One evening about thirty five years ago, I was browsing the poetry shelves of College Hill Bookstore, in Providence, and picked up the Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, translated by David McDuff (FSG, 1975). My ears tingled. The hair (metaphorically speaking) stood up on my head. I was captivated by the poems’ mysterious charm, their Rimbaud-like mingling of senses in which images sang and sound-waves made strange pictures. I started writing poetry in the late 1960s, and my own approach was shaped by an intense attraction to the New York School poets, supplemented by an affinity for the “Deep Image” trend sponsored by Robert Bly and James Wright. This background prepared me somewhat for Mandelstam’s allusive style, and soon I was immersing myself in the heroic memoirs produced by Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda: Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.
It is easy to imagine a young writer today, happening upon Christian Wiman’s Stolen Air, experiencing a similar excitement. Reading this book myself, after living under Mandelstam’s spell for so long, is to feel young again, a sense of renewal. As Mandelstam put it in one of his best-loved poems, “Tristia”: “everything will be repeated / And the moment of recognition alone is sweet to us.”
Mandelstam was fairly well-served by English translation during the second half of the 20th century. On my shelves I count six different editions, starting with the massive collected volume by Monas and Burago, followed by the Clarence Brown/W.S. Merwin collaboration, the selected by James Greene, the two volumes of Mandelstam’s later poems produced by the McKanes, and an edition of Tristia by Bruce McClelland. There are certainly more. Each one of these versions is worth reading, each has its unique strengths, and clearly Christian Wiman has read them all.
Comparing translations is often an unfair pursuit, but Wiman’s approach shows similarities to both Monas/Burago and Brown/Merwin. These efforts from the 1970s try hard to find an equivalent to the Russian in both contemporary speech and literary idiom — for example, in Monas/Burago, Mandelstam the struggling, persecuted Russian writer comes across like a street-smart, anxious Brooklynite, a characterization which is faithful to one facet of this poète maudit, and reappears (in a variant key) in some of Wiman’s versions. In Brown/Merwin, on the other hand, Mandelstam sounds a lot like Merwin. This could be considered a failure of translation, but each failure also represents a wayward branch, a new iteration, a new embodiment born out of the original. The stronger, more generative the poet, the more new features and variants can emerge. (Mandelstam himself was a haunted perfectionist, and some of his most interesting late poems survive as variants, multiple drafts.)
Wiman describes his efforts not as translations, but as “versions” — yet, his Mandelstam does not sound so much like Wiman, the way Merwin’s does Merwin. Instead, the poems of Stolen Air manage to graft Mandelstam onto an organ-like multiplicity, made up of echoes from the tradition of Anglo-American poetry as a whole. Here you will find sounds of Dickinson, G.M. Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Plath, Bishop, Lowell, and others, flowing into a stream of a more contemporary, immediate speech — not far from today’s conversation or street talk. This is a marvelous thing, a literary exploit combining humility and chutzpah: Mandelstam becomes a poet in the American tradition, somehow without ceasing to be a Russian modernist too. A minor miracle happens — a sort of poetic Pentecost — in which the translator’s ignorance of Russian (Wiman relies on the guidance of Ilya Kaminsky) confronts the resonant, various echolalia inherent in the original. Without access to the original, the translator must rely on his own poetic sense, the “secret hearing” he describes in an afterword — his wit and ingenuity and literary inheritance — to come up with equivalents which measure up to their model. And he does. The poems come alive in English, in ways they never have before. Listen to how the bees fly across line and stanza in this passage from one of Mandelstam’s most famous poems, “The Necklace”:
Love, what’s left for us, and of us, is this
Living remnant, loving revenant, brief kiss
Like a bee flying completed dying hiveless
To find in the forest’s heart a home,
Night’s never-ending hum,
Thriving on meadowsweet, mint, and thyme.
There are such examples on almost every page, displaying Wiman’s skillful fusion of elegance and daring. It’s as if he has compensated for his lack of Russian with an extra charge of native harmony — and the results are almost always charmingly right.
But there’s more than elegance and charm in Mandelstam. Wiman titles his volume after a quote from Mandelstam’s embattled apothegm: “There are two sorts of literature: official and unofficial. The first is trash; the second, stolen air.” A whole world of Russian cultural and political life under Stalin is summed up in these sentences. In a society crushed by totalitarian repression, the poet is more than a detached literary professional. A free artist is necessarily engaged in a battle for civilization. The role of the poet in Russia as voice of independent conscience and social freedom was established by Pushkin, and was advanced by the great prose writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Mandelstam inherited this mantle and never surrendered it.
An aura of martyrdom hangs over the great Russian poets of the 20th century: in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, her husband lives out a Christ-like agon of suffering, truth-telling and sacrifice, ending with his death in a Vladivostok labor camp. Through this experience, Mandelstam is united with one of his great precursors, Dante (M. made sure to bring his copy of the Divina Commedia into exile, wherever he went). Jeffrey Schnapp has explored the theme of martyrdom in Dante’s Paradiso, the way Dante built a literary analogue to Byzantine mosaics of the martyr St. Apollinaris in Ravenna (Dante’s last home, where he is buried). The martyr takes up his or her own cross, in an imitatio Christi, and thereby, through self-sacrifice, gives a “local habitation and a name” to the recapitulation of Christian redemption.
Mandelstam, whose greatest essay is “Conversation about Dante,” is portrayed in his wife’s memoirs as a kind of wayward, life-loving saint, a sacrificial figure, a martyr to persecution on behalf of a more humane world civilization. He too was mimicking the Christian redemption through his own persecution, revitalizing Russian letters by allowing external traditions to enter. Indeed, the poet described Acmeism — the brief but important literary movement founded primarily by Gumilev, Akhmatova and himself — as “nostalgia for world culture.” In this regard he fulfilled the Gospel paradigm of martyrdom: “the grain of wheat falls to earth and dies; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The fruit in this sense is the ever-expanding, global range of Mandelstam’s translated poems: Mandelstam fell for the sake of his art, and his art enters fully into communion with the world culture he so longed to reproduce.
Of course, this hagiographic history received much play during the 1970s and 1980s. Joseph Brodsky was its inheritor, and carried on (though with a large dose of irony) the specifically Petersburg tradition of embattled Russian martyr-poet. Wiman avoids redeploying this particular Mandelstam, to a certain extent. In his choice of poems and his style, he tries to bring out a Mandelstam who is more François Villon than serious-minded martyr: playful, sardonic, satirical, self-pitying, angst-ridden, doom-laden. There’s a subliminal sense to the title Stolen Air — one recalls Eliot’s famous line, “immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” There is a sly, Villonesque underside to Mandelstam, a trickster mask, which Wiman gets at, too. His versions are sometimes so free that they amount to a kind of theft, from Russian over to English. He acknowledges this in the afterword, and goes so far as to include two “versions” (“Cathedral, Empty” and “You”), which he admits are more Wiman than Mandelstam.
But the aspect which strikes me most sharply in Wiman’s style, and in the poems he has chosen, is a certain quality of foreboding — a downbeat, anxious, melancholy tone. This is striking because, while I don’t believe it is central to Mandelstam’s work and spirit as a whole, it seems to be foregrounded with special intensity in Wiman’s collection. He even fashions some drastic changes to a few poems in order to bring out this tone. It’s evident in “Hard Night” and especially so in the powerful, penultimate poem in the collection “There are Women”, in which he changes the last line from (literally) “And tomorrow — is only a promise” to “It whispers what will be — / But not to me.” I find in several of the Wiman versions this particular mood, which I can only term (clumsily) “foreboding-abjection:” a deep fear of one’s own future suffering and fate. Wiman has mysteriously instilled the atmosphere of Christ’s hour in Gesthemane, his Passion, when he shed tears of blood as he foresaw what was to come. Whether this is true-to-character for Mandelstam, considered in his wholeness, doesn’t really matter: it is an emphasis we have not seen in previous translations, it is something new.
Mandelstam holds such a lasting, powerful place in my own life and imagination, aside from the purely literary magnetism of his poems. One of the theoretical planks of Acmeism involved a certain trans-historical literary synchronicity: all poets from all ages were spiritually alive and available to the Acmeist, in a sort of Bergsonian omnipresent time-continuum. As Mandelstam put it, “We don’t want Ovid translations — we want the living, breathing Ovid!” In another place he famously characterized poetry as a message in a bottle, destined for a providential reader and interlocutor of the future. (Paul Celan, who felt a close kinship with Mandelstam, took this idea very seriously.) But this mysterious synchronicity holds a special meaning for me. When I was in college, around age 20, I underwent an extreme spiritual and psychological crisis, a near-breakdown. This crisis manifested itself in strange “synchronicity” effects involving the actual presence of the ghosts of “Shakespeare” and the Spirit informing the Bible. I was so shaken by these experiences that for a few years I kept poetry at arm’s length. At the time I discovered the McDuff translation of Mandelstam, in 1976, I was more involved in running a health food coop than with literature.
What I gained in reading Mandelstam, his wife’s memoirs, and related books, was the ability to reintegrate my own sense of myself as a poet — which had been broken in the spiritual crisis — with a broader horizon of belief and rationality. This in turn enabled me to go back once more to the poetic springs of my pre-crisis life, in American poetry, and explore them in a deeper way. I felt Mandelstam’s Acmeist ethos — “a nostalgia for world culture” — working itself out and bearing fruit in my own life.
Of course this gradual development has been and remains incalculably important for me personally. But I relate these anecdotes in order to suggest an analogue, or a motive, for the special tone of pity — that abject “Gesthemane”-effect — which I hear washing through the shaping of Wiman’s Mandelstam. I suspect that, in a certain sense, this tone represents Wiman’s own very personal assumption of some of the whisper and scent of martyrdom that radiates from the original. This is not hagiography, but identification. I make this conjecture (hopefully without giving offense) based on the evidence of some of Christian Wiman’s other writings — such as his recent essay in The American Scholar, a wrenching, moving meditation on his own grave illness and the nearness of death — that Wiman’s Mandelstam is (though only in part) a profoundly-felt midrash on suffering mortality.
My favorite Mandelstam poem is a very late, two-part poem titled “To Natasha Shtempel.” I’ve quoted its last line above (“And tomorrow — is only a promise”). Mandelstam wrote the poem in exile in Voronezh; Natasha Shtempel was a young schoolteacher, slightly lame in one leg, who befriended the poet and his wife in the midst of their exile. The poem is really a kind of midrash, or a Beethoven-like hymn, about death and resurrection, with echoes of the Gospel story of Mary Magdalen finding the empty Easter tomb. Mandelstam is one who in Keatsian fashion “loaded. . . every rift with ore.” There are layers on layers of irony, allusion and meaning; there is always another facet to the crystal. So it helps me, for whom Mandelstam has meant so much, to remember, to recognize, under the dark Gesthemane-sob I hear in some of Christian Wiman’s lines, the invisible sighs of the seraphim — the powerful music of Nadezhda’s hope.
Henry Gould is a poet and critic living in Rhode Island.