Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman

Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman is a selection of poems from Mandelstam’s entire career translated from his non-native Russian into English.  The introduction is rather long, but with good reason as it strives to capture a poet that was always evolving and striving to breath new life into the Russian language and to provide a voice to those seen as outsiders of the government.  Living through WWI and a Russian revolution, Mandelstam — a Poland born Jew who moved to Russia with his parents — became an exile and later died in a Siberian transit camp in 1938 after being arrested.

“From the inarticulate comes the new harmony.  The lyric poet wakes up the language:  the speech is revealed to us in a new unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth.”  (Page XIX)

Mandelstam and Wiman approach poetry in much the same way, according to the introduction — not through word-for-word translation, but through the silences and the music of the lines.  The collection is broken into three sections beginning with his early poems between 1910 and 1925 and ending with the poems written between 1934 and 1937.  Mandelstam’s work is very musical and generally uses a great deal of rhyme and alliteration, but the ways in which these poems are translated, they are neither cutesy nor predictable.

Interrogation (page 21)

Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smells
Of vomit, vodka, cells, bowels,
And all these red-tape tapeworms gorging on reports.

Choir, stars, your highest, your holiest silences...
But first, sign here on the dotted line
That they may grant you permission to shine.

The poems are song-like, but ripe with derision for Stalin’s totalitarianism and the control over freedom, which provided many with the guise of free expression that was received at a high price. Mandelstam speaks of a life choreographed by others and punishments that are deeply harsh when spontaneity strikes. His words are like hammers on the chains attached to boulders in prisons of old, making sure the lack of freedom is felt most acutely. From the “legislated” freedoms to the starvation and lack of heat, it is all present in Mandelstam’s roving poetry. He moved from city to city, presumably fleeing the government, and this movement is in poems like “Night Piece” and “Prayer” but it also is in the other poems through their quick imagistic movements from one moment to the next — the narrator always in motion.

Stolen Air by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman is not only about the absence of freedom, but finding that freedom within that totalitarian regime — grabbing onto it, stealing the air to breathe creatively. The narrator has learned to grab onto that stolen air and run with it, traipsing through beauty and finding the music everywhere, even in the darkness.  The translation does not read as such with very few moments where the verse stumbles, and this is the best tribute to a poet — a translator who hears the same music even across time.  Well done and highly recommended.

About the Poet (from Poets.org):

Born in January, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a prominent leather merchant and his mother a teacher of music. Mandelstam attended the renowned Tenishev School and later studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of St. Petersburg, though he left off his studies to pursue writing. He published his first collection, Kamen, or Stone (1913), when Russian Symbolism was the dominant persuasion.

The Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. The poet published three more books in 1928—Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, a book of prose—as the state closed in on him. Mandelstam spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago.

About the Translator:

Christian Wiman was born and raised in West Texas. He is the editor of Poetry and the author of three collections of poems, Every Riven Thing, Hard Night, and The Long Home, and one collection of prose, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet.

This is the 16th book for my 2012 Fearless Poetry Exploration Reading Challenge.




This is my 41st book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.




This is my 10th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.


  1. Now this sounds like a poetry book I should read! I’ll have to borrow this one, especially since it counts for the WWI challenge.

  2. “Ripe with derision” is right up my alley. I adore the cover too.