May: and, absconded Kentuckian, I anticipate Derby Day – Week! – with the usual mix of distracted pleasure and the slightest of FOMO. So, a certain queasiness, as race time looms on Saturday, a transient malady I have come to expect over the years, accompanied by a habit: a few minutes before “And they’re off… I pause to listen outside our door, for even here in Florida, inevitably there will be, near or distant, the rising of voices, perhaps a gargled trumpet-sound. Then, I imagine us together as we should be at this moment, my fellow Bluegrass-ians and I, if only in the most fleeting, tenuous way. Poignancy. Nostalgia. Call it what you will, it never fails to raise gooseflesh, that heightened sense of tremulous present-awareness when one focuses intently on the past – an odd, lovely emotion, jogged to memory — when did memory ever follow a straight line? — by a line from one of Osip Mandelstam’s poems below, translated by Plume’s own Alexander Cigale — It was as though I was suspended on my own eyelashes. Anyway. A poem to which, thankfully, you may now turn, Reader. Enjoy!
Alexander Cigale on Osip Mandelstaam’s JANUARY 10, 1934
Though a truism, it is worth repeating that Osip Mandelstam’s body of work is inextricably linked with the course of his life. For this reason, and because he is so densely allusive, our understanding of individual poems may be aided by an awareness of their sequence, verses that preceded and followed, the discreet stages of Mandelstam’s development as a poet, and if only the barest of biographical facts. Alongside the Russian Futurists Velimir Khlebnikov and Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mandelstam is the key figure, but as an “Archaist Modernist,” he stands apart from them. In English, Mandelstam is best known for the early, short, classicist lyrics of his first two books, Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922,) that exemplify the quality of Acmeism (post-Symbolist poetry) the Russian poet-critic Mikhail Kuzmin had labeled “beautiful clarity”. But it is the late work, especially the second and final Voronezh Notebook, that fulfills Acmeism’s promise. Without the radically inventive verses of the middle period like “He Who Had Found a Horseshoe” (1923) and “January 1, 1924” (shortly after which, in 1925, Mandeltam fell silent, turning his attention to prose) and the final “<Ode to Stalin>,” “Verse to the Unknown Soldier,” and “Stanzas <to Stalin>” (from 1937,) it is no easy matter to understand why Mandelstam is a Modernist at all. And so, in addition to the poems above, I wish to make the following better known.
The key to “January 10, 1934” is simple: it is among the last of Mandelstam’s Moscow Notebooks and one of several dedicated to Andrei Bely, the poet-novelist and important oder Modernist who had died on January 8th. It was followed shortly by Mandelstam’s second arrest and exile, a product of which were the short “Kama” lyrics, titled after the river along which Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda were transported. The second, untitled poem here dates from this period and is one of two “Chapayev poems”. In her memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda writes that they had seen, and Mandedeltsam was deeply struck by, the 1934 film projected at one of the stops along their train route from the Kama eastward. The verse seems to be driven by the same manic energy as the film itself. Many of the references otherwise obscure to the reader will be clarified by an explication of the first line: the two of them had been accompanied by three guards (hence, “five-headed,” etc.) I have included both Chapayev poems and three “Poems to Bely” in my draft of the Essential Poems of Osip Mandelstam, weighing in at 240 pages and currently in search of a publisher.
When I wrote for this page on a previous occasion, for our November 2017 Newsletter, with another Mandelstam poem, “Midnight in Moscow…” (1931,) I used the critic Mikhail Epstein’s notion of “metabole” or an extended metaphorical chain (meta-meta, as it were) to explain Mandelstam’s inestimable contribution to contemporary Russian poetry. I will let those words stand for now. It is time for the pudding… I hope you will enjoy these!
– Alex Cigale, Plume Contributing Editor for Translations
JANUARY 10, 1934
I am pursued by two-three incidental phrases,
All day long, I aver: my sadness has been fatted up,
My Lord, how corpulently bloated and pale-eyed
The dragonflies of death, how besmirched the azure.
Where are the firstborn? where their happy habit?
Where the fledgling hawk in the depths of the soul?
Where is decency, honor? Where austere effort?
Where the proud stature? Where clarity of speech,
Tangled and confused, like the virtuous zigzags
Of the ice skater into the bluest part of the flame –
It’s frosty fluff they wangle in their steely harness,
Clinking glasses with the river encased in blue ice.
Clear to him are the salts’ three-storied powders,
And the resonant voices of German wise men,
And the brilliant disputes of the Russian firstborn;
Becoming known in half a century or half an hour.
And suddenly, the music of our trap has been sprung,
No longer as a predator from under the horsehair bows,
Nor for the sake of hearing or the sake of comfort,
But pouring forth for pulsing temples and for muscles,
Pouring, for the affectionate, only just removed mask,
For the plaster fingers, that had never held a quill,
For the engorged lips, for the fortified tenderness
Of the generously grained peace and goodness.
The cinnabar of blood, health, and sweat was riled up,
Inhaling the coat furs, huddled shoulder to shoulder –
Sleep inside the hull of sleep, within which the dream
Of advancing, if only but a half-step forward.
Among this throng stood the genuine engraver,
Stilling himself to transfer onto incarnate copper
That which the painter, who’d only smudged the paper
Stingily with charcoal, had barely managed to impress.
It was as though I was suspended on my own eyelashes,
All shooting forth with branches, ripening, fruiting –
Until, snapping off, I’ll tumble down – stirring in faces
The only thing that we know in this life for sure….
January 16, 1934
A five-headed day. And, for five days straight, without cease,
Seized up, I took pride in the expanse of space for swelling upon yeast.
Sleep was larger than hearing, hearing older than sleep – fused, prescient.
And racing after us, the bolshaks, wielding the coachmen’s reigns.
The day with five heads, and, growing plagued from the jig,
The cavalry rode and the infantry marched in the form of a mass –
With authority’s aorta swelling in the white nights – no, in knives–
And the eye was transformed into the evergreen’s meat.
Could I but ride the eye of the needle, summit the deep blue sea!
So that the dvoika of convoy guard time race with its sails apace.
A soft-boiled Russian fable, slap me with a wooden spoon, hey you!
Where are you, three swell chums from the steely gates of the GPU?
So that Pushkin’s wondrous goods fall into the arms of freeloaders,
The revolver-bearing tribe of Pushkinists grows literate in its peacoats –
Those youthful admirers of pearly-white toothed poesy.
Could I but summit the deep blue sea, ride the eye of the needle!
The train soldiered on to Ural. Into our open mouths
The spouting Chapaev of talking picture fame galloped….
That he may drown behind the timbered rear front,
On the bedsheet strip, and hop up into his steed’s saddle!
April – May 1935
 Bolshak: a pater familias, head of a Russian peasant household.
 GPU: State Political Directorate for the last year of the Russian Civil War, like Cheka, NKVD, KGB, referring to the intelligence service, secret police, state security apparatus.
 Vasily Chapayev (1887-1919): dead Russian Civil War hero, subject of a 1923 novel and an immensely popular 1934 film, who, drowning, attained folkloric status, entering Russian popular culture as the butt of a corpus of jokes and songs
Born on January 15, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a prominent leather merchant and his mother a teacher of music. Mandelstam attended the renowned Tenishev School and later studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of St. Petersburg, though he left off his studies to pursue writing.
Mandelstam published his first collection, Kamen, or Stone, in 1913, when Russian Symbolism was the dominant persuasion. Like Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, who cleared the ground for Russian Futurism, Mandelstam departed from this old mode of expression in favor of a more direct treatment of thoughts, feelings, and observations under the aegis of Acmeism, a programme that included Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. As translator Clarence Brown observes, Mandelstam’s variant of Acmeism was a mixture of poetics and moral doctrine, the former based on an “intuitive and purely verbal logic of inner association” and the latter on a kind of “democratic humanism.” In 1922 his second book, Tristia, secured his reputation, and both it and Stone were released a year later in new editions.
Yet the Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. During this period, Mandelstam focused on writing essays and literary criticism. He spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago.
Alex Cigale‘s translations from Russian and his own English-language poems have appeared in a variety of magazines and journals. Alex was an Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan).
To repeat: If you enjoyed Alex’s piece, all of the Plume newsletters are now archived under, well, Archives, on our homepage.
And to re-repeat: Plume Poetry 7 is in hand! A beautiful cover, marvelous poems. Many thanks to all who had a hand in producing it — Kristen Weber, all the wonderful folks at Bookmobile, Mary Bisbee-Beek, and, of course the poets and translators. Contributors will receive their copies in due course, along with a special discount offer for additional copies. Here’s another look at Kris Weber’s cover:
Many thanks to Jo-Ann Mort, Frances Richey, Judy Katz, Sally Bluimis-Dunn, Tom Sleigh, and T. R. Hummer for the East Coast Launch of Plume Poetry 8 at Community Bookstore in New York.. A good vibe, attentive audience, and, of course, marvelous poetry.
More Plume readings in the offing, as well – Watch This Space (and FB, Insta, etc.)
(Almost) penultimately, again a request. As you will note, I try to highlight recent of soon to be published books by Plume contributors at the conclusion of this newsletter. My method for gathering these materials is haphazard, to say the least. Now, I want to rectify that to whatever degree that is possible. So – if you have a new book — or have won some award or grant or other, perhaps send me a quick email – I want to highlight your many wonderful achievements here. And a little PR never hurts, right?
Our cover art this month comes Julian Douvier, a cinemagraphist based in Strasbourg. For biographical information, articles on his work in the Huffington Post, Wired, and elsewhere, and more images, and the like, start at his homepage.
And finally, per usual, a few new releases from Plume contributors:
Here’s what critics are saying: Poetry. Edited by Daniel Lawless. PLUME POETRY 7 comprises the very best new poems from a curated roster of renowned and emerging poets, hailing from the U.S. and abroad. Its contents have been labeled “eclectic” and “with no literary axe to grind.” Here you find under one roof a host of disparate poetries, from those of Pulitzer Prize winners Rae Armantrout and Stephen Dunn, to Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize recipients Patrica Smith and this volume’s Featured Poet Angie Estes; from Billy Collins to Lydia Davis, Afaa Weaver to Kwame Dawes, Simon Armitage to Hiša Yu. But perhaps Bruce Smith says it best: “PLUME POETRY 7 offers a counter-voice to the dominant discourses of our age, a blessed alternative to broadcasts, and information, and ‘intelligence.’ There is virtuoso discernment and commitment and a discriminate sympathy at work in the assembly of these poets that remind us of our multiplicity, our endurance, our soul.” No wonder, then, that in its seventh year, the anthology has risen to the ranks of the Best American Poetry series and increasingly finds a home in some of the nation’s finest university classrooms, where by all accounts students and their instructors are perusing and using its poems to discover their own voices and, in the case of the latter, exciting new ways to guide them in that journey.
Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Birthdays, Rosh Hashanah, Canadian Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day…the perfect gift for whatever you or your loved ones celebrate — go hog wild, you won’t be disappointed and you’ll be supporting a very worthy endeavor!