Poetry Review: “Black Earth” — The Irresistible Appeal of Poet Osip Mandelstam

By J. Kates

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s “ancient language” is rendered into real contemporary poetry in English that succeeds in speaking eloquently to the inner eye and ear.

Black Earth by Osip Mandelstam. Translated from the Russian by Peter France. New Directions, 168 pages, $16.95.

Translations of Osip Mandelstam are like children. In general, I think there are far too many of them running around already, and the world doesn’t need any more. But, every time a new one appears, I take it up eagerly in my arms and delight in its specificity, even if it babbles — and I know, I’ve tried a couple myself.

The nearly irresistible allure Mandelstam holds for a translator is clear — it is impossible to include all of his Russian subtlety in a single English version, so everybody else’s reading feels lacking. The poet’s biography has also been the stuff of Western myth: the darling boy of early 20th-century Russian poetry, the close circles he moved in with other soulful poets of the time, the legendary affront to Stalin, two exiles and death in a transit camp in the Gulag — all chronicled in a truly great memoir by his devoted widow.

Anna Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilev observed that, while Mandelstam wrote in modern Russian, his was “a very ancient language.” Some took this as a coded put-down of the poet’s Jewishness, but there is a critical truth to the statement in a different, idiosyncratic way. A Mandelstam poem slides allusively around its own center.

We’ll die in crystalline Petropolis,

where we are governed by great Proserpina.

With every breath the fatal air we sip,

and every hour is death’s fatal arena.


Up until now, the most comprehensive general introduction to Mandelstam for the Anglophone reader has been Kevin Platt’s Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, published in 2008.(1) I would say that it has now been augmented, even completely supplanted, by Black Earth: Selected Poems and Prose of Mandelstam, translated by Peter France. Neither of these books includes the original Russian texts. Fortunately, these are readily available nowadays and everywhere. Without the originals, however, a reader might wonder about the difference between

And you my sister Moscow, how light you are,

coming to meet your brother’s plane

before the first street-car bell.

you are gentler than the sea, you tossed salad

of wood, glass milk. (Kevin M.F. Platt)


and France’s

And you, Moscow, my sister, light as grass

when from the aeroplane you meet your brother

before the first tram clangs to let it pass:

You’re safer than the sea and more befuddled

than salad made of wood and milk and glass . . .


France added “as grass” and “to let it pass” himself, but the additions do not intrude as gratuitous padding, and the sound is far closer to Mandelstam’s own. France writes in his introduction,

With a few exceptions, Mandelstam’s poems are richly rhymed; without emulating him in this, I have used a variety of full rhymes, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, assonance, and alliteration in attempting to recreate in English a poetry that speaks equally to the inner eye and ear.

Readers of the Arts Fuse will have already met France as the translator of the 19th-century poet Konstantin Batyushkov and the 20th-century Gennady Aygi. Black Earth is not his first collection of Mandelstam, but this book expands and rounds out earlier work with significant excerpts from the Russian poet’s prose as well. The excerpts are especially valuable because these personal essays and trenchant criticism have not garnered sufficient attention in English in the past.(2) In Russian culture, they are seminal.

Julian Barnes appropriately borrowed Mandelstam’s phrase “The Noise of Time” for the title of his novel about Russian composer Dmitry Shostakovich. France may be unnecessarily contrary in rendering this commonly accepted title as “The Noise of the Times.” Russian does not employ articles (Clarence Brown devoted nearly two full pages of the introduction to his own collection of the poet’s prose to this single phrase). France argues for his interpretation of the phrase in his spare but informative notes. They don’t try to explain the inexplicable or the ambiguous in the poems, but succeed in serving to anchor the reader in necessary facts.

Black Earth brings me closer to Mandelstam the poet than to Mandelstam the mythic figure, and his “ancient language” is rendered into real contemporary poetry in English that succeeds in speaking eloquently to the inner eye and ear. This is all to the good.

1) Kevin M. F. Platt, ed.  Modernist Archaist: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, Whale and Star: 2008.

2) But see The Noise of Time: The Prose of Osip Mandelstam, trans. with critical essays by Clarence Brown, North Point Press: 1986; and Osip Mandelstam: Critical Prose and Letters, trans. by Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, Ardis: 1979.

J. Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator, and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a nonprofit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.


  1. Merrill Kaitz on August 13, 2021 at 10:02 am

    The comparison of the two versions of the “sister Moscow” stanza does a nice job of contrasting these styles of translation, with Peter France’s graceful job of capturing the music using rhyme and assonance. The versions generally agree pretty well on the sense of the thing. However, not knowing Russian, I can’t help wondering about the contrast introduced by the word “befuddled.” “Tossed salad” seems a lovely metaphor for a city or a woman–to me, at least, a tossed salad is not necessarily confused and disoriented. So I’m curious– is this Russian dressing present in the original?

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