‘Goldfinch, do you know you’re a goldfinch,
do you know how much?

A quote from poem #324 by the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), ‘Voronezh Notebooks’, 1937
translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin © 1973

From Butyrka, the train forges on, across dense taiga, frosted earth.
Unsleeping rivers, brittle skies hurtle by, barely registered.
At last, in a floodlit Siberian railway yard, the train unloads
an endless skein of broken men, shuffling
in the oblivion, dust and metal.

In the grip of a formidable fate, you have given up on survival,
but not on truth, you have not given up on poetry.
You scribble ‘My darling Nadia, are you alive …’.
You are that goldfinch, always ready to sing, always aware
of the fine chain around your claw, the milky, spectral tone of your song.
On a fetid, feverish bunk, you’ve weighed the cost of wrestling the dictator.
For Nadia, another cost, the burden of grief, her parcel of food and clothing returned,
unopened. ‘Addressee is dead’.

Not only did she love you, she knew the lineage of language, the fault line of poetry,
the fissure where strophe meets antistrophe, where both meet catastrophe.
Nesting in her memory, your poems were nurtured for decades,
recited silently as prayers and incantations,
secreted in teapots, vases and nondescript cupboards,
the hidden manuscripts coded as ‘goldfinches’, prescient, terminal.

Do you know you’re alive,
do you know how much?

Winter closes in. Days stagnate, nights grate.
Beds crawl with typhus. Boots scrape on stone.
What salve, what halo, can still your fitful sleep?
The ripe flesh of a poem, vowels like nectar, consonants spitting and crackling?
An elysian morning in Voronezh, feasting on egg and sausage
and the earthy smell from cartloads of hay?
Yes, your muse is beside you, a scented aura cradling your heart,
rumpling the bed-sheet, her candour, her joy, her irreproachable goodness.

Under a balsamic moon, you read poems for the camp mafia.
In phantasmagoria, even hardline criminals can cherish poetry,
‘Read it again’, they urge, ‘the one about the soldier’, ’the one about the wasps’.
Your faint grin, gimlet gaze reflect the candle glow.

On the final day, trying to eat weevil-infested bread, an inmate interrupts,
‘Save it for later’.
You look up, wide-eyed, with sudden clarity, with sudden serenity,
‘When later’, you murmur, knowing there is no later.

Somewhere, along the way to eternity,
a light breaks through

After this, after all, the ‘goldfinches’ still sing,
this, the epode, the aftersong.