking and sometimes a superfluous effect as, for example, in his citations of the use of blazhen and blagosloven (blessed) in Russian poetry: since Derzhavin and especially Pushkin there was hardly a Russian poet who did not use these words.

Reading poetry line by line and linking each line with its sources is not a new but perhaps one of the most productive ways of restoring the whole picture–a poem. Such a manner of close reading allowed Ronen to bridge the gaps: to restore allusions and associations hidden between lines and even between words. As Ronen says, “The Slate Ode” and its title itself was inspired by Derzhavin’s last unfinished poem “Reka Vremyon” (The River of Time), which was written on a slate tablet with a leaden chalk or “milky stick,” to quote Mandelstam. The poetic motive of Derzhavin’s poem is the flux of time that carries away all the human deeds and “drowns in the chasm of oblivion/nations, kingdoms and kings”:

Relentless River, coursing ages,
Usurps all works of mortal hands;
It thinks all worlds, in darkness rages:
Should any trace endure an hour
Through Lyre’s chord or Trumpet’s call,
Obscured it drowns, by Time devoured,
Purged of its form–the Fate of all…

This motif is half hidden in allusions and associations while “The Slate Ode” begins with a very high note: “A star and star is a mighty joint,/A flinty way from an old song…”–which immediately reminds us of a Lermontov poem (“the old song” is a kind of a defamiliarization here). It is not only a motif of “poetic oblivion” as Ronen stated, but also of the idea and the thirst for connection of the two worlds. This motif brings the next two lines:

The tongue of flint and air,
Flint with water, a horseshoe signet ring.

Using a diachronic approach, Ronen quotes Mandelstam’s idea from his “Conversation about Dante” where the Russian poet refers to Novalis. “The Hermit in Heinrich von Ofterdingen calls the miner’s craft “astrology turned inside out.” However, for Mandelstam, mineralogy and “astrology” are one” (Ronen 65-66).

As Mandelstam put it, “Mineral rock is an impressionistic diary of weather accumulated by millions of natural disasters; however, it is not only of the past, but also of the future: it has periodicity. It is Aladdin’s lamp penetrating the geological twilight dusk of future ages” (CPL 439).

I believe that Mandelstam’s thirst for unifying time by thus overcoming oblivion gave birth to the lines:

A stream babbles back to its source,
Like a foamy warbler, a chain, a speech.

Besides the similes-allusions with Derzhavin (the first two are the titles of his poems) and Pushkin revealed by Ronen, there is a second meaning of the word penochka (not only the name of a bird, but also “a foam”: both penochka and tsepochka (chain) are diminutive forms; a fountain, a spring is evidently a metaphor of poetry). The fountain of human thought and being (a striking resemblance with Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”) moves backwards; this is not a mechanical metamorphosis. In his earlier poem, Mandelstam wrote:

Aphrodite, remain a foam,
A word come back to music.

(“Silentium,” 1910)

The lines “Here terror writes, here a shift writes/With a leaden milky stick” take the shape of a circular movement (which is characteristic for Mandelstam, who was rather skeptical of the so-called linear causal chain of things). These lines immediately connect the first and the second stanzas and introduce the theme of inspiration and creativity. Ronen was right to present both synchronic and diachronic interpretations of these lines, where the fear itself does not have a physical, but primarily a metaphysical meaning: a mysterious fear of the secrets of being with its “geological” shifts of time as well as the fear and uncertainty of creativity known to each true master. As Mandelstam himself put it, “The horror of the present tense is given here, a kind of terror praesentis. Here the unalloyed present is taken as a sign introduced to ward off evil (negation, churaniye in Mandelstamian dictum). The present tense, completely isolated from both the future and the past, is conjugated like a pure fear, like danger” (CPL 403).

A “leaden milky stick,” again, in a circular movement connects Derzhavin’s ode, the first stanza with Mandelstam’s perception of being as becoming, as a school of knowledge and creativity: “Here a draft grows ripe/Of the disciples of flowing water,” where the metaphorical usage of the verb “to ripen” is crucial for Mandelstam, who connects creativity understood as a process (and therefore he wrote in “Conversation about Dante” that “the drafts cannot be annihilated”) with natural phenomena (cf. with the grapes which “grew ripe”).

Once in the Crimea, on the shores where Ovid was in exile and where Jason with his Argonauts made a stop on his way to win the Golden Fleece, looking at the “crystals of millennia” in an open cut of one of the most ancient mountains on earth, I realized that we are, in a way, contemporaries of Homer. According to Mandelstam’s “autobiographical confession,” “Black Sea pebbles tossed up on shore by the rising tide helped me immensely when the conception of this conversation was taking shape… It was thus that I came to understand that mineral rock is something like a diary of the weather, like a meteorological blood clot” (CPL 438).

The Crimea is the place where Mandelstam spent much of his time before the revolution of 1917 and later in 1919-1920; the motifs of “Steep goatish towns,” of “Sheepish villages and churches,” and of “the mighty layering of flint” (the epithet “mighty,” as Ronen noticed, is used twice in “The Slate Ode” and in the “January 1, 1924”)–all of these images as well as those of “The Finder of a Horseshoe” and of other poems (“Theodosia” in the first place) were inspired by those visits.

While “the mighty layering of flint” is a development of one of the motifs of the first stanza, “plumbline the preacher” (or plumb-ruler), again, connects the two worlds, physical and metaphysical, and simultaneously alludes to Mandelstam’s own “The Finder of a Horseshoe” (“A plumbline of a mariner”), to his essay “Petr Chaadayev” (1928), and, as Peter Steiner pointed out, to Mandelstam’s earlier poem “Notre Dame” (1912), where the “unbelievable wood” of the Gothic cathedral echoes with the “transparent wood of the air” of “The Slate Ode.”(3)

The contradictions between a “multicolored day” and a “a hawkish night,” which “carries a burning chalk/And feeds the slate to erase/A day’s impressions away/From the iconoclastic board,” is, again, an opposition of physical everyday life and a metaphysical being. The motif of night as a friend of poetic and prophetic inspiration is common in Russian lyrical poetry. The night is bringing “a burning chalk”: this metaphor, evidently, connects the theme of Derzhavin’s poem with the whole tradition of Russian lyrical poetry. Ronen quotes a dozen of poems to which this image alludes. Mandelstam, perhaps, wouldn’t have thought consciously about all of them, but they were in his poetic blood. There is one, yet, to be mentioned here: Lermontov’s “A Word Born of Fire and Light.” The aim of the poet according to Mandelstam–and here he speaks mainly of the aim of poet and poetry–is “to erase/A day’s impressions away/from the iconoclastic board/And shake off transparent visions/Like nestlings from the hand!” “Transparent” (prozracnyi) is, perhaps, opposed to (prizrachnyi) “seeming” experiences and impressions of the day. Such an interpretation of poetry as vision and foreseeing (a connection of poetic and prophetic inspiration) is very close to Shelley’s ideas expressed in his “Defense of Poetry”: for Mandelstam a poet is a disciple of a prophet if not a prophet himself.

The whole second part of the ode is a development of this theme; therefore the stanza beginning with the lines “It is only by the voice that we’ll know/What scribbled and struggled there/And lead a stiff lead pencil where/The voice will point out,” omitted in the “final” as well as in “Khardzhiev’s” version plays an important role in the composition of the poem. In my opinion, without this stanza there is a gap, not simply an omission of bridges-associations in the poem. I agree with Ronen who gives both versions (with and without this stanza) in his book.

The fifth stanza begins with the motif of the day and alludes to some of Mandelstam’s poems (“The Finder of the Horseshoe” in the first hand) and goes far beyond the limits of a linear interpretation of time. “The tender game” (babki, a national Russian game akin to baseball) of children is read in the context of the previous poem (written not long before “The Slate Ode”) where “children are playing with the vertebrae of the extinct animals.” Here, again, Mandelstam reveals the footprints of the past in the present and acquires a kind of cosmic vision, the one he praised so highly in Tiutchev.

The end of the fifth and the whole sixth stanza continue the motif of “the night” and that of the “leaden chalk”: “the voices of memory are teaching (human mind); they “teach by breaking the night,/By throwing slate sticks to the woods,/Tearing them out of the birds’ beaks.”

As mentioned above, between the sixth and the seventh stanzas in the draft of the “Ode” there were lines:

It is only by the voice that we’ll know
What scribbled and struggled there
And lead a stiff lead pencil where
The voice will point out.

I break the night, a burning chalk
To make a steadfast instant note,
I trade the noise for the arrows’ song,
I trade harmony for a
strembling wrath.

The verses excluded from the final version confirm, as was correctly observed by Michail Gasparov,(4) that “the key images that connected the “Ode” with Derzhavin’s octave, a foundation background of Mandelstam’s poem, are wiped out from the latter step by step.” Besides, the thought that a poetic gift is akin to the prophetic vision, in the vein of Romantic poetics, for instance, Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” was perhaps unacceptable for the mature Mandelstam. Moreover, since all the poems of that period changed towards the intensification of the activity of the lyrical “I,” as was noted by Michail Gasparov,(5) we assume that “A Slate Ode” symbolizes a shift from half-tones and hidden allusions of the books Stone and Tristia to a more active social position. It is not a “passive” contemplation; rather, akin to Derzhavin himself, the poet “breaks the night,” which is the very “burning chalk” justly inherited by him from Derzhavin. Therefore, he “trades the noise” (The Noise of Time, the title of his book in prose) for “the arrow’s son” and “harmony” for “trembling wrath” (or even “strembling,” since Mandelstam coins a neologism, very much like Velimir Khlebnikov, changing a tender word “trembling” to its opposite.

To learn from memory means to learn “to listen and to hear the voices”: this brings back the theme of poet and poetry. We suppose that the whole poem evokes this motive through the motifs of time-space; a sense of history; an ability to listen, to hear the voices, and to learn. Hence constant shifts from “we” to “I” in the second part of the ode beginning with the sixth stanza in which the lyrical hero of the poem (who in this case is very close to the poet himself) is already present. The verses:

Who am I? I am not a straight stone mason,
Neither a shipbuilder, nor a roofer,
I am a double-dealer, with a double soul,
A friend of night, and a daymonger

Ronen connects with Pushkin’s poem “My Pedigree” and with the dialogue of the clowns from Hamlet (Act V, scene i): “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?” (but omitting a witty-paradoxical answer: “The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants”). In my opinion, the ties with Mandelstam’s own creativity revealed by Ronen (the poem “Actor and Worker” (1920) and his essay “The Bloody Mystery-Play of January Ninth” (1922)) as well as the development of the “orphic” theme (connected with Viacheslav Ivanov’s essay “Orpheus”) are much more important. Yet there were some lines that were missed by Ronen’s ear in terms of synchronic interpretation: such typically Russian (or rather “Soviet”) as well as Mandelstamian dictum: “Ja nochi drug, Ja dnia zastrelshchik” which can be translated as: I am a friend of the night, I am a shooter (the day’s assailant, and even killer) of the day, but also: initiator, beginner of the day in such coinages, as “the shooter (zastrelshchik) of a socialist competition, initiative,” and so on. Both meanings were immediately caught by the native speaker who lived in the country of a “newspeak” and was bored by endless editorials and broadcasting programs. Mandelstam plays with both meanings by thus destroying its monosemantic simplicity and hiding his negative attitude towards reality. The verses: “Blessed is he who called flint/A disciple of the flowing water,/Blessed is he who tied the strap/Of the mountains’ feet on firm soil” introduce the end, the coda of the whole poem and bring the reader back to the themes of memory, mineralogy, and astrology as well as to the VI chapter of the “Conversation about Dante”:

“O Poetry, envy crystallography, bite your nails in anger and impotence! For it is recognized that the mathematical formulas necessary for describing crystal formation are not derivable from three-dimensional space. You are denied even that element of respect which any piece of mineral crystal enjoys” (CPL 422).

In the last stanza, the poet speaks of himself as of a disciple of memory studying “a record/Of the summer scratches on the slate board,/The language of flint and air,/With a layer of darkness, a layer of light” (an allusion to mineralogy) in order “to put his fingers/In the flinty way from the old song,/As in a sore–to weld and join/Flint with water, a horseshoe with a ring.” A circle is locked: the last stanza as if a spherical mirror reflects the first one; or, perhaps, it is another turn of the gyre. The word “ulcer,” as was mentioned by Ronen, reveals the motif of painful inspiration which, again, is one of the recurrent motifs in Russian poetry and alludes to the prophecies of Isaiah. The poetic motive of “The Slate Ode” connects the motive of “The River of Time,” Lermontov’s “Flinty Way” and “A Word Born of Fire and Light…” with the theme of the poet’s duty and destiny to bridge the gaps and overcome the metaphysical fear of loneliness and separation of mankind in history. It is not a physical fear and not a synchronic local time (even if it is a century): these themes dominate “January 1, 1924,” which is more “earthly” than a cosmic vision of “The Slate Ode.” The poetic motive of “The Slate Ode” reveals time-space, history, and being in their integrity. The poet in his creativity goes far beyond “the Gates of Hercules”–these are not only the gates of space, but also of time and being.


(1) See: Ronen, Omri. An Approach to Mandelstam. The Magness Press, The Hebrew University. Jerusalem: 1983.

(2) Translation of Alexander Levitsky and Martha T. Kitchen. Derzhavin. Poetic Works. A Bilingual Album. Providence, R.I.: Brown Slavic Publications (Vol. XII), 2001. 188.

(3) See: Steiner, Peter. “Poem as Manifesto: Mandelstam’s ‘Notre Dame’.” Russian Literature, V. 3 (July 1977).

(4) Gasparov, Mikhail. “‘Solominka’ Mandelshtama. Poetika Chernovika.” (Mandelstam’s “Little straw.” The poetics of a draft copy). Selected Works. Moscow: NLO, 1995. 188. (Gasparov has an analogous idea in his essay “‘Za to chto ia ruki tvoi.” (“Because I could not hold your hands…”) A Poem with a Discarded Key.” Ibid, 220. Cf. Semenko, Irina. Poetika Pozdniego Mandel’stama (Later Poetics of Mandelstam). Roma: 1986, 9-35, rpt. Moscow: Mandelstam Society, 1997.

(5) Gasparov, Mikhail. Grazhdanskaia Lirika Mandel’shtama 1937 (Civic Lyrics of Mandelstam 1937). Moscow: Russian State University of Humanities Press, 1996. 14-15, 109.


Works Cited

Gasparov, Mikhail. Grazhdanskaia Lirika Mandel’shtama 1937 (Civic Lyrics of Mandelstam 1937). Moscow: Russian State University of Humanities Press, 1996.

Mandelstam, Osip. The Complete Critical Prose and Letters. Trans. J. G. Harris and Constance Link. Ed. Jane Gary Harris. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979.

Selected Poems. Translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin. New York: Atheneum, 1974.

50 Poems. Translated by Bernard Meares. Introduction by Joseph Brodsky. New York: Persea Books, 1977.

Slovo i kultura (Word and culture). Moskva: Sovetskii pisatel’ (Soviet writer), 1987.

Stikhi. Perevody. Esse. Stat’i. (Poems. Translations. Essays. Articles.). Tbilisi: 1990.

Sobraniye Sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh (Collected Works). Nerler, Pavel and Andrei Nikitaiev, eds. Moskva: Khudozhesvennaya Literatura, 1993-1997.

Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Works in two volumes). Nerler, Pavel, ed. Moskva: Khudozhesvennaya Literatura, 1990.

Ronen, Omry. An Approach To Mandelstam. Jerusalem: The Magness Press. The Hebrew University, 1983.

Semenko, Irina. Poetika Pozdniego Mandel’stama (Later Poetics of Mandelstam). Moscow: Mandelstam Society, 1997.


Osip Mandelstam

A great Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) lead an unsettled life full of tribulations, wandering, and exile. After his "Stalin epigram" of 1933, for which the dictator, who used to say that "vengeance is a cold dish," never forgave the poet, Mandelstam first was sent to Cherdyn' in Siberia. Then, due to the protection of Bukharin, a powerful Communist party functionary who was fond of Mandelstam's poetry, the term was somehow softened: Mandelstam was required to live in the provincial town of Voronezh, deprived of the right to live in the capital and big cities. In 1937, he finally was arrested again and sent to Vladivostok labor (virtually concentration) camp, where he perished in 1938. The exact date of his death is unknown; neither has the poet a grave of his own.

Ian Probstein

Ian Probstein is assistant professor of English at Touro College, New York and a bilingual English-Russian poet, translator, and critic. He holds a PhD in comparative literature from the Russian State University for the Humanities (Moscow) and an MA in English and comparative literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. He has published seven books of poetry in Russian and one in English, and more than a dozen of books of translation. He has compiled and/or edited more than twenty books and anthologies of poetry in translation. He is the first translator of Thomas Traherne's poems as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Germany" into Russian. Complete Poems and Selected Cantos of Ezra Pound in Russian Translation: A Bilingual Edition (St. Petersburg: Vladimir Dahl, 2003), which he compiled, edited, and contributed to as a translator, was named Russia's best book of translation and poetry in 2003 by Book Review and EX Libris NG. His poetry, translations, and essays have appeared in Interlitq, Salonika, International Poetry Review, Spring (the journal of the E.E. Cummings Society), The McNeese Review 46, and the books Vita Nuova (Philadelphia: R.E.M. Press, 1992) and Dialogism and Lyric Self-Fashioning (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2008).

English translation copyright (c) Ian Probstein, 2011.