Expansive Poetics – (The Arrest of Osip Mandelstam)

Allen Ginsberg’s  August, 1981 Naropa class continues 

AG: The confrontation between the extreme Dada group and the Futurists and the actual leaders of the Nazi movement, and the confrontation between the Russian poets and (Josef) Stalin and police bureaucracy in Russia are really totally dramatic situations, which we’ve never (really) had in America completely, so totally so. Dan Berrigan and a few others – every poet in America has been arrested, at one time or another, on a peace march, or sitting down – Peter Orlovsky was arrested for lying down and singing “Hare Krishna” in the early ‘Sixties at a Veteran’s Day Parade – but it isn’t as if  (the) Secret Police come after you (except in a few rare cases, like LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and me), when police are after you. (But) they don’t actually come and get you and drag you away – as was done with some of the Russians

And that would lead on to the case of (Osip) Mandelstam, whose work we have (and have been looking at) here.

I’d like to read you an account of the arrest of Mandelstam to give you a view of Police State. This is (from) a book called Hope Against Hope by his wife (Nadezhda Mandelstam). I’m jumping ahead late – this is 1934 or so…(19)37. Yeah, she mentions (Velimir) Khlebnikov too. It’s about page three to page ten – and I’ll zap through it. If it gets boring, let me know, but I found it totally amazing. (It’s) called “A May Night”.

(Now, Mandelstam had gotten into a literary fight with Alexei Tolstoy, who was an official writer and one of the functionaries of the Writers Union, and had slapped his face – which was unthought of. The occasion I’ll get into another time)

[Allen begins to read from Nadezhda’s book, beginning with the book’s famous opening line]

“After slapping Alexei Tolstoy in the face in Petersburg, Mandelstam immediately returned to Moscow” – (Actually, I could give you some background on that and it might make it more clear -The circumstance – he was a poet-playwright-journalist who had written various historical novels. He emigrated in 1919, but came back to the Soviet Union – “know as the Red Count, he proceeded to adapt himself, with skill unrivaled, to the twists and turns of party policy. The circumstances which led to Mandelstam slapping Tolstoy’s face in 1934 are known from a memoir. The whole affair started with a party in Mandelstam’s apartment in Moscow in which the novelist Sergey Borodine (Amir Sargidzhan) assaulted Mrs Mandelstam. A writer’s court of honor, presided over by Tolstoy, looked into the incident, but it appears to have exonerated Borodine and suggested that the Mandelstams themselves were to blame. On a visit to Leningrad sometime later in the middle of (19)34, Mandelstam slapped Tolstoy’s face during a meeting of the Director’s Office of the Writers’ Leningrad publishing house. It happened in the presence of half a dozen other writers. And when Mrs Tager (Yelena Tager, Anna Regatt) arrived on the scene a few moments later, she found them all standing still, open-mouthed with horror and surprise, like the cast at the end of Gogol’s play, “The Inspector General”. After slapping Mr. Tolstoy in the face in Petersburg, Mandelstam immediately returned to Moscow. From there he rang Akhmatova every day, begging her to come.” – (Anna Akhmatova, his great friend, and also great poet, whom we’ll hear from later)

– “He was hesitant and he was angry. When she had packed and brought her ticket, her brilliant, irritable husband (Nikolay) Punin  asked her, as she stood and thought by the window, “Are you praying that this cup should pass from you?” – “(He’s quoting Christ (from the Bible) here -“Let this cup pass from me”) – It was he who had once said to her when they were walking through the Tretyakov Gallery, “Now let’s go and see how they’ll take you to the execution”. This is the origin of her lines, “And later, as the hearse sinks in the snow at dusk, what mad Surikov will describe my last journey?” -(AG: Surikov- I don’t know who that is – could be a party official?) – [Editorial note – Surikov, the painter, Vasily Surikov (1848-1916), his highly allegorical paintings, such as “Morning of Strelets’ Execution” (1881) and  “Menshikov in Berezovo” (1883) were/are familiar works in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery]

Morning of the Strelets’ Execution - Vasily Surikov

Vasily Surikov – Morning of Strelets’ Execution (1881)

“But she was not fated to make her last journey like this -Punin used to say, his face twitching in a nervous tic, “They’re keeping you for the very end” – because she was kept alive all during Stalin’s time. But in the end they overlooked her and didn’t arrest her. Instead, she was always seeing others off on their last journey, including Punin, her husband, himself. Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilev, asked when to meet her at the station. He was staying with us.. (the Mandelstams) ..at the time. It was a mistake to entrust him with this simple task. He, of course, managed to miss her and she was very upset. It wasn’t what she was used to. That year she had come to see us a great deal and she was always greeted at the station by Mandelstam himself, who at once started to amuse her with his jokes. The day dragged on with excruciating slowness. In the evening, the translator,David Brodsky, turned up and then just wouldn’t leave the house. There wasn’t a bite to eat in the house and Mandelstam went around to the neighbors to try and get something for Akhamatova’s supper. We hoped that Brodsky might now get bored and leave, but no, he shot after him, and was still with him when he returned with a solitary egg he had managed to scrounge. Sitting down again in a chair, Brodsky continued to recite the lines he liked best  from his favorite poets – (You’ll find out later that Brodsky is the police spy, sent to…) –  tape ends here, then continues

AG (contining to read from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir): …and it was only after midnight when we realized why he was being such a nuisance. Whenever she came to see us, Akhmatova stayed in our small kitchen. The gas had not yet been installed and I cooked a semblance of a dinner on a kerosene stove in the corner. In honor of our guest, we covered the gas cooker with (an) oilcloth to disguise it as a table. We called the kitchen “the Sanctuary”, after (Vladimir) Narbut had once looked in there to see Akhmatova and said, “What are you doing here like a pagan idol in a sanctuary? Why don’t you go to some meeting or other, where you can sit down properly?” Akhmatova and I had now taken refuge there, leaving Mandelstam to the mercy of he poetry-loving Brodsky. Suddenly, at about one o’clock in the morning, there was a sharp, unbearably explicit knock at the door” – (I like that – “unbearably explicit” – If you’ve ever been in a house where the police have knocked, you know that “unbearably explicit knock”) – “They have come for us, I said, and went to open the door. Some men in civilian overcoats were standing outside. There seemed to be a lot of them. For a split second I had a tiny flicker of hope that this still wasn’t it. My eye had not made out the uniforms under the covert cloth top coats. In fact, top coats of this kind were also sort of a uniform. They were intended as a disguise, like the old pea-green coats of the Czarist police, the Okhrana. But this I did not know then. All hope vanished as soon as the uninvited guests stepped inside. I had expected them to say, “How do you do?”, or. “Is this Mandelstam’s apartment?”, or something else of the kind that every visitor says in order to be let in by the person who opens the door. But the night visitors of our times do not stand on such ceremony. Like secret police agents the world over, I suppose. Without a word or a moment’s hesitation, but with consummate skill and speed, they came in past me, not pushing however, and the apartment was suddenly full of people alreday checking our identity papers, running their hands over our hips with a precise well-practiced movement, and feeling our pockets to make sure we had no concealed weapons.

Mandelstam came out of the large room. “Have you come for me?”, he said. One of the agents, a short man, looked at him with what could have been a faint smile, and said, “Your papers”. Mandelstam tookk them out of his pocket and, after checking them, the agent handed him a warrant. Mandelstam read it and nodded. In the language of the Secret Police, this is what is known as a “night operation”. As I learned later, they all firmly believe that they are always liable to meet with opposition on such occasions, and to keep their spirits up they regaled each other with romantic tales about the dangers involved in these night raids. I once myself heard the daughter of an important Chekist.. (member of the Cheka, the Secret Police – The footnote says, “At later periods, the Cheka were known, successively, as the OGPU” – the daughter of an important.. police agent..)…who had come to prominence in (19)37, telling a story about how Isaak Babel..(another writer) – had “seriously wounded one of our men” while resisting arrest. She told such stories in an expression of concern for her kindly, loving, father whenever he went out on night operations. He was fond of children and animals. At home he always had a cat on his knee. And he told his daughter never to admit that she had done anything wrong, and always to say no. This homely man with a cat could never forgive the people he interrogated for admitting everything they were accused of. “Why did they do it?”, the daughter asked, echoing her father, “Think of the trouble they made for themselves, and for us as well”. By “us”, she meant all those who had come at night with warrants, interrogated and passed sentence on the accused, and wiled away their spare time telling stories of the risks they ran. Whenever I hear such tales, I think of the tiny hole in the skull of Isaak Babel – a cautious, clever man with a high forehead, who probably never once in his life held a pistol in his hands.

And so they burst into our poor hushed apartments as if though raiding bandits’ lairs or secret laboratories in which masked Carbonari were making dynamite and preparing armed resistance. They visited us on the night of May 13th, 1934. After checking our papers, presenting their warrants, and making sure they’d be no resistance, they began to search the apartment. Brodsky slumped into his chair and sat there, motionless, like a huge wooden sculpture of some savage tribe. He puffed and wheezed with an an angry, hurt expression on his face. When I chanced at one point to speak to him, asking him, I think, to get some books from the shelves for M(andelstam) to take with him, he answered rudely, “Let Mandelstam get them himself”, and again began to wheeze. Toward morning, when we were at last permitted to walk freely around the apartment and tired Checkists..(police)..no longer even looked searchingly ar us as we did so, Brodsky suddenly roused himself, held up his hand like a schoolboy and asked permission to go to the toilet. The agent directing the search looked at him with contempt. “You can go home”, he said. “What?”, Brodsky said in astonishment. “Home”, the man repeated, and turned his back. The Secret Police despised their civilian helpers. Brodsky had no doubt been ordered to sit with us that evening in case we tried to destroy any manuscripts when we heard the knock on the door.
Mandelstam often repeated Khlebnikov’s lines – “What a great thing is a police station, the place where I have my rendezvous with the State”.

“But Khlebnikov was thinking of something more innocent…” – (So you see, all these people were right in together in one community, just as the American poets are) – “But Khlebnikov was thinking of something more innocent, just a routine check on the papers of a suspicious vagrant” – (which Khlebnikov was, habitually) – “The almost traditional form of meeting…” – (The almost traditional form – the vagrant rap) – “…between State and poet. Our rendezvous with the State took place on a different, much higher, level. Our uninvited guests, in strict accordance with their ritual, had immediately divided their roles between them without exchanging a word. There were five people all together – three agents and two witnesses. The two witnesses had flopped down on chairs in the hall and gone to sleep. Three years later, 1937, they would no doubt have snored from sheer fatigue. Who knows by what charter we are granted the right to be arrested and searched in the presence of members of the public so that no arrest should take place without due process of the law and it could never be said that anybody had disappeared in the dead of nifht without the benefit of warrant or witnesses? This is the tribute we pay to the legal concepts of a bygone era..age. To be present as a witness at arrests had almost become a profession. In every large apartment building, the same previously-designated pair would regularly be aroused from their beds and in the provinces the same two witnesses would be used for a whole street or district. They led a double life – serving by day as repairmen, janitors, or plumbers – is this why our faucets are always dripping? – and by night as witnesses, prepared, if need be, to sit up till morning in somebody’s apartment. The money to pay them came out of our rent as part of the expense of maintaining the building. At what rate they were paid for their night work, I do not know.

The oldest of the three agents got busy on the trunk in which we kept our papers, while the two younger ones carried on the search elsewhere, The clumsiness with which they went about it was very striking. Following their instructions, they looked in all the places cunning people are traditionally supposed to hide their secret documents. They shook out every book, squinting down the spine and cutting open the binding, inspecting desks and tables for hidden drawers, and peered into pockets and under beds. A manuscript stuck into a saucepan would never have been found. Best of all would have been to put it on the dining table.” – (like a roach  – roach from a joint of marijuana – that’s my addition, my foot0note) – “I particularly remember one of them, a young puffy-cheeked man with a smirk. As he went through the books, he admired the old bindings and kept telling us we shouldn’t smoke so much. Instead, he offered us hard candy from a box which he produced from the pocket of  his uniform trousers. I now have a good acquaintance – a writer and official of the Union of Soviet Writers – who collects old books, showing off his finds in the second-hand bookstores – first editions of Sasha Chorny [Alexander Glickberg] and (Igor) Sevrerianin (Igor Lotaryov) and offering me hard candy from a tin box he keeps in a pocket of his smart stove-pipe trousers, which he has custom-made in a tailor shop exclusive to the members of the Union of the Writers. In the (19)30’s, he had a modest job in the Secret Police..” – (This official.) – “…and then fixed himself up safely as a writer. These two images blur into one. The elderly writer of the end of the (19)50’s (sic) and the young police agent of the middle (19)30’s. It’s as though the young man who was so fond of hard candy had changed his profession and come up in the world. Now dressed in civilian clothes, he lays down the law in moral problems, as a writer is supposed to, and continues to offer me candy from the same box. The gesture of offering hard candy was repeated in many other apartments during the searches. Or is this, too, part of the ritual, like the technique of entering the room, checking identity papers, frisking people for weapons and looking for secret drawers? The procedures are worked out to the last detail and it’s all quite different from the hectic manner in which it was done in the first days of the Revolution and during the Civil War. Which was worse, I find it difficult to say

The oldest of the agents, a short, lean, and silent man with fair hair, was squatting down to look through the papers in the trunk. He worked slowly, deliberately, and thoroughly, They has probably sent us well-qualified people from the section in charge of literature. This was supposed to be the third department, but my acquaintance in the stove-pipe trousers who offers me hard candy swears that the department responsible for people like us is either the second or the fourth department. This is only a minor detail, but a preservation of certain administrative distinction from Czarist days was very much in the spirit of the Staln era. After carefully examining it, he put every piece of paper either on a chair in the growing pile of those to be confiscated, or threw it on the floor. Since one can generally tekl from the selection of papers what the nature of the accusation will be, I offered to help te agent read Mandelstam’s difficult writing and date the various items. I also tried to rescue what I could. For example, a long poem by (Vladimir) Piast (Vladimir Pestovskii)  that we were keeping and the drafts of Mandelstam’s translations from Petrarch. We all noticed that the agent was interested in the manuscripts of Mandelstam’s verse of recent years. He showed Mandelstam the draft of the poem,“The Wolf” and, frowning, read it out in a low voice from beginning to end. Then he picked up a humorous story by the manager of the apartment house who had smashed a harmonium that one of the tenants was playing, against the rules. “What’s this about?”, asked the agent with a baffled look, throwing the manuscript on the chair. “What indeed?”, said Mandelstam,”What is it about?”

NKVD photograph of Osip Mandelstam after his first arrest, 1934

The whole difference between the periods before and after 1937 could be seen in the nature of the two house-searches we went through. Later, in 1938, they wasted no time looking for papers and examining them.Indeed, the police agent didn’t seem to know the occupation of the man they came to arrest. When Mandelstam was arrested again in 1938, they simply turned over all the mattresses, swept his papers in a sack, poked around for a while, and then disappeared, taking Mandelstam with them. The whole operation lasted no longer than twenty minutes. But, in 1934, they stayed all night, until the early hours.  The 1938 arrest led to his exile to Siberia and his death two years later.

On both occasions, soon as they got Mandelstam’s things together, they made some joking remark in accordance with their instructions. “Why so much stuff? What’s the point? You don’t think he’s going to stay with us all that long. They’ll just have a little chat and let him go”. That was the only relic from the year of high humanism in the (19)20’s and beginning of the (19)30’s. In the winter of 1937, reading a newspaper attack on (Genrikh) Yagoda for allegedly turning the forced labor camps into rest homes, Mandelstam, “I didn’t know we were in the paws of such humanists”.

The egg brought for Akhmatova lay untouched on the table. Everybody – Mandelstam’s brother Evgeni, who had recently arrived from Leningrad and was also there – walked around the room talking and trying not to pay attention to the people rummaging in our things. Suddenly Akhmatova said, “M(andelstam) should eat something before he left”, and she held out the egg to him. Mandelstam took it, sat down at the table, put some salt on it and ate it. The two piles of paper on the chair and on the floor continued to grow. We tried not to walk on them but our visitors took no such care. I regret very much that among other papers stolen by (Sergei Borisovich) Rudakov’s widow we have lost some drafts of Mandelstam’s earlier poems” – (Then there’s a little anecdote about losing papers by entrusting them to a friend) – “Osip, I envy you”,  (Nikolay) Gumilev used to say – (Gumilev was shot in 1923, Akhmatova’s ex-husband) – “To Mandelstam – “Osip, you will die in a garret”. Both had written their prophetic lines by this time, but neither wished to believe his own forecast and they took consolation in the French idea of what happens to ill-starrred poets, that they starve in the gutter or die in the garret. But a poet, after all, is just a human being like any other and he’s bound to end up the most ordinary way, in the way most typical for his age and his times, meeting the fate that lies in wait for everyone else. None of the glamour and thrill of a special destiny, but the simple path along which we are all herded in a herd. Death in a garret was not for us. At that time the camp…” – Well, then.. – {Allen reads on] – “When the morning of the 14th came, all the guests, invited and uninvited, went away and I was left alone with Akhmatova in the empty apartment which bore all the marks of the night’s ravages. I think we just set up opposite each other in silence. At any rate, we didn’t go to bed and it never occured to us to make tea. We were waiting for the hour when we could leave the building without attracting attention. Why? Where could we go or to whom? Life went on. I suppose we looked a little like the drowned maidens, if I may be forgiven this literary allusion. [Editorial note – May Night or The Drowned Maiden (Майская ночь, или Утопленница)(1831) is a folk tale by Nikolai Gogol]God knows that at that moment nothing was further from our minds than literature.”

NKVD photograph of Osip Mandelstam after his second arrest, 1938

AG: So, under these circumstances, these poets wrote an immense body of fantastic poetry, reflecting the situation, reflecting the times, sometimes evading the times.
Gumilev was brought up there, saying, “You’re going to wind up in a garret”, but Gumilev’s tone – I don’t know if we noted it at the end of his poem about the tram-car – is very poignant in this context, then. So I want to go back to that for just a moment (“The Lost Tram Car”, which we read last time (in the anthology) is right after Khlebnikov). The last lines, after the tram car goes away with him, the tram car of history passing the Neva Bridge, the Nile, and the Seine, after the tram car passes and takes him out of this world, the last is  – “How can I breathe? It hurts/to live. My heart tears/itself. Mashenka, I never knew/how much sorrow we can bear” (or), alternative translation “Mashenka, I never believed it’s possible to love and grieve like this” [И всё ж навеки сердце угрюмо,И трудно дышать, и больно жить…Машенька, я никогда не думал,/Что можно так любить и грустить.]

This is the later realizations (or) the mature realizations or representing prophecies, or mature realizations of the friendly, funny Futurists – prophecying vast world revolution that would save mankind, and getting it.

Maybe next time when we come in we’ll look up (look further at) Akhmatova and at Mandelstam’s poetry. What we have here (in the anthology) is A Requiem by Akhmatova, written 1935-1940, just after this arrest, a compilation requiem of a number of poems reflecting the situation where she was silenced, unable to publish, in fear of arrest herself and with her own son, Leo, that missed her at the train, busted, arrested, and in jail as a way of keeping her shut up.

And then we can look at a series of poems by Mandelstam (including the one he wrote to Stalin which was mentioned in the library [Editorial note – referring to a lecture Allen gave with Ann Charters at the Boulder Public  Library a couple of weeks previously] which caused his arrest in 1938 and his death later.

AG: We’ll continue..what’s today? Thursday?
Student: The twenty-ninth.
AG: Thursday?
Student: Today’s the twenty-eighth
Student(CC): Thursday.. the thirtieth
AG: Yeah, yeah, so we’ll continue (on) the thirtieth
Student : The twenty-ninth
AG: So read through the rest of the Russian (in our Expansive Poetics anthology) and then please go on and start reading through the French.
Student (CC): Please give me..
AG: Start through the French, yeah.
Student (CC)..(I’m collecting) the anthology money
AG: Yeah, those who want the anthology, bring up the money. Those who need to get papers for filling out last term…

[The audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at approximately sixty minutes in through to the end of the tape and continuing for the entirety of the tape here,]

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