Expansive Poetics – (Mandelstam – Late Poems)

Statue of Osip Mandelstam (1891-1838)  (by Lazar Gadayev (1938-2008)), erected 2008, in Voronezh, Russia

AG: Ah, what else is here? Has anybody read through this, the (Osip) Mandelstam section (in the Expansive Poetics anthology)? I won’t go through it but I recommend you read the Unknown Soldier poem which begins it [editorial note – that is, the section of the Unknown Soldier poems that Allen has selected for his anthology]. There are parallel translations. Let’s see if there’s anything good in that. The end is interesting (as if from a soldier – but it’s him). It’s his own vision of his own generation. (So) Part VIII

“Aortas fill with blood/and rows of little whispers sound:/ – I was born in ninety-four/ – I was born in ninety-two…/And I clutch my worn old birth-year/in my fist, and there in that crowd, all of us/together, I whisper with bloodless mouth:/ – I was born at night between/January second and January third in the ninety-first/untrustworthy year, and time/surrounds me with fire” – [“Напрягаются кровью аорты/И звучит по рядам шепотком:/Я рожден в девяносто четвертом…/Я рожден в девяносто втором…/ И в кулак зажимая истертыйГод рожденья — с гурьбой и гуртом —/Я шепчу обескровленным ртом:/— Я рожден в ночь с второго на третье/Января — в девяносто одном/Ненадежном году — в то столетье,
От которого темно и днем”].

So this is Mandelstam talking just before he’s going to be taken off to a concentration camp. In (that) “untrustworthy year” [ “Ненадежном году”] – 1891

There’s a funny stanza at the end in thepoem 361, the poem 361 (in (19)37, also) – “And I walked ino the Kremlin, and I/came to it – to its core – and I had no pass,/I’d ripped up the unbleached linen/of distance – I, heavy with my guilty head.”

That’s a funny thing for a guy ready to be taken away to say.

Then the next one is one that I read aloud when we were discussing Mayakovsky at the library (poem 341) [Editorial note – earlier in the month, Allen and Ann Charters had held a public discussion on the Russian poets at the Boulder Public Library] – “Hillocks of human heads into the horizon/and I am diminished – they won’t notice me,/but I’ll come back, resurrected in tender books/ and children’s games, saying: “See? the sun is shining” –
which (is) at the..  in the pits, actually, of the police state – [Alternative translation – “Into the distance go the mounds of people’s heads/ (and) I’m growing smaller here – no-one notices me anymore/but in caressing books and children’s games,/ I will arise from the dead to say “The sun is shining”.]

Another little art Acmeist art statement is the next (poem) – (number) 353

“How feminine-silver burns, having/fought the oxide, having fought the flux,/and quiet work silvers over/the iron plow, the poet’s voice”

(Just) the quiet, direct application of perception.

Does anybody know what the image is of the flux?  – Silver burning, fighting the oxide – and the flux? Does anybody know enough about..I guess it’s silver-plating, isn’t it?
Student: (Yes…)
AG:   Yeah. In what process is this?
Student:  Well that would be if you were doing lead-ing, or some silvering..
AG: Silvering. So if you’re silvering-over..
Student: (Yes..)
AG: Then what’s the “burns” part? – “feminine-silver burns, having/fought the oxide”? What does “fought the oxide” mean?
Student: The air.
AG: That would be the oxygen in the air.
Student Yeah.. The metal is oxidized.
AG:  Yeah.
Student: ….so that the silver wouldn’t adhere, so…
AG: Would adhere?  Would or would not adhere?
Student; Would not.
AG: Yeah.
Student: So “the flux” is.. I guess, removes, or somehow..somehow changes the oxide, so it doesn’t..”
AG: I see. So what does the poem mean? That’s interesting. I got the second two lines very clearly, and I dug those, but I didn’t understand (the first two).

Student: (Helen Luster) I get something else out of it..

AG: Well, first of all, we’ve got to get the grounding, or basis (which is obviously in some kind of dipping or silvering)
Student: It’s electroplating.
AG: Electroplating, right. There we go. Electroplating. Does anybody know enough about electroplating to figure this out?
Peter Orlovsky: What’s “the iron plow”?
Student: What’s (the) “feminine-silver”?
AG: Well, that’s what I’m wondering…
Student:   Well, that’s what I..
AG:  Okay
Student: Silver is the symbol.. is the female symbol…
AG: Yes..right..
Student:  Silver.
AG: Yes
Student: …and Gold is masculine..
AG: Yes

Student (HL): To me “the flux” here refers to menstrual flow, and there’s something about the whole female mystique here (which) is…changing.. (the flow..)

AG:   Well, yeah, it’s about the contrast between sensitivity and harshness, between art and politics.

Student: Right

AG: And so the silver would be symbolic. Since it ends “the poet’s voice”, I’m assuming he’s talking about the process of particularity, the particular art process that he is interested in electroplating reality over with silver, or transformng reality to some kind of silver poetry, or silver sensitivity, taking the tragedy and..  Pardon me?

Student:  (Why “feminine-silver”?)
AG: Well, that’s why I’m asking , why “feminine-silver”? . Because I’m assuming…
Student (HL): In alchemy, you know…
AG: Yes
Student (HL): … the silver is always the feminine principle..
AG:  Yes
Student (HL):  To me, this poem, then.. (is about) the male and female
relationship…. among other things…
AG: Yeah.

The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus..” – Joseph Wright (1771) – oil on canvas, 50″ x 40″, Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby, England

Student (Chuck Carroll): Is “the poet’s voice”, then, being compared to the “feminine-silver”?
Student: (HL): Could be, yeah
AG: (And) the poet’s work, I would say.
Student (HL): Yeah.
AG: The poet’s work, the process of poetry, of turning reality into poetry (including turning all of Stalin and the Police State into poetry), or into sensitivity (rather than insensitivity and harshness).

Student (CC): So the gender..the poet’s gender, then, is female, as in Latin..
AG: Well, there’s the poesy itself
Student (CC): As in Latin – poeta, poetae
AG: Um-hmm. It is?
Student (CC): Yeah
AG: ..in Latin..
Student (CC) Yes, the feminine.

AG: Okay.
There’s another.. also in Voronezh, in Voronezh in his last days, and in his last days when he was still out,  at liberty, before they got dragged off – [“Еще не умер ты, еще ты не один,/Покуда с нищенкой-подругой/Ты наслаждаешься величием равнин/И мглой, и холодом, и вьюгой.”] – “I’m not dead, I’m not alone/ While I’m still happy with my beggar-girl delighting/ in these great plains/ in twilight’s shadow, delighting in hunger and snowstorms..” – (That’s, by “delighting in..snowstorms”, or hunger, that’s electroplating with silver, electroplating reality with silver, finding an..alchemical process, obviously,of transforming suffering into art, or into appreciation, or realization, transforming suffering into wisdom and realization and art – “I’m still happy with my beggar girl..”)

Student: (What sexual masochism…)

AG: Pardon me? – Well, this is not quite the same thing as masochism, actually, it’s quite the opposite, because, you see, you’re in a state of pain, and you’re transforming the pain into some kind of worthwhile experience or pleasure. The pain is given (I mean, it isn’t as if you asked for the pain). In masochism, there’s two equals and you say, “I’m gonna be your slave!” (I know, because I’m a masochist) – So, it’s not a condition that you are stuck with because of the police around you.. So he’s talking about, you know.. the basis is “hunger and snowstorms”. Given. You can’t change that. But he’s saying he’s transforming it into.. I think it would be a mistake to think of it as any kind of masochism at all. Masochism is wanting to be hurt, in order to take the pleasure of being hurt. This is, having been hurt, making use of it…

Student:  This has more to do with Buddhism, and the (Four) Noble Truths.

AG: Well, the basic alchemical process which is found in Eastern and Western religions – Alchemy in the West, and in Buddhism – the theory of Lojong (tonglin), which is taking out black and breathing in white (that’s a practice which is practiced here (at Naropa) in the meditation hall, in which you make use of the breath – taking in and sending out the breath,  taking in the pain and breathing out liberation, a sense of liberation – as an actual, literal, meditative practice which I do, I take fifteen minutes every day..

Student: What’s it called?

AG: Tonglin. Tonglin is what it’s called, which.. what you do is visualize black and then exhale white, visualize heat and exhale cool (which is very similar to an alchemical practice of transforming lead into gold, or shit into roses, or…  The suffering of Russia, as he has here – ” “I’m not dead, I’m not alone/ While I’m still happy with my beggar-girl delighting/ in these great plains/ in twilight’s shadow, delighting in hunger and snowstorms/ [“В роскошной бедности, в могучей нищете/ Живи спокоен и утешен./Благословенны дни и ночи те,/И сладкогласный труд безгрешен./Несчастлив тот, кого, как тень его,/ Пугает лай и ветер косит,/И беден тот, кто сам полуживой/У тени милостыню просит”] – / I live alone in beautiful poverty, in sumptuous/ misery – peaceful, consoled,/ blessed days, blessed nights,/ and sweet-singing labor./ Whoever’s frightened by barking and by his own shadow, who’s mowed/ (down) by the wind, he’s really unlucky./Whoever’s half-alive and begging/ alms from shadows – he’s really poor” (That would be the whole Russian nation at that point – “begging/ alms from shadows”)

So, apparently, this is the basis for him being considered such a powerful poet.
The… there’s a personal note here on the next one, 358, he says, at the end, he says – “..my shadow twiddles and yawns or makes noise here among people warming/ itself with their wine, their sky,/And feeds importunate swans with dry, flat bread (and boredom also)…”

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-two minutes in and concluding at approximately fifty-two-and-three-quarter in. This transcript has been edited, two passages not immediately pertinent to this subject (Russian poetry and Osip Mandelstam) will be transcribed and included later]  

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