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(for Osip Mandelshtam)

Translators, critics, wife, admirers, friends
of  Osip and impersonal protectors of  his work
(they who defied their huge
offended State’s omniscience
with samisdat, or by imperiled stanzas saved
invisibly inside their memories,
or pillow-cases storing placeless  poems)
all testify to Mandelshtam’s commanding art.
Thus, wrestling with these Englished versions,
I perceive I fail.
For me their sense and excellence
remain imprisoned in his Russian,
and I lie exiled from his music.

Yet the story stirs me of his martyrdom
for  poetry’s rare breath, that gunless,
bombless liberty of thought and heart
which tyrants strangle
since it strangles tyranny:
how in innocent disgust
he mocked self-righteous terror’s   
thickened hands, avuncular sly face;
how, aged  in punishment
and facing his extremity,
he tried to forge a poem of lying praise            
to buy some mercy with hypocrisy,
and failed.

The tale of that attempt tells me the most.
That botch attains the cruellest
eloquence of art.