Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Poet for Today

Osip Mandelstam

" My turn shall also come:
I sense the spreading of a wing."

Osip Mandelstam was born on this day in 1891.  After surviving the revolution in 1922 Mandelstam married Madezhda Iokovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. In the 1920s Mandelstam supported himself by writing children's books and translating works by Upton Sinclair, Jules Romains, Charles de Coster and others. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned to prose. In 1930 he made a trip to Armenia. Mandelstam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels with his fate and Pushkin's. The importance of preserving the cultural tradition became for the poet a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelstam traveled as a journalist in the distant provinces. Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933) became his last major work published during his life time. 
'We live, deaf to the land beneath us, 
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches, 
But where there's so much as a half a conversation 
The Kremlin's mountaineer will get his mention.' 
(from 'Stalin' 1934) 
Mandelstam was arrested for 'counter-revolutionary' activities in May 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labour camp. Interrogated by Nikolay Shivarov, he confessed that he had written a counter-revolutionary a poem which started with the lines: 'We live without sensing the country beneath us, At ten paces, our speech has no sound and when there's the will to half-open our mouths the Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.' 
In the transit camp, Mandelstam was already so weak that he couldn't stand. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in Vtoraia rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938.His body was taken to a common grave.  
The following poem seems particularly appropriate for this time of year:

“Alone I stare into the frost’s white face”

Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.   
It’s going nowhere, and I—from nowhere.   
Everything ironed flat, pleated without a wrinkle:   
Miraculous, the breathing plain.   

Meanwhile the sun squints at this starched poverty—
The squint itself consoled, at ease . . .   
The ten-fold forest almost the same . . .   
And snow crunches in the eyes, innocent, like clean bread.   



M. said...

Contrast the sensitive Jewish intellectual of 1914 with the coarsened, bloated, and tired, poet of 1938 (photo in Wikipedia "Osip Mandelstam"). A great Russian voice extinguished by Stalin,

Osip's wife was Nadezhda Mandelstam.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. You bring out an important aspect of the lives of artists in Stalin's Russia.