Mandelstam, Olympic trials, memories of Oregon

The other day I mentioned the poem about Stalin that led to Mandelstam’s exile and eventual death. Mandelstam recited it to a gathering of intellectuals at Boris Pasternak’s home one evening. Someone at that gathering informed on him. (Someone will always inform, and have their reasons. We each think it would not be us.) In any case he was first exiled to a remote village, and later, after a short reprieve, sent to a camp in Siberia, which led to his death. This is the poem. In Russian it has the rhythm and sweetness of a nursery rhyme, which contrast with its content:

We live, but cannot feel the earth,
And if we speak, we can’t be heard.

But wherever you hear a half-conversation,
They talk of that backwoods lout in the Kremlin.

Ten fat fingers like greasy worms,
Each of his words weighs fifty pounds.

His moustache bristles in cockroach laughter,
How his polished jackboots glitter.

His gang surrounds him, a spineless crew,
Half-men who do what he tells them to.

Some growl, some whimper, some yowl and hiss,
He alone rages and bangs his fists.

He forges decrees, like horseshoes they fly
At groin, forehead, eyebrow, eye.

Each execution—sweet as a berry,
To this broad-chested thug from Gori.

Osip Mandelstam, 1933

I was thinking about this poem today, as Larry mentioned that an American broke Steve Prefontaine’s record at the Olympic trials in Oregon. He beat a 40-year old record on the same track that Prefontaine created that record.

We lived in Eugene in 1976, and went to the trials on that field. Security was very lax. I think Larry had made up ersatz press badges, but in any case, we were right down on the field. There were five international teams there competing in the decathlon, and because I was fairly fluent in Russian then, I did some translation for the Russian team. Bruce Jenner was the American star, and we watched him run the race that broke the world record in the decathlon. The stadium was small but packed, and everyone was stamping on the wooden bleachers, chanting “Jenner, Jenner!” It was electrifying–the best crowd event I’ve ever been part of.

Years later, I saw Bruce Jenner at some corporate event. He was a product sponsor or lecturer or something, glad-handing the salesmen. It was very depressing. Not as depressing as Mandelstam’s death, of course, but another example of the way fame can twist a life. Among the blessings I count, anonymity is fairly high on the list.

3 thoughts on “Mandelstam, Olympic trials, memories of Oregon

  1. Osip, is it pronounced the way it looks 0-sip? You are the only one I can turn to for this information. I probably should not even post this. I am becoming frightened. Should I be?

  2. Ah-sip, with the accent on the first syllable. No fears. No one persecutes us either for art or for not knowing how to pronounce Russian names!

  3. A reader emailed me this story about her big crowd event, and allowed me to post it here:

    In 1960 at the LA Coliseum during the Democratic Convention, my friend and I got backstage somehow and then got ourselves recruited to join a crowd campaigning for a ‘favorite son.’ Our task was to look good, carry placards and march into the arena when this guys name was called—one of the rituals of the convention? I was all dressed up; we did that in those days. I was 20 years old and wore a white pleated skirt, a cloth red-flower print Chanel-style bolero jacket with a triple strand of big white beads and white heels. No hose. Those days, I put my hair up in a pony tail on top of my head and then turned it under, all the way around the top of my head so that it looked like a porcini mushroom—but it was cute! I drove a little Austin Healy Sprite!
    When the doors to the area opened and it was dark with the lights blazing in funnel shafts and dust of all sorts like glittery stars wafting down from the ceiling of this incredibly huge new universe—the band started up and we triumphantly made our entrance. I went absolutely nuts, overcome with this incredible experience. I knew I was going nuts and kept on screaming and pumping my placard up and down and looking at all the folks in the stands looking at us. One big time looking jerk in the ‘important’ section actually winked at me, gross! It was all over as soon as it had begun, almost, and our plan was to dash off in different directions, get lost in the crowd and attend the rest of the convention that day. Didn’t happen—security was on to us.

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