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Letter to Nikolai Christophorovich Shivarov

February 8, 2009 by · 1 comment

David Chorlton

Photo: That Guy Who’s Going Places

Dear Shivarov, or do you like Comrade Shivarov?

So much has changed since you were the expert

for literary matters in the case of Osip Mandelstam.

I can imagine the room as one that cut

his nerves to shreds as you stood before him with the poem

between your forefinger and thumb

like a fish you were holding away from your nose

by its tail, never suspecting,

given the sentence to oblivion you prepared for him,

that his name would outlive yours. Despite

your obligation to be harsh, did you feel

between the hammer and the sickle in your mind

a spark of admiration for the way

he made of words something grander than language?

Your business was to guarantee

predictability. Words in rows. Letters standing

to attention. You’d have found it difficult

to write your own account of a man held in captivity

with nobody to speak on his behalf, fed gruel

prepared to make him thirsty, never given water,

and brought out to answer questions

that set traps in his oversalted mind. It challenges

the imagination today to think of a poet

as a challenge to the state. Our state ignores them.

Sometimes I think our most attentive reader

would be the censor, and I wonder

whether in the Mandelstam case you secretly

enjoyed his rhymes. Day in, day out, you must have seen

routine cases of some brave hack who had

enough and broke into song like a nightingale

except he wasn’t quite in tune, and then

a page of history fell before you. Yours was the power

as you asked: Did you ever go abroad? Do you admit

that you are guilty of the composition of works

of counter-revolutionary content? How did the people

named by you react to the satire you read to them?

But I’m not writing to embarrass you. I want to know

when it was easy to be cruel whether you wanted

to be kind, whether you were the equal

Mandelstam once said could kill him.

Categories: Frontpage · poetry


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