January 2, 2008

Bursting on the broken backbone of an age

To describe the seeming connection of disparate expressions, to speak of a literature, Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called upon the language of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Comparing the unfolding fan of seamed phenomena to the lines that stitch together a literature, Mandelstam gave poetry the presence of a breathing, dying, remembering body.

He writes of language itself as a field of duration. Not as a medium of accumulation or the expression of progress, but words as both fighting to still the living flux of time and themselves the unhardened breath of being; elastic and ghosting in a commanding potency, while vulnerable to the forces that will, it is promised, diminish, deaden, and silence them:

"The age will cease its noise, culture will fall asleep, the people will be regenerated after having been given over their best energies . . . and all this current will draw after it the fragile ship of the human word into the open seas of the future, where there is no sympathetic understanding, where sad commentary replaces the fresh wind of the enmity and the sympathy of contemporaries."

Celan, in the wake of the Holocaust, described poetry as a message adrift, a bottled bundle battling to find its proper shoreline. With his ever acute sense of isolation, the analogy accentuates the islands of reception. For Mandelstam, writing before the Holocaust, but with a desperate sense of that age to come, poetry moves through those entropic waters polluted by history, linking the future to its past through the memory of what cannot be purified.

The words move with the waters, defined by their weakening and endurance, like an image flashing on the blood-sotted screen of a closed lid. They thus bind us to the most necessary expressions of the past, while the poison waters, like thinning or clotting blood, risks wrecking the reception:

My age, my beast -- who will be able
to look into your eyes
who will glue together with his blood
two centuries' vertebrae?
Blood the builder gushes
through the throat from earthly things,
the hanger-on is only trembling
on the sill of future days.

Blood the builder gushes
through the throat from earthly things
and like a burning fish it throws
warm sea-cartilage on the shore
and out of the high bird-net,
from the damp blocks of azure,
pours, pours indifferently
onto your mortal wound.

To liberate the captive age,
to make a start at the new world
the passages of knotted days
must be connected by a flute.
That's the age that rocks the wave
with human melancholy
and in the grass the adder breathes
to the age's golden measure.

And the buds will go on swelling
and the spirit of green will burst,
but your backbone has been shattered,
my beautiful, pitiful age.
Cruel and weak, you'll look back
smiling senselessly
like an animal that used to be supple
on the tracks of your own paws.

--O.M., "The Age" 1923 (Clarence Brown translation).