Poem notes

Versions of a Mandelstam quatrain: The Voronezh Variations

By Osip Mandelstam

I was introduced to this particular Mandelstam quatrain by a friend, Veronika Krasnova. I do not read Russian and knew Mandelstam only from various translations into English. Veronika was keen to explain the many possible readings of it. It springs out of the poet’s exile to Voronezh in 1935, the poem itself written in the April of that year. It is an extraordinarily playful quatrain playing chiefly on the name Voronezh that breaks down into ‘voron’ (raven), and ‘nozh’ (knife). The voice is ironic, almost clowning, yet remains deadly serious. The poem is elegant in form, the sound ‘Voronezh’ returning time and again as pun, as echo, as haunting, as threat. As Peter Zeeman puts it in his book on Mandelstam’s later poems, ‘it cannot be rendered satisfactorily in translation’.

That is true of poetry generally since poems depend on ambiguity and the power of suggestion for their full effect but – one might argue – it is particularly true of this brief, crammed andyet somehow lucid poem that is almost a squib. One might further argue that since we know that no one translation of a poem canever be wholly satisfactory there might be greater satisfaction in reading more than one version of it and that, by reading the various translations, in effect superimposing them on each other, one might build up a stereoscopic effect, or at least help convey the variousness of the poem itself.

That is what I tried to do with the sometimes terrifying help of Veronika’s copious notes and explanations. I decided to make several versions, some freer than others, but, since I don’t think complexity of manner and therefore also of form is indivorcible from complexity and form of meaning, I wanted them all to be as formally elegant as I could make them, responding to the puns, echoes and ambiguities of the Russian with puns, echoes and ambiguities in English – and,since the poem was personal, allowing myself to introduce the name of Ravensbruck (Voronsbruck), the concentration camp wheremy own mother was interned and which she survived. The raven brought in Edgar Allan Poe too. The aim, as it developed, became to make a series of dark jokes as if by a kind of extended legerdemain. None of the variations is intended to be a straight translation of the poem, though the first is probably the closest.

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