Saturday, August 05, 2006

Reading. Mandelstam.

I read the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam before I read her husband's poetry, and my perception of the latter would always be filtered through her words, her grief and anguish and despair and through it all, hope. (In Russian, Nadezhda, Надежда, means Hope). It was hard to separate the two, as it is always hard to separate the works and thoughts of two people whose lives have been inextricably intertwined, bound together for all time as if they were two strands of rope knotted together and fixed in fire. Their words in print make them immortal together. (What was it Bulgakov said? He meant it ironically, but he was wrong, manuscripts don't burn).

When I began reading Bulgakov all those years ago (not to beat an idea to death here, or anything, but everything begins with him) I found that it was impossible to separate his life from his work, particularly as the struggles he was undergoing in real life appeared in the pages of his writings. It was the same with all the other writers of his time, who lived (or died) through the paranoia and xenophobia of that time, under the threat of censorship and arrest and exile and death, shadowed by the knowledge that their work could not be published in their lifetime, and the only hope could be that it would survive beyond death. Art is one of the only forms of immortality we can hope to achieve.

In his introduction Brodsky begins by saying that "the expression 'death of a poet' always sounds somewhat more concrete than 'life of a poet'...a work of art...runs to the finale which makes for its form and denies resurrection...So when we read a poet, we particiate in his or his works' death." With Osip Mandelstam, Brodsky says, "we participate in both." Indeed, reading Mandelstam is like dying a thousand times over, each sentence a kind of death. There is a weight to his words, a finality that feels as though the writer, the poet, was looking towards not to the past or present or future, but to a fixed point that no one else could see, and that was the end. His end. And his words are left as testament to all those thoughts that ran through his mind as his body raced towards the end of his Time; they are all that is left of what Nabokov called "a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

I was drawn back to Mandelstam after an absence of many years by (aside from the work of a poet of my own present time, Ilya Kaminsky) the first two sentences of a poem that forms the epigraph for Anthony Burgess' Honey for Bears. In the Burgess novel they are translated as We shall meet again in Petersburg,/As though there we had buried the sun. The Meares translation (in Osip Mandelstam: 50 Poems) reads thusly (and therefore changing the rhythm of the words, their impact on my soul): In Petersburg we'll meet again/As though it was there we'd laid the sun to rest. And it runs on to the finale, those last words that mark the end, the death of the poem, simply, But the nocturnal sun won't be seen by you.

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