Counting Down to Silence

Reviewing poetry in translation is a tricky business. Should the reviewer focus on the translation’s loyalty to the original text, or on its success as a work of art in its own right? Are we concerned primarily with fidelity, or with aesthetic power? If, as the Israeli poet Chaim Nachman Bialik once said, “reading poetry in translation is like kissing through a veil,” then reviewing poetry in translation is something even stranger: determining whether a different veil would have made for a better kiss.

For several reasons, I will ignore these difficult issues in reviewing Stolen Air, Christian Wiman’s new translation of the selected verse of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. First of all, I don’t speak Russian and can’t read a word of it, so I have no way of judging how closely Wiman, the editor of Poetry and an accomplished poet and essayist in his own right, hews to the original. Second, as he freely admits, Wiman doesn’t speak Russian either: in order to translate Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman relied on basic “word-by-word versions and transliterations” of the Russian by his friend, the poet Ilya Kaminsky. Wiman then read these versions aloud again and again and tried, in his words, “to make poems that sing in English with something of Mandelstam’s way of singing.” Wiman wanted to call his poems “versions” rather than “translations”—unsurprisingly, the marketing department nixed this idea—and that is what the poems collected in Stolen Air are: original poems, written by Wiman, that arise from, but exist adjacent to, the poetry of Mandelstam.

W. B. Yeats declared that one must “choose / perfection of the life, or perfection of the work.” Osip Mandelstam complicates any such easy division. In his case, we can’t read the work without thinking of the life, and the life was itself fundamentally altered—was, in fact, brought to a violent, premature end—as a result of the work. Mandelstam, generally regarded as the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, was born in 1891 in Warsaw but soon moved to St. Petersburg. Once there, his family moved compulsively from apartment to apartment, a restlessness that would stay with Mandelstam throughout his life: he lived at various times in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Armenia, and the Crimea. Mandelstam’s life proves the modernist rule: to make it new, it doesn’t hurt to stay on the move. (Think of other modernist exiles like T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce.)

In 1913, when he was just twenty-two, Mandelstam published his first collection of poetry, Stone. At the time, Russian Symbolism, a movement characterized by decadence, occultism, and obliquity, was in the ascendant. In contrast, Mandelstam’s poetry was neo-classical—lean and compacted, choosing direct treatment over vague evocation. Here is one early poem, in its entirety: “The shy speechless sound / of a fruit falling from its tree, / and around it the silent music / of the forest, unbroken…” (This translation is by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin; Wiman skips most of Mandelstam’s early poetry.) A group of likeminded poets and theorists soon christened this new pared-down, anti-Symbolist movement Acmeism. Mandelstam was its most brilliant exemplar.

Mandelstam’s work only got stronger as he got older. His later collections—including Tristia (1922), Poems (1928), and especially The Moscow Notebooks (1930–34)—loosened the formal restraints of Stone without sacrificing imagistic precision, and Mandelstam’s poems became capable of accommodating both passionate triumph and true despair. Despair was an appropriate subject for any independent-minded poet writing under Stalin’s rule. The 1921 arrest and execution of Nikolay Gumilev, the founder of Acmeism, signaled once and for all that poets were not safe in the Soviet Union. As Mandelstam acidly put it, “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Mandelstam wasn’t shy about his displeasure with the Bolsheviks—he delighted in casting himself as an outsider to the political and artistic scene—and as a result he found it harder and harder to publish his work. Then, in 1933, Mandelstam decided to read aloud to his friends a poem denouncing Stalin. Here is “The Stalin Epigram,” as it came to be known, in Wiman’s translation (though Wiman chooses to call it “We Live”):

We live, and love, but our lives drift like mist over what we love.

Two steps we are a whisper; ten, gone.

Still, we gather, we gossip, we laugh like humans,

And just like that our Kremlin gremlin comes alive:

His grubworm clutch, all oil and vile,

His deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk.

Listen: his jackhammering jackboots: even the chandelier shakes.

Look: a hairy cockroach crawls along his grin

At the cluck-cluck of turkey-lackeys, and he busts a gut

At the wobblegobble dance one does without a head.

Tweet-tweet, meow-meow, Please sir, more porridge:

He alone, his grub growing hard, goes No! goes Now! goes Boom!

Half-cocked blacksmith, he lifts from hell’s hottest forge

His latest law and with it brands a breast, a groin, a brain,

And like a pig farmer who’s plucked a blackberry from a vine,

Savors the sweet spurt, before he turns back to his swine.

There are many things to admire in this: its delightful blend of the musical (“We live, and love, but our lives drift like mist over what we love”) and the guttural (“deadweight deadwords, blonk blonk”); its imperative urgency (“Listen,” “Look”); its dark, slapstick humor (“the wobblegobble dance” of “turkey-lackeys”). But what is most admirable—or should we say shocking?—is the courage—or should we say recklessness?—that speaking such words in 1933 displayed. In calling Stalin “our Kremlin gremlin” and calling attention to the “hairy cockroach” of his mustache, Mandelstam knew that he might be sealing his own death sentence. Unsurprisingly, Mandelstam’s words were soon reported to the authorities. By the standards of Stalinist Russia, the poet got off pretty lightly at first: in 1934, he was arrested and sent into exile with his wife, Nadezhda. While living in Voronezh, Mandelstam wrote some of his best poetry. But then, four years later, the hammer dropped. Mandelstam was arrested again, charged with counter-revolutionary activities, and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. He died in the Gulag Archipelago in 1938, cold and alone, another Soviet poet-martyr.

So this is the dramatic material out of which Stolen Air is built. And does Wiman succeed in recreating the dynamism and boldness that animated Mandelstam’s verse and life? Yes, he does. Elsewhere, Wiman has described his preference as a reader for a poetry of “contained formal expressiveness”: contained meaning compacted, thick with accentual force and layered meanings; formal in its sense that, while order must always fail, the ordering impulse is all that we have to stave off complete meaninglessness; and expressive in its fundamental intensity. Stolen Air is a magnificent example of Wiman’s own aesthetic ideal, its beauty deriving in large part from its commitment to form (meter and rhyme are used throughout) and compression (in both imagery and sound).

As Wiman’s version of “The Stalin Epigram” makes evident, Stolen Air often reads a bit like Gerard Manley Hopkins—the imagery is sharp, the rhythms percussive, the packed syntax seeming to hold back and then spring forward with energy. Here is the dark opening to the dark poem “Black Earth”: “Earthcurds, wormdirt, worked to a rich tilth. / Everything air, star; everything earth.” Here is the breathless, violent end to “Gown of Iron”: “So I come running dreaming frozen in the gown of iron that is my life, / To find, in the old forest, the old and moldering ax, / And hear, like a melon so plump-ripe its rind leaps ahead of the knife, the crisp, wet crack of a severed neck.” Here, in a poem simply titled “Faith,” is a description of nature’s music, in which a sense of the sacred arises precisely from an immersion in the senses: “Frogs, all ooze and noise, bellvowel / Their bodies into a single aural oil.” In each instance, language cracks and strains against its limitations, with Wiman often resorting to neologism (“earthcurds, wormdirt,” “bellvowel”) in order to make words mean more than they usually do. The poetry’s sense doesn’t just arise from the sound; the sound is the sense, the music is the meaning.

In his essay collection Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Wiman indicated that, when he was younger, he saw life as existing for the sake of art: he sought out experiences so as to turn them into poetry. Now he believes that art exists for the sake of life, and he longs for poems that give him “some complete saturation of the actual” and make him “feel some part of the real world wanting me to make it into words.” The best poems in Stolen Air are those that, despite political and existential torment, most celebrate life. In “Mount Elbrus,” Wiman describes the purpose of poetry:

We need poetry to wake the dark we are,

To find us and bind us beyond us

To an age of wakefulness

In the one day’s unentangling sun,

Our breathing easy, ancient, like the pulse and peace

Of iambs counting down to silence.

For Wiman as for Mandelstam, poetry is an embodied art. There is a deep connection between our bodily natures and our poetic creations: breath and pulse give rise to iambs, and iambs become a way of putting our body’s rhythms into music. This creaturely music examines “the dark we are” at the same time that it “bind[s] us beyond us.” It is both realist and idealist, using the physical to get at the metaphysical. It acknowledges death (the silence toward which our breath and poetry moves) without giving up hope in the transcendent.

The final poems in Stolen Air are perhaps the most affecting, in part because of the circumstances in which they were written. Close to starvation, edging toward madness, Mandelstam kept composing, writing in a prophetic voice that, again like Hopkins, refuses to look away either from the pain of existence—“Flowers never wither. Heaven is whole. / It whispers what will be— / But not to me”—or from its wondrousness: “To taste in each leaf’s sticky oath / The broken promise that is earth.” In these new versions of Mandelstam’s poems, Wiman shows us that creation possesses promise despite its brokenness, and that in the best poetry woundedness and exultation can never really be separated:

I love the calm and custom of quick fingers weaving,

The shuttle’s buzz and hum, the spindle’s bees.

And look—arriving or leaving, spun from down,

Some barefoot Delia barely touching the ground…

What rot has reached the very root of us

That we should have no language for our praise?

What is, was; what was, will be again; and our whole lives’

Sweetness lies in these meetings that we recognize.


Related: Dying into Life, by Christian Wiman

Published in the 2012-09-14 issue: 

Anthony Domestico is Chair of the Literature Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

Also by this author
Top Books of 2017

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads