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This review is taken from PN Review 82, Volume 18 Number 2, November - December 1991.

BEFORE YESTERDAY, AND AFTER Osip Mandelstam, The Moscow Notebooks, translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane (Bloodaxe) £5.95

In the tragically foreshortened curve of Mandelstam's life his 'late' poetry is that of a man only in early middle age, a paradox reinforced by his increasingly anachronistic concentration on the 'noise of time' hushed or exacerbated under the aegis of Stalin's installation in the Kremlin. In a state of personal distress, but suffering above all from the severely perplexing duress of the aftermath of Revolution, Mandelstam composed no poetry between 1925 and 1930: a bleak prefiguration of what Isaac Babel was to call 'the genre of silence'. The small scatter of letters from these years make almost no mention of poems or poetry; there was no relief from the demons that prompted Mandelstam to convey to his wife, amidst feverish attempts to console her with the prospect of better times, his conviction that 'everything is irreparable'. Yet it was out of this debilitating insight, tempered by the sharp counterblasts of his Fourth Prose and by Bukharin's good offices in arranging for the Mandelstams to spend eight months in Armenia, that the 'late' poetry emerged, or rather secreted itself in a succession of notebooks. In due course manuscript was to be necessarily superseded by memorialization as the only viable and sensible recourse when written materials could be adduced as evidence of treason. It can still beggar belief that, in the year which sees the centenary of Mandelstam's birth, the poems of the 1930s have survived at all.

The very existence of the 'notebook' poems leaves them peculiarly ...


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