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A Fireside Poem: Homage to Osip Mandelstam

"To think that we could have had an ordinary life with its
bickering, broken hearts and divorce suits! There are people
in the world so crazy as not to realize that this is normal
human existence of the kind everybody should aim at. What
wouldn't we have given for such ordinary heartbreaks!"

Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope

"old Mandelstam"

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A Fireside Poem: Homage to Osip Mandelstam

The Russian poet Osip Emilievich Mandelstam died in a transit camp in Vladivostok in 1938. His end, once obscure, has now been documented--perhaps too fully, for a number of sad versions exist to choose from. One finds him brutally beaten by fellow inmates whenever he stole their rations (thinking his own had been poisoned), dying in filth--with a long gray beard and hair, madness in his eyes--feeding on garbage. Another account has him reciting poems to fellow prisoners (a story that a line of his had been scratched on a Lefertovo death cell wall temporarily cheered him up), refusing to come down from his bunk, expiring in the camp hospital and, stripped of his clothing and tagged with a number attached to his leg, thrown into a communal pit.
    His wife, Nadezhda, in her miraculous book Hope Against Hope, prefers the latter version as most merciful. She has also settled the issue of just who was responsible for Mandelstam's fate. A Western account had him arrested in 1934 after reciting--at a party, within earshot of a few close freinds-a sixteen line poem highly unfavorable to Stalin. His wife discredits this version as unnecessarily dramatic. She suggests-- in a chapter called "Who is to Blame?"--that everybody was responsible: mutual complicity, the outrageous compromise of, at that time, an entire society.
    Reciting these horrors I am tempted to ask myself, Why then such a title as A Fireside Poem: Homage to Osip Mandelstam? I have quoted Nadezhda Mandelstam's commentary on "ordinary life" by way of epigraph. I hope it explains itself. In spite of the extraordinary, unsettling nature of his life (and death), Mandelstam was very much a poet of "domesticity," a poet of objects near at hand--as perhaps only someone so hounded from permanent place can be (he was, even before his arrest, shuffled in and out of "exile," an "alien element" in his own country). David McDuff, in the introduction to his translation of Mandelstam's work, cites a story told by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Walking with her--through a cemetary, at a fair, wherever--he always spoke early of wishing to go home. His work is rich with the texture and architecture of things imbued with significance within and beyond mere presence. He had a gift for calling objects into existence by naming, juxtaposing, comparing. The living word does not just denote objects, but actually takes up "residence" in them, freely choosing meanings within the thing which it inhabits. The eternal made elemental, the elemental made eternal--however you prefer it. Mandelstam always demands that we listen: to the noise (shum) of the world, to the noise of one's self.
    Another reason for my title is a desire to pay homage through identification coupled with stark contrast--a deliberate paradox. My own life, by comparison, is one of comfort and ease--a "fireside" life. My commitment to poetry is strong but again, compared to his, casual. Poetry was Mandelstam's existence: the one thing about which, observers claim, this playful witty man was always wholly serious. And he paid with his life for a poem. Such a commitment is rare today, if not inconceivable. To identify with such a person may seem pretentious, or even vulgar, yet the work of no other poet affects me so strongly, inspires such accord. I was born two days before the day of Mandelstam's birth (January 15) and two years before his death-born into a vastly different world and culture. Why he should speak to me so directly I do not fully comprehend. It is the work of my own poems, I hope, to find out.
    I have only infrequently tried to speak through Mandelstam as "persona." I am certainly, in this straightforward, elegiac, meditative sequence, not attempting to compete with him: his intensity or range, his miraculous imagery. I have tried to make this point in the most audacious way possible: by interspersing "readings" (rather than translations) of Mandelstam's own work--set off by italics--with my own poems. I have attempted to place my own small life in his large circumstance, working to understand his world through a stretching, straining, punishing of my own. I would like to acknowledge my debt to David McDuff's fine phrase--"a lifelong house that you can carry everywhere"--used as a theme here. And to all translators and essayists who have encouraged interest in this exceptional 20th Century poet and man.


Joyously take, from the palm of my hand
this gift--some honey and some sun,
as the bees of Persephone command us.

Not to be loosened, the unmoored boat;
not to be heard, steps of shadow on fur;
not to be overcome, the thick fear of the forest

in which we live. We have only kisses
here, prickly as small bees
that die when they fly from the hive.

They bristle, buzz in the night's sheer thicket,
their birthplace the forests of Taigetos,
their nourishment-mint, lungwort and time.

Joyously take then, this frazzled gift;
my dry, unstately necklace of bees,
dead, that once turned honey into sun.


To be good as more careful
--plain as heaven,
poor as spring rain--yes,
Mandelstam knew

the knock on the door
would last forever. This fire
will last forever
though coals be swept clean

tomorrow, and tomorrow even
swept clean as today.
My sons are sane, and strong.
That's all I promised them

or myself: a lifelong house that one
can carry anywhere.

And what can I promise Mandelstam?
Heaven, safe-keeping, here.

We sit together, warm
before the fire, at home.
As if we were not here,
as if he was.


Suddenly, from the half dark hall,
you slipped out, in a thin white shawl.
We did not startle a soul,
not even the comatose servants.

They will come for you when you are good and ready.
Remember that if caught off guard.
Consign yourself to spring, soft fire.
A girl passing by--her gait

light, warm, steady. She gripes
incessantly of winter, but pay no mind.
Think instead of her body that dies.
Spring. Soft fire. She cannot discern,

you will find, between herself and you.
They will come when all distinctions have been lost,
when even the love you made
is nothing you can lose.


What things would I miss?
The Rycroft old-fashioned ginger beer bottle.
K's body, naked, stepping into the pool.
A Dundee Marmalade jar from Wisconsin.
The broken vase Carl brought from Crete.
(Elefteria's black Minoan eyes,
so large they surround you, pull back)
Some ten inch records.
(Teagarden, Tatum, Bechet, all dead)
Warren's painting, himself dead
too young (booze, vegetables, pills),
made with just four colors,
in our house. The photo
of Jan and Lee and me, standing tall
in Bloomington, Indiana, long before this other death.
How unnecessary things are!
How fully they make their presence known
in this house.


No knock upon the door
(Mandelstam) the hero
--the longer you wait, the less it happens,
the price of wood rises--

has a chair reserved for him
no where. The hero
should have friends
to tell other friends

to stop looking for him, and when
they come asking
just what the hell he meant by that
the hero should be asleep.

(Mandelstam) the hero
should dream of giving loud, windy speeches
in many towns, of having
such obvious manners, such copious amours

that friends discover
he does everything just about the same.
The hero (Mandelstam)
sustained by his prominent forehead,

his better than average but only mind,
his aging ludicrous
face, should have time to forget
and lots of friends to forget him too.

The hero is one of us.
No knock upon the door (Mandelstam)
the longer you wait, the less it comes.
The price of wood rises.


"My head is about to find out how much my ass weighs."
Attributed to Francois Villon, when asked
if he had any last words before being hanged.

What felon ever sat with such warm calm
before fire, my eyes
like tongs that keep the leaping coals in place:
who enjoys this rout so much as I?

More bad news today and luck, as ever,
cavils, disclaims, won't even flirt
with me. What matter
that she comes, or fails to come, by mail?

The soul is shorn today, is truly soul.
My dog--fatigued with War and Peace and
filching thoughts of what is thankful, warm
-- comes and slumps before my feet.

I'd take her for a walk, let her take me
but if there is a world out there
it's roving wild, over all the earth, would pull
unkindly on my leash

and drown the fire, my private roar. No,
I am a man caught cheating on his solitude,
a felon, smiling at the end,
head hung, happy to discover

just what he is, how much he weighs.


This gift, my body--what shall I do with it?
So unique to me, so much my own.

The joy of breathing quietly, merely being alive
-- tell me, who shall I thank for that?

I am both gardener and flower. I know
in this world's prison, I am not alone.

I have pressed on eternity's pathetic glass
my own light breath, my warm glow.

The pattern is there forever, a pattern
others may decline to be shown.

Let the dross drain away; let it, daily.
What I am will not be lost.


One gets set for the day
when nothing much will happen, when
new or old, the sun
--dark, persistent--will twitch like a dog asleep
yet not give up its dream.

We wait, you and I, our hands
confiding objects
--silver bus pole, curved arm of a chair
-- yet seldom to each other pass
the rusty word, or a key.

I, who have trouble standing upright,
shall sit for hours,
and you--whose will has never been prone
-- will take to a bed not made.
Great God, I wish for none of this,

not Jeremiah, not Pharmikos.
I never asked for the gift of prophecy,
nor death. Insomniac, I live
for one insane clear vision:
how impossible it is

to make the day meet ends,
set for the time when nothing much will happen.


What would I take with me?
One day to choose, and forever to live
in exile. Ten books. Choose.
The Cloud of Unknowing. The Tragic Sense of Life.
The Odyssey. Blake. Burns. Chuang Tsu.
Twain. Rabelais. Meister Eckhardt. Santayana's letters.
I'm just getting started. I just used up.
Eleven--you, Mandelstam,
and smuggle out my wife's dry flowers,
all of her clothes.
Her kitchen, her body ... But they say I must confine myself
to inanimate things.


Dusk, stifling, covers the couch.
I strain to breathe.
What can I possibly love--godawful life
-- but again, this slender cross,
my secret way?

A single figure, yes, some honest artifact
that I may carve and hang
above the door, beyond the prow, when we arrive
wherever they send us. More champagne?

Let us christen, Love, this home we carry anywhere,
this dream we wish to fix
on every perishable floor. What pattern
suits exile, what preferable design?

A simple circle filled with figures--human, naked
-- or a single star? Forget
the memories you are. The day has been perfect, yes,
which means it never began; Love,

let us stand here forever--no pattern, no design
-- staring at the space, thank God, we never filled.


The dark, the avenging angels!
I thought I should lose them here.
Why do I flatter, fatten them
on myself? These are not angels,

the devils I breed in my head.
All night we grapple, cold reluctant actors
in a film. By morning, exhausted, sick, afraid
I sleep--the penis of my soul

limp, a cat caught in the squall.
A cockroach, thick as a thumb, climbs
the bare green linoleum walls.
What am I waiting for?

The avenging angels depart at dawn.
What follows may not be so kind.


Last night I had my second bad dream.
Alone in the dark, I cried, "Lord, Word, Somebody!
Let another's will be done, this day, not mine!"
Tonight the wind rages,

shutters clash, a wedge of rain assaults
the windows of my world. Where are we?
"Abbe, Father, keep us from cunning," I pray,
and shrink inside the defenseless bed.

Alla risae imas apo tou ponirou...
"Cunning" not "evil" serves the original Greek,
and who but the cunning know that?
Cunning brought me here. Bad dreams fill my bed.

Find shelter in what you do not know.


I am poor as nature,
plain as heaven,
and my freedom is false
as the voice of midnight birds.

I see a moon without breath,
a sky that is dead, like canvas.
And I accept--so pitiable, so strange
-- this world with all its emptiness.

A third bad dream I would like to forget:
I'd forgotten the names of my sons,
those who, sane and strong, I in my exile
am separate from. I'd forgotten

the name of my wife, yet she is still with me.
Loving sleep, afraid to go there, knowing
what I will find, I lie awake.
Some love, old or new, may visit me,

kind as the days are cold. My sons
departed on ships, sinking from sight,
small, as if the only passengers.
Huge hulls, dark night. They move toward stars

or other destinations: this life
always a little beyond our control.


I'd scarcely nailed the pictures to the wall
when they told us to move again. Where to, what next?
The price will go up, the place will be far.
Raw walls, sunken cottage. And drawings made with love

-- each turned yellow to the year
before disaster learned to govern us. Motion
is reaction not act, I thought, packing
what little we had to pack. Reaction

is what we own and how we spend our lives.
God help us (nobody else can).
Another portrait was hung in the palace tonight.
Another artist died for having finished it

at gun point. We heard the shot,
the slow train shunting,
passing, then
eastbound, storming into exile.


I say this as a sketch, a whisper, a proposal
only, because it is not yet time, may never be
-- the serious skill, the capricious will of heaven
not easily acquired.

And under the too wide temporal sky
of purgatory, we often forget
that heaven's fortunate shelter
is just a house, lifelong, you might have carried anywhere.


What we brought with us is:
memories of an old rust carpet,
a wooden crucifix, red worry beads,
grandmother's rosewood table,
the Kandinsky rug
(so named for its plethora of color),
my photo taken with William Stafford,
the book with Grandfather in it
(A Canoneer under Stonewall Jackson
-- how handsome I was in 1863!), my dad
at the Penn State Relays,
mother in upstate New York (Aunt Day's,
and fresh from Catherine Gibbs ),
a snapshot of Ghandi's possessions
(one bowl, one cup, two pair of sandals),
Karsavina with Nijinsky,
my sons (who are sane and strong, I hope),
a brick from every fireplace
by which we've sat, and lived.
What we brought with us is:
the Time-Life Science Library,
memories of an old brown bike,
The Conscious Brain by Steven Rose,
a mandolin, dulcimer, guitar,
snare drum, pork pies. Stout,
The Origin of Attic Comedy,
retsina, spanakopitta, feta cheese,
Huizinga's Homo Ludens,
The Middle Age Man on the Flying Trapeze,
The World of Karagiozis

…memories of letters from Molly, Trixie, Mark,
Janie, Kitten, Julie, Mary Jane,
Lee, Bud, Dick, Ed, Sarah
...What we brought with us is.


Exile keeps no hours, has no house.
The days pass, unacknowledged.
The villages hold festivals, many,
in which we take our distant delight

amused that masks so clearly marked,
so richly patterned
--faces flush with song and wine
-- have so little to do with time.

"I've never felt so light, so easy,"
you say. "The trees, air, water
--blessed, unbound--and this fresh year
bright with forgetfulness, yes,

they've forgotten all about us," you suggest.
Yet the fresh year sits
like cancer in my groin.
If only the dance would end. I'd sweep

all debris away: time
marred by spring flowers, stunted by sun,
the sin of wishing tomorrow
what it is, today.


I wandered a miniature forest
and found a grotto of blue.
Is it possible that I exist.
and, likewise, can I die?

The context now holds endlessly
annoyance, avoidance
arrogance in the face of
sumptered nerves. I'd take

a dose, daily, of airborne bread.
Yet no matter what I dare, dream, plan
I'm forced to prove
the thorn in someone's side (my own?)

and not one soul claims charity, no.
How fragile this balance,
how lonely this pride.
If love is a look that leaps toward

some other face (that's easy, it seems)
I see too often ruin like a riddle hold
love back. I learn what's given,
what love can take, and sleep

--often, always--with myself,
the one I trust and know.


Because this little or less is all there is,
we let our anger subside. You slip back
to the manger where hay and vetch and barley
abound, where no child wishes to be born,

where, in these separate hours, this lonely time,
after the first fit of argument or scorn,
someone crawls off to sleep--a soft cotton coward --
and woman, gorged with purpose, longs

to be just like him someday: worse than what came before.
Choose stone! That careful hollow sound
within utensils, a body to inhabit, this stove
by which we sit each morning, warm

as, childless, we shall ever be.
That's us--history. Just as hard to bear,
just as hard to ignore. We know love
at last, Love, because we have no others.

Wise with the terror we share.


Insomnia. Homer. Tight sails of ships
I've counted halfway down, a list
that turns--long brood--into a procession of cranes
rising, once, above Hellas.

A wedge of cranes crossing forbidden borders
--king's heads drenched with godly foam
-- where do they sail to? What would Troy be
to you, Achaean men, without Helen?

The sea, Homer--everything is moved by love.
To whom shall I listen? Homer is silent now;
the sea, black, noisy, oppressive as an orator,
skulks toward my pillow and starts to roar.


Not a bad thing I think, being the last
of a dying, but difficult being
the last of a very dead breed.
Mandelstam, you were none of these

yet somehow each. The perfect poet, dying.
And staved conviction: when arrested, dead.
Today, we have flapping of very light wings,
very light wings, indeed.

"The last giver of names" you've been called.
I approach all objects warily:
sheep hoof shoes and flickering swallows.
A tower. An arrow. A needle. A star.

At San Juan Bautista the other day
I saw the perfect Christ:
his slick wax body bent from human shape
to tortured stature

only the Cross can bring, right down
to where you'd least expect it: blood on the knees.
Mandelstam, we tourists of the soul
adore such artifacts, lightly, very lightly indeed.

Where is your word to tell the sordid truth of things,
the poem with life and death within it?
A glass of water, brought to boil,
is our coat of arms today.

So little music. And such silence.


There's little to do here but write poetry.
Vast space. Sheep bells.
The sometimes fertile plain
I tell myself not to look upon.

"is the fuckin' Civil War, Jack,"
I write, attempting something desperately new. "Take

as many Brady's as you can."
That one is confiscated.
"Let us meet at the river and sometimes sing,
wide as is spoiled by wanting," I write.

That one is misunderstood.
No rules for poetry in exile. Never
have been. Lots of time and all
can be set to paper, lost--

this load of alone, appropriate magic.
Suggest a theme. You? Me? Love?
By the time I find the paper, gone,
and no doorbell rung . . .

is a house we get to at just the right time.
What matters is ourselves
and who we came to see. "My in is out," I write.

That one confuses them.
They leave me alone.


No one with an ounce of sense
makes poetry.
Better stay away for many years
as wily Odysseus did

and when you get back home, remember,
it's all too good to be true. Poetry--
not something to be undertaken
lightly, or as a second career.

We manage here. We dance on a dime
(the only one we have) because of
or in spite of, poetry. Each day
we drag each other off

to read mysteries, in separate rooms,
and after, sleep, inside each other
the arrangement, if unusual, is good.

A dog by the fire. The news from outside
not the news you would choose to hear.
Inside, outside. Poetry, news.
I wish I could not tell the difference.


So what Fame, and who
would take the photo anyhow?
Stephen, my son, I guess.
So sad.

And who would say how fine I'd been
all along, all along. Lee,
my friend.
So sad.

And who would even bother to notice
congruences, mostly foreign: Seferis, Superville.
Hart Crane. Jack Spicer. The Russians, all.
Villon. Forget it ...

We all set out to find the experts
and discover the experts are us.
Impossible trade. What we've got here now
is a whole wad

of people working hard, too hard, toward
that precious end: poetry. The maker's death.
Almost as useful as a good cook, dog,
impatient fire, an even better bed or chair.

Why in this sweet morass is the work
of one name alone, yours
worth remembering?


And still I am not dead, nor alone,
living with my beggar-woman friend,
pleasure taken in the majesty of these stark plains;
fog, famine and the unforgiving snow.

With what handsome indigence, what sumptuous neglect
I live calm and self-reliant,
blessed by day, by night,
blessed with the honest music of hard work; yes,

unhappy that being who, a shade,
quivers at a dog's quick bark, or the razor wind.
And pitiable he who, half alive,
begs alms from his own shadow.


Had I known how hard it was going to be
I would not, perhaps,
have settled for such a small noise
in this world. Emily Dickinson, not

Mayakovsky, that's me. My motto
has always been "Perhaps."
The dew upon the shadow on the grass.
Compiant as a cat, I stroke

my agile self, and wince
as maniacal autos pass.
Some photographs I have--"who, ""why"
or "what might have been"--and a record

of eccentric behavior at parties.
I drop like salt on everything,
spoiling a little to preserve.
(The Russians, whose religion is suffering,

had no word for "weekend."
Faced with that double day, delicious,
they called it "veekend," after ours)
I've played too hard at work, perhaps

and worked too hard at play. I studied joy
so long I seldom sought it.
Sleep. Peace. Soft things. These I like.
Yet if I had it to do over again,

afraid of what you might understand
and walk away from, daily, readily,
I would be small, like Emily.
Compliant as a cat. A shadow, not the grass.


Do not compare: we who hold dearly to life
should not compare. With such kind terror
I consent to the plain's unending sight,
heaven's wide circle my only complaint.

I turn toward that servant of the air,
awaiting his charitable message, his restraint:
and summon my way, aswim in the endless arc
of a journey that neither ends nor begins.

Where the sky is immense, I wander, prepared
by grief that will never let go;
astride these infant hills of Voronezh,
so far from the all-too-human home of Tuscany.


They came for him.
He was there.
They came for him.
He was so many places
they knew exactly where
to find him.

They knew they had their man.
The plains, the poet,
the sky, the room.
They picked his work
from a box, read it
and arrested

what he knew.


Deprived of the sea, of both cartwheels and flight,
my footfall the only support on violent earth--
what can I expect? Cunning is the order of the day,
yet I still can't silence the cry of my lips.



I have studied the science of farewells--
nightly bareheaded complaints.
The oxen chew. Expectation is prolonged.
I revere the city's final hour, and await
that ceremony; the cock's night crowing,
when, lifting my load of itinerant grief,
I look into the distance with red eyes
and song mingles with the weeping of women.

Who knows, once the word "farewell" is said,
what true and final separation will begin?
What promise the cock, his loud crowing, proclaims
when fire on the Acropolis springs,
and dawn--which is new life,
the oxen complacently chewing--
who knows why the cock, a herald,
beats madly on the city's walls his wings?

I love the action of spinning,
the shuttle's release, the spindle's hum.
And look! Floating to meet us, like swan's down,
already barefooted Delia comes.
0 the meager foundation of this life,
and such small language for happiness!
Everything has happened before and will again.
Sweet only is knowing the moment.

Let it be. Transparent, this small shape
lies upon its clean, earthen dish,
like a squirrel's stripped hide.
A girl gazes, bending above the wax.
It is not for us to interpret Erebus.
Men know copper, women wax.
Often in battle do we find our lot,
but death comes to them as they tell fortunes.


The death that comes is not the death of the soul.
Nor is it the death of the body.
In extremity we discover someplace else--a spot
less vulnerable, intact: one we find

we have lots of but can't define. Extremity!
I went crazy on the first day of final exile.
Chock full of courage, I found I lacked hope.
I sang. I told stories. I danced like the fool I am.

Others said I lent them hope, and courage, yet
I was grateful, knowing
it came from themselves. I went crazy.
I walked on all fours, begging for bread,

a human dog, carting my backbone to the end.
What is one to believe, or know?
In extremity we discover someplace else--
crazy in final exile.


The shoulders, the legs, the chair gave way
but not the vowels.
Had I known how hard it was going to be
I'd have kept always

to my own grand manner, yawning like a caesura.
The heart gives way, the stomach also.
Soul too has its price: pride, praise, measure. I looked
for a vowel to break on the page

the way that widow women used to, all asunder,
paid to celebrate our grief, made theirs.
To begin again! as beggar women do,
I who have broken so many times

my friends have grown accustomed to it.
Yet they are no longer here.
No one is here, perhaps not even myself.
A very fresh start--as beggar women will--

awaiting the knock we ignored.


Your shape, tormenting and vague,
I was not able to touch in the fog.
"My Lord," I cried, choosing the words by mistake,
not knowing just what to say.

And God's name, like a giant bird,
flew from my chest, suddenly;
before me the swift mist thickening,
behind, an empty cage.

0 Father, Word, 0 Lord, my cry grows loud
at last. This, the final horror, I
could never imagine, when
body and soul, no longer tempted to be brave

let go. When sleep is not a refuge
and love, like memory, grants
one final sweet confusion: nothing passes--
no spring, no fireside, no girl.

The only coals grown cold are those of my soul.
Embarrassed by simplicity, I give birth
to some small conscience in this world.
There was no knock on the door.

They came for me when they were good and ready.
Poor as heaven,
plain as spring rain,
I knew it was time to go.

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