He who was the asteroid among poets
Power is disgusting, like licking a barber's hands.
- Osip Mandelstam, Ariosto
Thirty-nine years after his death on 27 December, in a ‘correction camp’, an asteroid discovered by a Soviet astronomer was named after Osip Mandelstam. The connection between this salutation and his poetry is both metaphoric and symbolic. Mandelstam’s poems were rocky and metallic, and political enough to raise alarm among Soviet authorities. As an integral part of the Acmeists, a group of poets who believed in the clarity and precision of form and expression, Mandelstam wrote in his manifesto, The Morning of Acmeism (written in 1913; published in 1919), that a poet’s world view should be ‘like a hammer in the hands of a stonemason’. He laid emphasis on the poem’s architecture, finding the Symbolists poor at it, and desired the poem to ‘conquer emptiness’ and ‘hypnotise space’.
Mandelstam’s first collection, Stone, published in 1913, was considered a landmark achievement of the Acmeist movement. In a poem he declares, ‘Nature is Roman, and mirrored in Rome’, and goes on to say: ‘and it seems/Pointless to trouble any gods again/There are sacrificial entrails to foretell war/ Slaves to keep silence, stones to build!’ That declaration seems to be the poet’s identification of Rome as the natural symbol of power. But the poet will not keep silent, and build his own stony architecture of protest. The metaphor of stone in Mandelstam points towards a double condition that presents a double challenge: of hammering down the house of power and building one’s own. Within this ambivalence of stone, Mandelstam describes the tricky predicament of his poetic self: ‘A double dealer am I, with a double soul./I am night’s friend. I am day’s vanguard soldier.’ In this declaration, which Gregory Freidin calls ‘equivocally unequivocal’, Mandelstam bares the ambivalence of bearing witness to the day’s crimes and writing them on paper at night. Such is the dangerous profit that he sought from his poetic duty. Mandelstam held this nighttime labour of poetry as a liberating source: ‘And my freedom is spectral/Like the voice of midnight birds.’
This voice of freedom ultimately led to Mandelstam’s peril. He composed and read his poem, Stalin Epigram, in a few gatherings in 1933. During the Stalinist era, poets often did not write down – or wrote secretly – politically controversial poems, but memorised and recited them in gatherings. Someone from the audience reported it to the police and it reached Stalin’s ears. In a famous incident recounted by Isaiah Berlin, Stalin called up Boris Pasternak to learn about Mandelstam and the lampooning poem. Pasternak tried to skirt the issue when Stalin asked if Mandelstam was a ‘master’ (Mandelstam disdained this Russian term, which meant a poet in the service of the state). Pasternak replied that he admired his poetry but did not feel any affinity with it. Stalin ended the conversation with a chilling reproof that if he were Mandelstam’s friend he would’ve done a better job of protecting him. When Berlin spoke to Anna Akhmatova, he learnt that she and Nadezhda Mandelstam had agreed to give Pasternak a ‘four out of five’ for his handling of the issue.
The poem, called 'the sixteen lines of a death sentence' by a critic, is a masterpiece in precision and imagery. In the first two lines, Mandelstam paints the dark, heavy fog over lives in Russia: ‘Our lives no longer feel ground under them./At ten paces you can’t hear our words.’ It reminds you of the epigraph in Akhmatova’s Requiem, of mothers speaking in hushed whispers in the prison queues during the days of the Yezhov terror, waiting endlessly for the release of their sons. Mandelstam’s poem then directly turns towards describing Stalin, ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’: ‘the ten thick worms of his fingers,/ his words like measures of weight,/the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,/the glitter of his boot-rims’. It is a rare occasion in poetry, when a chilling description matches its chilling subject. Stalin’s moustache of laughing cockroaches is a depiction worth a child’s nightmare. Tyrants have a tendency to reduce people into fearful children. Mandelstam’s historic achievement was to transform that terror into an equally macabre poetic vision.
Mandelstam was sentenced to the gulag twice: six months after the poem got leaked to the authorities, and again in 1938, the year of his death, charged with ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. In between he wrote, among many others, the controversial poem, Ode to Stalin. Mandelstam wrote the poem in the hope of a reprieve, evoking the propaganda-myth of Stalin as the ‘father’ and fastening himself to a problematic oedipal game (astutely analysed by J M Coetzee). But Mandelstam’s ode is also oblique, dark and clearly satirical, as he brings to light the desolate perversity of power. Mandelstam calls Stalin ‘the father of stubborn speeches’, having a ‘piercing earshot, which won’t tolerate a whisper’, and draws his image of one who ‘leans over from the stage, as from a mount on high/Into the mounds of heads’. The giant sovereign’s gaze turning people into a blurred mass furthers the oppressively imposing figure in ‘Stalin Epigram’. The layers of stony impressions and metallic sounds of words in both poems, systematically dismantling the tyrant’s edifice, reinforce the asteroid-like qualities of Mandelstam’s poetry.
Seventy-five years after the poet’s death, the widening (and often exilic) horizon of post-Soviet, Russian poetry, resonates with poignant hope when one reads Ilya Kaminsky and his Musica Humana: An Elegy for Osip Mandelstam.
The author is a poet and political science scholar. His first collection of poems, Ghalib’s Tomb and other poems, was published in November 2013 by The London Magazine