Saturday, April 10, 2010

Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam was born in 1891 and died in a Soviet labor camp in the year 1938. The picture at left is of public record, taken after Mandelstam's first arrest. He once said, "Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" In Mandelstam's case, this concept could not have been more accurate. His poetry, as well as his political views, made him a political enemy of the state. He was arrested, exiled, and sent to a work camp where he ultimately died of illness. The poem I liked best out of the ones I read is as follows:

"What shall I do with this body they gave me"

What shall I do with this body they gave me,
so much my own, so intimate with me?

For being alive, for the joy of calm breath,
tell me, who should I bless?

I am the flower, and the gardener as well,
and am not solitary, in earth’s cell.

My living warmth, exhaled, you can see,
on the clear glass of eternity.

A pattern set down,
until now, unknown.

Breath evaporates without trace,
but form no one can deface.

Mandelstam's speaker is questioning the meaning of his life. The last three stanzas get to the very heart of the poem's meaning. Like fog on a glass, the trace of this man will disappear shortly after his breath stops unless he does something that will cement him permenatly into the minds of humanity. In this case, the very poem is that cement. If "form no one can deface," but "breath evaporates without trace," then the only way to make words permanent is to write them down. If Mandelstam is indeed the speaker, then he is questioning the direction his life has taken. As mentioned above, Osip feels that poetry, especially in Russia, is a force to be reckoned with. If he can immortalize himself in his poetry, then his life will have meaning.

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova was born in the Ukraine in 1889. She began writing poetry as an adolescent, but wrote under the pen name that she became known by because her father did not want his good name spoiled by having a poet in the family. She was married three times and had one son, Lev. She died at the age of 76 after ahving her poetry loved by the people, forbidden by the government, and ultimately celebrated in her older years and after her death.

Lot's Wife

And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back

at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."

A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

This poem caught my attention my sophomore year of high school. The poety anthology that we were using only included one of Akhmatova's poems, but it was such a different take on an old story that I could not put it out of my mind. That same year, in my class on the Old Testament, Lot's wife was a figure of shame. She had disobeyed God's orders and paid the price for it. Akhmatova takes a totally different approach. She sees Lot's wife as just another human being who had difficulty leaving her past behind without a longing look back. I feel that this poem goes much deeper than the recounting of a Bible story, especially in those last two lines. The speaker refuses to judge Lot's wife because of her weakness because it is a weakness that all humans share. No one can ever truly move on without a backwards glance to the past. In fact, if we never looked back, we would never know how to move forward.


Do not cry for me, Mother, seeing me in the grave.
This greatest hour was hallowed and thandered
By angel's choirs; fire melted sky.
He asked his Father:"Why am I abandoned...?"
And told his Mother: "Mother, do not cry..."
Magdalena struggled, cried and moaned.
Peter sank into the stone trance...
Only there, where Mother stood alone,
None has dared cast a single glance.

Anna Akhmatova was, herself, a mother. However, her only child was raised mostly by her mother-in-law from her first marriage. Akhmatova always wished she was more of a mother than she was. She even wrote, "Motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it." And, while it is not customary to impose the poet's life on her poems, I feel that such a break of criticism etiquette is necessary. That very first line does not fit with the theme or tone of the rest of the poem. It is directed at all mothers, from all children. Children usually have tight bonds with their mothers, especially in childhood. Akhmatova was denied such a bond with Lev because of the circumstances surrounding his upbringing. Lev's father, Nikolay Gumilyov, left both is son and his wife for adventures in Africa, France, and the Great War. After learning all this about Akhmatova's background, I cannot help but see the implied character of Christ in this poem as Lev, whose father abandoned him and whose Mother wished she could have been a bigger part of his life.  

For Osip Mandelstam

And the town is frozen solid in a vice,

Trees, walls, snow, beneath a glass.
Over crystal, on slippery tracks of ice,
the painted sleighs and I, together, pass.
And over St Peter’s there are poplars, crows
there’s a pale green dome there that glows,
dim in the sun-shrouded dust.
The field of heroes lingers in my thought,
Kulikovo’s barbarian battleground.
The frozen poplars, like glasses for a toast,
clash now, more noisily, overhead.
As though it was our wedding, and the crowd
were drinking to our health and happiness.
But Fear and the Muse take turns to guard
the room where the exiled poet is banished,
and the night, marching at full pace,
of the coming dawn, has no knowledge.

This poem got me interested in the next Russian poet that I will feature: Osip Mandelstam. Akhmatova and Mendalstam were romantically linked even though Mandelstam was married at the time of their relationship. Both poets, Mandelstam and Akhmatova respected each other's work. Mandelstam's life will be discussed in more detail in the next post, but it seems likely that this poem was written after Mandelstam's sentence of exile for his anti-Soviet views. Akhamatova's speaker (likely herself) expresses a wish for marriage that will never happen with an exiled poet. She seems to be writing a letter to him, describing the landscape of their beloved city, from which Mandelstam was banished. She suggests a foreboding event in the near future of which no one knows. She may have known that Mandelstam was doomed to die soon, but her heart would not let her give up on him just yet.

Another Change of Plans

I could not have predicted the speed at which my schedule has been filled the past few weeks. That said, reading a novel of the length that I thought I could undertake has proven to be too ambitious. But, as in any research project, setbacks are always kept in mind and alternate routes planned out before the project gets underway. Therefore, in honor of April as National Poetry Month, I am switching tracks to bring you some of Russia's most famous poets and the poems that I find to be most interesting from each of them.