"Cardinal Points" litetrary journal: www.stosvet.net

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Alex Cigale

TALISMAN, AMULET, STONE: MANDELSTAM'S MINIATURES


These translations — two early miniatures (1908-1910,) three children's verses from the mid-20s, and two late notebook fragments (he'd quit verse for critical prose and poetry for children, the only things he could publish to have an income) — between them span the whole of Mandelstam's life's work. It may also be said that the early poems here represent the shaping of a world-view, of a symbolic vision that then pervades the remaining thirty years and more specifically Mandelstam's problematic relationship to Judaism and Christianity.

     I had fallen in love with poverty
     so long ago, loneliness the lot of a
     poor artist. To make coffee on the stove
     I purchased for myself a portable tripod...

<1912>    



I found the above (along with the last two presented here) among Mandelstam's notebook fragments, as part of my ongoing project, an anthology of Russian Miniature and Minimalist poems. Though Mandelstam himself did not consider them so, my interest was piqued: in the light of post-modernist poetics these may be read as complete works, the last and shortest of these perhaps among the most powerful of poems. My interest in translating the children's verses was inspired by the particular book's representation of common household objects (not just the "Primus" of the title but also the telephone and the apartment itself) that in Mandelstam's symbolic vocabulary are loaded with the entire weight of his peripatetic existence (a number of poems in the Voronezh Notebooks come to mind.) The primus, easily transportable, thus becomes a symbol for the man himself, the hallmark of an impossible longing for home.

The miniature form, just as icons and talismans, is ideally suited for packing and carrying a symbolic, spiritually loaded "message." It is worthwhile to recall how Mandelstam's work survived, his poems memorized ("transported") by his friends. Symbols being what they are (sym-ballein; to throw or pack together,) like the numinous are inexhaustible and resist direct translation, but I would briefly reflect on their possible meaning, simply in order to point out that in each case, what is being "coded" is yet another representation of that most transportable of human attributes, the "soul."

The dolphin, for example — in Greek mythology sacred to Apollo and Aphrodite, messenger of Poseidon, savior of men otherwise condemned to drowning — is a universal representation of the soul (Boto dolphins of the Amazon are regarded as shape shifters and the Ganges dolphin is a familiar of the river deity.) In the cross of the next poem, the emphasis falls clearly on "wire thin" and "secret," on that which resists representation, the numinous, fragile yet eternal, namely "the soul." The four and six winged human-headed bulls and horses (the Greek pegasoi,) stemming from Assyrian guardian figures, were incorporated in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the Chayot, the angelic order beneath the Seraphim of the host of heaven in the vision of Ezekiel, of the Merkaba, the Divine chariot. Part lion, part ox, part eagle, part man, later associated with the Four Apostles, they stand once again for the mystic union of the earthly and the heavenly.

The miniatures in a very real sense are a premonition of Mandelstam's own surreptitious conversion, almost certainly for practical reasons (perhaps on a visit to Finland sometime during 1911) so as to avoid racial quotas and enter St. Petersburg University to complete the studies he had begun at Heidelberg. Being from a thoroughly secularized Jewish family, Christianity must have held out at least the promise of a spiritual life. I might add that there is remarkable similarity in the metaphysical content of Joseph Brodsky's life and work, so that both have been viewed as essentially "Christian" poets.

Alex Cigale             


Osip Mandelstam


translated by Alex Cigale


There is nothing that needs to be said,
There is nothing that has to be taught.
So full of sorrow and thus beautiful,
The dark and intimate animal soul.

It has no need to teach anything,
It cannot speak or quibble at all
And in the form of a young dolphin
It swims on the world's gray squalls.

December 1909, Heidelberg


The humid dusk covers up lies,
The tightness in a breathing chest...
It may be that I value the most
A wire-thin cross and secret ways.

1910


People here fear the exertion of labor
Like a six-winged and thundering bull.
As though swollen with venous blood
The roses that presage winter bloom...

October 1930


Black night, barrack's blight,
The fattest fleas...

1938


Primus

(Children's Verse)


8.

I am in love with white underwear,
Friends with whites and with shirts,
I look awhile at them; oh, how swell!
Then proceed to skate, smooth, iron.
If only you knew how much it hurts
For me to stand there on the fire.

9.


Yes, even sugar has a head
That's neither alive nor dead.
They've brewed some fresh black tea —
Give me sugar! It's what I need!

10.


The lonely phone cries in the apartment
Two minutes, a third, then a fourth one.
Then it falls silent and scowls:
No one heard me; I'm unloved.
It must mean that no one needs me.
My feelings hurt and I am unwell:
Only the old-fashioned receiver
Will understand my pleading.