When a poem could get you killed

Nadezda Mandelstam was the wife of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and the author of the powerful memoir Hope Against Hope. The memoir covers the period when Mandelstam (“M.”) was arrested for his “Stalin poem.” Nadezda occasionally refers in her memoir to the “guarded language” in which Russians communicated with each other during the era. Mandelstam’s “Stalin poem,” however, is remarkably blunt. Having led to his terrible death following his second arrest and incarceration in 1938, it is known as a sixteen-line death sentence.
Nadezda recounts that Mandelstam’s interrogator was the secret police literary specialist. According to Nadezda, he proceeded to ask Mandelstam about the meaning of each word of the poem. The interrogator referred to the poem as a “document” and to its writing as a terrorist “act.”
Nadezda says that Mandelstam had a “total inability to be devious.” The interrogator was particularly concerned to discover what had prompted Mandelstam to write the poem: “He was flabbergasted when M. suddenly told him in reply to this question that more than anything else he hated fascism.”
Robert Pinsky selected the poem that got Mandelstam killed as the poet’s choice in last Sunday’s Washington Post Book World. The poem exists in several versions. Here is the one selected by Pinsky, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.

At the time of his first arrest and incarceration on account of the poem in 1934, Mandelstam had read it aloud to approximately ten people. Nadezda comments:

The fear one experiences with the writing of verse has nothing in common with the fear one experiences with the secret police. Our mysterious awe in the face of existence itself is always overridden by the more primitive fear of violence and destruction. M. often spoke of how the first kind of fear had disappeared with the Revolution that had shed so much blood before our eyes.

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