“On a Board of Raspberry and Pure Gold,” written by Osip Mandelstam in 1937, is a poem of sixteen lines. The Russian original, written in rhymed trochaic lines of five to seven feet and organized in a single stanza, has been translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin as a lyric of four stanzas in free blank verse, which, however, preserves a trochaic tendency. The poem offers the reader a winter landscape and the poet’s reflections upon it. In fact, there is abundant testimony, from the poet’s widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and others, that the poem presents a view of the old city of Voronezh, seen from the vicinity of 40 Kaliaev Street, the home of Natasha Shtempel’, a young teacher who was virtually Mandelstam’s sole confidante during much of the Mandelstams’ exile to her town in 1934-1937. Situated on hills above a high riverbank, old Voronezh (much of which would be burned down under the Nazi occupation) was very picturesque; the neighborhood portrayed in the poem was one of single-story houses descending down the hillsides to the Don River—“half town half river-bank,” as the poem puts it.
The poem’s opening line (which is also used in lieu of a title, since Mandelstam did not provide one) presents an art medium, a board whose surface holds a painting with two dominant tones, raspberry and gold. Although the adjective translated as “pure gold” more often means “dark red,” a subsequent allusion to yellow supports the...
(The entire section is 483 words.)