Thursday, October 17, 2019

Message in a Bottle: Osip Mandelstam and His Wire

Osip Mandelstam. 1912

From time to time, a poem that has been tucked away deep in my unconscious memory, loosens from its niche. It floats up to the surface and keeps bobbing there on the waves, stirred up by whatever is happening around me. Like a siren, it begins to call out to me, begging for attention. Usually, such a poem comes up mangled, almost unrecognizable. As its demands for attention grow, my faulty memory begins to gnaw on me. At some point, when I am no longer able to resist the summons, I dash to look it up — no, not to the bookcase, but to my laptop to type in a line into Google in the hope that Google will oblige. It does.

Of late, the poems that have floated up tend to come from the corpus of Osip Mandelstam’s early poetry. It all started with the his poem about a Lutheran funeral (Я на прогулке похороны встретил / I came across a funeral while on a promenade). I was then reading and thinking about Protestantism in Russia. Another was a charmingly awkward poem about his body (Дано мне телочто мне делать с ним? / A body has been given to me — what should I do with it?) that popped into my mind as I was reflecting on my own ageing body. Today’s poem, one that started buzzing in my head a few days ago, arrived in the form of a set of incomplete lines: “And the day has passed like a something, a little something and a little ashes” (И день прошел, какнемногои немного пепла).

No much reflection was needed to realize that I have been concerned with the slow progress of my manuscript, with days slipping away, consumed with distractions, some necessary, some trivial — the stuff of life. The rhythm of the Russian iambic pentameter kept buzzing in my mind until, before I knew it, I lunged toward my laptop to look up these two lines. To my surprise, the lines came from the second quatrain of a longer poem. Here it is in all of its transparent glory:

Oh sky, oh sky, I shall be dreaming of thee;
It could not be that thou’ve gone utterly blind,
And the day burned up like a blank page:
A little smoke and a little ash.

Of course, it all made sense: a day immolating like a blank page. It is a curse of a blocked writer, leaving in its wake nothing but regret and mourning for time lost — just a little smoke and ashes, melancholy byproducts of a cremation. Berkeley, where I live, has been under a fire danger alert. The notion of cremation was further reinforced in the lecture by my friend Olga Matich about French and Russian cemeteries that I attended a few days ago. Besides, being in the seventies, mortality is never far from my mind. No doubt, my unconscious was bemoaning, along with my mortality, the time away from my desk communing with immortality. In less hifalutin terms, if you don’t keep up with your manuscript, it seems to be saying, your time will be incinerated by the steady flame of earthly cares and preoccupations.

Simple enough. But the lines belonged to a longer poem, published in 1913, that appeared to be about something else. My curiosity was peaked, and I immersed myself in its story, mood, and image. What the lines told me was a story about a poet on a late fall day in a park in or around St. Petersburg. It was one of those monochromatic Northern days with a heavy cover of grey clouds and patchy snow, when the landscape, void of color, can easily remind one of a manuscript page covered in delicate handwriting. Peter Breughel's winter scenes come to mind or, better still, those of Andre Kertesz.

Wshington Square Park. 1970.

In the opening stanza, Mandelstam elaborates this similarity further: the patchy snow of the landscape was the last sheet of a now empty notebook, a sheet that has been torn to pieces and scattered on the ground.

The wind is swaying thin branches.
And the voice of brass wire is rising,
And spots of snow — bright patches —
Are all that’s left from a poor notebook.

One detail “dates” the poem as modern and, given its specificity, types it as Acmeist, a style cultivated by a group of young Petersburg poets that Mandelstam belonged to, among them Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. This luminous detail is the reference to the copper telephone wires buzzing in the cold air in the second line: the “rising voice of brass wire.” In this striking phrase, Mandelstam merges “brass,” a classical image standing for the a wind instrument, a classical allegory of glory, with the actual copper wire of the telephone cable associated with the age of electronic communication. Mandelstam, a stickler for precision, used the precise material term "copper wire," aware that copper and brass were interchangeable in classical Russian poetry.

The next quatrain begins with the poet’s apostrophe to the sky, another poetic commonplace, that in his frustration he accuses of having “gone completely blind.” The blank grey sky had failed to provide him with the magic of true inspiration. However great his disappointment, it is still not great enough for him to abandon the old-fashioned notion, going back to antiquity, of heavenly forces empowering the speech of the poet. He may be in despair, but he is still unable to secularize his poetry and to stop blaming his failure on the gods in heaven. The rhetoric of religion, it seems, was inseparable from the language of poetry even in the age of copper wire, telephone and telegraph.

But let’s follow the Mandelstam’s lead. As night falls and the day expires, there seems to be an opening in the cloud cover letting in a few rays of the setting sun. Such a reading helps explain the shifting of the similarity between the monochromatic landscape in daylight with the torn manuscript page of the first stanza with the immolation of the day in the second. The sunset marking the end of the day, furnishes the flame for the burning up of the torn manuscript. Hence the second quatrain:

Oh sky, oh sky, I shall be dreaming of thee;
It could not be that thou’ve gone utterly blind,
And the day burned up like a blank page:
A little smoke and a little ash.

As the poem unfolds, its master metaphor, based on the likeness of a Northern landscape to a manuscript turns out to be false. Correspondence between description and its object, culture and nature, if you will, appears to be false. The poet’s handwriting was a lie and his lace-like calligraphy meaningless and useless. At the dawn of electronic communication when the poem was written, poetry is vanquished by the “invincible vibrations of brass,” read telephone wires. They obliterate distance as they “slice through space, threading the black beads of the night.”

The filigree of handwriting turned out to be a lie
And the lace of calligraphy, useless and meaningless.
Only the brass — with its invincible vibration —
Slices through space, threading the black beads of the night.

The next stanza forms the coda, an open-ended and ambiguous coda, as it falls on the fourth — even ‑ stanza. In it, the poet is overcome by grief and failure to find meaning. He abandons rational knowing — the cogito — and embraces the irrational side of his self. His sole métier are poetic expression and meditations on mortality.

Do I know why I weep?
Singing and dying is all I can do.

Apparently, searching for rational meaning in poetry amounts to torment. But like the telephone wires that convey human speech converted into an ordered stream of electrons, the poet, too, is a medium. He is a go-between, a “brass wire,” if of a different kind. What he communicates are not streams of electrons but a psychic state, “the dark chaos of his dark dreams.” In concluding, he pleads with his audience to stop badgering him for the meaning of his poetry.

Do not torment me: I signify nothing,
I just embrace dark chaos in my dark dreams.

As I make sense out the message in the bottle that Mandelstam tossed into the flow of time over a hundred years ago, I find myself pressing my ear to my laptop, trying to hear the humming of its electronic parts. It is a hopeless exercise. If there is any humming, it is drowned out by the ambient noise punctuated by the whine of straining car engines climbing up the hill a few hundred feet from my window. It is early evening in mid-October in Berkeley, California. The sky is overcast — gone blind. The trees and bushes in my yard that I see through the window are of ever-darkening green, closing in on a few white flowers — pieces of a page torn and tossed to the ground in melancholy twilight.  

Mandelstam’s message warms my heart by an unexpected kinship between the dilemma of his poet and the one I face in my own time: fighting off the cacophony of information from social networks that threatens to drown out the infinitely human “dark dreams” of my own mind that sometime come in the form of half-forgotten lines of Mandelstam’s poetry.

The poem appeared in a journal in 1913 for the first and last time. Mandelstam never included it in his books of poetry. But he let the second stanza, the one that stuck in my memory, exist on its own, placing it as a stand-alone poem in three books of poetry, including the 1928 Poems, the last one in his lifetime. He cherished the aphoristic power of the quatrain, written in a capacious iambic pentameter, and did not want it to be hemmed in by a somewhat forced juxtaposition of poetry and electronic communication. But for me, the excitement of discovering a poem that is even more topical today than a century ago made it possible, even if I have not yet touched my manuscript today, to be assured that this day will not just burn up, leaving me with a puff of smoke and a handful of ashes.  

Berkeley. 16 October 2019

Качает ветер тоненькие прутья,
И крепнет голос проволоки медной,
И пятна снега — яркие лоскутья —
Все, что осталось от тетради бедной...
О, небо, небо, ты мне будешь сниться;
Не может быть, чтоб ты совсем ослепло,
И день сгорел, как белая страница:
Немного дыма и немного пепла!
Жемчужный почерк оказался ложью,
И кружева не нужен смысл узорный;
И только медь — непобедимой дрожью —
Пространство режет, нижет бисер черный.
Разве я знаю, отчего я плачу?
Я только петь и умирать умею.
Не мучь меня: я ничего не значу
И черный хаос в черных снах лелею!
24 ноября 1911 г.
In my own literal translation:
The wind is swaying thin branches.
And the voice of brass wire is rising,
And spots of snow — bright patches —
Are all that’s left from a poor notebook.
Oh sky, oh sky, I shall be dreaming of thee;
It could not be that you’ve gone completely blind,
And the day burned up like a blank page:
A little smoke and a little ash.
The filigree of handwriting turned out to be a lie
And the calligraphy’s lace, useless and meaningless.
Only the brass — with its invincible vibration —
Slices through space, threading the black beads of the night
Do I know why I weep?
Singing and dying is all I can do.
Do not torment me: I signify nothing,
I just embrace dark chaos in my dark dreams.
                  November 24, 1911