Amor vincit omnia

Osip Mandel'štam’s
verses saved

Luca Vidotto

The frost covered the greasy, black earth, where spit freezes whilst falling to the ground. Where the land does not crack, not even under the inhuman exertion of the picks in the hands of those skeletons whose bones are held together by a fragile veil of skin. In that forgotten land – imagine the poet Šalamov – piled up among other dead bodies while dying.

For a long time, his voice was nothing but a faint breath, and his hands

swollen through malnutrition, with white bloodless fingers and dirty, long, curled nails, rested on his chest unprotected from the cold. […] A pale electric sun, soiled by flies […] was fixed on the ceiling. The light fell at the poet’s feet: he was lying as if in a drawer, in the dark depth of the common two-storey tables in the lower row. [1]

When Mandel’štam’s voice vanished, like light smoke, into oblivion, Nadežda’s love saved it by snatching his dearest treasure: poetry. 

Mandel’štam had stopped composing his melodies. His head was like an empty box, unable to resonate the sounds that vibrated from the strings of his soul. That delicate lyre was silenced, crushed by the heaviness of his slender body. “The poet had been fading away for so long that he no longer understood that he was dying”[2].
He was about to be uprooted from the land of an offended and violated life. One spent in the gulags and imprisonment, a life of exile, of the continuous transit from nowhere to nowhere. The rhythm of his beating heart became tiresome. Every sigh seemed to be the last. 

And he lay there, weightless and numb, until the next morning. The electric light became just a little more yellowish and […] when they gave him his daily portion, he held it in his hands, tightened it with his fingers and pressed it against his mouth. He bit into the bread with his teeth devastated by scurvy, his gums bleeding […]. He pressed the bread against his mouth with all his might […].

His neighbours tried to warn him:
“Don’t eat it all, it’s better if you keep it for later…”. […]
“Later when?” he articulated clearly and distinctly. He closed his eyes and towards evening died. [3]

And silence fell. 
His body, lying on a table, was about to decay, it did not rot but was kept intact in the harsh shack, like in an epiphanic event, which for some is the sign of holiness, of the attainment of the quiet light of eternity. But his body remained uncorrupted and odourless from the cold, nothing extraordinary, nothing but a destiny shared with millions of other human beings turned inhumane by the atrocity of a torn and violated existence – soon all forgotten.
With the death of a poet, the world lost some of its sensuality, it became unfamiliar, abandoning itself to a new blindness. With Mandel’štam’s death, his whole universe of sounds and memories disappeared just like the universe of paper and ink, which one night, in 1934 the Soviet political police had collected from his house in Moscow; which was then burnt down. He had unforgivably thrown poisonous darts with his lyre. He was arrested, and put into confinement, in an exile that pushed him in a deafening crescendo of non-existent voices swarming in his head and flashing hallucinations, and an even crazier dreamy lucidity, attempting suicide more than once.

But Fear and the Muse take turns to guard

the room where the exiled poet is banished,
and the night, marching at full pace,
of the coming dawn, has no knowledge. [4]

Before his final journey to the heart of nowhere, he had nothing but a copy of the Divine Comedy and his beloved wife, Nadežda. But, the day in which they learnt “Science of departures, in night’s sorrows, when a woman’s hair falls down”[5] soon came. Mandel’štam ought to have served five years in a labour field, but when he arrived in Vtiraja Recka in ’38, a transit gulag near Vladivostok, he died there. No sheet of paper collected his essays. For a long time, there had not been any sign of his writings: his poetry, during the Stalin regime, had had to become ever so lighter, a song of the wind that passed without leaving any trace, swirling inside the soul, until it was delicately dug out. The poetry was engraved on a purely mnemonic score and the words were invisible to the eye. 
But – when his voice vanished, like light smoke, into oblivion – Nadežda’s love saved him. A love so vibrant that it kept the sound of his poems alive by virtue of the frail chords of her memory. A love that managed to save its dearest treasure from oblivion. “We love each other like poppy and recollection”[6], it seems to hear her say, in the silence of her empty room. 
If we can read the poems of the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century today, it is because such veneration existed in that cursed land. All the manuscripts that the police had confiscated, robbed, macerated and set on fire, after having ransacked their house; every word that was secretly punctuated by the sweet movement of her lips, with Anna Achmatova and a few other friends, Nadežda kept them alive in her memory. She had saved them from being lost to the waters of the river Lete. She also defended those few poems that she had managed to bring back to light from the depths of her mind, from the filthy hands of censurers. She gave back the original words to those poems that she remembered together with her husband, during the few years of imprisonment in which she stayed by his side. 
She dedicated the rest of her days taking care of those sorrowful fragments she had carried, remembering those words that had been carved in her heart, transcribing the gemstones that made up Mandel’štam’s verses. She then hid them “in pots, boots, pillows, in the most secret corners of trusted friends’ houses”. It is only by doing so that we too, today, can hear them resound for eternity.

You, depriving me of the seas, the chase, the momentum,

and granting the support of a forced earth,
what have you found out? A shrewd principle:
that the motion of the lips cannot be withdrawn [7]

His poems fall into our hands as if they were a graceful gift, gathered from the warmth of a soul whose trembling voice, enounces the words I love you. The voice of his wife in whose name fatally shines the light that seals this love story. And we smile when we discover that Nadežda means “hope”.

[1] V. Šalamov, Cherry-brandy (Kolyma Tales), translated by La Livella’s translator and so were notes two and three. 

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] A. Achmatova, Voronež, translated by A.S. Kline.

[5] O. Mandel’štam, Tristia, translated by A.S. Kline.

[6] P. Celan, Corona, translated by M. Hamburger and can be found at

[7] This poem was translated by La Livella magazine’s translator from O. Mandel’štam, Ottanta poesie, trad. it. di R. Faccani, Einaudi Torino, 2009, p. 143.