Osip Mandelstam, “Suddenly in a light shawl”

Suddenly in a light shawl
Osip Mandelstam (trans. David McDuff)

Suddenly in a light shawl
you slipped out of the half-darkened hall –
we disturbed no one,
we did not wake the sleeping servants…


Comparison with A.S. Kline’s translation indicates “light” is probably literal – not just a statement of weight – in case that wasn’t clear from McDuff’s “half-darkened.” Of course, there is a huge divergence over whether there is a hall and if it is dark that I really don’t want to get into. I’ll go with McDuff because that was the version I was musing on.

I don’t really have much to say. I just know, for myself, I don’t reflect on the radiance of sensuality much. It isn’t as simple as “sex is exciting.” Nor is it as crude as undressing one with one’s eyes. Here, it’s the excitement of someone glowing. We could take the encounter described as before or after intercourse. Either way, the love of the speaker is excited by that “light shawl;” it is “sudden” for him.

It is vital she’s covered even possibly after intercourse. Carnal knowledge isn’t enough to sate the speaker. He’s intrigued by her movement, how she slips out into the hall, how nothing else was disturbed by their togetherness. It’s funny: marriage and relationships are such public affairs. This is attractive because it is intensely private.

I don’t think this poem could, in the final analysis, actually be about a particular sexual encounter. (If it were, there’d have to be 300 lines about who had to call whom before AND after). The fairytale trappings of the poem are overblown. The sensuality is real: there are certainly some encounters like this. But the issue is why they’re important for the speaker. Mandelstam isn’t writing poems to brag about his conquests. The question is the “suddenness” of sensuality, that link between memory and revelation. What we love most hits us out of nowhere and is replayed to cliched effect. It still works, in a way. We think we’re awake even in our dreams. The light may not be true, but it’s better than the darkness. The only privacy we truly have is with a beloved we imagine a lover.


  1. Is this woman’s roommate Sandra Fluke?

    “Lindsay Blankmeyer said in a federal lawsuit that she suffered from depression and attention deficit disorder before she enrolled at Stonehill College, but was driven into a suicidal depression after school officials wouldn’t give her reasonable housing alternatives to get her away from her roommate at the school in Easton, Mass. Blankmeyer said her roommate had sex with her boyfriend while she was trying to sleep just feet away and also participated in “sexually inappropriate video chatting” while Blankmeyer was in the dorm room.”


    The NYT op-ed page supports the goals of Occupy. The executives of the company? probably not so much…

    “Top executives stood to make their full target bonuses – $2 million each for Robinson and Chairman Arthur Sulzberger – if the business delivered a tiny 1.6 percent return on invested capital and a middling 7.7 percent operating cash flow margin on average for 2009 to 2011. They were due up to another 75 percent because the actual return was above 2.5 percent and the cash flow margin topped 9.8 percent. Rival Gannett reported much higher cash flow margins in 2009 and 2010, but the USA Today publisher was still rightly called out by David Carr, the Times newspaper’s media reporter, for overpaying executives. And putting the return-on-capital hurdle in context, the Gray Lady’s parent company paid a whopping 14 percent interest rate to borrow money from billionaire Carlos Slim in 2009 and about 6.6 percent on bonds sold in 2010.”


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