To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Poetry of Osip Mandelstam: A Radio Play by Paul Celan (Part One)

Translated from Celan’s German by Pierre Joris

[To be published shortly in a volume dedicated to Celan's principal work on poetics, The Meridian, complete with alternate versions and extensive excerpts of related source materials (Stanford University Press, forthcoming).]

1. Speaker: In 1913 a small volume of poetry was published in St. Petersburg, entitled “The Stone.” These poems clearly carry weight; as the poets Georgij Ivanov and Nikolai Gumilev admit, one would like to have written them oneself, and yet ! these poems estrange. “Something,” remembers Sinaida Hippius who was centrally involved in the literary life back then and who had a way with words, “something had gotten into them.”

2. Speaker: Something strange — as various contemporaries report — which also applies to the author of the volume, Osip Mandelstam, born 1891 in Warsaw and who grew up in St. Petersburg and Pawlowsk and about whom it is known, among other things, that he studied philosophy in Heidelberg and is presently enamored of Greek.

1. Speaker: Something strange, somewhat uncanny, slightly absurd. Suddenly you hear him break into laughter ! on occasions where a completely other reaction is expected; he laughs much too often and much too loudly. Mandelstam is oversensitive, impulsive, unforeseeable. He is also nearly indescribably fearful: if, for example, his route leads past a police station, he’ll make a detour.

2. Speaker: And among all the major Russian poets who survive the first post-revolutionary decade — Nikolai Gumilev will be shot in 1921 as a counter-revolutionary; Velimir Khlebnikov, the great utopian of language, will die of starvation in 1922 — this “scarety cat,” anxious Osip Mandelstam will be the only defiant and uncompromising one, “the only one,” as the younger literary historian Vladimir Markov notes, “who never ate humble pie”.

1. Speaker: The twenty poems from the volume “The Stone” strike one as strange. They are not “word-music,” they are not impressionistic “mood poetry” woven together from “timbres,” no “second” reality symbolically inflating the real. Their images resist the concept of the metaphor and the emblem; their character is phenomenal. These verses, contrary to Futurism’s simultaneous expansion, are free of neologisms, word-concretions, word-destructions; they are not a new “expressive” art.

The poem in this case is the poem of the one who knows that he is speaking under the clinamen of his existence, that the language of his poem is neither “analogy” nor plain language, but language “actualized,” voiceful and voiceless simultaneously, set free under the sign of an indeed radical individuation which, however and at the same time, remains mindful of the limits imposed on it by language and of the possibilities language has opened up.

The place of the poem is a human place, “a place in the cosmos”, yes, but here, down here, in time. The poem – with all its horizons – remains a sublunar, terrestrial, creaturely phenomenon. It is the language of a singular being that has taken on form; it has objectivity and oppositeness, substance and presence. It stands into time.

2. Speaker: The thoughts of the “acmeists” or, as they also call themselves, the “Adamists,” grouped around Gumilev and his magazines “The Hyperborean” and “Apollo,” move along the same (or similar) orbits.

1. Speaker: The thoughts. But not, or only rarely, the poems themselves.

1. Speaker: “Acme”, that means the high point, maturity, the fully developed flower.

2. Speaker: Osip Mandelstam’s poem wants to develop what can be perceived and reached with the help of language and make it actual in its truth. In this sense we are permitted to understand this poet’s “Acmeism” as a language that has born fruit.

1. Speaker: These poems are the poems of someone who is perceptive and attentive, someone turned toward what becomes visible, someone addressing and questioning: these poems are a conversation. In the space of this conversation the addressed constitutes itself, becomes present, gathers itself around the I that addresses and names it. But the addressed, through naming, as it were, becomes a you, brings its otherness and strangeness into this present. Yet even in the here and now of the poem, even in this immediacy and nearness it lets its distance have its say too, it guards what is most its own: its time.

2. Speaker: It is this tension of the times, between its own and the foreign, which lends that pained-mute vibrato to a Mandelstam poem by which we recognize it. (This vibrato is everywhere: in the interval between the words and the stanza, in the “courtyards” where rhymes and assonances stand, in the punctuation. All this has semantic relevance.) Things come together, yet even in this togetherness the question of their Wherefrom and Whereto resounds – a question that “remains open,” that “does not come to any conclusion,” and points to the open and cathexable, into the empty and the free.

1. Speaker: This question is realized not only in the “thematics” of the poems; it also takes shape in the language – and that’s why it becomes a “theme” – : the word – the name! – shows a preference for noun-forms, the adjective becomes rare, the “infinitives,” the nominal forms of the verb dominate: the poem remains open to time, time can join in, time participates.

2. Speaker:A poem from the year 1910:

The listening, the finely-tensed sail.
The gaze, wide, empties itself.
The choir of midnight birds,
swimming through silence, unheard.

I have nothing, I resemble the sky.
I am the way nature is: poor.
Thus I am, free: like those midnight
voices, the flocks of birds.

You, sky, whitest of shirts,
you, moon, unsouled, I see you.
And, emptyness, your world, the strange
one, I receive, I take!

1. Speaker: A poem from the year 1911:

Mellow, measured: the horses’ hoofs.
Lantern-light – not much.
Strangers drive me. Who do know
whereto, to what end.

I am cared for, which I enjoy,
I try to sleep, I’m freezing.
Toward the beam we drive, the star,
they turn – all this rattling!

The head, rocked, I feel it burning.
The foreign hand, its soft ice.
The dark outline there, the fir trees
of which I know nothing.

2. Speaker: A poem from the year 1915:

Insomnia. Homer. Sails, taut.
I read the catalog of ships, did not get far:
The flight of cranes, the young brood’s trail
high above Hellas, once, before time and time again.

Like that crane wedge, driven into the most foreign –
The heads, imperial, God’s foam on top, humid –
You hover, you swim – whereto? If Helen wasn’t there,
Acheans, I ask you, what would Troy be worth to you?

Homer, the seas, both: love moves it all.
Who do I listen to, who do I hear? See – Homer falls silent.
The sea, with black eloquence beats this shore,
Ahead I hear it roar, it found its way here.

1. Speaker: In 1922, five years after the October revolution, “Tristia,” Mandelstam’s second volume of poems comes out.

The poet ! the man for whom language is everything, origin and fate ! is in exile with his language, “among the Scythians.” “He has” ! and the whole cycle is tuned to this, the first line of the title poem ! “he has learned to take leave ! a science”.


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