"The Road to Stalin": Mandelstam's Ode to Stalin and "The Lines on the Unknown Soldier".
Any given word [slovo, utterance] arrives with a bundle [puchkom], and meaning sticks out of it in various directions, without aspiring toward any single [odny, homogeneous] official end. In pronouncing the word "sun," we are, as it were, undertaking an enormous journey to which we are so accustomed that we travel in our sleep [sne, dream]. What distinguishes poetry from automatic speech [rechi] is that it rouses us and shakes us into wakefulness in the middle of a word. Then it turns out that the word is much longer than we thought, and we remember that to speak [govorit' talk, signify, testify] means to be on the road [v doroge, en route] forever.
Mandelstam, "Conversation about Dante"
(203. Translation modified)
The road to Stalin is not a fairy tale [doroga k Stalinu--ne skazka, a road to Stalin--not the fairytale]
Mandelstam, July 1937
1. Introduction: "All of life will name me"
"What Is Important"--In early 1937, near the end of his exile in Voronezh, Osip Mandelstam wrote two long poems, both intended for publication, each stretching the limits of public expression to a point where the possibility of publication in Stalinist Russia could at best be only a fantasy. (1) Like everything Mandelstam wrote at the time, neither work was published until long after his death. In recent years one of the two poems, "Lines on the Unknown Soldier [Sikhi O Neizvestnom Soldate]," has been translated into English a number of times and is widely acknowledged to be one of Mandelstam's major works. The other poem, Mandelstam's Ode to Stalin, has rarely been translated and then largely in short fragments. For the most part, the two poems are kept apart, even in Russian editions, an editorial decision that may have begun with the poet himself, who at one point requested that the Ode be destroyed. (2) Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda Yakovlena, included "The Unknown Soldier" in the Voronezh Notebooks, a seq uence now regarded as among the most remarkable in 20th Century poetry. While she also chose to preserve the Ode as part of the historical record, (3) she did so reluctantly; and out of respect for her wishes and her husband's memory, Russian editors and Mandelstam's translators have generally regarded the Ode as an addendum to the Voronezh Notebooks. As a result a full dialogue between the Ode and other Voronezh poems has been interrupted. Nadezhda Mandelstam's presentation of the Ode as an unfortunate but understandable episode has worked to establish a norm to which other commentaries have responded with more or less sympathy. It is possible to approach both the Ode and the other Voronezh poetry in a slightly different way, however, in terms of those poems that were intended for immediate publication--however illusory that intention may have been--and those poems that were composed without illusion. If publication had occurred--and both "The Unknown Soldier" and the Ode (despite Mandelstam's ambivalence) w ere composed with the public in mind (4)--they would presumably have been read in terms of one another. What the Ode says would not have been read independently from what "The Unknown Soldier" says, but as a companion piece--to be read in its light--as one of two major works by a poet whose case--and whose offense--were celebrated (to imagine a comparable if less extreme situation, one might consider the reception that Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony received in 1938 after the composer had been attacked in Pravda in 1936). In 1933 in an essay on Dante, Mandeistam wrote that "what is important in poetry is... the understanding [ponimanie, interpretation] which brings it about [ispolnyayushchee, which performs, which executes, which carries it out]... (5) What would the public Mandelstam addressed have found if they had been able to engage the understanding that brought these two poems about, the interpretation which performs and executes them, which carries them out? In offering new translations of the Ode and o f "The Unknown Soldier," in publishing them together, our primary intention is also a very simple one, to offer a way in which the two poems can be read as companions.
Lubyanka Voices--Mandelstam was arrested in March 1934 for a 1933 epigram in which he compared Stalin's mustache to a cockroach's bristles. (6)
Bristling the cockroach's mustache laughs,
Glistening his boot-tops gleam.
Tarakan'i smeyutsya usishcha,
I siyayut ego golenishcha.
Mandeistam had recited the poem to a small group of friends, and someone had betrayed him to the police. Because of the intervention of Boris Pastemak, Anna Akhmatova, and Nikolai Bukharin, Mandelstam was initially spared the long imprisonment or execution that at first seemed inevitable. After a number of weeks in prison, he was sent into internal exile, first in Cherdyn, then in Voronezh. His exile ended in May 1937, and he was permitted to return to Moscow, but only briefly. Soon after his return, he was expelled from the city and forced to live a wandering existence until he was arrested for a second time in May 1938. He was sentenced to a five-year term for counter-revolutionary activities and deported to the far east, where he died of typhus near Vladivostok in a transit camp of the Gulag. Nadezhda Mandelstam believed that in reciting the 1933 epigram, Mandelstam was "choosing his manner of death" (HAH, 159). Mandelstam himself told his startled interrogator in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, that he had writ ten the poem because "more than anything else he hated fascism" (HAH, 81). The OGPU interrogator, Nilcolay Kristoforovich Shivarov, told Mandeistam in turn "that it was useful for a poet to experience fear ('you yourself told me so')... and that he [Mandelstam] would 'experience fear in full measure"' (HAH, 79). Shivarov's prophecy was accurate. Although there is no evidence of extreme physical torture, the weeks in the Lubyanka were deeply traumatic and continued to afflict Mandelstam for the rest of his life. Soon after his arrival in Cherdyn, a city in the western Urals, he tried to commit suicide by jumping from the second-story window of a hospital. For many weeks he was haunted by the illusion that Akbmatova had been arrested and killed because of his testimony under interrogation. He wandered on the outskirts of Cherdyn looking for her body in the neighboring ravines. During the Cherdyn exile, Shivarov's and other Lubyanica voices became "auditory hallucinations" that continued to occupy the inner spac es from which Mandeistam's poetry arose. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, he knew
that these voices he was hearing could not come from inside because they used a vocabulary that wasn't his. "I couldn't say such things even to myself" ... "The voices," M. said tome once, "arc like a composite quotation of everything I heard." (HAH, 65-66)
While the worst period of this illness passed with the move in the summer of 1934 from Cherdyn to Voronezh, a city in southern Russia, the trauma remained a given, and Mandelstam was never completely free of his struggle with the Lubyanka voices. (7)
Dreamscapes--In 1937, recalling the voyage on the Kama River to and from Cherdyn, Mandelstam also recalled Stalin's picture on the wall of the station in Perm:
And those reproving eyes caressed
And gnawed me from the wall.
I laskala menya I sverlila
Ot steny ehtikh glaz zhur 'ba
In his imagination Mandeistam pictured himself as an artist who is trying to portray Stalin and who by tearing through the canvas's pictorial surface, finds himself in the leader's prohibited space:
I came to him--to his core-- Entering the Kremlin without a pass, In pain, and with a guilty head, Tearing the sackcloth canvas spaces. I k nemu--v ego serdtsevinu-- Ya bez propuska v Kreml' voshel. Razorvav rasstoyanii kholstinu, Golovoyu povinnoi tyazhel.
The poem anticipates the Ode where the difficulty in each of the seven stanzas involves the poet's attempt to portray Stalin and where one of the dangers is the proximity, even intimacy, that portraiture produces (the artist offers the Vozhd', his leader, both the presentation the leader requires and the reality that the required presentation may hide or idealize but that it also indexes). On the other hand, "The Lines on the Unknown Soldier" offers a self-portrait, not only in its concluding verses, which picture Mandelstam in a line of exiles in Voronezh--
And, squeezing in my fist [kulak], clutching the used year-- the worn out year of my birth--herding With the crowd as one, With my bloodless mouth I whisper: I was born on the night of the second and third Of January, in '91--the ninety-first, a year without hope ... (8)
--but in earlier lines which by naming Mandelstam, Stalin, Voronezh, and the security organs, portray them in the desolate landscape of a World War I battlefield:
Beyond the craters [voronki], behind embankments, Scree [osypi]--where he lingered, darkened, Overturning--gloomy, pockmarked [ospennyi], The unsettled graves' belittled genius.
In naming "craters," the voronki not only name Voronezh. They are also the name for the "little ravens," the black vans that roamed city streets at night and that the police used to transport prisoners. Mandelstam's given name Osip appears in osypi (scree) and in ospennyi (pockmarked), but ospennyi also refers to Stalin's pockmarked face, identifies "the unsettled graves' belittled genius," (9) and plays on the coincidence that in sharing versions of the same given name (Osip, Josif, Joseph), Stalin's and Mandelstam's given names turn on the same syllable os (os', axle or axis). (10) The "gloomy, pockmarked... grave's belittled genius" lingers near the craters and embankments on a field where Mandelstam is no more than the scree that the battle has churned out of the ground. A similar kind of naming occurs at the end of "The Unknown Soldier," when the poet speaks of his "fist [kulak]" and inevitably names peasants who were repressed as class enemies. It occurs in the last word of the Ode where zastali (find, or in context, grasp, hold) names Stalin. Characteristic of both poems are these name-pictures and paronyms--overdetermined words and images that create the effects of censored dreamscapes. Joseph Brodsky believed that Mandelstam's poetry was always shaped by a "sense of an oversaturated existence," and that "this overloaded quality of his otherwise regular verse was what made him unique." (11) Perhaps it was a sense of foreshortened existence that intensified the overload in the Voronezh poetry--it is characterized by "an incredible psychic acceleration," Brodsky writes (12) --but what it also articulates is "a form of linguistic disobedience" (13) since it offers a lyricism that insistently resists any censor. (14) As a range of hermeneutic possibilities emerge from a verbal or figurative space, as they tend to preclude each other even as they coexist, they become complementary--the sublated meanings that haunt the dominant interpretation may return to life at any moment, and even the anticipation of their revival threatens censorship. (15) From this perspective the suppression itself may become a surprising index of the power that is being suppressed. Perhaps this is what Mandelstam had in mind when he reminded Nadezhda Mandelstam that it was in Russia that they took poetry seriously because in Russia they were willing to kill you for it. (16) "In choosing his manner of death," Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, "M was counting on one remarkable feature of our leaders: their boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry" (HAH, 159). At the time of Mandelstam's arrest in 1934, Bukharin reminded Stalin that "the poets are always right: history is on their side." (17)
"The World's Axis"--The Ode begins with an artist imagining the charcoal portrait that "would draw the highest praise" by "speak[ing] of him who altered the world's axis," but the poem recognizes that such drawing will be anxious and uneasy--"bordering on audacity [derzost'yu, daring, impertinence, insolence, rudeness]." Part of the audacity involves a mixed trope: the drawing speaks--or rather, the poet would speak (ya b rasskazal, "I would speak, tell, narrate") by drawing and, therefore, silently: a silent drawing accompanying the words. The drawing would offer a story (rasskaz, a narrative), perhaps a skaz (a tale) or a skazanie (a legend), and the story it would tell (always in the conditional) is also the Ode's first portrait of Stalin: "of him who altered [sdvinul, shifted, moved, displaced] the world's [mira, the universe's, also the village's, the mir's, also peace's] axis [as axle, spindle]." To alter the axis or axle of the world, universe, village--also of peace--might or might not be positive, it might be deeply destructive (does life survive such displacements?), and this ambiguity may suggest some of the daring--even insolence--of the portrait; it may put in question the way in which Stalin "honors customs of one hundred forty peoples." The audacity may involve a contemporary political reference, the Axis Alliance between the Fascist powers in Rome and Berlin at the end of 1936. (18) It may also turn on a more intimate reference; it may lie in the way the word as'--like osypi and ospennyi in "The Unknown Soldier"--not only recalls the given name that Stalin shared with Mandelstam but echoes an innuendo that concluded the 1933 Epigram: (19)
For him the execution is sweet--as a raspberry-Matina! The broad chest--Osetina! Chto ni kaz' u nego--to malina I shirokaya grud' osetina.
In the 193 Os the Ossetes were regarded as a suspect Islamic minority in Soviet Georgia. Stalin was Georgian, he was not Ossetian, but in suggesting this ethnic identity, Mandelstam was repeating the innuendo that, far from being Russian, Stalin--who as the first Soviet Commissar for Nationalities worked to suppress those nationalities-was not even a Georgian (in Mandelstam's place, Stalin, an antisemite, would probably have recalled that Mandelstam was a Warsaw Jew). (20) At the end of the second stanza of the Ode, Mandelstam returns to Stalin's ethnic background by choosing to call him by the Georgian name that Stalin himself chose not to use: "I want to say--not Stalin--I want to name him Dzugashvili!" The first stanza also ends by referring to Stalin's Georgian background, but in mythic terms:
Knowing it was Prometheus who blew upon the coal-
Look, Aeschuylus, see how I am weeping while I draw!
Stalin was born in the Caucasus where Prometheus was chained to a rock in Aeschuylus's play--the 1933 Epigram had also recalled this heritage when it called Stalin the gorets (mountain-man) in the Kremlin-- but at the time the Ode was written, it was Mandelstam--not Stalin--who was enchained, and the ugol' (coal or charcoal) with which Mandelstam draws "in cunning angles [na khitrye ugly]"--Prometheus was a master of cunning--is also the fire that the Titan stole in defiance of Zeus. That Mandelstam is attempting to draw with a hot coal may only in part explain his tears, and Aeschuylus may not be the only poet to whom Mandelstam alludes. A well-known lyric of Pusbkin's offers a prophet in the desert whose heart has been ripped from his body by an angel and replaced with a buming coal (ugol'). Perhaps Mandelstam is drawing with that coal as well. (21) In stanza two of the Ode, as the poet's drawing approaches its subject--"I'll show the twin ... the look, so close to, / Close to him"--Mandelstam finds "the fa ther": "suddenly you recognize the father / And you gasp, sensing the closeness of the world." Prometheus is the father of human beings, but Zeus is also the patriarchal tyrant in Aeschuylus's play, and "the twin" whom Mandelstam is drawing, whom he refuses to identify ("I won't say whom"), floats between the different identities, between Stalin the father, who knew "the bitterness of prison," and Mandelstam who writes as a prisoner. At the same time, perhaps it is this father who has replaced Pushkin's God, his vultures who have replaced Pushkin's angel. Perhaps it is the proximity, the complementarity the poem creates between these identities, that leaves "you gasp[ing], sensing the closeness of the world."
"Moist Concerns"--What characterizes each stanza of the Ode, its overdetermined dreamscapes, the phantasmagoria of each of the poem's portrait sessions, is the way lines can offer complementary interpretations that seem to elude their own censorship. The censorship is there, and the poetry slips its grasp. In the third stanza, when the artist, who draws with a burning coal, is called upon to "cherish and shield [okhranyai] the warrior [boitsa]" by encircling him in "your moist concerns ... Like the dampness of pine forests," the poem alludes to the proverb that resins make wet pine burn easily. Despite the appearance of caution, the artist is being asked to surround the warrior with kindling and, here again, part of what is flammable is the language Mandelstam is using: okhranyat'(shield) recalls the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police which persistent rumors suggested Stalin had once served as an informer; boitsa (warrior) recalls the boyar nobles with whom the Stalinist heroes Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great struggled and with whom Stalin identified the Old Bolsheviks he was liquidating. At the beginning of stanza four, where Stalin appears as the Vozhd' (boss, leader), when he bends from the podium "as if upon a mountain," he "reaches / Over mounds of heads."
Given this image, which returns at the end of the Ode in stanza seven, the celebrations of Stalin in other parts of the poem can seem horrific. At times the irony is explicit:
If miseries hide a portion of the lofty plan, I'll find it in the accident of their offspring... Then let me be unworthy of a friend, Then let me thirst for gall and tears, I'll always picture him--the wondrous square, His greatcoat, the peaked cap--with happy eyes.
The "portion of the lofty plan" that "miseries hide" can be found in the "offspring" of those miseries. Under the circumstances it may be a misreading to imagine that the "happy eyes" are Mandelstam's. Apparently it is possible to miss the tone in these lines. Czeslaw Milosz, who has written about the Ode with unguarded contempt, insists on the absence of any irony--
Even if he [the reader) were eager to see in the exaggerated bows of the poem a hidden irony, it [the irony) is not there. To name things by their right names, the Ode is a disgusting [piece of] Byzantianism whose exaggerated compliments know no shame nor measure....
--but this judgment is only a harsh extension of Nadezhda Mandelstam's reading of the Ode as "a hymn of praise to Stalin." (22) On the other hand, despite Nadezhda Mandelstam's interpretation, it is hard not to find in the Ode's exaggerated compliments an irony like the exaggerated celebration that can always be found in such works as Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. "I think that it is clear to everyone what happens," Shostakovich said of this symphony in later life:
The rejoicing is forced, created under a threat... . It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, "Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing," and you rise, shaky, and go marching off, muttering, "Our business is rejoicing, our business is rejoicing." ... You have to be a complete oaf not to hear .....People who came to the premiere of the Fifth in the best of moods wept. (23)
Shostakovich's remarks might serve as a gloss for Mandelstam's Ode. Just as it is always possible to play the symphony as if the rejoicing were not forced, it is always possible to read the Ode--as Miloscz does--as if its ironies were not there, but only censorship can preclude--or attempt to preclude--a performance of the symphony or a reading of the Ode that senses the articulations of the threat.
"A Given Name"--Where the 1933 Epigram is an unambiguous attack on a fascist leader, the Ode can be regarded as a fascist poem. Given a slightly different reading, however, the poem works instead to expose a fascist aesthetic. Nadezhda Mandelstam says of the Epigram that Mandelstam wrote it "in such plain language" because he wanted to define his legacy:
[H]e was tired of the deafness of his listeners.... He was concerned to make his Stalin poem comprehensible and accessible to anybody....I believe he did not want to die before stating in unambiguous terms what bethought about the things going on around us. (HAH, 160-161)
By contrast, the Ode is a texture of ambiguities, but given Mandelstam's situation at the time, these ambiguities-as opposed to unambiguous praise of the Vozhd'--were hardly any less dangerous. Inasmuch as the Ode is a fascist celebration--inasmuch as it practices a fascist aesthetic--it exposes that aesthetic as well. Even if the Ode were simply "a hymn of praise," it would be the hymn of a terrified man. Insofar as that terror is identified, the praise becomes terror's legible index and hyperbolic compliments, its many names. At the same time, insofar as the Ode offers these indices of terror as moments of revelation, the fascist hymn of praise (a Stalinist genre) becomes a form of prophecy. The Ode as a form of prophecy limits its hymn of praise by exposing the hymn to an alternative reading. In the last stanza of the Ode, its prophecy becomes overt:
And six-fold in my consciousness I cherish Measured witness of the laboring, wrestling, reaping, His enormous journey--through the taiga. And the Leninist October--to the oath's fulfillment. In the distance where the mounds of human heads diminish, I diminish, fading, leave unnoticed, But in tender books, in children playing, I, resurrecting, say the sun is shining. No truth is truer than the warrior's candor: For honor and for love, for valor and for steel-- There is a given name still glorious on the Reader's taut lips-- And we've listened, grasping still. (24)
By 1937 Stalin had appropriated the symbols of the tsars who were regarded as the fathers of the people and at times were represented as the sun. If Stalin is the sun, then the poet who disappears (unmen 'shayus') among the mounds (bugry) of human heads (golov) may rise from the dead (voskresnu) but only as a Stalinist mouthpiece. On the other hand, when Mandeistam names the sun (solntse), he may also be naming an alternative. Only the most rigorous censorship could preclude the literal interpretation that the sun the Ode names is the sun itself and not a Stalinist symbol, that the shining sun and the resurrected poet will survive the annihilation that the mounds of heads index. In a 1919 essay on Pusbkin and Scriabin, Mandeistam had written that when Pushkin died and "was buried secretly" at night, it was "the sun that was placed in its coffin" but that this burial was in vain. Pusbkin's death "lighted a sun" above the Russian people, his death became "an example of a collective Russian death"--he "died a fu ll death, as some people live full lives"--and "in dying," his "individuality expanded to the dimensions of a national symbol." (25) Pusbicin was the victim of an earlier tsar and his court, who, as Akhmatova suggests, later turned out to be living in the Age of Pusbkin. (26) When Mandelstam rises from the dead to say the sun is shining, he may be offering Stalin a similar future. "It seems to me," Mandeistam wrote in 1919, "that the death of an artist should not be excluded from the chain of his creative achievements, but should be viewed as its final, closing link... its teleological cause ... its own sun" whose light the creative life consumes. (27) Perhaps the Ode concludes by offering Mandeistam's impending death as "the source of his creative work." (28)
The Ode may seem to end with Stalin's name: "For honor and for love, for valor and for steel [stali],/There is a given name [imya], glorious on the Reader's taut lips-/And we've listened, grasping still [i my ego zastali, and we've grasped him or it]." Stalin's name can be found in the word "steel [stali]" and in the "grasp [zastali]," but imya (name) does not mean last name, it means first name, and therefore would not refer to "Stalin" but to the given name that Stalin and Mandelstam shared. The end of the poem, which apparently refers to Stalin, can refer to Mandelstam instead, and this naming--that for the reader of the Ode, the name of one will be connected with the name of the other--becomes another of the inevitable possibilities that only the censor could preclude, an index of a candor (iskrennost'), of a measured or slowly accumulating (medlennyi) witness (svidetel'), in which the warrior (boitsa) is no longer Stalin--or no longer only Stalin--but Mandelstam as well, and the warrior's struggle includ es the burden of bearing witness to the mounds of heads that fade into the distance.
"On the Reader's Taut Lips"--In the proximity the Ode establishes between dictator and poet, Gregory Freidin finds a sado-masochistic doubling of a kind that is traditional in Russian literature and that Mandelstam has already engaged in his novella The Noise of Time. (29) For Joseph Brodsky, on the other hand, it is precisely in the doubling that the Ode achieves its most daring and impudent gesture:
To my taste, the best thing written about Stalin is Mandelstam's 'Ode' of 1937.... You know, it's like in Russia at a bazaar, when a gypsy would come up to you, grab you by the button, look into your eyes, and say: "Want me to tell your fortune?" What was she doing, diving into your face? She was violating a territorial imperative! ... Mandelstam carried off more or less the same trick. That is, he violated that distance, he violated the same territorial imperative--and the result is simply fantastic.... [I]f I were Joseph Vissarionovich, I wouldn't have been at all cross over the satirical poem, but after the 'Ode,' if I were Stalin, I would have slit Mandelstam's throat immediately. I would have realized that he'd violated me, he'd moved in, and there's nothing more frightening or shocking than that. (30)
The poet who rises from the dead to say the sun is shining, the poet who establishes his proximity to the dictator, prophecies that turn out to have been fulfilled, since through the Ode the poet has risen from the dead to say the sun is shining, he has linked his name with Stalin's--Mandelstam's stance as the Ode concludes may recall that of another exiled poet, Ovid, who wrote in Tristia:
Behold me, deprived of native land ... of all that could be taken from me ... [O]ver [my mind] Caesar has no right ... [W]hen I am dead, my fame will still survive. As long as Martian Rome in victory gazes from her seven hills over the conquered world, I shall be read. (31)
Ovid was a chosen precursor for Mandelstam, Tristia provided the title for Mandelstam's second volume of poetry, but perhaps the Ode's conclusion also evokes another Roman--not only Ovid, but Virgil, who stood before the Emperor and recited from the Aeneid. The Ode ends with a name on the lips of the chtetsa, a reader who recites a poem for an audience,
and it is not farfetched to imagine Stalin and his associates as the audience that the Ode intends. Apparently when Virgil recited the Aeneid for Augustus, he chose to read from Books II and IV and then concluded with Book VI. If so, the performance ended with Aeneas rising from the underworld through the gateway of false dreams and sailing to the spot on the Italian coast where the port of Caieta would later be built. Aeneas sails to Caieta for a hasty burial. (32) What is unspoken but unavoidable in this episode--or avoidable only through censorship--is that Caieta also names the place where Cicero was assassinated by the Second Triumvirate with Octavian's a pproval. Virgil's reading would have ended, then, with a name that resurrects a corpse. Perhaps we can read the last lines of the Ode in this light and in the light of its own imaginary performance; perhaps we can find that the "name... on the Reader's taut lips" is Mandelstam's given name and that a murdered man has also been resurrected.
"Herding with the Crowd as One"--According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, while "The Unknown Soldier" was composed largely in Voronezh, Mandelstam continued to work on drafts of the poem after the Voronezh exile had ended. The poem was still a work in progress in 1938 when he was arrested for a second time (there is some question, for example, whether he intended to cut the third section of the poem because, as he told his wife, "I went too far"). (33) Ostensibly set in the landscape of the First World War (an early draft of the first stanza refers to the "poison" or the "venom of Verdun [yad Verdena]"), Nadezheda Mandelstam writes that the poem offers a prophecy in which the poet
speaks not of his own death but of the coming of an entire era of wholesale annihilation, in which everyone dies "herded with the herd"... and becomes an "unknown soldier," the author himself among them. ... It is an oratorio in honor of the "real twentieth century" ... [a poem] invaded by forebodings of a future war. (34)
The poem, Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls, "was a real agony to M." (HA, 487), and while she tried to divert him ("Enough of your 'Soldier,'" she remembers saying [HA, 485]), "the poem had taken such a hold over M. that, with the best will in the world, he could no longer give it up" (HA, 485-86). Apparently its forebodings involved a premonition of the Hitler-Stalin pact which Mandelstam did not live to see. Mandelstam imagined the future war coming out of their alliance. Sometime during the last year of Mandelstam's life, Nadezhda Mandelstam remembers
that M. suddenly said, as he was glancing through the newspapers in his usual fashion: "We shall end up making an alliance with Hitler, and then everything will be just as in the "Soldier." How could anybody have believed it? (HA, 486)
The connection between Hitler and Stalin remains unstated in the poem but the connection between the previous wars and future wars is explicit: on the one hand, trench warfare from the First World War, warfare explicitly distinguished from the battles of the Napoleonic era; on the other hand, a new unspecified warfare, also distinguished from the Napoleonic era, that menaces from the air and is characterized by a frightening light:
The news flies on a path of glowing dust-- I am not Leipzig, I am not Waterloo, And I am not the Battle of the Nations. I--the new-- From me comes light to light.
"[L]ight to light [svetu svelto]": svet (light) also means "world" in the sense of a human community and the line could also say: "from me comes light to the world" or "the world to light" or "the world to the world." Or better, inasmuch as the line can mean all this at once, one might say that the human world discovers itself in a terrifying light--an anticipation, Nadezhda Mandelstam suggests, of nuclear realities:
Through an ether decimally-labeled The light-world of velocities, ground to a beam, Starts the count, translucent With the radiant pain and mole of zeroes.
In 1937 these lines may have offered images that awaited a future legibility--they anticipate a horror that was only beginning to seem imaginable at the time ("What funny ideas you get!" Nadezhda Mandelstam said to her husband when he predicted Stalin's pact with Hitler [HA, 485])--but one aspect of the presentation would have been wholly legible, the way in which the poem's imagery--the landscapes of past and future battles--at the same time refers to Soviet realities. Where does the slaughter that the poem depicts occur? The poem does not end on a battlefield but--like a dissolve in the cinema--with an overdetermined scene that conflates the experiences of Stalin's victims: kulaks, Voronezh exiles, prisoners in the camps. The poem recalls past wars and prophesies future horrors, but the scene of the prophecy itself turns out to be a Stalinist landscape:
Blood swells the aortas And the rows resound in a whisper: --I was born in '94, I was born in '92 ... And, squeezing in my fist, a kulak, clutching the used year-- the worn out year of my birth--herding With the crowd as one, With my bloodless mouth I whisper: I was born on the night of the second and third Of January, in '91--the ninety-first, A year without hope--and centuries Encircle me with fire.
It is in these ranks--"herding / With the crowd as one"--that past and future become legible, in this place where "centuries [stolet'ya] / Encircle [okruzhayut, surround] me with fire [ognem, with flames]."
"Stars"--In the 1933 essay on Dante, Mandelstam wrote that "it is inconceivable to read Dante's cantos without directing them toward contemporaneity. They were created for that purpose. They are missiles for capturing the future." (35) Perhaps we should read "The Unknown Soldier" in a similar light, as writing that "demand[s] commentary in the futurum" (268), but how does such writing appear to readers for whom this future is not yet legible? Mandelstam prophesies in images, not in assertions, and these images are necessarily disorienting; readers are left to wonder at the realities to which they apparently refer. Given the open reference--the open referential form the poem offers--readers are left to bring realities to it. To what realities will it turn out that the poem refers? If the first stanza of the first part refers to the world war that led to the Russian Revolution--
Let this air be witness-- To his heartbeat battling in the distance-- And omnivorous, toxic in the trenches Is an ocean, mass without an opening. --does the second stanza do so as well? Why should stars be so abusive: Why should they see everything?--To eye And sentence judge and witness to an ocean, Mass without a window.
The "ocean" (an image with an indeterminant referent) remains; the trenches for the moment may fade and the "abusive" stars take their place, watching, seeing everything, eyeing and sentencing "to an ocean" that now has the character of a prison. Both stanzas end with the same phrase-okean, bez okna veshchestvo--but the meaning of okna (opening, window) may change. The stars, which in Dante symbolized divine order and the visible presence of heaven, appear here as they might have to the damned, not the blessed, but if they shine over the battlefield and trenches of stanza one, they also seem to shine over the judicial scene in stanza two and perhaps recall the red stars that symbolize Soviet power. Then the nature of the battlefield will change--the cold, the starvation, murder, the toxic air. Images from the previous world war will simultaneously evoke the Stalinist reality that Mandelstam is battling and that he sees allied with fascism. What is the poem about, a reader wonders, and discovers that it is not only about a past or future war. In the second section of the poem, the heavens will offer images of conflated catastrophes.
Like grapes that stir and rustle, These communities of worlds alarm us, And the tents of outstretched constellations-- Oils of golden constellations--tensile clusters-- Hover over us like stolen cities, Gossip, gilded slips of tongue, Yagoda, berries of toxic cold.
Among other images, in the "berries of toxic cold [yadovitogo kholoda yagodami]" that the abusive stars have become, the poem includes the name of the Soviet leader, Generik Yagoda (yagoda means "berry" (36)), who presided over the security organs in 1934 when Mandelstam was arrested. The Yagodas of the Soviet world infest the poem's stars. The contemporary reader who tried to interpret Mandelstam's poem would not only have discovered past and future wars but an expression of a catastrophe occurring at the moment--in Russia, in the 1930s:
Millions of dead men cheaply killed Have walked a path through emptiness- Good night! Best wishes to them all!
The poem is prophetic in a specifically Biblical sense: it calls attention to its present.
"The Prophet's Vision"--Part of what connects the Ode to Stalin and "The Unknown Soldier" difficulty attended their creation. While "The Unknown Soldier" was an agony to write, Mandelstam experienced the Ode as an illness. In each instance there was an experience of possession, of forces which seemed to dictate and with whose power Mandelstam struggled as he prepared the works for audiences that would not receive them. The Ode is written, at least figuratively, for the chtetsa who will perform it in public. Preparation for that reading dictated circumstances for the Ode's composition that Nadezhda Mandelstam remembers as unique:
He had never done anything like this before: pencil and paper were always needed only at the end of his work on a poem, to copy it out when it was already composed in his head. But for the sake of the "Ode" he changed all his habits.... Every morning he seated himself at the table and picked up the pencil, as a writer is supposed to.... To write an ode to Stalin it was necessary to get in tune, like a musical instrument, by deliberately giving way to the general hypnosis and putting oneself under the spell of the liturgy which in those days blotted out all human voices.... M. spent the beginning of 1937 conducting this grotesque experiment on himself. Working himself up into the state needed to write the "Ode," he was in effect deliberately upsetting the balance of his own mind. "I now realize that it was an illness," he said later to Akhmatova. (HAH, pp. 199, 203)
In putting himself under the spell of this liturgy, Mandeistam seems to have returned to the Lubyanka voices--the "composite quotation of everything" Mandelstam heard--that had particularly afflicted him during his early months in exile. At the same time, the Ode practices an alchemy on its composite quotations and--despite Nadezhda Mandelstam's conclusions--seems to achieve the renewal of a human voice that the liturgy works to blot out. A comparable struggle--and alchemy--were apparently at work in the composition of "The Unknown Soldier," in Mandelstam's experience that his "verse was suddenly invaded by forebodings of a future war."
A persistent experience in "The Unknown Soldier" concerns the air, poisoned air, "the grave above me in the air," the lack of air to breathe, the shortness of breath that often characterizes the poem's rhythms, the ways in which the lines in their moments of composition seem to overcome their tendency to gasp:
What allies us, only the superfluous, Before us--not the failure, but an error [promer] In the measure--with no model [primer]--and the air, enough to breathe, to fight For air is glory that is unlike any other.
During his exile in Voronezh, Mandelstam suffered from cardiac asthma, but according to Nadezhda Mandeistam, the poem's concern for the air "is dictated not by his own condition but by apprehension" (HA, 486), by a physical and spiritual agony that in early drafts of the poem are referred to as "the vision [zren 'e, eyesight] of a prophet (proroka]" (the prophet struggles for the air to articulate the experience that "pauses/In my eye on squinted feet"):
This is the vision of a prophet whose soles Have walked a path through emptiness And: And in my eye on squinted soles The light-world pauses on my retina Millions crushed with soles That rustle on my retina. Good night! Best wishes to them all! This is the vision of the prophet of deaths. Ehto zren'e proroka podoshvami Protoptalo tropu v pustote Isvoimi kosymi podoshvami Svet stoit na setchatke moei. Milliony ubitykh podoshvami Shelestyat po setchatke moei. Dobroi nochi! Vsego im khoroshego! Ehto zren'e proroka smertei.
Through much of the composition, Mandelstam experienced "The Unknown Soldier" as a nightmare. Nadezhda Mandelstam recalls that "he felt sure it was more than a bad dream only after the appearance in it of a paean to man, his intellect and special structure" in the lines that became the sixth section and that celebrate the human skull as "Shakespeare's father":
"Just look how my skull is chirping away," M. said, showing me the sheet of paper with what he had written. "Now we shall have a poem." ... I have noticed that the key line, the one in which the whole meaning of a poem is concentrated, was always the last to come to M.... as though he was trying to ward off the outright expression of it, struggling to do without it, to evade or pass it over in silence, but eventually giving in. The theme was always stated in the first line (or sometimes stanza) to come to him, and was resolved in the last. (HA, 487)
In the case of "The Unknown Soldier," composition began with Mandelstam's conflation of Verdun and the abusive stars in the Soviet heavens. It ended with the miracle of the human skull and the way it "unfolds from living," a "cup of cups" that Mandelstam does not pray will pass from him. At the same time, in keeping with the poem that Mandelstam had discovered, the prophet of the early drafts becomes another of the poem's unknown soldiers. (37)
"All of Life Will Name Me"--In an earlier draft of the poem, the prophet "whose soles / Have walked a path through emptiness" recalled Mandelstam's 1933 portrait of Dante ("in all seriousness the question arises: how many shoe soles, how many oxhide soles, how many sandals did Alighieri wear out during the course of his poetic work"). It also referred to Mandelstam's own mode of composition, of pacing as he worked. "The metrical foot is the inhalation and exhalation of a step," the Dante essay says. (38) Even when working on the Ode, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, "he would begin to pace the room and, suddenly brightening, start mumbling to himself. This was a sign that he had not been able to stifle the real poetry inside him" (HAH, 200). In the process of composing "The Unknown Soldier," as "the vision of the prophet" becomes a vision of the crushed millions, of the soles of their shoes and of the boots that crushed them as they rustle on the poet's retina, the poet also joins them--in their ranks, as part of the roll-call that ends the poem. Mandelstam's Dante essay pictures the Inferno as a visit to a prison and, in one of the remarkable series of associations that structure Mandelstam's critical prose, connects the "prison visit" with Dante's own evasiveness and what Mandelstam imagines was Dante's love of sailing:
Let us remember that Dante Alighieri lived during the heyday of sailing ships and that sailing was a highly developed art. Let us not reject out of hand the fact that he contemplated models of tacking and the maneuvering of sailing vessels. ...Here I would like to point out one of the remarkable peculiarities of Dante's psyche: he was terrified of the direct answer, perhaps conditioned by the political situation in that extremely dangerous, enigmatic and criminal .... [In the Inferno] conversation is conducted with that intense passion reserved for the prison visit: the need to utilize, at whatever cost, the tiny snatches of a meeting. (39)
If here too we find a self-portrait of Mandelstam and his own relationship to a dangerous and criminal century, then his own need to tack and maneuver--the sense that his own path leads through a prison with a prison's "tiny snatches" of meeting--can provide a point of departure not only for reading both the Ode and "The Unknown Soldier" but for imagining how both might have been read by the public they addressed. The question of tacking and maneuvering is raised in the first section of "The Unknown Soldier," and the poem appears to begin with the hopelessness of doing either:
Ailing swallow, teach me if you will, You who are forgetting how to fly, How to steer without a sail or wing, But with a grave above me in the air.
What can the "ailing swallow" teach the poet who must "steer without sail or wing"? A century earlier, Lermontov had celebrated the "chorus of heavenly bodies" that float "without rudder and sail,"40 but in "The Unknown Soldier," as in Celan's "Todesfuge," the sky has become a grave. If the swallow has a lesson to offer, perhaps it lies in what it is forgetting (razuchivshayasya, unlearning), the flight that might escape the present it shares with Mandelstam. Neither the swallow nor Mandelstam can escape. If the poem finds a way to steer, perhaps it lies in the choice that emerged during the period of composition--to speak as one with those who inhabit its prison: "herding / With the crowd as one." In a late draft of "The Unknown Soldier," the concluding line would have been followed by another stanza in which Mandelstam wrote: "But this roll-call is ended [No okonchilas' ta pereklichka]... I am a wild child [dichok] frightened by the light [sveta, world] / I join... With all the living to whom rising from th e dead is due ... I stand up for the call and reckoning, the conscription and the registration [prizyv i uchet]... All of life will name me [vsyak zhivushchii menya nazovet]." These lines do not appear in the final text of "The Unknown Soldier," but they may serve as a gloss for the direction in which Mandelstam steered. Like the concluding lines of the Ode, they offer a naming that could hardly have been accepted by the Stalinist censors, but they prophesy Mandelstam's fate in a such way that his death becomes the final act of both poems. It is hardly surprising that neither work could reach its public at the time. "The road to Stalin is not a fairy tale." Although Mandelstam's prophecies in the poems were confirmed by a future that made his death their cause, this was hardly the death that Stalin would have intended for the poet. (41) In an early Voronezh poem, Mandelstam had written:
You took the sea from me--took flight, running, vanishing Away--and propped my feet on the violent earth-- What did you gain? Brilliance: You could not amputate my moving lips. This also has turned out to be the case. Lishiv menya morei, razbega i razleta I dav stope upor nasli'stvennoi zemli, Chego dobilis' vy? Blestyashchego rascheta: Gub shevelyashchikhsya otnyat' vy ne mogli. 2. The Ode to Stalin 1. Kogda b ya ugol' vzyal dlya vysshei pokhvaly-- Dlya radosti risunka neprelozhnoi,-- Ya b vozdukh raschertil na khitrye ugly I ostorozhno i trevoshno. Chtob nastoyashchee v chertakh otozvalos', V iskusstve s derzost'yu granicha, Ya b rasskazal o torn, kto sdvinul mira os', Sta soroka narodov chtya obychai. Ya b podnyal brovi malyi ugolok, I podnyal vnov' i razreshil inache: Znat', Prometei razdul svoi ugolyok,- Glyadi, Ehskhil, kak ya, risuya, plachu! Were I to take a charcoal that would draw the highest praise-- A drawing that eternally rejoices-- I'd draw the air in cunning angles Anxiously, uneasily. So that the present in the lines would answer, The art bordering on audacity, I'd speak of him who altered the world's axis, Who honors customs of one hundred forty peoples. I'd slightly raise the angle of the brow, And raising it again reauthorize it differently: Knowing it was Prometheus who blew upon the coal- Look, Aeschuylus, see how! am weeping while I draw! 2. Ya b neskol'ko gremuchikh linii vzyal, Vse molozhavoe ego tysyachelet'e, I muzhestvo ulybkoyu svyazal I razvyazal v nenapryazhennom svete, I v druzhbe mudrykh glaz naidu dlya bliznetsa, Kakogo ne skazhu, to vyrazhen'e, blizyas' K kotoromu, k nemu,-vdrug uznayosh' ottsa I zadykhaesh'sya, pochuyav mira blizost'. I ya khochu blagodarit' kholmy, Chto ehtu kost' i ehtu kist' razvili: On rodilsya v gorakh i garech 'znal tyur'my. Khochu nazvat'ego-ne Stalin,-Dzhugashvili! In a few roaring lines, I'd Draw his new millennium in, And tie up courage with a smile And then release it in an unstrained light- And in the friendship of wise eyes, I'll show the twin, I won't say whom, the look, so close to, Close to him and-suddenly you recognize the And you gasp, sensing the closeness of the world. And I would thank the hills That let this bone and growth unfold: Born among the mountains-and the bitterness of prison. I want to say-not Stalin-I want to name him Dzhugashvili! 3. Khudozhnik, beregi i okhranyai boitsa: V rost okruzhi ego syrym i sinim borom Vniman'ya vlazhnogo. Ne ogorchit' ottsa Nedobrym obrazom il' myslei nedoborom, Khudozhnik, pomogi tomu, kto ves' s toboi, Kto myslit, chuvstvet i stroit. Ne ya i ne drugoi-emu narod rodnoi- Narod-Gomer khvalu utroit. Khudozhnik, beregi i okhranyai boitsa: Les chelovechestva za nim poet gusteya, Samo gryadushchee-druzhina mudretsa I slushaet ego vse chashche, vse smelee. Artist, cherish, shield the warrior: Ring your moist concerns around him Like the dampness of pine forests. Don't enflame, upset the father With flawed forms or with flawed thinking- Artist, he is always with you, help him, Thinking, feeling, building. It's not I, nor any other-his own people- It's our Homers tripling his praise. Artist, cherish, shield the warrior: Thickening, there, see how behind him, how the human Forest sings, the future is-this wise man's cadre Listening, daring, more and more. 4. On svesilsya s tribuny kak s gory V bugry golov. Dolzhnik sil'nee iska. Moguchie glaza reshitel'no dobry, Gustaya brov' komu-to svetit blizko, I ya khotel by strelkoi ukazat' Na tverdost' rta--ottsa rechei upryamykh Lepnoe, slozhnoe, krutoe veko. znat', Rabotaet iz milliona ramok. Ves'--otkrovennost', ves'--priznan 'ya med'. I zorkii slukh, ne terpyashchii surdinki, Na vsekh gotovykh zhit' i umeret' Begut igraya khmurye morshchinki. Bending from the podium, as if upon a mountain, he reaches Over mounds of heads. A debtor stirred by deeper claims. Mighty eyes, their deep concern, Close in on someone near, the thick brow gleams; And I would demonstrate the way an arrow marks The hardness of the mouth--the father of persistent speeches-- Sculpted, puzzling, stern, the eyelid Works out of a million frames. All is candid--all is recognition's brass. The vigilant ear will tolerate no muting; On the living and departing--so readily they live and die-- Darkening wrinkles, stretching, sparkling. 5. Szhimaya ugolyok, v kotorom vse soshlos', Rukoyu zhadnoyu odno lish' skhodstvo klicha, Rukoyu khishchnoyu--lovit' lish' skhodstva os'-- Ya ugol' iskroshu, ishcha ego oblich 'ya. Ya u nego uchus 'ne dlya sebya uchas'. Ya u nego uchus'--k sebe ne znat' poshchady, Neschast 'ya skroyut li bol 'shogo plana chast', Ya reazshchu ego v sluchainostyakh ikh chada Pust' nedostoin ya eshche imet' druzei, Pust' ne nasyshchen ya i zhelch 'yu i slezami, On vse mne chudits 'ya v shineli, v kartuze, Na chudnoi ploshchadi s schastlivymi glazami. The burning charcoal engulfs everything--I grasp it With a greedy hand, the only image of a warlike cry- A predatry hand that grasps only the image of the axis-- I crumble charcoal, searching for its face. I learn from that, not for myself. I learn from that--no mercy for myself-- Should miseries hide a portion of the lofty plan, I'll find it in the accident of their offspring.... Then let me be unworthy of a friend, Then let me thirst for gall and tears, I'll always picture him--the wondrous square, His greatcoat, the peaked cap--with happy eyes. 6. Glazami Stalina razdvinuta gora I vdal 'prishchurilas' ravnina. Kak more bez morshchin, kak zavira iz vchera- Do solntsa borozdy ot pluga-ispolina. On ulybaetsya ulybkoyu zhnetsa Rukopozhatii v rezgovore, Kotoryi nachalsya i dlitsya bez konisa Na shestiklyatvennom prostore. I kazhdoe gumno i kezhdaya kopna Sil'na, uborista, umna--dobro zhivoe-- Chudo narodnoe! Da budet zhizn ' krupna. Vorochaetsya schast'e sterzhnevoe. Stalin's eyes are parting mountains-- Far away, a squinting field. Tomorrow runs from yesterday, an ocean without wrinkles, And the furrows of the great plow reach the sun. He smiles--a smiling reaper-- Culling hands in conversation That, once started, lasts forever In his six-oathed space. And Every barn, each sheaf, lies Tough and tight and clever--and the living good-- The people's miracle! Life will be prominent. Axised Happiness tossed round. 7. I shestikratno ya v soznan 'i beregu Svidetel' medlennyi truda, bar'by i zhatvy Ego ogromnyi put '--cherez taigu. I leninskii oktyabr'--do vypolnennoi klyatvy. Ukhodyat vdal' lyudskikh golov bugry: Ya umen 'shayus' tam, menya uzh ne zametyat, No v knigakh Iaskovykh i v igrakh detvory Voskresnu ya skazat', chto solntse svetit. Pravdivei pravdy net, chem iskrennost' boitsa: Dlya chesti i lyubvi, dlya doblesti i stali. Est' imya slavnoe dlya szhatykh gub chtetsa-- Ego my slyshali i my ego zastali. And six-fold in my consciousness I cherish Measured witness of the laboring, wrestling, reaping, His enormous journey--through the taiga. And the Leninist October--to the oath's fulfillment. In the distance where the mounds of human heads diminish, I diminish, fading, leave unnoticed, But in tender books, in children playing, I, resurrecting, say the sun is shining. No truth is truer than the warrior's candor: For honor and for love, for valor and for steel-- There is a given name still glorious on the Reader's taut lips-- And we've listened, grasping still. 3. Sikhi o Neizvestnom Soldate [Lines on the Unknown Soldier] 1. Ehtot vozdukh pust' budet svidetelem- Dal'noboinoe serdtse ego-- I v zemlyankakh vseyadnyi i deyatel'nyi-- Okean, bez okna veshchestvo. Do chego ehti zvezdy izvetlivy: Vse im nuzhno glyadet'--dlya chego?-- V osuzhden'e sud'i i svidetelya, V okean, bez okna veshchestvo. Pomnit dozhd', neprivetlivyi seyatel', Bezymyannaya manna ego, Kak lesistye krestiki metili Okean ili kiln boevoi. Budut lyudi kholodnye, khilye Ubivat', kholodat', golodat', I v svoei znamenitoi mogile Neizvestnyi polozhen soldat. Nauchi menya, lastochka khilaya, Razuchivshayasya letat', Kak mne s ehtoi vozdushnoi mogiloi Bez rulya i kryla sovladat'? I za Lermontova Mikhaila Ya otdam tebe strogii otchet, Kak sutulogo uchit mogila I vozdushnaya yama vlechet. Let this air be witness-- To his heartbeat battling in the distance-- And omnivorous, toxic in the trenches Is an ocean, mass without an opening. Why should stars be so abusive: Why should they see everything?--To eye And sentence judge and witness to an ocean, Mass without a window. The unkind farmer, rain recalls, His nameless manna, How the wood of crosses marked An ocean or a battle's wedge. Cold and ailing, men Will murder, cold and starved, And in his well-marked grave We place an unknown soldier. Ailing swallow, teach me if you will, You who are forgetting how to fly, How to steer without a sail or wing, But with a grave above me in the air. And for Lermontov, Mikhail, I give a strict accounting, How the stooped learn from the grave, And how the aerial pit attracts. 2. Shevelyashchimisya vinogradinami Ugrozhayut nam ehti miry, I visyat gorodami ukradennymi. Zolotymi obmolvkami, yabedami-- Yadovitogo kholoda yagodami-- Rastyazhimykh sozvezdii shatry-- Zolotye sozvezdii zhiry. Like grapes that stir and rustle, These communities of worlds alarm us, And the tents of outstretched constellations-- Oils of golden constellations--tensile clusters-- Hover over us like stolen cities, Gossip, gilded slips of tongue, Yagoda, berries of toxic cold. 3. Skvoz' ehfir desyatichnooznachennyi Svet razmolotykh v luch skorostei nachinaet chislo, oprozrachennyi Svetloi bol'yu i mol'yu nulei. A za polem polei pole novoe Treugol'nym letit zhuravlem-- Vest' letit svetopyl'noi dorogoyu-- I ot bitvy vcherashnei svetlo. Vest' letit svetopyl'noi dorogoyu-- Ya ne Leiptsig, ne Vaterloo, Ya ne Bitva Narodov. Ya--novoe,-- Ot menya budet svetu svetlo. V glubine chernomramornoi ustritsy Austerlitsa pogas ogonek-- Sredizemnaya lastochka shchuritsya, Vyaznet chumnyi Egipta pesok. Through an ether decimally-labeled The light-world of velocities, ground to a beam, Starts the count, translucent With the radiant pain and mole of zeroes. But triangular, crane-like, across a field of fields A new field flies-- News flies along a path of glowing dust, A battle radiates from yesterday. The news flies on a path of glowing dust-- I am not Leipzig, I am not Waterloo, And I am not the Battle of the Nations. I--the new-- From me comes light to light. Marbled-black, an oyster's deep recess In which the light of Austerlitz died out-- The Mediterranean swallow squints, The plague-infested sand of Egypt sticks. 4. Araviiskoe mesivo, kroshevo, Svet razmolotykh v luch skorostei-- I svoimi kosymi podoshvami Luch stoit na setchatke moei. Milliony ubitykh zadeshevo Protoptali tropu v pustote, Dobroi noichi, vsego im khoroshego Ot litsa zemlyanykh krepostei. Nepodkupnoe nebo okopnoe, Nebo krupnykh optovykh smertei, Za toboi--ot tebya--tselokupnoe-- Ya gubami nesus' v temnote. Za voronki, za nasypi, osypi, Po kotorym on medlil i mglil, Razvorochennykh--pasmurnyi, ospennyi I prinizhennyi genii mogil. An Arabian medley, muddled, tangled, crumbling, World-light of velocities, ground to a beam-- On my retina the beam pauses In my eye on squinted feet. Millions of dead men cheaply killed Have walked a path through emptiness-- Good night! Best wishes to them all! From the facade, the face of these earth- fortresses. Sky of the trenches, incorruptible, The sky of mass, of wholesale deaths, Beyond, behind--away from you--entirely-- I am moving with my lips in darkness. Beyond the craters, the voronki, behind embankments, Scree, osypi--where he lingered, darkened, Overturning--gloomy, pockmarked, ospennyi, The unsettled graves' belittled genius. 5. Khorosho umiraet pekhota, I poet khorosho khor nochnoi Nad ulybkoi priplyusnutoi Shveika, I nad ptich'im kop 'em Don-Kikhota, I nad rytsarskoi ptich 'ei plyusnoi. I druzhit s chelovekom kaleka: Im oboim naidetsya rabota. I stuchit po okolitsam veka Kostylei derevyannykh semeika-- Ehi, tovarishchestvo--shar zemnoi! Foot soldiers die nicely, The night choir crows nicely Over Schweik's flattened smile, Above the poultry-lance of Don Quixote, Over the bird-knight's metatarsus. The cripple befriends the human: Both will find employment. And tapping at the margins of the century's eyelids-- Families of wooden crutches chattering-- Friendship, comrades!--the earth's orb! 6. Dlya togo l'dolzhen cherep razvit'sya Vo ves' lob--ot viska do viska,-- Chtob v ego dorogie glaznitsy Ne mogli ne vlivat'sya voiska? Razvivaetsya cherep ot zhizni Vo ves' lob--ot viska do viska,-- Chistotoi svoikh shvov on draznit sebya, Ponimayushchim kupolom yasnitsya, Mysl'yu penitsya, sam sebe snitsya-- Chasha chash i otchizna otchizne-- Zvezdnym rubchikom shityi chepets-- Chepchik schast'ya--Shekspira otets. Is it for this the skull unfolds-- Temple to temple--the entire span--a forehead: That the armies, their soldiers, could flow only Through the precious sockets of his eyes. A skull unfolds from living-- The entire span--from temple to temple-- Teasing itself with the purity of its stitches, Refining itself as a cupola of insight, Foaming with thinking, dreaming itself itself-- The cup of cups and fatherland of fatherlands-- The cap embroidered with an astral rib-- Good fortune's cap of happiness and blessings--Shakespeare's father. 7. Yasnost' yasenevaya i zorkost' yavorovaya Chut'-chut' krasnaya mchitsya v svoi dom, Slovno obmorokami zagovarivaya Oba neba s ikh tusklym ognem. Nam soyuzno lish' to, chto izbytochno, Vperedi--ne proval, a promer, I borot'sya za vozdukh prozhitochnyi-- Ehto slava drugim ne v primer. Dlya togo l'zagotovlena tara Obayan'ya v prostranstve pustom, Chtoby belye zvezdy obratno Chut'-chut' krasnye mchalis' v svoi dom!-- I soznan'e svoe zagovarivaya Poluobmorochnym bytiem, Ya l'bez vybora p'yu ehto varevo, Svoyu golovu em pod ognem! Chuesh', machekha zvezdnogo tabora-- Noch', chto budet seichas i potom? The ash-tree's clarity, the sycamore's vigilance, Reddening barely, speed toward home-- As if they were casting spasms as magic, Addressing each heaven with its dull fires. What allies us, only the superfluous, Before us--not the failure, but an error In the measure--with no model--and the air, enough to breathe, to fight For air is glory that is unlike any other. Is magic packed and stored In voids of empty space for this, That white stars, racing backward, Barely reddening, speed toward home!-- And casting on my consciousness, half-spasmed Being--without option-- Whether I drink this potion, Whether it is my head that I am eating under fire! Do you sense, stepmother of the stars' encampment-- Night--what is to be? 8. Nalivayutsya krov'yu aorty I zvuchit po ryadam shepotkom: --Ya rozhden v devyanosto chetvertom, Ya rozhden v devyanosto vtorom ... I, v kulak zazhimaya istertyi God rozhden 'ya s gur 'boi i gurtom, Ya shepchu obeskrovlennym rtom: --Ya rozhden v noch' s vtorogo na tret'e Yanvarya v devyanosto odnom Nenadezhnom godu, i stolet'ya Okruzhayut menya ognem. Blood swells the aortas And the rows resound in a whisper: --I was born in '94, I was born in '92... And, squeezing in my fist, a kulak, clutching the used year--the worn out year of my birth--herding With the crowd as one, With my bloodless mouth I whisper: I was born on the night of the second and third Of January, in '91--the ninety-first, A year without hope--and centuries Encircle me with fire.
Note on the Translation
In translating Mandelstam's poetry, we have worked with texts from the Struve and Filippov edition and consulted texts from the Metsa and the Nerler and Niktaev editions. We have also consulted the Nerler and Niktaev edition for Russian texts of Mandelstam's prose. We are indebted throughout to other translators: for the Ode to Stalin, to Gregory Freidin who offered a translation of the complete poem in A Coat of Many Colors; for "Lines on the Unknown Soldier," to translations by James Greene, David McDuff, Richard and Elizabeth McKane, and Bernard Meares. Notes accompanying the Metsa edition and the McKanes' translation have been particularly helpful. We would also like to thank a number of friends: Joseph Arsenault, Paul Bauschatz, Steven Evans, Benjamin Friedlander, Elena Glazov-Corrigan, Sandor Goodhart, Margaret Lukens, Lech Muszynski, Ken Norris, Sylvester Pollet, Sara Speidel, Patricia Sollner, and C. Jonathan Winchester.
Mandeistam, Osip. Sobranie sochinenii. Vols. 1-3. Ed. G. Struve, N. Struve, and B. Filippov. Washington, 1967, 1971, 1969. Vol. 4. Paris, 1981.
Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii. Ed. A. G. Metsa. St. Petersburg, 1995.
Sobranie sochinenii v chetypekh. Vol. 3. Ed. P. Nerler and A. Nikitaev. Moscow, 1997.
The Voronezh Notebooks. Trans. Richard and Elizabeth McKane. Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996.
Selected Poems. Trans. David McDuff. New York, 1975.
Selected Poems. Trans. James Greene. London, 1991.
50 Poems. Trans. Bemard Meares. New York, 1977.
Complete Critical Prose. Trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Lang. Dana Point, California, 1997.
(1.) In 1933, the last of Mandelstam's works to be published in his lifetime, Journey to Armenia, cost the editor who published it his job, and regardless of content-given Mandelstam's subsequent arrest and exile--an even greater potential danger lurked for any editor willing to consider his poetry in 1937. It is unlikely that any publication could have occurred without authorization at the highest levels since it was Stalin's decision that spared Mandelstam in 1934. In part what this essay will suggest is why such an authorization from Stalin, once a poet himself and a careful reader and critic, was precluded by what Mandelstam wrote.
(2.) In the Surve-Fillipova edition, for example, the Ode was only published belatedly, in the 1981 supplement volume.
(3.) Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, trans. Max Hayward (New York, 1970), p. 203. Hereafter cited in the text as HAH.
(4.) According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, although Mandelstam continued work on "The Unknown Soldier" until his second arrest, it was also one of the poems the Mandelstams sent "to the literary magazines in Moscow. We only once got an answer--when we sent "The Unknown Soldier" to Znamia [The Banner] and got back a letter pointing out that wars may be just or unjust, and that pacifism as such cannot be approved" (HAH, 183). The Ode, one of the sequence of poems that Mandelstam offered the Writers Union after the Voronezh exile, was written with the purpose of saving Mandeistam's life (HAH, 201) and could not achieve its purpose until it was made public.
(5.) Osip Mandelstam, Complete Critical Prose, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Lang (Dana Point, CA, 1997), p. 252.
(6.) The Russian for cockroach (tarakan) may recall another Russian word, tiran (tyrant). Then it is the "tyrant's"--as well as the "cockroach's"--mustache that gleams. When Mandelstam wrote down the poem in the Lubyanka after his arrest, he changed "mustache" to "eyes."
(7.) Mandelstam's struggle with the Lubyanka voices and their the composite quotations can be heard in the transcript of his prison interrogation, in the way he both repeats and speaks through "a vocabulary that wasn't his." At one point Shivarov asks him bow Akhmatova reacted to the Stalin Epigram. With "a correct assessment," Mandeistam is recorded by Shivarov as replying. "For while an enormous force of social poison, political hatred and even contempt for the person depicted has been concentrated in this foul, counter-revolutionary, libelous lampoon, she recognized its great power" (Vitaly Shentalinsky, Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime, trans. John Crowfoot [New York, 1996], p. 180). In his chronicle of Mandeistam's ordeal, Vitaly Shentalinsky comments that "at this point ... [Shivarov] was clearly getting carried away, and decorating his charge's replies with his own extravagant labels" (Arrested Voices, p. 180), butperhaps what is most interesting is the way in which Mandelstam speaks through his interrogator's voice to affirm his poem's "great power." In this way the Lubyanka voice speaks for Mandelstam, and he speaks through its distortions. The effect anticipates the Stalin Ode.
(8.) In Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandeistam connects the concluding lines of "The Unknown Soldier" with the initial period in Voronezh when she and Mandelstam had only received temporary papers: "Every time we joined all the other people making the rounds of offices to get our bits of paper, we trembled in case we should be unlucky and be forced to move in some unknown direction for reasons not revealed to us: 'And clutching in my fist a worn year of my birth, herded with herd....' [Later] when M. read these lines to Mikhoels [the Jewish actor and director], he took out his papers and held them in his clutched hand" (HAH, 122).
(9.) In 1926 Trotsky had called Stalin the "gravedigger of the revolution" (Daniel RancourLafferiere, The Mind of Stalin [Ann Arbor, 1988], p. 74).
(10.) Mandelstam works with a similar wordplay in another Voronezh poem from 1937 ("The evening sky fell in love with a wall [Nebo vecheri vstenu vlyubilos']") where "at every blow [udarom, stroke, thrust] of the battering-ram [tarana] I The beheaded stars shower [osypayutsya]." Given the wordplay between taran, tiran (tyrant), and tarakan (cockroach), the first of these lines might almost read: "at every thrust of the cockroach tyrant... "(see Osip Mandelstam, The Voronezh Notebooks, trans. Richard and Elizabeth McKane [Newcastle upon Tyne, 1996], p. 117). In addition to recalling Mandelstam's given name, osypayutsya must surely be among the most beautiful words in any language.
(11.) Joseph Brodsky, Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems, trans. Bernard Meares (New York, 1977), p. 13.
(12.) Brodsky, Osip Mandelstam, p. 17.
(13.) Brodsky, Osip Mandelstam, p. 15.
(14.) In the Dante essay, Mandelstam writes that poetic discourse (rechi) "rouses us in the middle of a word [slovo]" (Complete Critical Prose, p.259) and that it does so through its "impulse [poryve] to perform" (p. 284). As Elena Glazov-Corrigan suggests, through this impulse to perform "the poetic text confronts consciousness as a series of imperceptible, quickly vanishing changes, initiating in turn transmutations in the awareness of the reader, an awareness that the poetry has awoken" (Elena Glazov-Corrigan, Mandel'shtam's Poetics: A Challenge to Postmodernism [Toronto, 2000], p. 70). "As we follow the impulse... we ourselves participate in the metamorphoses of the poetic materia and witness the generation of the poetic universe" (Mandel'shtam's Poetics, p. 107). What does the censor do when confronted by these metamorphoses? When the poetic materia offers portraits of Stalin, any acceptable political aesthetic will be subject to the performative impulse in the poetry, the poetry's unexpected transformat ions.
(15.) Each of Mandelstam's overdetermined words and images can be regarded as a nodal point, what in the 1933 Dante essay, he calls a "bundle": "any given word [slovo, utterance] arrives with a bundle [puchkom], and meaning sticks out of in various directions, without aspiring toward any single official end" (Complete Critical Prose, p. 284, trans. modified). Of over-determination in dreams, Freud writes, that "like all other psychopathological structures, [dreams] regularly have more than one meaning" (Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams, trans. James Strachey [New York, 1965], p.182): the over-determined image is a "nodal point upon which a great number of dream-thoughts [have] converged. ... Associative paths lead from one element of the dream to several dream-thoughts, and from one dream-thought to several elements of the dream" (Interpretation, pp. 317-18). Since dream-work does not require that its thoughts work consistently, that they come together, in practice the interpretations the dream element s offer will be complementary; they will coexist, each will be required, but they will seem to preclude each other. Along these associative paths an interpreter will also encounter the work of the "censoring agency," and the interpretations it generates, the repressed materials it indexes, will also complement the dream work. Complementarity is not a Freudian notion--Neils Bohr offered a hermeneutics of complementarity as an approach to the paradoxes of quantum physics--but the approach can be descriptive not only of dream-work but of other evasions of censorship for which Freud's discussion of dreams can seem paradigmatic.
(16.) "'Why do you complain?' M. used to ask. 'Poetry is respected only in this country--people are killed for it. There's no place where more people are killed for it"' (HAH, 159).
(17.) Shentalinsky, Arrested Voices, p. 183.
(18.) Accusations of fascism were a common charge to which Stalin's victims were subject. Stalin ordered that mass "meeting be arranged to demand 'the extermination of the Fascist vermin"' (Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, trans. Harold Shukman [New York, 1998], p. 301); Kamenev confessed at his 1936 trial that he and Zinoviev "served Fascism" (Triumph and Tragedy, p.304). In 1938, the Short Course in the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union referred to Rykov, Zinoviev, Kamanev, and others as "midges [who] forgot that the master of the Soviet land is the Soviet people," as "despicable lackeys of the fascists [who] forgot that the Soviet government had only to raise its little finger for them to vanish without trace" (Edvard Radzinsky, Stalin, trans. H. T. Willetts [New York, 1996], p. 428). The emerging fascism of the Stalinist regime was also recognized by many of its victims. Trotsky called Stalin "Hitler's quartermaster" (Rancour-Lafferiere, The Mind of Stalin, p. 80). On a vis it to Paris in 1936, Bukharin spoke to the United States ambassador William Bullitt about "the strange, pro-Hitler sentiments which are getting more and more of a hold on Stalin" (Radzinsky, Stalin, p. 359). Kliment Voroshilov told Anastas Mikoyan that Grigori Zinoviev's last words before he was shot were: "This is exactly what Mussolini did....[W]hat has happened in our country is a fascist coup" (Robert C. Tucker, Stalin in Power [New York, 1992], p. 373). Stalin's fascism was also noted by a number of outside observers. In 1938, Mussolini wondered in a newspaper article whether "Stalin could secretly have become a fascist" (Tucker, Stalin, p. 503). Hitler remarked to his associates in 1942 that "Stalin, too, must command our unconditional respect. In his own way, he is a hell of a fellow" (Robert Conquest, Stalin: Breaker of Nations [New York, 1991]' p. xvi). After World War II, Stalin once said to his daughter: "Together with the Germans we would have been invincible" (Svetlana Alliluyeva, Only One Year, trans. P. Chavchavadze [New York, 1969], p. 392). According to Robert Tucker, what Stalin contemplated in the 193 Os, and as his alliance with Hitler in 1939-1941 showed in retrospect, was a kind of Moscow-Berlin axis, an active collaboration of the two dictatorships." It was with this in mind, perhaps, that "party members (both Soviet and foreign) who could be suspected of being genuinely anti-fascist Communists were particularly hard hit as a class by the mass repressions of 1936-1938" (Robert C. Tucker, The Soviet Political Mind. Stalinism and Post-Stalin [New York, 1971], p. 74).
(19.) As Nadezhda Mandelstam was the first to note, another Voronezh poem from 1937 is built from the syllable Os: "Armed with the vision of narrowing wasps [os], / Sucking [sosushchikh] the earth's axis [os' 'zemnuyu] , the earth's axis..." (HAH, 200). Nadezhda Mandeistam suggests that "details in the 'Ode'... are contradicted or given a different interpretation in... 'free' poems" like this one (p. 200), but perhaps one might say instead that the "free" poem complements the Ode by foregrounding detail that awaits legibility, an "awakening" to legibility that may arise from what Walter Benjamin called "the critical dangerous impulse that lies at the source of all reading" ("N," from The Arcades Project, trans. Leigh Hafrey and Richard Sieburth. In Walter Benjamin: Philosophy, History and Aesthetics, ed. F. Gary Smith, The Philosophical Forum 15:1-2 [Fall-Winter 1983-84], p. 8).
(20.) In 1924, Leon Trotsky had written that the revolution meant "the people's final break with the Asiatic ... and cockroaches." In Mandelstam's epigram, Stalin becomes an Asiatic cockroach.
(21)In "The Prophet," Pushkin writes: With his bright sword he split my breast; My heart leapt to him with a bound; A glowing livid coal he pressed In the hollow of the wound. There in the desert I lay dead, And God called out to me and said: 'Rise, prophet, rise, and hear, and see, And let my works be seen and heard By all who turn aside from me, And burn them with my fiery word.' (Alexander Pushkin, "The Prophet," in The Bronze Horseman, trans. D. M. Thomas [New York, 1982])
(22.) Milosz's strong reaction to the Ode may reflect the disappointment of an admirer. In an essay on Pasternak, Milosz notes that "Mandelstam, not Pasternak, is for me the ideal of a modem classical poet": At the same time, "there is something in Mandelstam's poetry, intellectually structured, that doomed him in advance.... [H]e had too few weaknesses, was crystalline, resistant, and therefore fragile" (Czeslaw Milosz, To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, ed. Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine [New York, 2001], p. 420). And in an essay on Brodsky: "Penetrating into the bowels of the labyrinth, we discover that whatever has survived from the past is the result of the principle of differentiation based on hierarchy. Mandelstam in the Gulag, insane and looking for food in a garbage pile, is the reality of tyranny and degradation condemned to extinction. Mandelstam reciting his poetry to a couple of his fellow prisoners is a lofty moment, which endures" (Milosz, To Begin, p. 422).
(23.) Dmitri Shostakovich, Testimony, as told to Solomon Volkov, trans. Antoninia W. Bouis (New York, 1979), p. 183.
(24.) Originally when the Voronezh Notebooks were published, the middle quatrain ("In the distance ...") was published separately. These lines "alone would be reason enough for Editors in the Russia of the late 30s not to print" the Ode (McKane, ed., Voronezh Notebooks, p. 109).
(25.) A poem of Mandelstam's in the Tristia volume begins by recalling Pusbkin's burial: "We will meet again in Petersburg / As if we had buried the sun in its streets [V Peterburge my soidemsya snova, /Slovno solntse ny pokhoronili v nem, as if we had buried the sun there]." The source for all of Mandeistam's poems is Sobranie sochinenii, Vols. 1-3, ed. G. Struve, N. Struve, and B. Filippov (Washington, 1967, 1971, 1969; Vol 4: Paris, 1981).
(26.) "Little by little, the entire era (not without reluctance, of course) came to be called the Pushkin era." All Pushkin's contemporaries "gradually came to be called Pushkin's contemporaries, and were simply laid to rest in card catalogues and name indices (with garbled birth and death dates) to Pushkin's works. He conquered both time and place. People say: the Pushkin era, Pushkin's Petersburg.... the Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich in his white breeches looks very majestic on the wall in the Pushkin Museum.... And, the most terrifying thing for them [Pushkin's contemporaries] is what they could have heard from the poet: "You will not be answerable for me, / You can sleep peacefully. / Strength is power, but your children / Will curse you for me" (Anna Akhmatova, "A Word about Pushkin," trans. Ronald Meyer, in Ronald Meyer, ed., My Half-Century [Evanston, 1992], pp. 147-48).
(27.) Complete Critical Prose, pp. 57-58.
(28.) Complete Critical Prose, p. 57.
(29.) While more moderate and nuanced in tone, Freidin's reading of the Ode seems of a piece with Milosz's: "It is safe to assume that Mandelstam ...wished to produce something unique--a fitting tribute from a great master of verbal art to a great master of political power." The Ode is "a pictorial tribute to Stalin in the form of a long-overdue atonement." In the last stanza, Mandelstam "expressed the hope that his own art will survive him and benefit future generations, and... he thanks fate for having allowed him to be the contemporary of the man who embodies honor and love, valor and steellike firmness. Not surprisingly, the last rhyme is a paronym of Stalin (stali, zastali), prompting a few thoughts on magic spells and riddles that paronymically encode names of dieties or spirits to whom an enchanter makes an appeal" (Gregory Freidin, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandeistam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation [Berkeley, 1987], pp. 260-263).
(30.) Solomon Volkov, Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, trans. Marianna Volkov [New York, 1998], P. 31. Given the sequence of events that led to Mandelstam's arrest in 1938, it is likely that Stalin would have known of the Ode and read it. The Ode is mentioned in an inhouse review of Mandelstam's poetry that accompanied a 16 March 1938 letter from Vladimir Stavsky, the General Secretary of the Writers Union, to Nikolai Yezhov, the Soviet Commissar of Internal Affairs. The letter denounces Mandelstam as "a writer of obscene, libelous verse." Shentalinsky believes that Yezhov held Stavsky's letter for a month, discussed it with Stalin, then ordered Mandelstam's arrest (Arrested Voices, pp. 186-88). Stalin's reaction as Brodsky imagines it is therefore quite possible. Brodsky: "I think that Mandelstam ... disappointed him [Stalin] seriously with his ode. ... I think that Stalin suddenly understood what it was all about. Stalin realized that Mandelstam wasn't his namesake but [that] he, Stalin, was Mandelstam's. " Volkov: "He realized who was whose contemporary." Brodsky: "Yes, I think it was this that suddenly hit Stalin--and served as the reason for Mandelstam's death. Evidently Stalin felt that someone had come too close to him" (Conversations, p. 232). In 1934 Bukharin had stepped in to argue for Mandelstam. Stalin wrote in the margins of Bukharin's letter: "Who authorized Mandelstam's arrest? Disgraceful" (Radzinsky, Stalin, p. 309). In 1938 the only one to argue Mandelstam's case may have been Yezhov. By the time of Mandelstam's death (December 27, 1938), Yezhov too was in disgrace. Nadezhda Mandelstam reports a rumor that at the time "someone in the Central Committee had said that there had been no case against Mandelstam at all. This was shortly after the dismissal of Yezhov and was meant to serve as an illustration of his misdeeds" (HAH, p. 376). At Yezhov's trial in February 1940, he claimed for many of his misdeeds that "I had instructions from the directing organs" (Radzinsky, Stalin, p. 431).
(31.) Ovid, Tristia, trans. A. L. Wheeler, rev. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, 1996), 3:7:45-52. Cf. the way Yeshua (Jesus) and Pilate are linked in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor (New York, 1996). After Yeshua has been executed at Pilate's reluctant command, Yeshua says to Pilate in a dream: "Now we shall always be together .... Where you find one, you'll find the other too! ... When people remember me, they will immediately remember you too!" (p. 272).
(32) There are two gates of Sleep: the one is said to be of horn, through it an easy exit is given to true Shades; the other is made of polished ivory, perfect, glittering, but through that way the Spirits send false dreams into the world above. And here Anchises, when he is done with words, accompanies the Sibyl and his son together; and he sends them through the gate of ivory. Aeneas hurries to his ships, rejoins his comrades, then he coasts along the shore straight to Caicta's harbor. (Virgil, Aeneid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum [New York, 1971], 6:1191-1202).
(33.) Osip Mandelstam, Polnoe sobranie stikhatvorenll, ed. A. G. Metsa (St. Petersburg, 1995), p.627.
(34.) Nadazhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, trans. Max Hayward (New York, 1974), p. 483. Hereafter cited in the text as HA.
(35.) Complete Critical Prose, p. 268.
(36.) "Gorky's affectionate name for the secret police chief' was "Yagodka ('Little Berry')" (Radzinsky, Stalin, p. 260).
(37.) In Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam evokes the Gethsemane episodes in the Gospels when she writes: "The prayer 'May this cup pass from me' can only be understood if you know what it is to wait for the slow, inevitable approach of death. It is far harder to wait for a bullet in the back of the neck than to be stricken down unawares. We waited for the end during the whole of our last year in Voronezh, and then yet another year, moving from place to place in the Moscow region" (HAH, 203). That the skull of the unknown soldier should at once offer the reality of death and yet be an alternative to this cup, that at the same time it should be "Shakespeare's father," involves a remarkable metaleptic image that conflates the Christian passion, Golgatha (the place of the skull), and the final act of Hamlet (both the graveyard scene with the jester's skull and the duel scene with its poison cup, the deaths, Hamlet's burial as soldier). As the unknown soldier's skull becomes Yorick's, the poet becomes Hamlet , holding the skull that is his author's (Shakespeare's) father--and inasmuch as the skull is an unknown soldier's, insofar as the poet has become an unknown soldier, the skull is also Mandelstam's. Mandelstam holds the image of his own death--or rather of his life, since the skull is a cup foaming with life and thought. At the same time, by evoking the graveyard scene in Hamlet, Mandelstam evokes lines from the play that question the pretensions of political power: "Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. / O that that earth which kept the world in awe / Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw" (5:1:2-15-19). For a more skeptical reading of the Gethsemane motif in Mandelstram's poetry and Nadezhda Mandelstam's recollections, see Freidin: "The symbolism of Gesthsemane would once again reappear in the chapter [in Hope Against Hope) devoted to the 'Ode,' where the poem itself would be referred to as the 'prayer of the cup.' Few of the things that happened to M andelstam are excluded from this scenario. The key event was the death of the poet in a transit concentration camp, so important also because it had at once converted into prophecy all the kenotic topoi of Mandelstam's oeuvre. What remained was to align the facts of the poet's life with the mythologies of his writings" (271). What Freidin's account disallows may turn out to be one of these facts, however, the insistent work in Mandelstam's life to transform experience, not into myth, but into prophetic poetry.
(38.) Complete Critical Prose, p. 254.
(39.) Complete Critical Prose, p. 266.
(40.) McKane, ed., Voronezh Notebooks, p. 116.
(41.) It would not have been in Stalin's interest to allow poetry to turn a death in the Gulag into its own teleological cause, but that is the impulse in Mandelstam's poetry. Echoing the 1919 Scriabin and Pushkin essay, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes that "the death of an artist is never a random event, but a last act of creation that seems to illuminate the whole of his life under a powerful ray of light.... Why are people surprised that poets are able to foretell their own fate with such insight and know beforehand the manner of their death?... There is nothing determinist about this--it is rather to be seen as an expression of free will. M. steered his life with a strong hand toward the doom that awaited him, toward the commonest form of death, 'herded with the herd,' that we could all expect. In the winter of 1932-33, at a poetry reading given by M. on the premises of Literary Gazette, Markish suddenly understood and said: 'You are taking yourself by the hand and leading yourself to your execution'" (HAH, 15 8).
Tony Brinkley teaches English at the University of Maine. A collection of his poems, Stalin's Eyes, will appear later this year from Puckerbrush Press.
Raina Kostova is completing work for her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Emory University.
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|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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