Thursday, September 14, 2017

`She Held Out the Egg to Him'

In “What I Heard” (Unfathoming, Four Way Books, 2017), Andrea Cohen recalls a small event in the doomed life of Osip Mandelstam:

“She was talking about Akhmatova
and Mandelstam, how there

“was only one egg, which she
gave him. But what I heard

“was one ache: there was one
ache, and they shared it.”

As a poet, Cohen represents Kay Ryan Lite. Her poems are as skinny as Ryan’s and aspire to her wittiness, but usually settle for a modest pop of whimsy. If they were read aloud, admirers would laugh, the rest of us would try to conceal our embarrassment. “What I Heard” is a little different, though it borders on the tacky. On the night of May 16, 1934, Anna Akhmatova arrived from Leningrad at the Moscow apartment of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam. Food, as usual, was scarce. Osip begged an egg from a neighbor so Akhmatova would have something to eat. Stalin’s goons arrived with a warrant signed by Yagoda, and ransacked the apartment. They likely were searching for a copy of his “Stalin epigram” that Mandelstam had read aloud six months earlier in the apartment of Boris Pasternak. An informer present at the reading reported it to the authorities. In Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970), Nadezhda picks up the story:

“The egg brought for Akhmatova lay untouched on the table. Everybody – Mandelstam’s brother Evgeni, who had recently arrived from Leningrad and was also there – walked around the room talking and trying not to pay attention to the people rummaging in our things. Suddenly Akhmatova said, `M. should eat something before he left,’ and she held out the egg to him. Mandelstam took it, sat down at the table, put some salt on it and ate it.”

The secret police arrested Mandelstam and took him away. With Nadezhda he was exiled for three years to a village in the Urals. His second arrest, in 1938, would be his last. He was dead in a Siberian transit camp before the end of the year. In her poem, Cohen turns Akhmatova’s selfless gesture into a self-regarding pun, and implicitly congratulates herself for recognizing the sensitivity of her mishearing.

Elsewhere in Hope Against Hope, Nadezha reports an observation made by her husband: “Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

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