Stolen Air, Broken Voice

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Stolen Air: The Selected Poems
of Ossip Mandelstam
Translated by Christian Wiman
with Ilya Kaminsky
Softcover, $15.99
Ecco Press, 2012

Osip Emilevich Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, a European Jew, in 1891. A subject of the Russian empire, his family was granted the right to move to St. Petersburg when he was still a little boy, meaning that Russian would become his surrogate mother tongue, buttressed by an education that took him from St. Petersburg to the Sorbonne and Heidelberg, and which left him with a knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, and German. Urbane, highly educated, and ambitious, Mandelstam jockeyed for a place in the Russian literary scene. He became a founder of the Acmeist school of poetry with fellow intellectual Petersburgers — most notably Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. In 1913, he published his first book, Stone, which revealed a poet of enigmatic reserve and severe classic discipline, in thrall to an architectural logic that gave structure to his verse and organized his view of history and time:

What was on your lavish builder’s mind
When — his thoughts and spirits high —
He set the apses and exedrae,
Facing east and west?
[. . .] This sage, spherical building
Shall survive peoples, centuries.

(from “Hagia Sophia”)

But the closer I studied you, Notre Dame cathedral,
learning your monstrous ribs,
The more I thought: someday, out of brutal weight
I too will build something beautiful.

(from “Notre Dame”)

The volume also established Mandelstam’s reputation as one of the premier poets of his generation. But then: civil war, revolution, the collapse of the social order. Where Mandelstam had once been cosmopolitan, he was now displaced, hounded by the Red and White armies, constantly on the move. Briefly exhilarated by the new national experiment of Communism, the revolution then soured and pushed Mandelstam south, where Georgia and the Crimea became the setting of his metaphorical exile, and where his poetry underwent a traumatic metamorphosis. There, he wrote his own Tristia, stimulated by Ovid’s laments from the Black Sea.

Mandelstam returned to Petrograd and Moscow in 1922, recently married to an extraordinarily dedicated woman from Kiev, Nadezhda Khazina. The new Soviet Union figured as an underworld in Mandelstam’s new poems: “We shall die in transparent Petropolis, / Where Prosperpina rules over us” (translation by James Green). The age brought its own lethal form of artistic censorship, peculiar even in Russia’s long history of literary suppression. Mandelstam’s subversive verse seemed pessimistic at best, hypercritical at worst, to the official critics and readers at the publishing houses. His work now became “stolen air,” inauspicious — written without consent — and inevitably drew him through the gauntlet of Stalin’s terror. For years he gave up his poetry for translation and prose. He toured Armenia and witnessed terrible famine, children starving with nothing left to chew but the chaff of wheat.

When he started writing again, he was an underground poet. He was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to internal exile after sharing his famous caricature of the cockroach-mustachioed Stalin at a private gathering in 1933. As a result of the trauma, his eyelashes began falling out; he had heart palpitations. He was sent to Cherdyn, where he attempted suicide, and then to Voronezh. His poetry changed again, turning manic and inward, his words and sounds following intricate logics of delight and despair:

And the frogs like little mercury balloons
Link their voices into a bigger ball,
And the slender sprays grow into boughs
And the air, into a rare device of milk.

(from “I bring the green up to my lips”)

Whenever the goldfinch in the sweet bread
Suddenly starts to startle, wring-ring his heart,
A labcoat peppers him with poison
And his bonnet reddens black.

The perch and stand slander,
The birdcage bars in hundreds lie —
Everything everywhere’s gone inside out,
And there is a forest Salamanca
For clever disobedient birds!

With no hope of survival for himself, he and Nadezhda began a long, heroic project of disseminating his catalogue, through memory and recitation, among friends and acquaintances, so that it could be reconstructed if and when history ever corrected itself. His exile ended temporarily — only to be replaced with a harsher sentence: he was sent to Siberia, alone. Weak and crippled by persecution, he died in transit to the gulags in 1938.

My bookshelf includes the complete works in Russian in three volumes, as well as the selected poems, in English, by W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown, James Greene, and one volume edited by Kevin Platt. Paul Schmidt’s Stray Dog Cabaret gives us Mandelstam together with many of the best poets of his generation in translations for the stage. Ugly Duckling Presse recently re-issued online a book of new Mandelstam translations edited by Ilya Bernstein. All of these have their flaws and virtues. The Merwin / Brown edition has become, probably, the standard edition, while James Greene had Nadezhda Mandelstam’s imprimatur. But they are all modest achievements, and rather slim.

Nothing in the English has ever been satisfying, because nothing in the Russian is easy. Mandelstam is one of the most difficult poets of the twentieth century, by any account, and is incredibly hard to translate. He is not so much an alliterative as a semiotic poet. He composed not in phrases of sprung rhythm (as in Hopkins), but as if syntax were gravity or glue. His poems, when they went wild, were collapsing. When they did fly, it was with and through idioms of silence. For him, sound itself is a great irony, because it is always sounding inward. The music that escapes, that we take as inspiration, is the “stolen air” which was so important to Mandelstam’s political understanding of literature. This newest edition, titled Stolen Air, comes to us from Christian Wiman, the editor of Poetry Magazine, with assistance by Russian poet Ilya Kaminsky.

Mandelstam confounds all translators, ultimately, and us too, the readers. What’s obvious in every translation is the struggle with, and admiration for, Mandelstam himself. Stolen Air, however, leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Wiman blithely and recklessly abandons Mandelstam’s own verse for tasteless lyric insubstantiality, so you wonder how, and why, and by whom, any of this would ever be considered worthy of serious comparison. For example, here is Wiman’s version of one of Mandelstam’s more famous poems:

Hard night. Homer. Homeless sails.
I’ve listened to the list of ships in my own voice.
I’ve seen, as my own voice fails,
Those strange cranes arrowing sorrowing over Hellas.

Ever alien, ever more interior, these shores,
And the sun-flecked, god-picked wings glinting spray —
Anxiety’s army, ghost souls of Achaea,
Without your one longing, what is dying for?

The singer and the sea, all things are moved by love.
But what is that to me? Homer is dead.
And a wall of silence, eerily eloquent,
Breaks like a black wave above my head.

In the Russian, the sails are “taut,” not “homeless.” His “voice” is never mentioned. The cranes aren’t “strange,” and they aren’t “arrowing sorrowing,” they’re “rising.” The second stanza bears almost zero resemblance to Mandelstam’s original. Wiman chooses to obliquely reference Helen as the Achaeans “one longing” where Mandelstam is direct, and the translation becomes a painful display of disrespect for the original text. Wiman would rather be clever than attempt to understand the poem he’s translating, which surely explains so many of his bizarre decisions. Compare Wiman’s translation to Greene’s version:

Sleeplessness. Homer. Taut sails.
I have counted half the catalogue of ships:
That caravan of cranes, that expansive host,
Which once rose above Hellas.

Like a wedge of cranes towards alien shores —
On the kings’ heads godlike spray —
Where are you sailing? Without Helen
What could Troy mean to you, Achaean men?

Both the sea and Homer — all is moved by love.
To whom shall I listen? Now Homer falls silent,
And a black sea, thunderous orator,
Breaks on my pillow with a roar.

Or to Merwin and Brown’s version:

Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails.
I’ve read to the middle the list of ships:
the strung-out flock, the stream of cranes
that once rose above Hellas.

Flight of cranes crossing strange borders,
leaders drenched with the foam of the gods,
where are you sailing? What would Troy be to you,
men of Achaea, without Helen?

The sea — Homer — it’s all moved by love. But to whom
shall I listen? No sound now from Homer,
and the black sea roars like a speech
and thunders up the bed.

You immediately notice how obsessed Wiman is with his own voice, finding ways to posit it apropos of nothing in lines 2 and 3. The last thing you notice is his dismissal of Homer, something Mandelstam would never write and would almost certainly abhor: “All things are moved by love. / But what is that to me? Homer is dead.” Wiman is interjecting rather than interpreting. So much is lost, but hardly anything is gained.

Elsewhere, in “Casino,” a fairly straightforward description of a ray of light falling on a tablecloth through a clouded window becomes: “I like the cakelike casino on the dunes / And how the strict fingers of skeletal light / Come alive on the baize.” Here is Greene’s version: “I like the casino on the dunes: / The vast view from the misty window, / A thin ray of light on the crumpled tablecloth.” Mandelstam’s casino, inexplicably, becomes “cakelike” through Wiman. The original Russian states the speaker’s love of following the gull’s wings in flight; Wiman writes, “I like. . .the towering, scouring gull, in whose eyes nothing is lost.” Again, what is gained by this editorial? So much of the original tone here is abandoned. Wiman’s default modes seem to be disregard for and bastardization of the text.

For two poems, Wiman invents the mock-Celan titles “Godnausea” and “Sorrowdrawl.” In the poem “Batyushkov,” Mandelstam compares the title poet’s walking stick to a magic wand; this is simply and accurately rendered by Merwin and Brown: “An idler with a wand for a walking stick, gentle Batyushkov lives with me.” Wiman however writes, “Vegetable sage, wizard of indolence.” In the third stanza, Mandelstam gets tongue-tied in his imagined exchange with one of his heroes:

He smiled. I said, I thank you,
But lost the nerve to say:
No one has — such flections of sound,
There never were — such pitches of surges. . .

Which is twisted by Wiman into this:

He smirks. I am beholden to thee
I say like a Quaker, and freeze
Suddenly, on stilts in a sea of jelly.
Never again that ease

With awkwardness. . .

Reading the Russian and English side-by-side, one wonders, frankly, What the hell? Is Wiman really making bad Quaker puns? “I am beholden to thee”, “On stilts in a sea of jelly” — these are pure and pathetic fabrications on Wiman’s part: Mandelstam’s ending to this poem is one of his most profound images — figuring a sort of Orphic and saintly identification, he asks Batyushkov, “Pour your eternal dreams, samples of blood, / From one glass to another” (James Greene). But Wiman gives us instead treacle almost too bad to believe: “Batyushkov! I can still feel, / Recalling your shabby, shambling back, / Love, like a piece of my soul / I never knew I lacked.” That sequence simply does not exist in the original, quite thankfully.

If there is even a loose standard for fidelity — and without accepting some standard, there is no justification for the task of translation — then any reader can find hundreds of such failures on Wiman’s part, on every page, in practically every line and phrase. Is he uninterested in what Mandelstam was attempting? Mistakes, misreadings, and poetic liberties are all acceptable and unavoidable. But to what extent, and to what end? It’s possible that Wiman and Kaminsky are so pleased with their product, they feels no obligation to the source, no need to grapple with the text, to prove anything to anybody. It is all fodder for Wiman’s personal originality machine, nothing more, nothing less. But, it is impossible to read Mandelstam without a great deal of struggle and misunderstanding. He is so radically original, hermetic, dense, and disorienting that the only proper way to read him is in lento. The translations give the impression that Wiman read Mandelstam in passing.

It feels almost unfair to refer back to the Russian. In the afterword, Wiman admits that he doesn’t know the language, and isn’t comfortable using the word translation with his versions at all; he even urged the publishers not to use that word, though they insisted, and he backed down. One wonders what Wiman and Kaminsky’s working apparatus was. Kaminsky is feeding Wiman interlinears and notes, consulting, probably even doing the selecting. Anyone who’s read Kaminsky’s own poetry will recognize how deeply indebted he is to Mandelstam. In the introduction, we get a hint that Kaminsky might have been urging Wiman to take a certain bit of advice straight from Mandelstam’s mouth: “Destroy your manuscript, but save whatever you have written in the margins.”

There is an oppressive impression that Kaminsky is mis-guiding the ship, from the suggestion that Mandelstam is in many ways a Russian Hopkins to his preposterously claim, “in fact, I think that in these versions Wiman comes closer to Hopkins than any other living American poet,” to his observation about Mandelstam’s poetic development that “It is as if Alfred Lord Tennyson suddenly began to write like Emily Dickinson,” to his other, nearly identical project translating Marina Tsvetaeva with Jean Valentine. In that book, Kaminsky and Valentine even succeeded in avoiding the word translation on the cover, opting instead for readings of Tsvetaeva.

Perhaps it’s meant to offer creative space, but it smacks of a lack of rigor. If there’s one thing that Hopkins shares with Mandelstam, it is an abiding interest in the history of his native language, and breathing new life into old forms. That is, they share a kindred spark. But in Wiman’s formulation, to imitate Hopkins means nothing more than syncopated alliteration. It’s almost perverse the way Kaminsky touts Mandelstam’s deformed translations of Petrarch as a model. Wiman has taken all this implicit advice to heart, but seems to have no idea how to implement it. Where Mandelstam was using Petrarch to rewrite his own relation to time and language and love, Wiman and Kaminsky’s project is a glib, ill-considered insult aimed at Mandelstam’s authentic achievement.

I understand, and sympathize with, the baser motivations compelling a poet to translate Mandelstam. It goes unspoken, but — we all want a piece of the pie. We want to be in the line of poets that leads through Mandelstam. It’s one thing to be influenced by the great poets; as a translator, though, we stake an implicit-but-manifest claim that this poet is in our hearts and minds and deeply embedded in our own poems. We want to stand at the gate, to reserve a seat at our fathers’ table.

But reading the right poets does and doesn’t make us the right poets to carry on. Wiman calls Mandelstam a “soul-demanding” poet, but what, exactly, did Mandelstam demand of Wiman’s soul? Perhaps not as much as he claims, or not enough, especially if he’s ministering to Kaminsky’s reductive reading of Mandelstam as the Greek or the Latin Russian. The Russian language is necessarily bypassed in that formulation, substituted by a tragic caricature of Russian history. No doubt Kaminsky has spent his career as a poet wrestling with the difficulty of Mandelstam’s prosody, but Wiman is only rearranging the scraps while a little Kaminsky-birdie whispers in his ear, trying to paste together something resembling Hopkins-cum-Tennyson-cum-Dickinson. Why not, by the way, Ariosto-cum-Batyushkov-cum-Khlebnikov? That, of course, would be much harder to fake, which is all that Wiman is doing.

In his preface, Kaminsky claims that Mandelstam was a man of contradictions, among them that his verse could be formal, but sometimes less formal; that he was a highly civilized poet who wrote good poems while living in a provincial city; that “he rarely titled his poems. Sometimes he did.” It is so asinine as to make us question Kaminsky’s intelligence, and it betrays a poor understanding of Mandelstam. Kaminsky should know better, that Mandelstam was instead a man of tensions, in a word, an architect, setting things against each other. He was able to forge in the image of his favorite bird, the goldfinch, his own identity with that of the Ossetian steerman, to look in the mirror as a proud, panic-stricken poet, and see a fearful paranoid usurper looking back.

Mandelstam intuited the perverted way his fate had been entwined with Stalin’s. That example of virtuosic identification, and not contradiction, is almost impossible to come to terms with as a reader. Brodsky famously suggested that Mandelstam’s development as a poet was steady, until he was broken by the juggernaut of Soviet history. His always-subversive poetry took on a terrible acceleration subsequent to his arrest and exile. Mandelstam’s voice gave us both the epigram to Stalin and the ode. The challenge of hearing that voice is more soul-demanding than anything we hear in Wiman’s versions, who apparently sees Mandelstam as nothing more than a “livewire, haywire little bird” (from “The Cage”). That’s why I take Wiman at his word, in all its self-deprecating banality, when he confesses, “The poet staggers around the streets of a little town in Russia, pursued by both death (Stalin) and life (poetry). The translator sits in North Chicago, sipping tea.”

And still, I want to agree with Jim Harrison: “Stolen Air is a critically important book. Europe needs Mandelstam in its firmament. . . In today’s somewhat compromised atmosphere we need contact with greatness — and in this book we have it.” That is much more guarded praise than may be immediately obvious. The imperative is to remind the culture that Mandelstam is there, to constellate him. The value of having a stack of various versions of Mandelstam, of having an ongoing engagement, is that this book will be easily overcome by others, before and after. The shame would be for this book to constitute the engagement on its own, where it would have nothing to offer. The book is a morality tale for our age — the manner and fact of its publication, an ethical breach. Wimam shirks his responsibility as a translator, reader, and poet. But, to him, I don’t believe poetry is so serious that he would accept any responsibility, anyway.

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About James Stotts

James Stotts is a poet and critic living in Boston. His work has appeared in AGNI, Little Star, and elsewhere.