While there is still some light on the page,
he escapes in a stranger’s coat with his wife.
And the cloth smells of sweat;
a dog runs after them
licking the earth where they walked and sat.
In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbor has binoculars
and he watches, dust settling on his lids.
It is the 1930s: Petersburg is a frozen ship.
The cathedrals, cafés, down Nevski Prospect
they move, as the New State
sticks its pins into them.
[In Crimia, he gathered together rich ‘liberals’ and said to them strictly: On Judgment Day, if you are asked whether you understood the poet Osip Mandelstam; say no. Have you fed him? – You must answer yes.]
I am reading aloud the book of my life on earth
and confess, I loved grapefruit.
In a kitchen: sausages; tasting vodka,
the men raise their cups.
A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger
into sweetness. Mother washes
behind my ears. And we speak of everything
that does not come true,
which is to say: it was August.
August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August
filling hands with language that tastes like smoke.
Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.
(The younger brother of a cloud,
he walks unshaven in dark-green pants.
In cathedrals: he falls on his knees, praying HAPPINESS!
His words on the floor are the skeletons of dead birds.)
I’ve loved, yes. Washed my hands. Spoke
of loyalty to the earth. Now death,
a loverboy, counts my fingers.
I escape and am caught, escape again
and am caught, escape
and am caught: in this song,
the singer is a clay figure,
poetry is the self—I resist
the self. Elsewhere:
St. Petersburg stands
like a lost youth
whose churches, ships, and guillotines
accelerate our lives.
[In summer 1924 Osip Mandelstam brought his young wife to St. Petersburg. Nadezhda was what the French call laide mais charmante. An eccentric? Of course he was. He threw a student down the staircase for complaining he wasn’t published, Osip shouting: Was Sappho? Was Jesus Christ?]
Poet is a voice, I say, like Icarus,
whispering to himself as he falls.
Yes, my life as a broken branch in the wind
hits the Northern ground.
I am writing now a history of snow,
the lamplight bathing the ships
that sail across the page.
But on certain afternoons
the Republic of Psalms opens up
and I grow frightened that I haven’t lived, died, not enough
to scratch this ecstasy into vowels, hear
splashes of clear, biblical speech.
I read Plato, Augustine, the loneliness of their syllables
while Icarus keeps falling.
And I read Akhmatova, her rich weight binds me to the earth,
the nut trees on a terrace breathing
the dry air, the daylight.
Yes, I lived. The State hung me up by the feet, I saw
St. Petersburg’s daughters, swans,
I learned the grammar of gulls’ array
and found myself for good
down Pushkin Street, while memory
sat in the corner, erasing me with a sponge.
I’ve made mistakes, yes: in bed
I compared government
to my girlfriend.
Government! An arrogant barber’s hand
shaving off the skin.
All of us dancing happily around him.
[He sat on the edge of his chair and dreamt aloud of good dinners. He composed his poems not at his desk but in the streets of St. Petersburg; he adored the image of the rooster tearing apart the night under the walls of Acropolis with his song. Locked up in the cell, he was banging on the door: “You have got to let me out, I wasn’t made for prison.”]
Once or twice in his life, a man
is peeled like apples.What’s left is a voice
that splits his being
down to the center.
We see: obscenity, fright, mud
but there is joy of shape, there is
more than one silence.
-- between here and Nevski Prospect,
the years, birdlike, stretch, --
Pray for this man
who lived on bread and tomatoes
while dogs recited his poetry
in each street.
Yes, count “march,” “july”
weave them together with a thread –
it’s time, Lord,
press these words against your silence.
-- the story is told of a man who escapes
and is captured
into the prose of evenings:
after making love, he sits up
on a kitchen floor, eyes wide open,
speaks of the Lord’s emptiness
in whose image we are made.
–he is out of work– among silverware
and dirt he is kissing
his wife’s neck so the skin of her belly tightens.
One would think of a boy laying
syllables with his tongue
onto a woman’s skin: those are lines
sewn entirely of silence.
. . . . . .
BY WAY OF A COMMENTARY. The coming together in this poem of Osip Mandelstam & Ilya Kaminsky is or should be a matter of some interest to us. Born in Odessa, former Soviet Union, in 1977, Kaminsky arrived in the United States in 1993, at which point his transition to English began. (He also still writes some poetry in Russian.) In this he follows other transplanted poets (Joris, Hollo, Codrescu, Waldrop, Simic, et al.) while retaining a strong, often an uncanny sense of an earlier time & place. In his major first gathering of poems, Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004), the city of the title poem is itself a persistent presence, & in the poem therein from which the present extract is taken, there is a virtual channeling of the voices of Mandestam & his wife Nadezhda. Osip Mandelstam, while born in Warsaw, was one of the formidable Russian poets of the early twentieth century, whose poem mocking Josef Stalin, born in Georgia, resulted in his subsequent arrest & disappearance in the 1930s. The movement across borders & languages is one of the distinguishing characterstics of poetry in our own time & place, a nomadic phenomenon (P. Joris), not easily dismissed. [J.R.]