Wednesday, July 13, 2016

`He Would Only Have a Good Time'

“One never gets accustomed to a miracle; one may only wonder at it. A poet is always filled with wonder. Most likely it is this wonder which annoys upright people--`the malicious mob stood round him.’ Wonder seems suspect to the mob. . . . when Mandelstam was struck by wonder, he would only have a good time. . . . Mandelstam was always caught by surprise, often in the midst of noise and people, and he did not even try to hide anything.”

So Nadezhda Mandelstam writes of her husband Osip in Mozart and Salieri (trans. Robert A. McLean, Ardis, 1973). That’s not how we customarily think of Mandelstam, the poet hounded by Stalin, driven mad with disease and starvation, dead in a transit camp in Siberia. And yet his widow goes on: “The greater the poet, the sharper his feeling of being unworthy of the gift of wonder and thankfulness.” She hints at a spiritual sense in a poet such as her husband. Wonder and gratitude are complementary gifts. See Christian Wiman’s translation of what may be Mandelstam’s final poem, “And I Was Alive” (Stolen Air, 2012): “And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear, / Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.” Then read this passage from Hill’s V in The Orchards of Syon (2002):

“How beautiful the world unrecognized
through most of seventy years, the may-tree filling
with visionary silent laughter. Comme si
l’aubépine—Frénaud—était un présage.
The hawthorn all the more fulfilling its beauty.”

The hawthorn is the scaffolding of England’s hedgerows, humble and beautiful. As Hill says in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy (1978): “Or say it is Pentecost: the hawthorn-tree, / set with coagulate magnified flowers of may, / blooms in a haze of light.” And again from The Orchards of Syon, the closing lines of XLV:

“A radical
otherness, as it’s called, answers
to its own voices: that there should be
language, rituals, weddings, and wedding-nights,
and tapes which spin fast forward, stop, reverse;
that there is even now hawthorn, this bush
pregnant with the wild scent and taste of sex;
that there are men and women, destinies
interlocked; and dying, and resurrection.”

[For a detailed and scholarly look at Hill’s relations with Mandelstam, see “`Difficult Friend’: Geoffrey Hill and Osip Mandelstam” by Kenneth Haynes and Andrew Kahn. Haynes is the editor of Hill’s Collected Critical Writings (2008) and Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012 (2013).]

No comments: