Osip Mandelstam: ‘Stolen Air: Selected Poems’

April 18, 2012

April is Poetry Month, and to many readers that means guilt. Poetry is like exercise: We know it’s important, we know we should get more of it, and yet it all seems so hard, so daunting. A novel, after all, entertains us with a story; nonfiction increases our knowledge of the world. But ­poems — what do they do?

Back in school, our teachers would stress the arcana of alliteration and assonance; in 12th grade we’d be tasked with guessing what lines such as “Else a great prince in prison lies” might possibly mean. Sometimes, of course, poems did speak of lost love, shattered dreams and the thousand natural angsts that teenage hearts are heir to. “To His Coy Mistress” was really pretty hot.

But modern poetry? Don’t you need a philosophy degree to appreciate Jorie Graham? Aren’t the Formalists really, well, stiff and formal? And John Ashbery’s work is just melodious stream of consciousness, right? There’s Billy Collins, of course, and Maya Angelou, but people say they’re little more than clever greeting-card versifiers.

All these are excuses. You need to read poems just as you need to do those exercises. Not because they’re good for you — which they are — but because they will make you feel good. Poetry also will make you smile, or weep, or remember. You don’t need to analyze symbols or spend hours explicating every line. Just pick up a book of poems — say “Stolen Air,” a collection of Christian Wiman’s versions of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam — and turn, almost at random, to “Night Piece”:

Come love let us sit together

In the cramped kitchen breathing kerosene.

There’s fuel enough to forget the weather,

The knife is ours and the bread is clean.

Come love let us play the game

Of what to take and when to run,

Of come with me and come what may

And holding hands to hold off the sun.

Mandelstam wrote that in 1931, when he was already suffering the ostracism and hardship of being a serious poet under Stalin’s dictatorship. As he famously observed: “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” Mandelstam would die in the ­Gulag Archipelago in 1938 at the age of 47.

With the possible exceptions of Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva, who were his close friends, Mandelstam is generally viewed as the greatest Russian poet of the past century. He also was a brilliant prose writer, and if there’s a better short memoir than “The Noise of Time,” I’ve yet to run across it. In its pages Mandelstam evokes the sights and smells and sounds of a St. Petersburg childhood in the years just before the Revolution. The poet’s later years were chronicled, in heart-rending detail, by his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, in two great acts of witnessing, “Hope Against Hope” and “Hope Abandoned.”

Mandelstam’s poetry has been much translated, perhaps most notably by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown (in a volume now available in paperback from New York Review of Books Classics). Wiman’s Mandelstam is much freer than theirs or almost anyone’s, being re-creations in English by a poet who knows no Russian but relies instead on trots, the advice of knowledgeable friends like Ilya Kaminsky (who supplies a lengthy introduction to this slender book), and his own sense of language. Because Wiman possesses real verbal dexterity and a flair for wordplay, these poems — even at their grimmest — are a delight for the ear.

Consider such phrases as these: “the old lullaby of alibis” or “the kisslessness / Of emptiness” or “Choice roses chucked from Rolls-Royces” or even “the wheeze and laze of asthmatic days.” Sometimes the lines are neatly satirical: “To pose under a portico in a nimbus / Of self and with a dead animal for a hat.” Others are full of black humor: “the splendid official, who on a lark / Hopped a daytime train without his papers, / Now pickaxes ice with a quiet tribe of lepers.” Some pack a story into a simile: “Like a happy man undone by an alley-flash of lace.” Still others combine allusion with epigram: “You were no one’s wholly, and you were no one’s fool.”

Throughout, too, Wiman gently, faintly echoes earlier poems. “Night Piece” plays off Christopher Marlowe’s “Come live with me and be my love.” Gerard Manley Hopkins reverberates throughout the book, most notably in “we are sulk-soft, silk-kneed, mild.”Other touches are more tentative, a matter of rhythm or a single word: “I teach an executioner how to kill / By teaching birdsongs to a man” — could this be Theodore Roethke’s “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones” transmogrified? In the same poem, we’re told that “the phone squats like a watched frog” — an almost-echo of Philip Larkin’s “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” And could “Father, friend, O my cold counselor” be a wave to Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”? Maybe, maybe not.

Yet anyone who has stood in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles can appreciate this evocation of a bureaucracy far worse than Washington’s:

Official paper, officious jowls, unswallowable smells

Of vomit, vodka, cells, bowels,

And all these red-tape tapewords gorging on reports.

Choir, stars, your highest, your holiest silences. . . .

But first, sign here on the dotted line

That they may grant you permission to shine.

While there is much to enjoy in “Stolen Air,” Wiman — the editor of Poetry magazine — encourages readers to seek other approaches to the poet as well as his own. Every translation offers its own magic and beauty, its own insight. In Merwin and Brown’s edition, the poem “Tristia” opens: “I have studied the science of good-byes, / the bare-headed laments of night.” Wiman’s version begins: “There is, I know, a science of separation / In night’s disheveled elegies, stifled laments.” I love Merwin and Brown’s first line; Wiman’s lacks its romantic wistfulness. Yet “disheveled elegies” strikes me as marginally superior to “bare-headed laments of night.”

Other people may feel different. No matter. What does matter is that you need to ease your guilt about not reading enough poetry. Stop by your local bookstore and pick up “Stolen Air” or browse the poetry shelves at the library and sample a few other collections, preferably by living writers. Greater Washington boasts such distinctive voices as Linda Pastan, Stanley Plumly, Joshua Weiner, our current poet laureate Philip Levine, Elizabeth Arnold, E. Ethelbert Miller, Michael Collier and Jane Shore among many others. Such poets reward their readers anytime, not just in April.

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/
reading-room.

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