Birds and birdsong abound in the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. In his later poetry, written after his arrest and internal exile in Voronezh in 1935-7, the goldfinch came to symbolize an unstoppable yearning for freedom and self-expression. Joseph Brodsky heard the Voronezh poems directly from Nadezhda Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, who preserved the poems in memory when their publication was forbidden. “His became a poetry of high velocity and exposed nerves, with numerous leaps over the self-evident with somewhat abbreviated syntax,” Brodsky wrote forty years later. “And yet in this way it became more a song than ever before, not a bardlike but a birdlike song, with its sharp, unpredictable turns and pitches, something like a goldfinch tremolo.”
My goldfinch, I’ll throw back my head,
let’s look at the world together:
the winter’s day is prickly like chaff,
does it seem as harsh to your eyes?
Do you realise, goldfinch,
what a flash finch you are, with your little tail-feathers
like a rowboat, feathers – black and yellow,
your throat, flowing with colour.
What airy thoughts does he have in his mind?
He looks back and forth, he’s on guard.
Now he’s not looking, he’s flown off,
a flash of blackand red, yellowand white!
[10-27 December 1936]
When the goldfinch like rising dough
suddenly moves, as a heart throbs,
anger peppers its clever cloak
and its nightcap blackens with rage.
The cage is a hundred bars of lies
the perch and little plank are slanderous.
Everything in the world is inside out,
and there is the Salamanca forest
for disobedient, clever birds.
[after 8 December 1936]
[Source: Osip Mandelstam, The Voronezh Notebooks. Translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1996]