Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reading. Mandelstam. (Nadezhda).

One of my favorite words in Russian is надежда, which means hope. Like любовь (love), it is used as a feminine first name. As in Надежда Яковлевна Мандельштам. Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam. (I come back to these two again and again, partly because I love them, and partly because most of my books have been packed away and I have nothing to read save for two volumes of his poetry and one volume of her memoirs). It thus gives her first memoir's title, Hope Against Hope (and the second one, Hope Abandoned) a double meaning.

In his obituary that begins my copy of Hope Against Hope, Brodsky describes Mandelstam (N) as "a remnant of fire, like a small ember." As though she was all that remained of those twin blazes, the great burning fires of Mandelstam (O) and Akhmatova, one her husband, the other her life-long friend. As though her memories set forth in these twin volumes (I am not sure if I have read Hope Abandoned before) anchor the legacies of those two poets. I see her as a bright, shining bead suspended on a string between two hands, sliding back and forth but holding her own thoughts. I seem to think of them, the three of them together, Osip, Nadezhda, Anna. I read their words together, skipping from poetry to prose and back again, each shifting light and shadow onto each other, each changing how I read and then perceive the others.

I had forgotten how difficult it was to read such a bare, unflinching eyewitness account of all that happened to the Mandelstams and their friends at that time. The routine of arrests. How the secret police would knock on the door late at night, how they might stay all night going through papers and asking questions or merely sweep all the papers up (as well as the person they had come to arrest) and be gone in twenty minutes. And those few happy moments that passed so fleetingly, and which are even more devastating because you know that those brief golden moments will be overtaken by sadness. But Mandelstam (N) is not a writer, not a poet, and there is not the fluid beauty to her words that I have found elsewhere, with Brodsky and Milosz and other poets whose non-poetry works set fire to my heart in ways I can't describe (because I'm not a poet). There is only heartbreak, and words that fall into my skin like shards of ice, like blades that draw tears of blood.

For almost one-quarter of her long life Nadezhda Mandelstam was a wife, and for just over half of it she was a widow, and it was the latter which would come to define her. For better or for worse. It must be a strange feeling, to have your role as guardian of memory, of your husband's works, supercede your identity as a person, or how you must struggle to balance both. For all time Mandelstam's life is inextricably intertwined (I have the uneasy feeling I have said these words before) with her husband's. Standing guard over his verses, each one committed to memory. How much would we have lost without her.

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