Tuesday, November 25, 2008

James Stotts, "Notes on Osip Mandelstam"

James Stotts

Notes on Osip Mandelstam: Goldfinch Variations

Мой щегол, я голову закину —
Поглядим на мир вдвоем:
Зимний день, колючий, как мякина,
Так ли жестк в зрачке твоем?

Хвостик лодкой, перья — черно-желты,
Ниже клюва в краску влит —
Сознаешь ли, до чего, щегол ты,
До чего ты щегловит?

Что за воздух у него в надлобье:
Черн и красен, желт и бел! —
В обе стороны он в оба смотрит — в обе!
Не посмотрит, улетел.

Декабрь 1936, Воронеж

* * *

i threw back my head, saw my goldfinch alight—
we shall watch the world turning side by side
the winter wind has chafed me raw
but was it your sky that i saw?

notched rudder for a tail, feathers black and yellow
ruby paint bleeds down below your beak
are you aware, but that i’m going weak
while you strut and finch about?

yellow, white, black and red—
cagey eyes inspecting either far side of the day
as the storm air rushes o’er your head—
looking either way, but not at...what?—and you’d flown away!

* * *

The point of this paper, its mode, is to discover the process of reading a few short, difficult poems by Osip Mandelstam; they are a series of interrelated lyrics written in his Voronezh notebooks that develop the symbol of the goldfinch. Probably, as a reader, the best way to start would be to read the verse itself. Poetry’s power properly operates the same way as a riddle, in that it answers itself after resisting and seeming to have no answer. The optimal approach to reading is not research (even though many professors of literature have taught themselves to a fault), to start by looking for the footnotes that have not been supplied or to grope for references. It is a complete lie that a research paper can improve a poem, and yet research papers for the most part carry out that vicious purpose: to attempt to make good art bad or bad, good. Or else, many papers start with a premise, a supposed poetics or a theory, and then hope that they can find the poems to prove their paper; that is, the literature serves the research. That approach is antipode to the sincere and unaffected engagement that makes poetry worth reading in the first place.

As a thought experiment: suppose we lost all the critical literature and academic analyses, and all that remained was the artistic literature itself. Though of real consequence, it would not be so great of a loss. But suppose the opposite, that all the poems, the stories, the songs, the novels, etc. were gone, and just the criticism and analyses were left. We would be bankrupt. When I proposed this idea to Maxim Shrayer, my ex-professor (like an ex-girlfriend) and first reader, he said that it was “not absurdist, but just plain absurd,” and yet it still goes a long way towards explaining how I feel about the role of the research paper. And so my task is partly to reevaluate my task and turn to what is most essential and worthwhile about research.

A good poem can sustain the simplest interpretation as its foundation, and does not yield to all the scholarship that is brought to bear against it; actually, it invites the most immediate and matured readings to exist together. What a decent research paper is, then, is the history of a reading, giving pause to the careful prosodic considerations, providing responses to the questions the poem creates, mapping the sources of understanding. What a research paper does, for a reader, is to construct a literature in which the poem (or novel, or whatever) can be situated, so that there is a guide for erudition. That is, there is a sense of preservation that is demanded, to repair the fragile retia of associations invoked by the poem, to illuminate lost connections. It is suggested reading, canon making, synapse routing. Especially in a territory where there are so many experts and so few general readers, like Russian poetry, the point cannot be to prove how obscure the verse is, or try to prove how good a reader and expert I am myself that I can navigate its obscurities. The first thing I want to accomplish is to have my readers (no matter how small their number is) read the poems that are the subject of this paper, and then to tell them how I read, as a testament to the in lento reading I am advocating.

(As a note, it should not be supposed that I am discounting a second vital function of literary research: the intensive processes of gathering and compiling extant materials. The fullest possible recovery of a great artist’s output, working against history and generations of memory, is definitely rewarding and worthwhile. Ironically, this is not just a task for the literary scholar, but the historian and librarian as well, and many other kinds of scientists, and can be carried out with or without a personal stake or interest in the art. Fortunately, a good number of writers leave a well-managed legacy themselves, and anyway, the glut of research being done in the countless universities is usually not of any essential variety, and while it may certainly be edifying it is not necessarily worth writing about or publishing.)

In Voronezh exile, Osip Mandelstam confounded what later critics would make of his predicament—he saw the terrifying reality of language, arbitrary and concrete, transforming itself into his executioner. Afterwards, many would ironically comment that his punishment from Stalin was light (including his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, who called it a ‘miracle’[1]), surprisingly so, given the fates of other proclaimed enemies of the state in a time of en masse executions and terror. He was ordered to reside outside the major cities. It was internal exile, as opposed to execution or hard labor, but to witness in verse the awful torture of his soul, the suffocation of his sanity, is to give lie to the lightness of his situation. The extraordinary historical circumstances that were the crucible for Mandelstam’s verse are worth looking at, not least because of their resonance with the verse itself.

Mandelstam’s prosody also deserves attention. His definitions of Acmeism and his plastic understanding of language are borne out in a great deal of his poems. His stance as a poet is hidden in furtive places—published and unpublished manifestos, hinted at in the verse of other poets, etc.—but none of it is definitive. That is, research does not provide conclusion, has no ultimate purpose except to feed a curious appetite. Weak poetry lends itself to reflection ad nauseam, and great poetry, to reflection ad infinitum. Reflection, in the emphatic sense, asks the reader to reread, to slow down, carry the poem with himself. Research is only a beacon light: the mirror, and not the thing itself.

Also, there is another lens on the verse’s interpretation, played out like its own coded analysis, and that is the undertaking of translation. If analysis is a kind of dissection of the poem, breaking it into component parts, examining it in detail—then translation is the messier task of trying to recreate the magic of one language’s special case in another language, bringing the thing back to life then performing vivisection on the undead. When I started, there was no way for me to translate Mandelstam’s goldfinch poems from the second of his Voronezh notebooks. There was no way to start. I think, without having been the victim of bureaucracy, the chronic second-hand victim of rape, I would have had no impulse to try. Absorbing Mandelstam’s late vision was a dual-process: the translation of a personal trauma and a staring contest with the slanted eye of history (that’s the window into time that a Mandelstam poem is). The process was carried on like its own trauma. And, of course, translation is a traumatic mode—a mode of violating the form of the original, and exploiting the erotic power that lends itself to being sensed in another language. To look at a poem in its original state and compare it to a translation is to literally see the original lose its virginity. (Some days I could only talk about the poem when I was drunk, or else it brought me to drink.) I asked everyone who would answer what it was about, Russians and Americans. I marked the meter, and memorized the lines. It was what poetry always demands—reading in lento.

Lastly, the inevitability of exegetic failure should be restated before I begin. If a paper’s standard were the soundness of the interpretation, then it would be a waste of time. Or perhaps, to be kind, there would be very little point. As I said before, when reading becomes an act of searching for footnotes, looking outside the text for what it cannot itself provide, then the text in question has passed the point of saturation. I would ill serve the reader if all I wanted to do was provide those footnotes. A poem fits into literature like a star, and the mapping of constellations is ultimately an imaginative fallacy, but is nonetheless worthwhile because the imaginative fallacy is one of the key aspects of the sky’s beauty and our fascination with it. This is due, not to any fault of mode or any shortcoming of the reader/researcher, but the problematic nature of knowledge itself.

Мой Щегол

But what, if anything, is the poem about? The red-yellow feathers of the Soviet-Jew. Stalin as savior, Mandelstam as Stalin. The hunger and famine of collectivization. Cheka (the organ that would become the KGB) mania. The beauty of winter, and cage birds’ canny grace. About being a child, and being like a child. About the violent plasticity of language. The fate (fatalism) of culture. Is there a story contained in the lines? The goldfinch in the winter sky, taking orders, sitting in the sweet bread, behind bars. Why is his tail like a boat? How? What’s in Salamanca? The university, clement weather, escape, democracy. (Note: recently (early 2008, months after I had considered this paper finished), when I first shared the paper with Mitchell Morrison, my old high-school teacher and longtime mentor, he gave me a hint to decoding Salamanca: Cervantes, himself a prisoner whose time in detention (five years as a slave in Algiers after being captured by pirates) had a significantly harrowing effect on his own Don Quijote (think of Nabokov’s harsh criticism of the cruelty in Quijote which is often overlooked for the wit and pathos), was a Salamanca man; it was where his grandfather studied at the university and where it is speculated he studied as well. The kinship between Cervantes and Mandelstam—opened by the Salamanca key—is couched in the final stanza of his ultimate “goldfinch” poem.)

Mandelstam was ill and unable to recuperate when he wrote his manic Voronezh poems (1934-7). He had first been sent to Cherdyn by Soviet authorities (after long interrogations which many speculate included torture), where, after suffering insomnolent delusions, his eyelashes fell out, and angina onset. Depression consequentially led him to attempt suicide. Permission to reside in Voronezh was granted, and that was where he recaptured his muse and began filling his notebooks with the desperate lyrics that would later secure his sure place in the canon of Russian poetry. He was released to Moscow in 1937 after serving a reduced three-year sentence, only to be arrested again the next year and sent to a prison camp in far-east Russia somewhere near Vladivostok. He died in-transit, and the Soviet regime gave his official date of death as December of 1938, and the official cause of death as heart failure (supremely redundant!) Now that history has been written, and we can look back upon the unimaginable but too-believable fate of Mandelstam, there can be no consideration of his punishment being light.

After the arrest he developed acute delusions, his health was failing and his heart and lungs were weak. He was uprooted, and would never get another chance to put down roots—legally and spiritually homeless. He had lost almost all sources of income, and all means were closed to him as a convict. He became the beggar-bird carrying the world’s last song that Akhmatova prophesied in her “Теперь никто не станет слушать песен,”[2] being turned away at the doors of strangers in a world bereft of miracles.

The official reason for his arrest was a vitriolic poem against Stalin where he describes the dictator’s brutality, his cockroach mustache, etc., but as Brodsky mentions in his essay “The Child of Civilization,” “there’s a much more devastating line in the poem called ‘Ariosto’ written earlier the same year…there were plenty of others, too…He got his warning and he could have learned from that as many others did. Yet he didn’t because his instinct for self-preservation had long since yielded to his aesthetics.”[3] That is, his poetry—and not any one of his poems—made him a marked man and put him in conflict with the state.

Опыт из лепета, и лепет из опыта

Acmeism is for those who, seized by the spirit of building, do not meekly renounce their gravity, but joyfully accept it in order to arouse and make use of the forces architecturally dormant in it. The architect says, I build…and the man for whom the sound of a chisel splitting stone is not a metaphysical proof was not born to build.[4]

In this formulation, offered by Mandelstam in his prosodic manifesto “Утро акмеизма,” the poet is likened to an architect, his words to stones, the grammar of his language to gravity. Acmeism was the ideological-aesthetic banner of Mandelstam officially shared by Akhmatova, Gumilev, Gorodetsky, Narbut, and Zenkevic, formed from the Greek word akme. Mandelstam’s essay was the third of a kind, after Gumilev’s and Gorodetsky’s,[5] but each one seems to stand as a personal poet’s credo rather than as the coordinated definition of a poetic school. If it was written in 1912 or 1913 (as seems likely), while he was living in St. Petersburg among the other Acmeists, the reverence for architecture is especially poignant, as it was central to Mandelstam’s vision, and St. Petersburg’s architecture is an inspiration in itself. When Mandelstam writes that “the capacity for astonishment is the poet’s greatest virtue,”[6] it speaks to astonishment at both nature and art, and in art the word is as real to Mandelstam as stone, just as language is as real in nature as biology.

A more compact definition of Acmeism offered was simply: “nostalgia for world culture.”[7] This seems to combine with the above credo a sense of loss and alienation.

Looking at the goldfinch poems there is a great deal of evidence that the Acmeist principles are still in play. Words are very much like stones, given to being reshaped with a hammer and chisel—words like красовит, черновит, щегловит, сердцевит have all been built from the linguistic roots by Mandelstam. They are possibly, on first appearance, either verbs (in third-person singular conjugation) or short-form adjectives. And they play that double function in the sentences, even if in some sentences they ultimately work more like one part of speech or another. Mandelstam is interested in exploiting language at the most basic levels. In the case of красовит and щегловит, Mandelstam erases the distinction between multiple meanings that arise in language development, creating a hybrid form that refuses to reveal the distinction between the many facets of крас- (red, paint, or beauty) and щегол- (goldfinch or dandy). Because of these constructive retroforms [my own term] the reader is led to reevaluate the root whenever it is used (as in красный and краска or щегол and щёголь). Mandelstam’s words also have the ability to create new meanings and paradigms of description; распрыгаться is the verb that defines the goldfinch’s hopping movements like buckshot. The bird is literally “starting to jump about,” but in the sentence “Он распрыгался черничной дробью” new attention is drawn to the prefix рас- (as in “scattering,” like buckshot pellets) and could be redefined as jumping-itself-apart or something similarly impossible, and yet it profoundly characterizes the goldfinch’s action and its underlying implications. Mandelstam is always conscious of root meanings and grammatical shapes, as he is intent on exploiting the full architecture of Russian to build his poems.

His ability to continue to write in this intensive mode is a testament to his calling as one of those artists who keeps the capacity for astonishment. His mission, even as he approaches the end, is appreciation: in the poems he says “Подивлюсь на мир еще немного,”[8] maintaining the childlike curiosity, exemplified elsewhere in the child’s smile of naiveté. The underlying tension is between the wizened sophistication of the poet and the artless production of a songbird. It seems to me that, here, more than ever before in his poetry, Mandelstam was embracing the latter. In his “Написки о поэзии,” Mandelstam keys in on the birdsong-like qualities of Fet and Pasternak: “Pasternak’s poetry is a direct mating call…it gasps on banalities with the classic delight of a trilling nightingale” drawing on the example of Fet’s “whistling, clicking, rustling, sparkling, splashing, fullness of sound, plenitude of life.”[9] The goldfinch poems are reverberant with the sense of kid- and birdsong, from the nursery-rhyme meters to the pure musicality we are drawn into the poetics of zaum—Mandelstam is attempting to take us “beyond meaning” into a primitive echo chamber. It is the kind of patter that, in his “Восьмистишия” he describes as “опыт из лепета лепит/и лепет из опыта пьет.”[10] Molding matter out of mutter is the metamorphic productive mode of Acmeism. And here, in his very late, very dense verse, Mandelstam’s acme (here, in the intensification of focus and syntax) has the stereoscopic effect of causing a sort of utteral terror. Joseph Brodsky, tracking the trajectory of Mandelstam’s career, comes to the same conclusion:

Russia went the way she did [this is referring to the Stalinist censorship and purges that ensnared Mandelstam in the 30s], and for Mandelstam, whose poetic development was rapid by itself, that direction could bring only one thing—a terrifying acceleration. This acceleration affected…the character of his verse. Its sublime, meditative, caesuraed flow changed into a swift, abrupt pattering movement…of high velocity and exposed nerves, sometimes cryptic, with numerous leaps over the self-evident with somewhat abbreviated syntax. And yet in this way it became more like a song than ever before, not a bardlike but a birdlike song, with its sharp, unpredictable turns and pitches, something like a goldfinch tremolo.[11]

Изолировать, но сохранить

Mixing the theme of personal metamorphosis with nature is overtly Ovidian. And this begs us to consider the characteristics of the goldfinch as they apply to the human it was transformed from. The small bird, with its coat of many colors, that sings per-chic-o-ree in flight. Small cage bird. To form the new context for these poems, I try to remember Nadezhda Mandelstam’s words about his circumstance, her own metamorphic utterances.

It was in 1934 the terms of Osip Mandelstam’s punishment were laid out by the authorities in a joint interview at the Lubianka in Moscow—Osip and Nadezhda with a police interrogator—where Nadezhda recalls “И тут я узнала формулу: «изолировать, но сохранить».”[12] This led to the internal exile in Cherdyn, and parallels Mandelstam’s own interpretation of Ovid’s predicament: that he was similarly exiled out of Rome because he loved to write. And the Mandelstams’ handlers noted the flavor of the sentence as well. In turning their prisoner over to police in Cherdyn, the police who delivered Mandelstam made it explicit that they were delivering “особую птицу, которую велено обязательно сохранить.”[13] Isolate, but preserve is also the cage bird’s ukase. Such a bird can only exist on either extreme end of the spectrum: flight or imprisonment. For both Mandelstams this set off all the obvious associations, and after his death Nadezhda Mandelstam thought of her husband and many other friends as the last specimens of an extinct species of bird:

Мне попалась раз книжечка о вымерших птицах, и я вдруг поняла, что все мои друзья и знакомые не что иное, как вымирающие пернатые. Я показала О. М. парочку попугаев, и он сразу догадался, что это мы с ним.[14]

This deracination of bird and poet is a particularly significant theme. For Mandelstam, poetry’s essence lay in its organic roots, not in its foreign appurtenance. His main complaint against the Symbolists of his day was their dependency on European traditions and themes to the neglect of Russian inheritance, which was in effect a sort of linguistic alienation.[15] How could you exploit the full properties of the Russian language if you kept turning outwards? For him, Greece always came by way of the Black Sea, and no Grecian heritage was so peculiarly Russian as Ovid, who had been exiled to the Black Sea. Not only that, but Pushkin, the fountainhead of Russian poetry, posits Ovid right in the center of the Russian folk history.[16] Mandelstam’s second book of poetry was even named Tristia, the same title as Ovid’s lyrics and letters in exile. It is this Russian Ovid of exile that Mandelstam constantly evokes throughout his goldfinch poems, and the polemic between sorrow and awe that every line is fraught with. Historic circumstance had brought his life into direct contact with the metaphors and influences he had earlier studied and exploited.

The physical toll on his existence was also extreme, leading to hallucinations and a suicide attempt in Cherdyn before being granted a transfer to Voronezh. This shift, into a heightened and unstable psychic state, is the Osip Mandelstam a reader should have in mind as the poet of the goldfinch poems. He was fractured, highly sensitive to stimuli. He was haunted by his arrest, as evidenced in the scene from the poems where he reimagines his arrest through the eyes of the goldfinch—the intense shock to his heart as he spies his captor and then the terror inside the cage. Anna Akhmatova, who came to visit him in the deep freeze of a Voronezh winter, depicted in verse how he was captivated in turn by fear and the muse in her poem “Воронеж” which she dedicated to him: “В комнате опального поэта/Дежурят страх и Муза в свой черед.”[17] Mandelstam is simultaneously dogged by the harsh elements and at one with them. The breakneck shifts in tone only begin to uncover the schizophrenic energy of Mandelstam’s metaphors and metamorphoses. To Akhmatova it was obvious that she was witnessing the fractured psyche of her dear friend; it was obvious to Mandelstam, too, utterly sober and canny to the end, but a little damaged.

Бродячая Собака

Mandelstam’s immortal epithet was gestural: his head thrown back in the throes of inspiration. It exemplified his pride and even arrogance as a young poet with extraordinary powers. It was the signature of his readings in the Stray Dog Cellar, the impression left on Marina Tsvetaeva that she attributed to him in her poem to him in 1916: Ты запрокидываешь голову – /Затем, что ты гордец и враль.”[18] But when Mandelstam himself revisits his signature—Я голову закину—it is a sympathetic gesture. He is comparing himself to the goldfinch, the bird world’s showboat and dandy, with a note of doubt and sadness, as if he has lost his spirit. The act of looking up is one of resignation, looking out through prison bars. A poet has a right, and a duty, to reevaluate and reinterpret his gestures. Here, his plumage and song are liabilities. Beauty and rarity define the prisoner Mandelstam as they do the cage-bird goldfinch. The hungry smile of the child and the cocksure chin of the poet are transformed into fate. His smile is like a road (“улыбка неподкупна, как дорога”) that he cannot alter. They are natural, like the red breast and chirrup per-chic-o-ree.

Despite my aversion to research, coming across a good deal of criticism was inevitable as a curious reader and graduate student looking through the Mandelstam literature, and naturally I have started to think like them, and should mention some of the contributions to my thought concerning these poems. Critics like Donald Rayfield, Maxim D. Shrayer, even Joseph Brodsky, begin to see these fatal attributes in terms of Jewishness and the corollary dual-identity, which seems natural enough, especially considering Mandelstam’s reliance on color association, his role as a victim in Stalin’s terror, his cultural ostracism. For example: “Mandelstam’s Jewishness was, at times, in his poetry a fatal heritage…The Jew was for Mandelstam his shadowy alter ego,”[19] “Multiple incongruities characterize Mandelstam’s self-awareness as a Jew and as a Jewish writer,”[20] “In order to understand his poetry better, the English-speaking reader perhaps ought to realize that Mandelstam was a Jew living in…Imperial Russia, whose political structure was inherently Byzantine, and whose alphabet was devised by two Greek monks.”[21] A lot of this seems refuted by legacy: it is hard to think of Mandelstam primarily as a Jewish (rather than Russian) poet because his own poetry does not seem to fit this paradigm, nor did he write in any “Jewish” languages like Yiddish or Hebrew as a number of Russian-Jewish poets were compelled to do (in fact, he was fiercely loyal to his native Russian tongue), and Nadezhda Mandelstam in her memoirs asserts that anti-intellectual biases were more troublesome than anti-Semitic ones (“Анти-интеллигентские настроения страшнее и шире, чем примитивное юдофобство”[22]). In fact, as a student at Boston College taking a survey of Jewish-Russian literature taught by Maxim Shrayer, Mandelstam was never even introduced (nor was Joseph Brodsky). The proper emphasis lies elsewhere, and in the goldfinch poems Mandelstam suggests that his virtue and fault is an inherent philosophical disobedience, which makes him like a bird. Even though he was one-hundred percent ethnically Jewish, Mandelstam’s is the type of the existential, rather than the specifically ethnic or religious, Jew. But Mandelstam in these poems confuses Stalin and the Jew, captor and captive, in an act of great telepathic concern that marks him as a universal moralist. He seems just as earnestly interested in the multiple-personalities of the trinity as in his dual-identity as a Jew, and those considerations have very little to do with the goldfinch poems, anyway. Shrayer’s ultimate appraisal seems to settle the question: “What makes the Jewish-born Mandelstam unique and worthy of admiration and further study is not his relationship to either Christianity or Judaism, which was symptomatic of his time and milieu, but his peerless poetic genius.”[23] Still, this myopic concern seemed to creep into all the critical literature.

As a wandering exile, something like a stray dog, Mandelstam maintained his posture as a poet from his youth, as a beggar and lover of world culture, fiercely antagonistic (feisty), and an antipode to self-hating archetypes.

К себе переводчиков жду

I suggested in my introduction that translation was something akin to vivisecting a ghost. An analysis of translation, then, would be like the shadow cast by a ghost—pale indeed. But, if there is a particular virtue in translation, it is best phrased by Joseph Brodsky:

Civilization is the sum total of different cultures animated by a common spiritual numerator, and its main vehicle—speaking both metaphorically and literally—is translation. The wandering of a Greek portico into the latitude of the tundra is a translation…The rigors involved in producing an echo, formidable though they may seem, are in themselves an homage to that nostalgia for world culture which drove and fashioned the original.[24]

Brodsky’s own Russian writing, venturing out into the American latitudes, was an attempt at carrying an echo of predecessors: Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pushkin. There is a danger in Brodsky’s deference to tradition, though, especially faced with the great ignorance of the world and the deteriorate fabric of culture which generations inherit so incompletely. This is an eternal condition, not an historic one, so by definition it does not preclude the production of great poetry (assuming that great poetry exists, which I am confident Brodsky would tacitly accept). Brodsky laments Mandelstam’s negligible place in letters, “The English-speaking world has yet to hear this nervous, high-pitched, pure voice shot through with love, terror, memory, culture, faith,”[25] despite the great number of bad translations of Mandelstam.

The problem with translation is that both decent and opportunist professors, both earnest poets and career hackwriters conventionally approach the translation of a body of work as some conquerable task, as if the poetic achievement of Mandelstam could be taken on and achieved again by proxy. Even good writers usually seem to be at their worst as translators. Mandelstam’s own appraisal of translation seems fairer: translations should be tools for approaching the original poem in its original language. The other half of the equation is the use of translations as an alternative mode of poetic production: simply a plagiaristic method for writing poetry. That would allow for the abusive tendencies of all translation, in a way that exposes and counters the apologetics of bad translators. It would also demand the same kind of struggle toward linguistic mastery in English that Mandelstam concerned himself with in Russian. A poem not only draws on its language, but creates new possibilities for it as well, and so a translation must also have that creative, dynamic feature to be worthwhile.

(Because translation implicitly provides its own analysis, the particulars of my decisions have been left to the close reading of the bi-lingual reader.)

Research Post-partum

After I assumed I had finished my paper for all intents and purposes, I was required, as a technicality (as far as I am concerned) to keep myself abreast of the contemporary criticism of Mandelstam, and to focus a good deal of my reading on the output of professors and researchers that concern themselves with Mandelstam. I saw this, essentially, as a distraction. I should not become so much an expert on Mandelstam, but on literature about Mandelstam being written today. I took the task to heart. I had already sampled a decent amount of criticism accidentally or by way of introductions and distractions, but now I went back to the library and into the Mandelstam literature. But, this was all at the expense of Mandelstam himself, which was my true subject.

There was a problem with a great deal of the professional published critical literature I came across: it was dismissive, or redundant, or both, or worse. The problem with a difficult poet like Mandelstam is that academics feel obligated to formulate their own individual critical poetics (poetic theory) in order to approach him—as if the difficulty could be solved according to a formula. Only, Mandelstam is stubbornly anti-formulaic. Among the many full-book treatments of Mandelstam and his poetry and prose, there was nothing I was able to read through, nothing that when I was able to comprehend it I then felt I could use, nothing that I wished to turn my readers to for their edification, nothing I expect to go back to. I’ve called this kind of recursive reading research post-partum, and it comes with the depression. The argument to be found in the glut written by almost all the authors—professors, and graduate and doctoral students—is simply this: to prove that the author is himself an expert (of what kind, it is usually not even clear). Researchers evaluate and synthesize bad research ad nauseam. We are all asked to write, even when we have no contribution to make.

But as a matter of integrity, and for purposes of full disclosure, here is a good record of my sources. A great deal of my research has been informal, and therefore cannot be documented properly in any bibliography, but it is the backbone of my conceptual formation, and deserves recognition. It has been infinitely more rewarding and important than any technical (how could a book about poetic theory allow itself to be so coldly technical, intellectual!) analysis that I could find published in journals or among the rich holdings of Boston’s public and private libraries. I should reiterate my conviction that reading poetry is paradoxically a deeply personal and social act, and antidote to all the scholarly treatments that I firmly believe are to blame for the troubling distrust and neglect of high-poetics in our fully literate culture. In reading the poems, I initially engaged in intensive, intimate conversations with Nikita Chinenkov and Lyubov Ydolova, often over wine or vodka. Nikita is a graduate linguistics student at the University of New Mexico, intensely interested in the zaum poetics of Daniil Kharms and Osip Mandelstam, and his wife Lyubov is a graphic artist and poet active in Russia and the United States. They are both close personal friends, and together we discussed themes and particulars, parsing sentences and metaphorics. Nikita deserves credit for convincing me that the “road” which Mandelstam calls incorruptible is fate, is the poet’s fate (though it is more things than that). Also, the innocent wonder of the poet, as he observes the children and the snow is crucial to the poetic temperament at large. We both share a great deal of respect for the craft. Lyubov and I long wondered together what was so significant about Salamanca—did he invoke it as the home of the Spanish Inquisition? or as a beautiful forest locale? or the site of a thriving academic community with deep ties to Mediterranean culture? (At the time, there was no definitive consensus.) Also, these poems were exegetically examined by my mentor and professor, Byron Lindsey, at the University of New Mexico, and by his wife, Tatyana Lindsey. They first suggested to me the terrible implications of the goldfinch’s quirks, how he looks back and forth out of both eyes, in a fully heightened state of fear-sensitivity. The tone of the most innocent lines is fraught with the tension of the convict, or of the potential captive. Also, we discussed the jealous relationship between Mandelstam and the goldfinch, a creature capable of flight and escape. It was then I began exploring the doppelganger relationship between the martyr-poet and Stalin himself that is so central to Mandelstam’s vision. When I travelled to St. Petersburg in 2006, I got the opportunity to share my translations with the prominent Russian critic-translator-poet, Alexandr Skidan. Together we discussed the significance of low-brow meter and nursery-rhyme syntax. He also turned me onto the special significance of the word “мякина.” This “chaff” seemed to him to allude to the chaff that was the only remaining nourishment for the starving children that Mandelstam witnessed on his Soviet tour of collectivized farms in the western USSR. This seemed to both of us to complicate the image of the smiling boy chewing his chaff as a horrible image of Soviet social experiments.

All of this, I think, was much more enlightening and valuable than anything I encountered in my proper research after-the-fact to edify myself as to Mandelstam’s poetics and ethics. The approach I embraced is an engagement with the text, an organic (rustic) discussion with friends and experts. The approaches of various experts in American universities left me absolutely cold, and I was also enervated and dispirited trying to gauge the climate of current Slavic research-at-large in the leading periodicals. Where poetry is subservient to dissertative poetic theory by so many students and experts, poetry inevitably loses; great poems are abducted from the society as a whole and held hostage by the narrow academic community. I hold this system partly to blame for a great deal of the disconnect that is obvious in popular culture, where lay people have been rebuffed and are severed from enjoyment and engagement with the grand Russian poetic tradition.

* * *

goldfinch variations (after mandelstam)

i threw back my head, saw my goldfinch alight—
we shall watch the world turning side by side
the winter wind has chafed me raw
but was it your sky that i saw?

notched rudder for a tail, feathers black and yellow
ruby paint bleeds down below your beak
are you aware, but that i’m going weak
while you strut and finch about?

yellow, white, black and red—
cagey eyes inspecting either far side of the day
as the storm air rushes o’er your head—
looking either way, but not at...what?—and you’d flown away!

* * *

my childish mouth chews its chaff
grins, chewing
like a peacock, then i throw my head back
and see a goldfinch wing

boat for a tail, black-yellow feathers
breast sewn up blood red
black and yellow, you finch about so
o, how you strut and finch about!

i’ll wonder at the world a little longer
at the children and the snow
but my smile is sincere
incorruptible, like the road
and not obedient—not bound to any man

* * *

my childish mouth chews its chaff
and grins, chewing
like a peacock, i threw my head back
and a goldfinch i did see—

he jinkjumped about like berry-buckshot spilled
eyes darting around like beads
i answered to my likeness:
live, goldfinch—this is my sentence!

* * *

the goldfinch in the sweet bread
suddenly begins to tremble, wring-ring his heart
when there comes a dark raincoat dusted with poison
his cap beautiful black as commiepretty red

the perch and stand slander
the birdcage bars in hundreds lie
everything everywhere’s gone inside out
and there is a forest Salamanca
for clever disobedient birds!

* * *

Мой щегол, я голову закину —
Поглядим на мир вдвоем:
Зимний день, колючий, как мякина,
Так ли жестк в зрачке твоем?

Хвостик лодкой, перья — черно-желты,
Ниже клюва в краску влит —
Сознаешь ли, до чего, щегол ты,
До чего ты щегловит?

Что за воздух у него в надлобье:
Черн и красен, желт и бел! —
В обе стороны он в оба смотрит — в обе!
Не посмотрит, улетел.

Декабрь 1936, Воронеж

* * *


Детский рот жует свою мякину,
Улыбается, жуя,
Словно щеголь голову закину
И щегла увижу я.

Хвостик лодкой, перья черно-желты,
И нагрудник красным шит.
Черно-желтый, до чего, щегол ты,
До чего ты щегловит!

1936, Воронеж

* * *


Детский рот жует свою мякину.
Улыбается, жуя,
Словно щеголь, голову закину,
И щегла увижу я —

Он распрыгался черничной дробью,
Мечет бусинками глаз —
Я откликнусь моему подобью:
Жить щеглу — вот мой указ!


* * *

Подивлюсь на мир еще немного,
На детей и на снега.
Но улыбка неподкупна,* как дорога,
Непослушна, не слуга.

* (вар.) неподдельна

10—13 декабря 1936 Воронеж

* * *

Когда щегол в воздушной сдобе
Вдруг затрясется, сердцевит,
Ученый плащик перчит злоба,
А чепчик черным красовит.

Клевещет жердочка и планка,
Клевещет клетка сотней спиц —
И все на свете наизнанку,
И есть лесная Саламанка
Для непослушных умных птиц!

Декабрь 1936, Воронеж

* * *

elegy for joseph brodsky

birds dragging themselves from battle
like twilight or spoilt blood
blue flies barely woken after winter
singing, signifying nothing

we tore off your wings and songs, like children
sold off the memory of countless flights
as you erased the sky—
now you limp and mutter
life in the dissipated light

or—i loved you for a little while
like brushing across nettleweed
then, after weeks of beer and cigarettes without a dream
forgot your face, replaced it with a girl’s

blind as the bloodshot eye inside its shell
would you have seen me in a crowd, i seen you?
unless we walked into a room, alone—
but you’re no longer of the body
only of the blue

about a year ago i remembered how
the half was like the whole of you
how adumbrations in the dissipated light
fade and then reform, taking on their own life

watching fish pass like ghosts under the hudson
urania like a palimpsest, my illegible english
over your once unintelligible babel
is it your eyes or just the skies stay green?
i remember how i read you—завоеватель

* * *


Akhmatova, Anna. Stikhotvoreniya i poemi. Profizdat, Moscow: 2001.

Brodsky, Joseph. Less Than One: Selected Essays. Farrar Straus Giroux: New York, 1986.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Vospominaniya. Izdatel’stvo Imeni Chekhova: New York, 1970.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda and Osip Mandelstam. Chapter 42. Translated by Donald Rayfield. London: The Menard Press, 1973.

Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Essays. Translated by Sidney Monas. University of Texas Press: Austin, 1977.

Mandelstam, Osip. Stikhotvoreniya. Profizdat: Moscow, 2000.

Shrayer, Maxim. An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, Vol. 1. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, New York, 2007.

Tsvetaeva, Marina. Stikhotvoreniya i poemi. Profizdat: Moscow, 2001.


[1] Where there are no footnotes for biographical material, it can be assumed that I am cribbing my information from the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam (Воспоминания), which is the most dedicated and detailed treatment that any poet can expect, and what I trust to be the closest to the truth of Mandelstam’s life as possible.

[2] “No more’s the solitary soul who’ll listen to the songs.” Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniya i poemi, p 111.

[3] Brodsky, Less than One, pp 136-7.

[4] Osip Mandelstam, Selected Essays, p 129. (Here, instead of citing the actual Russian, I have deferred to Sydney Monas’ translation, “The Morning of Acmeism”).

[5] Sydney Monas, Selected Essays, p 229.

[6] Mandelstam, Selected Essays, p 131.

[7] Brodsky, p 130.

[8] “I’ll wonder at the world a little longer.”

[9] Mandelstam, Selected Essays, p 83.

[10] In the poem “Octaves” Mandelstam claims that the license of lines is “molding matter (experience) out of mutter/and drinking mutter out of matter.” Stikhotvoreniya, p 180.

[11] Brodsky, p 134.

[12] “And that was where I learned the formula: isolate, but preserve.” Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, p 35.

[13] “A special bird, which we were ordered to preserve without fail.” Nadezhda Mandelstam, p 62.

[14] “Once I’d come across a little book about extinct birds, and I suddenly understood that all my friends and relations were not so different than a dying species. I showed Osip a couple of already extinct parakeets, and he figured out right away was that it was a picture of us two.” Nadezhda Mandelstam p 382.

[15] See Osip Mandelstam’s essay “Notes on Poetry,” in Selected Essays.

[16] In Pushkin’s long poem, Цыганы, (Gypsies) the ancient gypsy folklore includes the arrival of Ovid as an old man to the tribe in what is present day Moldova, where he ended his wandering in exile. Pushkin also wrote “Овиду” (“To Ovid”) about the irredeemable pessimism of Ovid’s Tristia.

[17] “In the disgraced poet’s room, fear and the Muse take turns keeping watch.” Anna Akhmatova, Stikhotvoreniya i poemy, p 156.

[18] “You throw your head back, because you’re a braggart and a blowhard.” Marina Tsvetaeva, Stikhotvoreniya i poemi, p 66.

[19] Donald Rayfield, Chapter 42, p 10.

[20] Maxim Shrayer, An Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, p 239.

[21] Brodsky, p 130.

[22] Nadezhda Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, p 362.

[23] Shrayer, p 240.

[24] Brodsky, pp 139-40.

[25] Brodsky, p 143.


James Stotts is a writer and photographer living in Boston. He is currently translating for a selected poems of Marina Tsvetaeva forthcoming from Whale and Star Press, and inauspiciously translating a shotgun anthology of the Russian masters (from Afanasy Fet to Sergei Esenin and Osip Mandelstam to Joseph Brodsky).

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