for Nadezhda Mandelstam[1]


I am hope. I followed my spouse to the outskirts of the Russian empire.

I sat with him, delirious, in a cattle car,

as the North Star broke apart over the horizon.

Phoebus nursed its blue-grey fragments, dying of the cold

like ordinary men. I hear a Dardanian soldier,

a spear-thrust into his heart by Menelaus.

In the apotheosis of virtue and a boy’s fear, he screams my name.

I collect poets who throw themselves out of hospital windows in Voronezh.

I wheel a teacart in a large house, its clattering spoons

announce my arrival. I wait out the month.

I am unable to anticipate betrayal, his pale lips telling me to

GET THE FUCK OUT. I burn a tallow candle under wedding veils,

exchange wordless greetings with murderers

who search until the last minute for someone to change their minds.

Like an ice-locked lighthouse, I bloom in

the tundra, speckled with lichen trees, sedge, and the lithe

tracks of foxes, as the heavy leather boot of the night

cracks another rib. I am a snowed-in chrysalis,

a rolled-up manuscript sewn into the lining of a coat.

He almost forgot about me, lying on the barrack floor of a labor camp,

when the sun stood over him like a liberating army.

In a cut-out square of soot-bitten glass,

a family of cranes that will survive the winter were flying home.

So, he learns—apart from the spotted typhus

and the police agent sleeping peacefully in our Moscow apartment—

about his immortality: that he is both an instantiation

of a kind and Plato’s original form, a penniless Jew and the love of my life.



[1] Author of the memoir Hope against Hope and spouse of Osip Mandelstam, a Russian Jewish poet who dies in a labor camp in the winter of 1938. Nadezhda translates as ‘hope’ from Russian.

Elvira Basevich