Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

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“On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold” is both the opening poem in the “Third Voronezh Notebook” and the last in the long series of meditations on the Voronezh landscape that are scattered through the first two “Voronezh Notebooks.” Mandelstam considered the notebooks as the three divisions of a single book—“Natasha’s Book,” as the Mandelstams called it, since the poems were arranged in sequence and written out in the notebooks for Natasha Shtempel’, into whose safekeeping they were put. In this lyric diary, one of the unifying themes is the poet’s changing relationship to his place of exile.

Selected Poems contains a good sampling of these lyrics. Some poems treat only the despair of exile; in “Let Me Go, Release Me, Voronezh,” for example, the poet creates his own etymology for the place-name, breaking it down into voron, “raven,” the bird of evil omen, and nozh, “knife.” More often, however, he finds positive inspiration in the fecund black earth of the region, the broad plains and wide vistas emblematic of the potential spiritual freedom Mandelstam found so lacking in Moscow.

The poetry of exile is an important mode in Russia, whose poet-exiles see their archetype in the Latin poet Ovid, banished to what is now southern Russia. One of the commonplaces of this tradition has the poet looking back from the barbarian fringes upon the metropolitan culture. In several poems written before “On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold,” Mandelstam wills to see the Voronezh landscape within the framework of his broader cultural loyalties. The April sky, for example, becomes the region’s Michelangelo; its hills and dales are said to be worthy of van Ruisdael.

At a reading in 1937, Mandelstam responded to a provocateur by redefining Acmeism—the current to which he had given his allegiance as a young poet—as a yearning for world culture. This anecdote points out the dilemma to which he is responding in “On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold.” There are two dimensions to the problem: Must one turn one’s back on a more universal cultural legacy in order to come to terms with Voronezh, that is, with perhaps the least worst chance for survival for a poet in disgrace with the regime? Even more generally, do art (here, painting and drawing) and life have any guidance to offer each other, or is art completely sundered from life, like the drawing/branch at the end of the poem? On the surface, Mandelstam’s poem answers these questions in the negative, but all its energies are bent on performing the truth of the affirmative.