Surviving the Censor: The Unspoken Words of Osip Mandelstam, by Rafi Aaron
Reviewed by Shane Neilsen
Initially, I was wary of this book. The title was a red flag; Who dares put words in Osip’s mouth? I thought. It is my own practise to write, on Christmas Eve, a poem to the dead Mandelstam, a practise I’ve made for the past five years. Never in one of those years did I think to be so bold as to put words in his mouth. I may have used his patronymic, I might have imagined an anecdote or two, but never did I actually presume to speak for Mandelstam. I would have felt it wrong on two counts: the dead don’t talk, unless a hidden letter or manuscript becomes available, and secondly I would have been digging myself a hole. After all, who can sing like Mandelstam, who can carry it off?
Mostly, though, I imagine Nadezdha Mandelstam, author of the memoirs Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, clucking her possessive tongue at the very idea. I don’t want to make the same Aaronian mistake and presume to know what she would say, but I can’t help but imagine Nadezdha, who to some extent did survive the censor with two anti-totalitarian books, urging Aaron to develop his own voice as opposed to an attempt at ventriloquism.
But then I thought of Nadezdha’s beloved M. and his own practise of ventriloquism. For example, Mandelstam wrote “The Finder of a Horseshoe (A Pindaric fragment),” and it is no secret that Mandelstam’s guiding poetic influence was Dante. So, let Mandelstam be Aaron’s Dante, I say, and as a reviewer allow it to go no further than that.
Aaron’s first poem, “Let Us Begin at the End”, makes an interesting beginning of itself: it can be contrasted greatly with Mandelstam’s technique, which was densely lyrical, symbol-rich, stanzaic, and in the early going, allusive. Aaron’s poem is, by contrast, rather dream-like, typographical, and visual:
his words fall
silently like rain in the middle of the night, the world is asleep
or not listening
the words tap on the dark glass or the dream and are heard
in the memory of a previous storm
they drop into tiny pools
Now, I think it is fair to ask the question: Is this indeed what Mandelstam would say, or rather is it how he would say it? The answer is obvious: No. Mandelstam’s lyrics were blessed and free from sentiment; you’d never catch Mandelstam ending a poem like this
singing and dancing
and as long as his lips move
and he can feel the words, the sharp words
the soft words and the words he will never use
then he is alive
Of course this is elegy, using the device of a dead poet pronouncing on his own death, and much in Mandelstam is elegiac (life and work), but this poem just serves as preliminary: here, Aaron says, are the soft words and words he will never use, I will give them to you. As a reviewer, I object to this appropriation on the grounds that the poem is not very good; it is another argument to say if poets should write poems like this, but when they do, they had better do it well. Where is the majesty of Mandelstam? The mysteriousness of his images? It seems to me that “soft words and words he will never use” are not unspeaking softly in this clunker poem, and it’s those “soft” words Aaron himself needs to pull the collection off, and so I read this poem more as an elegy to Aaron’s powers as a poet. Mandelstam, after all, was a master.
Perhaps the most egregious intrusion on Mandelstam’s memory is the idea of a prose poem. All of Mandelstam is antithetical to the idea, and Aaron’s standard use of the prose poem suggests a kind of game: here is an updated, modernized Mandelstam. Aaron’s prose bits (one can’t even call them Mandelstam lite, so utterly are they unlike the presiding poet) are atmospheric, but they are unburdened of image. It’s hard for me to sit through snippets like the following:
His voice rose from somewhere, from a gorge or a
canyon, a lost year or a forgotten photograph. So soft, so
powerful, a whisper commanded me to follow him. And
so I travelled close to his words wearing the white sea
on my tongue. I reached the mountains or the coastal
plains, it made no difference, the night curled its lips
and spoke of darkness, and still waters dreamt of waves.
unless I’m sitting on my hands, wondering about the botching of a reputation. This is portentous and vague; Mandelstam faced down the century with lyric, and here he is served up gooey and prosy. And it’s not a case of like attracting unlike; I wouldn’t forgive this poem in a different collection under different pretences. “And so” in a poem? There is the occasional sop to poetry “white sea on my tongue,” but it’s abandoned later — indeed makes “no difference”– when we conjure up the dark speaking of darkness, the still water, etc. There are many prose poems like this, lyrically lax with overdone foreboding. Consider the similarly lighting-obsessed “What Mandelstam Meant To Russians During the Stalin Years”:
Now imagine during this period the smallest of
flames is somehow flickering outside your window. It
has the strength of the morning sun breaking through
your shutters, It is all that separates you from the
darkness of the day and the darkness of the night. You
spend your life by this flame and melt into its glow. After
many hours or days or months you believe you can train
the flame to leap higher on the walls…
I get it, I get it: it was a dark time, and Mandelstam offers a light. What Mandelstam never offered was a sledgehammer, his Acmeist “nostalgia for word culture” a subtle, omnivorous, syncretist thing that wouldn’t have suffered either “the” or the dreading hanging “it” as line breaks. It would be safe to say that this book is utterly without fidelity, an odd thing for the claim laid out in the title. One might have, in speaking for Mandelstam, appropriated his voice as a means of establishing credibility, and then ventured something new. This just reads like a young poet jazzed on the legend of Mandelstam and using him for his own purposes.
But my “How dare he” radar really trips when Aaron manipulates Mandelstam into pronouncing on the regime. Well, Mandelstam already did that better in “We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,” a poem on Stalin, with lines like
We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,
Ten feet away you can’t hear the sound
Of any words but “the wild man in the Kremlin,
Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin…”
But with Aaron all we get in “A Moment’s Rest from My Life” is
Understand this. I did not chart this course nor did I
abandon it once it became clear. What happened
happened quickly. After the revolution many things would
be lost forever. I feared for the life of a single word:
poisoned by the regime, I discovered it listless on the page.
Which is livelier, which is indeed even alive? I’m not contrasting the rebelliousness of Mandelstam’s poem (which had lethal consequences) to Aaron’s (which was presumably composed in relative tranquility); it’s true that Mandelstam had a five-year period where he wrote no poetry, so Aaron’s poem is historically valid. What I’m contrasting is the devastating line, alternately translated, of “ten feet away you can’t hear the sound / of our speeches” with “What happened / happened quickly.” In Aaron, it’s all about what’s not happening; the presiding genius-poet just isn’t coming through. I’m going to call this prose, for that’s what it is, and I’m going to call it “listless on the page,” because it is.
All of this is not to say that Aaron is thoroughly dubious as a poet; he has redeeming moments. When he actually tried to write poetry, and not prosy poems, he does quite well. “Lubyanka”, a poem written to the secret police prison, is very successful:
Lubyanka the century is shaking, every stone is
a tear, admit what you are: the half-sister of truth,
the commissar of fear, the poison the hungry
Whoa. The image of that fear-inducing building being constructed by individual tears, so that it is the edifice itself of fear, the officialdom of fear, that the starved, terrorized populace were fed its meat (Nadezdha Mandelstam said: “It was the height of satanic refinement to give the victims of terror every opportunity, before their arrest, to dishonour themselves by extolling it.”) this is where Mandelstam can be found. Let it be said that Aaron found Mandelstam in this book, just not as much, nor in the places he expected.
For there are just too many moments where Aaron makes vague pontifications that serve to indict his art: usually about light and silence. In “The Years of Silence” he concludes, in a form that might as well be laid down as prose, that
flashes of light died darkness inherited our words,
and what could never be
written or spoken
weaved its way
into the mind
and echoed in the ear.
A little of this is fine; it’s clear Aaron has made light and silence his dominant themes, but as they accumulate they seem to be saying: I can do nothing else, all I can do is name these words vaguely and hope for the best.
There are a handful of good poems here, poems like “Lubyanka” but also “Listening to the Elevator” and “Natasha Shtempel and the Evacuation of Voronezh,” poems that fulfill Jospeh Brodsky’s formulation of Mandelstam’s genius: “[W]hat matters in art is precisely the unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible mixture of flesh and spirit…” Notice the words unique, unrepeatable, unressurectible… but this collection is all about resurrection at length, and it seems as if this collection were made to fit, and brought out to length with filler. Nadezdha has written on the long poem sequence, saying that “Long poetic works of the kind we are speaking [Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero”] always have a special momentum of their own which carries the reader along — as it has previously carried along the author — in an irresistible poetic surge, snatching him up like a wave, and setting him down again only at the end, at the final pause.” Aaron’s urge was best resisted; the poems feel like notes to future poems, and there is no momentum in the book.
Occasionally Aaron gives the stage over to an unnamed “researcher” and to Nadezdha. His style does not change — he steamrolls over them the same way he steamrolls over Osip. But let’s give the last word — the real last word — one of the real ventriloquized, to Nadezdha, who might have been warning Aaron when she said: “I was upset that M. did not sleep at night, indulging in these feats of poetry instead. But he calmed me by saying that the more difficulties you had to contend with, the better it was for your poetry — you would write nothing superfluous. I believe he was right.” Perhaps, in the end, it’s best to leave Mandelstam alone.