November: and a final notice: this newsletter now contains actual news, with my own thoughts reserved for the – yes, Editor’s Note. This time, in that forum, impressions of a recent encounter with a long-un-encountered cousin on a recent trip home to Louisville, Kentucky. News, then, to follow – but first, our “secret poem”: work from Osip Mandelstam, introduced and co-translated by Alex Cigale, Plume Contributing Editor for Translations, and Dana Golin.
Although many would take objection with our assertion that Mandelstam is underappreciated in the Anglophone world, we ask you to take us at our word when we say that the sheer density, inventiveness, and strangeness of his verse has yet to come through in the available translations. And without access to such a “gut sense,” it is difficult to understand why, as has often been said of the significance of Pushkin to Russians in general, and to Russian poets in particular, “Mandelstam is our everything!”
When Plume’s editor Daniel Lawless asked me [Alex] to present a neglected classic poem, my intuition suggested that the one we were working on now, and that I’d always felt most impenetrable (and entirely untranslatable,) would best make the case in point. And this, in turn, made me acutely aware of the fact that, in my work on it, I found the strategy I had always adopted for my translation transforming, from hewing closely to the literal meaning to unpacking meaning, that coming closer to communicating this particular poem’s metaphorical density, tonal play, changing registers, and fluid historicity required interpretation, and that the relative success of some translations must offer a reading of the poem.
To take one extreme example, here is Mandelstam’s poem “Octets” (that I am now also working on) in the translation of Donald Davie from his Collected Poems. In each of these stanzas, Davie’s strategy seems to have been to unearth the nugget at the core of the poem, and essentially run with it, as the poem proceeds, to spin out his own highly idiosyncratic and densely sonic work that in its precise details gets further and further away from the original. (For contrast, see below my fairly literal translation of Octet IV, to Davie’s one designated as number 75, pg. 380*). We might even conjecture that it is precisely Mandelstam’s dense allusiveness that has made him such a popular target for translation; a definitive reading being elusive, each one may offer his own reading.
The literary theorist Mikhail Epstein, in his writings on postmodernism’s links to the metaphysical, had characterized the extension of the use of metaphor (such as Mandelstam’s) as “metabole,” similar to common metaphor, but that like “symbol” (syn ballein) packs disparate elements together. (His starting point, by the way, is that the central characteristic of the postmodern is the “hyper,” as in the hype of hyperbole, which converts a thing into its opposite, in his words “from Super to Pseudo”.) Such “extended” metaphor (strikingly different from the metaphysical conceit) gives symbolism a depth and dimension that establishes in the reader’s mind a lasting image of Eternity. An archaist modernist (for the sake of argument, say similar to Yeats and his Spiritus Mundi,) originating in the turn-of-the-20th century Russian Symbolism, Mandelstam yet prefigures, in our opinion, the so-called meta-metaphorist Russian poetry movement of the 1970s-90s (also known as the “metarealists,” in the sense that they were proponents of metaphysical realism). To quote Mandelstam’s equally difficult “He Who Had Found a Horseshoe” (published in the New England Review): “The air trembles from comparisons./ Not one word better than another,/ The earth hums with metaphor….”
Mandelstam’s notion of historicity unfolds against a backdrop of eternity. In his writings, the historical events are the most superficial, surface layers – the shifting sand drifts over an immobile and monolithic eternity. As such, specific historic events occur concurrently on several different planes, evoking and continuing a single line of reference and inheritance. All of a sudden, in the middle of modern-day Moscow, antiquity peeks through in the form of a mythical “laurocherry” that centaurs might have disported under. However, unlike the extended conceit of metaphysical poetry, the metabole is a cubist trope, not simply a metaphor extended linearly but an entire set of metaphors considering a phenomenon from a variety of planes. For instance, in the present poem, there are numerous local metaphors, in several different registers (from political satire to deep lyricism, etc.,) for Time (a team of onomatopoeic clowns, a Gypsy soothsayer, a mischievous trickster, a crooked tailor, and so forth,) which, when taken collectively and cross-referenced, form a single meta-metaphor that gives an exhaustive view of the thematic subject and, so to speak, the poem’s architectonic skeleton. (“All was of old, and will repeat itself,/ And only thing sweet, the flash of recognition.” Closing lines of stanza 3 of his poem “Tristia,” 1918.)
In the reference to Scotland (stanza 5), the threadbare plaid blanket makes concrete Mandelstam’s claim of inheritance to Western world culture, his core understanding of the Acmeist movement he was a leading member of. (“And once anew the scald composes an alien song,/And will recite it as though it were his own.” The closing lines of “I never heard the Tales of Ossian,” 1914.) Mandelstam insists on a line of continuity between the singers of antiquity; he is simultaneously the centaur in the mythic garden, Homer, the medieval scald, the Renaissance Raphael, etc. This is often contrasted with the Orient, Russia having one foot in the East and one in the West. Mandelstam used the word “Buddhist” to characterize the summer in the poem’s first line. In our reading, supported by the critical literature and by the poet’s own usage elsewhere, this commentary is made more explicitly mocking in tone than the original, so that we have even rendered the preceding adjective (literally closer to “luxurious”) as “ostentatious,” making clearer the association of Orientalism with decadence and dissipation. Much else required similar “unpacking” in order to produce a sufficiently clear reading (for example, the precise meaning of stanza 6, remains somewhat of a mystery to us.)
In this context, the grotesque, historically accurate realities of 1930s Moscow are, to use a line from Yeats, “but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” Above all else, we believe that this particular poem offers prima facie evidence, should such be necessary (and we think it is, for much previous translation has either smoothed out or confused his texts) that Mandelstam truly was a Modernist and an innovator (down to the Khlebnikovian neologizing that closes out stanza 2). A final note regarding one particular element that gives this poem added pathos. The Scottish blanket referred to above became for Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda, who literally kept the poet’s verses alive, first in her memory and then in her Hope Against Hope, a sort of talisman. Not having had Mandelstam’s body to bury, she would incorporate it into her final tribute to the poet, requesting in her will that she be buried in this very same blanket herself.
N.B. For further reading, see the following review of a recent Mandelstam Selected Poems in English translation by Plume’s contributor Ron Slate and former Poet Laureate of Maine Betsy Sholl’s extended meditation on the poet and his work in Numero Cinq.
Having overcome the hardening of nature,
The firmament’s blue eye has penetrated
Its code; the earth’s crust savaged by species,
Out of the chest escapes an ore-like moan.
And the deaf pupa struggles and strives,
As though a road, retracted into a horn,
To understand the space’s internal surplus,
The petal’s collateral, a rudimentary dome.
[January 1934, Moscow]
* * *
Полночь в Москве. Роскошно буддийское лето.
С дроботом мелким расходятся улицы в чоботах узких железных.
В черной оспе блаженствуют кольца бульваров…
Нет на Москву и ночью угомону,
Когда покой бежит из-под копыт…
Ты скажешь – где-то там на полигоне
Два клоуна засели – Бим и Бом,
И в ход пошли гребенки, молоточки,
То слышится гармоника губная,
То детское молочное пьянино:
Бывало, я, как помоложе, выйду
В проклеенном резиновом пальто
В широкую разлапицу бульваров,
Где спичечные ножки цыганочки в подоле бьются длинном,
Где арестованный медведь гуляет –
Самой природы вечный меньшевик.
И пахло до отказу лавровишней…
Куда же ты? Ни лавров нет, ни вишен…
Я подтяну бутылочную гирьку
Кухонных крупно скачущих часов.
Уж до чего шероховато время,
А все-таки люблю за хвост его ловить,
Ведь в беге собственном оно не виновато
Да, кажется, чуть-чуть жуликовато…
Osip Mandelstam, Translated by Alex Cigale and Dana Golin
Midnight in Moscow. Ostentatiously Oriental summer.
The steel toe booties of radial streets scatter with a pitter-patter.
Coiled boulevards luxuriate in pockmarks of blissful oblivion.
Even at night Moscow knows no rest,
When peace escapes from under the hoof beats.
You’ll say – somewhere, there on the testing ground,
Two clowns have dug in – Tick and Tock.
They strike up a comb kazoo and tiny hammers,
By turns a mouth harp is heard,
Then a child’s milk-tooth piano;
Back in the day, when I was young, I would
Walk out, wearing a rubberized rain coat,
Into the sprawling paw prints of the boulevards,
Where a Gypsy girl’s matchstick legs flail in their floor-length skirts,
Where the incarcerated bear perambulates,
Nature’s own eternal Menshevik.
And the air was thick with the aroma of laurocherries….
What’s this? There are neither laurels nor sour cherry trees….
I will adjust the fluted counterweight
Of the rapidly cantering kitchen clock.
Oh, how coarsely textured time is,
And still I love to catch it by its tail,
For it’s not to blame for how it ticks,
Though, I suspect, a mischievous trickster….
Чур, не просить, не жаловаться! Цыц!
Не хныкать –
для того ли разночинцы
Рассохлые топтали сапоги, чтоб я теперь их предал?
Мы умрем как пехотинцы,
Но не прославим ни хищи, ни поденщины, ни лжи.
Есть у нас паутинка шотландского старого пледа.
Ты меня им укроешь, как флагом военным, когда я умру.
Выпьем, дружок, за наше ячменное горе,
Выпьем до дна…
Из густо отработавших кино,
Убитые, как после хлороформа,
Выходят толпы – до чего они венозны,
И до чего им нужен кислород…
Пора вам знать, я тоже современник,
Я человек эпохи Москвошвея, –
Смотрите, как на мне топорщится пиджак,
Как я ступать и говорить умею!
Попробуйте меня от века оторвать, –
Ручаюсь вам – себе свернете шею!
Я говорю с эпохою, но разве
Душа у ней пеньковая и разве
Она у нас постыдно прижилась,
Как сморщенный зверек в тибетском храме:
Почешется и в цинковую ванну.
– Изобрази еще нам, Марь Иванна.
Пусть это оскорбительно – поймите:
Есть блуд труда и он у нас в крови.
Let us not beg, and don’t complain! Hush up!
No sniveling –
Was it for nothing that the middle estate
Trod their crumpled boots, if I now betray them?
We may die like the infantry, but will glorify
Neither graft, nor piecemeal work, nor deceit.
We’ve got a threadbare rag of an old Scottish blanket.
You’ll cover me up with it, like a military flag, when I’m gone.
Let us drink, dear friend, to our barleycorn sorrow,
Drink to the dregs….
Out of the densely mind-numbing movie houses,
As if dosed with chloroform, the walking dead
Stumble in throngs – how varicose they are,
And how desperately in need of oxygen….
It’s time you knew, I’m your contemporary,
I am a man of the Moscow Sewing era–
See how my jacket ill fits me like a sack,
How well I’ve learned to walk and talk!
Just try to pry me from my age –
I guarantee you – you’ll wring your neck.
I speak the language of my time, but is its soul
Possibly burlap, and could it have taken root,
Begrudgingly, living in shame among us,
Like a wrinkled critter in a Tibetan temple:
She’ll scratch and off to the zinc tub with her.
– Mar’ Ivanovna, do act it out for us again.
So what if it’s insulting – please understand me:
There is lasciviousness in work and it’s in our blood.
Уже светает. Шумят сады зеленым телеграфом,
К Рембрандту входит в гости Рафаэль.
Он с Моцартом в Москве души не чает –
За карий глаз, за воробьиный хмель.
И словно пневматическую почту
Иль студенец медузы черноморской
Передают с квартиры на квартиру
Конвейером воздушным сквозняки,
Как майские студенты-шелапуты.
Май – 4 июня 1931
The night thins out. The gardens telegraph their green rustle,
And Raphael drops in to visit Rembrandt.
He and Mozart are enthralled with Moscow –
For her dark brown eye, for her inebriated birdsong.
And as by means of the pneumatic mail
Or as a quivering mass of Black Sea jellyfish,
Their phantoms relay gusting drafts of wind
Between apartments via aerial conveyor belt,
Like schoolboy pranksters at the end of May.
May – June 4, 1931
Alex Cigale’s poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, NortAmerican, Tampa, Tar River Poetry and The Literary Reviews, and onine in Asymptote, Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, PEN America, Plume, Two Lines, The Manhattan, St. Petersburg, and Washington Square Reviews.
Dana Golin was born in Riga, Latvia. Her poems in Russian and translations into English have appeared in Novy Zhurnal, Big Bridge, Ice Floe (U. of Alaska) and EM-review. She has a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology and had worked in neuro-rehabilitation in New York City for the past 15 years.
Again, Plume Editions, in conjunction with MadHat Press, is very pleased indeed to announce the release of Nin Andrews’ Our Lady of the Orgasm. Ms. Andrews, a regular contributor to Plume and an early, avid supporter of our little journal, in this work continues her saga of the orgasm begun in her classic The Book of Orgasms, meditating on the relationship between the human and the divine, the humdrum and the fantastic, the visible and the invisible; imagining the orgasm as a divine being who dwells in our midst and who can, on special occasions, manifest as Our Lady of the orgasm.
Nin Andrews is the most accomplished and affecting poet of the erotic in America. In poems, especially prose poems, of uncanny deftness and muscularity, she establishes, to use the ready word, an intercourse among all elements—including the comical, the rhapsodic, and the tragic. She is matchless.
Nin Andrews is a complete original on a lifelong poetic quest to sublimely understand the sublime. Gender–bending and genre-blurring, Andrews is a fabulous fabulist whose talent is only that much more pronounced in Our Lady of the Orgasm. This book is divine pleasure!
Finally we have an orgasm with some ambition. Here are the secret thoughts, untold longings and yearnings of an orgasm no one really knew before—one just like you and me—with a heart, a selfie, a twitter account, a raison d’etre. How many orgasms in your neighborhood do you encounter every day without realizing, “Hey, this one has some star quality.” We think they come and go. Not true. Now, from humble origins, to self-actualization, here is one you will come to know and love, and wish will go on forever.
Next up for Plume Editions is W.S. Di Piero’s The Man on the Water, slated for release in February at AWP. Here’s shot of the cover: beautiful design by Marc Vincenz –
In “Essays & Comment” (helmed by Associate Editor for Criticism and Essays Robert Archambeau) look for what I hope will be a regular element of that enterprise — dispatches on far-flung (and some not so far flung) poetry scenes. The first installment is Linda Ashok’s “Letter from India: Worshipping the Stone Manasa.”
Our Featured Selection this month comes from Brian Swann—I THINK I WOULD RATHER BE/A PAINTER. The piece – so smart, so compelling – is accompanied by two visual art works from the author.
Altamont Theater Monday 21 November 7 PM Keith Flynn Katherine Soniat Marc Vincenz Daniel Lawless
New York City Sunday 11 December 6 PM
Jefferson Market Library
425 6th Ave, New York, NY 10011 Patricia Clark Sally Bliumis-Dunn Elaine Equi Rachel Hadas D. Nurkse Jerome Sala Larissa Shmailo
AWP, 8-11 February Washington, DC
There will be at least two readings. Venues, dates/times TBA – we’re working on it! Almost there. The roster(s) so far: Sally Bliumis-Dunn, Hélène Cardona, Peter Cooley, Lynn Emanuel, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Mark Irwin, D. Nurkse, Tom Lux, Elizabeth Metzger, Nancy Mitchell, Molly Peacock, Ira Sadoff, Tom Sleigh, Jean Valentine, Marc Vincenz.
(Come see us at AWP! Booth 321-T, opposite Copper Canyon and Grove/Atlantic. We are listed as MadHat Press / Plume Poetry.)
Our cover art “Drawing,” comes to us from Yves Klein, about which photograph the following from the Metropolitan Museum of Art might be of interest: As in his carefully choreographed paintings in which he used nude female models dipped in blue paint as paintbrushes, Klein’s photomontage paradoxically creates the impression of freedom and abandon through a highly contrived process. In October 1960, Klein hired the photographers Harry Shunk and Jean Kender to make a series of pictures re-creating a jump from a second-floor window that the artist claimed to have executed earlier in the year. This second leap was made from a rooftop in the Paris suburb of Fontenay-aux-Roses. On the street below, a group of the artist’s friends from held a tarpaulin to catch him as he fell. Two negatives–one showing Klein leaping, the other the surrounding scene (without the tarp)–were then printed together to create a seamless “documentary” photograph. To complete the illusion that he was capable of flight, Klein distributed a fake broadsheet at Parisian newsstands commemorating the event. It was in this mass-produced form that the artist’s seminal gesture was communicated to the public and also notably to the Vienna Actionists.
Work Received – once more, this month includes new poems from so many, I couldn’t begin to list them all. You’ll find them in the print anthology Plume Poetry 5and in forthcoming online issues of Plume.