By: Osip Mandelstam
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
Osip Mandelstam is one of the greatest of twentieth-century poets and Voronezh Notebooks, a sequence of poems composed between 1935 and 1937 when he was living in internal exile in the Soviet city of Voronezh, is his last and most exploratory work. Meditating on death and survival, on power and poetry, on marriage, madness, friendship, and memory, challenging Stalin between lines that are full of the sights and sounds of the steppes, blue sky and black earth, the roads, winter breath, spring with its birds and flowers and bees, the notebooks are a continual improvisation and an unapologetic affirmation of poetry as life.
Like Anna Akhmatova (see review), Osip Mandelstam is another poet and writer whom I wrote about when I was writing my Masters thesis but didn’t really read much of his works from, maybe a poem or fragment of work here and there. So when I saw this collection on the shelf during one of my many trips to the bookstore, I picked it up immediately.
Voronezh Notebooks is a stunning collection of poems written after the poet’s arrest and exile. Mandelstam in a way was lucky because the thing he did that got him arrested could’ve led straight to his death but instead he still had friends in high places who had his sentence changed to exile. So he was still able to write during his time in Voronezh, however difficult life was there, and was able to convey what life was like up there. So a lot of the poems here are about survival and individuality amidst an authoritarian regime, which was fascinating. Ongoing themes about the earth and about Russia are also present throughout his poems, which I thought was also interesting; there’s something about his poems that feel so distinctly Russian, he evokes his surroundings with such transporative clarity. I cannot recommend his works enough!