Saturday, December 24, 2011

`With Nothing But New Words'

Seventy-three years ago this week, Osip Mandelstam was starving, sick and out of his mind in the frozen transit camp at Vtoraya Rechka near Vladivostok, where he had been transported for “counter-revolutionary activity.” He was a Jew, a poet and a citizen of Western Civilization. He was buried in a common grave and his brother was notified of his death three years later. We think he died Dec. 27, 1938.

Even before the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West, the poet’s widow Nadezdah Mandelstam, in her 1,100-page memoir (published in English as Hope Against Hope, 1970, and Hope Abandoned, 1974), chronicled Stalin’s industrial-scale erasure of blameless people, among whom was her husband. During those years of putative d├ętente, Clarence Brown translated The Prose of Osip Mandelstam (1965) and in 1973 published Mandelstam, the first study in English of the poet. In 1974, Brown and W.S. Merwin translated his Selected Poems. Reading these books in 1974 was like discovering a new continent, one whose existence had been elided from history. In the words of Arthur A. Cohen (in Osip Emilievich Mandelstam: An Essay in Antiphon, 1974) he was “the greatest and most difficult poet of modern Russia.”

In “Mandelstam” (One Thousand Nights and Counting: Selected Poems, 2011), Glyn Maxwell describes a devotion to Mandelstam and his work that recalls my own:

“Knowing no word of his I embrace his every
word. They're all there is. He died for only
them. I imagine the obstinate syllables
of his name like a bothering hand on the lapels
of Stalin now and then. I imagine him
having it brushed away. Neither of them
strikes me as caring greatly about the dull
ache the other makes elsewhere in his skull,
not even when those closest to them come
wondering What are you going to do about him?

“Only a slow accrual of discomfort
can do it, and only at night at a point where hurt
and thought converge and clarify the future
with nothing but new words, whether a line
begun forever or one jotted sentence.”

For Guy Davenport in “The Man Without Contemporaries” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), it also comes down to words, the next word:

“Mandelstam wrote anywhere and everywhere. We can scarcely begin to realize his world in which the pencil stub and the three pieces of paper you have is all the pencil and all the paper you are ever going to have.”


zmkc said...

Have a very happy Christmas and thank you for your wonderful blog.

Fran Manushkin said...

Happy holidays to you, Patrick. And a splendid 2012.

WAS said...

Glyn Maxwell is one of my favorite contemporary poets, and this one is like a gem carved out of a common stone - just before the point it would fall apart. What he writes is not only true of Mandelstam but also himself and of any pure poetic drive. That last stanza goes to the limits of what words can say, leaving us with how even the broadest perspective retains its mystery. It also reminds us that the highest standards of all come from the Devil - how he reduces it until it becomes real. In the bare light that remains, the reader is the carrier of the sacred - the one who makes the suffering a tangible thing, who turns it into beauty.

I don't think I've ever heard as well expressed as Davenport here that moment when writing becomes more important than life itself.

Beth said...

Thank you for this. Mandelstam has been, and continues to be, very important to me.