I have a continuing fondness for Anna Akhmatova – my cat is named after her, a fact to which the cat has long been indifferent – but it’s been awhile since I have read her peers, and I thought I’d revisit these Russian poets.
I have been rereading Osip Mandelstam’s Stone, his first collection (1913), in Robert Tracy’s translation, a Collins Harvill edition with a maroon and sepia cover and a photograph of Mandelstam in his youth, big-eared and full-lipped, but with handsome sad eyes and expressive eyebrows. It was a debut of historical significance, a refusal of symbolism as a poetic means and a faith in language's power to name the world.
His poetry, although passionate, is not always or primarily personal. An account of his life - especially as given in the two volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned , by his widow, Nadezdha Mandelstam, two of the C20 greatest and sadly necessary books, and, seemingly, out of print - make him a figure of immense elan and importance, but the poetry is less interested in autobiography.
Whereas Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak seem very much the subject of their poems, Mandelstam seems a lyric poet in the way that Eliot might be – the heart is there, but it is not immediately offered.
Reading poetry in translation is like washing your feet with your socks on, and its difficult to make judgments on a poet who in one translation (Tracy’s) can sound like this in his first poem:
A tentative hollow noteAnd like this in another version (Clarence Brown and WS Merwin’s)
as a pod falls from a tree
in the constant melody
of the wood’s deep quiet.
The shy speechless sound
of a fruit falling from its tree
and around it the silent music
of the forest, unbroken.
In Stone, Tracy's flatter diction and syntax, while less immediately beguiling, seems more apt. These early poems show a poet tethered in the concrete world. Each named thing is placed with clarity and precision.
Against pale blue enamel, the shade
that only April can bring,
the birch tree’s branches swayed,
and shyly it was evening.
In the Russian, apparently, ‘evening’ in the poem is a verb – it shyly 'eveninged' – but in English it is that ‘shyly’ that brings the evening to us. This is from the start of the sixth poem, and in the next and then the final stanza, the natural world becomes something made:
The pattern, precise and complete,
a network of thinly etched lines
like the ones on a porcelain plate,
with its carefully drawn design.
The dear artist designs creates
the design on the glaze’s hardness,
at that moment his skill awake,
no thought for death’s sadness.
Thematically, its Keats’ Grecian Urn in miniature, with, here, not a sigh at art’s insufficiency in the face of mortality, but a recognition of its power, momentarily, to stave off death.
Mandelstam is alive to nature, but not in a mystic sense; his true interest is in what is made, in things that show themselves to be crafted as poems are crafted.
Then I came to 'Silentium' and paused at these lines:
The sea’s breasts rise gently and fall.
but day gleams like a maniac
And the foam is faded lilac
in a cloudy sky blue bowl.
All day my head has held these lines as if it, too, were a cloudy sky blue bowl and the lines foam the colour of faded lilac. In another poet – in Akhmatova or Lowell or Plath - these lines would be an invitation to enter the poet’s world, but they - and Mandelstam’s work as a whole, - do not foreground a persona I am invited to become or witness. There is no personality I am being invited to understand. Rather, the lines become part of my persona as I read and remember them.
Mandelstam’s subject is the self and how poetry brings it into existence: the self, too, is made, crafted, as poetry is crafted. Mandlestam described the poems, in the inscription he wrote on the copy of Stone he gave to Akhmatova, as 'flashes of consciousness in the oblivion of days.' The poems in Stone – most often, they are numbered, not titled – suggest that, unless writing, unless filled with poetry, he is empty, a human absence:
The keen ear is a sail, stretched taut.
Eyes are blank from scanning distance,
and a choir of night birds fly past
silently, through silence.
Here (Poem 15) the poet exists in a state of attention, attention as it might be used in a religious sense, the state of a soul desirous and deserving of grace because it exists entirely in search of it.
I am as poor as nature
and as simple as the sky;
my freedom is as spectral
as the night bird’s cry.
I look at the lifeless moon
and a dead sky of canvas;
though your world is morbid and alien,
I accept it, nothingness.
Mandelstam is, in these poems, somewhat of a sea-haunted individual. There is the ‘Silentium’s foam of faded lilac; in Poem 15, his ear is a ‘sail, stretched taut’; In Poem 16:
A wave breaks deadly white and then
rears backwards and rears again,
not daring to touch the shore.
In ‘Insomnia’, Homer’s tale renders him restless and sleepless. The sea returns in ‘The Seashell’, and recalls Wordsworth’s lines in The Prelude (5.ll.71-165) with its vision of the stone and the shell, in which the shell represents vision and stone reality. There is a tension in Mandelstam’s collection - he did consider calling it The Seashell - between the two, a hope of combining them, a conviction that to look at reality truly is to be visionary, but not in a faux-religious way in which I to often read him:
Let your thin needle stab
the empty breast of the sky.
Nadezdha said that, for Mandelstam, the sky had never been the dwelling place of God:
The task of man is to bring life to (the empty heavens) by making them commensurate with the work of his hands – a cupola, a tower, a gothic arch.
And, in ‘The Morning of Acmeism’, he wrote:
To build means to contend with the void … the entire meaning is to stab the sky, to reproach it because it is empty.
Poems 30 and 75 both refer to Imyabozhtsi or Imya Bozhi, the so-called ‘God’s Name’ movement that surfaced about 1910 at the monastery on Mount Athos, which held that God’s name is itself divine: God, being approachable, cannot be glorified directly: one can only approach and glorify his name.
The word is total joy to them
and heals their pain.
And, in Poem 30, the poet tells us:
In the mist I could not come at.
your shifting tormenting shape.
‘Lord’ I said, not intending that,
but the word came out by mistake.
From my breast, like a great bird
God’s name flew suddenly.
Up ahead the thick mist stirred
and an empty cage was behind me
Naming God promises liberation. The mist stirs in order for us to see more clearly. This lack of mystery – a dispersal of it – is there in ‘The Lutheran, where the body is laid away ‘smoothly, simply and well’, and there is:
No need, I thought, for a flowery oration.
We are not prophets nor do we prepare the way;
we do not love heaven, do not fear damnation,
and we burn without light, like candles at noon.
It is in this same spirit he addresses ‘Hagia Sophia’ – as a building, as an expression of stone’s grace and force, not a symbol of wisdom or power, secular or divine. Like the cathedral that is the subject of the poem it precedes, ‘Notre Dame,’ it is marvellous because it has been made.
And, in Poem 54, he tells us:
…if the song is sung truly
with a whole heart, all else disappears
and nothing remains, but only
the singer, space, the stars.