Monday, 7 May 2018
Osip Mandelstam: 'The Admiralty'
This poem, 'The Admiralty' by Osip Mandelstam, appeared a few years ago as a Guardian Poem of the Week in a translation by Yuri Drobyshev and Carol Rumens. It describes the Admiralty building in St Petersburg, Russia.
Carol Rumens' comments on her work with Yuri Drobyshev, and on the poem, are as always very much worth reading, particularly because Mandelstam is a complex poet who apparently is insanely hard to translate well (although a lot of people have tried - this always makes me, a non-Russian-speaker, a little nervous when I read his work in translation.)
What I've found in my somewhat intermittent reading of Mandelstam over the years is that his poems typically have an extremely concrete, physical focus (like a close-up, almost through a microscope) which then explodes into a constellation of observations (whether temporal or more philosophical). In this poem, Mandelstam cleverly gives the authority of a "demi-god" to human craftsmen, including the ability to transcend space and time.
I visited St Petersburg, then Leningrad, in 1985. It was summer, my family was on a side trip of a few days from Finland, and I would have been either almost six years old or just turned six. It's rather mysterious to me now to think that I visited Soviet Russia a few years before the end of the USSR (when I read the recent biography of John le Carré by Adam Sisman, I realised that I travelled there before le Carré ever did).
While I was a fairly well-informed kindergartner, I don't think I knew much about Russia or its history. It seems, though, that my parents had grasped the effect that travel can have on a growing mind. I didn't know that some day I would read Mandelstam, or that more than 30 years later I still wouldn't have returned to Russia. I don't remember if we saw the Admiralty building. What I remember are images from somewhere between dream and reality, which I have carried with me my whole life since: the customs officer at the Finland-Russia border, a young man probably no more than 20 years old, smiling down at me as my parents lifted me up; the Winter Palace, carved from an iceberg and stranded on the edge of a square the size of a planet; crowds on a street and a kvass machine; the cake-yellow Summer Palace and a trick fountain in the shape of a little dog; a white cat delicately carrying a fish along the street; an oppressive red velvet dining room at the Hotel Evropeiskaya (yes, we actually stayed there on a package tour); hockey-playing bears at the circus on ice; a city outside of darkness, sailing on the edge of a world vaster than anything I knew.
Photo: Admiralty, St Petersburg by Dominic Sayers. Used under Creative Commons license