We Live Numb to the Country Beneath Us by Opik Mandelstam translated Danya Blokh
We Live Numb to the Country Beneath Us
We live numb to the country beneath us
From ten paces away they can’t hear us
And where there’s occasion for banter,
Talk turns to our Kremlin highlander.
His fat fingers— greasy worms,
Like barbells, the truths of his words.
Laughter bristles the cockroach’s whiskers,
The top of his black jackboot shimmers.
Thin-necked commanders surround him like spawn;
He toys with the service of half-human men.
Who whistles, who purrs, who whimpers,
He alone points the way with his finger
And forges, like horseshoes, decree by decree:
In whose balls, whose scalp, whose brow, whose eye.
No matter who’s murdered—he feasts,
Oh, his broad Ossetian chest.
Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны
Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.
А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,
Как подкову, кует за указом указ:
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него - то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.
Biography and Notes on the Translation
Osip Mandelstam was born in Warsaw in 1891, and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was close friends with Akhmatova and a fellow member of the Acmeist group, but he took Acmeism in a very different direction; his images, while sharp and sensory, are imbued with a unique Mandelstamian strangeness. He composed through sound-play and word association, supposedly pacing around his room and muttering to himself until he had the work down. His oddball image hasn’t stopped him from achieving widespread admiration among Russian readers continuing into the present day; this year, on the 130th anniversary of his birth, a group of Russia’s most popular singers and rappers released an album of songs based on his poetry. I’ve spoken to several Russians about his work, and the typical response is “I can’t explain it at all, but I just understand it.”
Mandelstam clashed with the Soviet regime, but he continued to write and publish his poetry. He began as a supporter of the Bolshevik cause, but he disliked the pressure to write only political work, and his poetry became more and more deeply personal and stubbornly apolitical with time. Mandelstam was Jewish, a dangerous identity in a nation where one’s foremost priority was supposed to be their Soviet Citizenship. Jews were often accused of “cosmopolitanism” for belonging to a diaspora that existed outside the Soviet Union, and indeed, Mandelstam’s description of Acmeism as a “nostalgia for world culture” feels highly informed by the extra-national consciousness inherent in Jewish identity. By the 1930s, Mandelstam’s initial identification with the Bolshevik cause had turned, for reasons of personal disposition and marginalized identity, into a growing resentment.
Though Mandelstam was often getting in and out of trouble with the Soviet leadership, in 1933 he lucked into a private two-room apartment, an extreme luxury at that time. Leeore Schnairsohn writes that “his sense of culpability for enjoying such a perk while others starved (with concomitant fear that he might be a hack), and his growing need to do something about it all” culminated in the poem I translated, nicknamed the “Stalin Epigram.” It cost Mandelstam his life - after its performance was reported to the authorities, he was arrested, exiled to the Urals, briefly released and then exiled again in 1938, after which he disappeared (the Soviet government simply stating he died of heart failure).
Mandelstam wrote throughout his exile, and even at some point composed an Ode to Stalin as an apparent attempt to get back into his good graces; yet the “Stalin Epigram” gives the impression that Mandelstam wanted to die. It is the most direct poem of Mandelstam’s I’ve ever read and the most brazenly bitter poem I know of, and this was the one thing I wanted to get across above all - the poem’s attitude of utter disrespect.
Mandelstam’s disdain is evident in his disgusting caricature of the dictator’s worm-fingers and cockroach-eyes, but also in his linguistic choice of particularly gross suffixes throughout - for example, the “-sha” suffix at the end of “glazissha” (eyes) and “golenissha” (jackboots) suggests an oversized massiveness to both words. He also utilizes a patronisingly informal register throughout, using the almost cute nickname “kremlevskogo gorca” (Kremlin highlander) to refer to the fearsome man who called himself “Man of Steel” and sarcastically calling Stalin’s words “as true as forty-pound gears.” The whole poem, particularly from the 5th line down, begs to be read in the mocking voice of a schoolboy imitating his teacher after class.
I do think there is a deeper moral component underlying the poem’s insults, emerging most clearly in lines 9-12 when Mandelstam writes of the “brood of thin-necked chieftains.” He clearly hates Stalin, but he nonetheless remains a somewhat fearsome figure in this poem, a villainous heel, while the enablers of the regime are the true subjects of his contempt. He depicts them as half-human, “whistling, meowing, and whining” as Stalin plays on their “services” (the Russian word uslugami here implying slugi or house servants). His intense hatred for the bystanders who refuse to resist seems, perhaps, to result from Mandelstam’s own guilt about his private apartment, his feeling that he was becoming one of those enablers. The contents of the poem, reinforced by the very fact that the poem was written and performed, provide a powerful testament to resistance of authority.