THE ARREST OF OSIP MANDELSTAM
It is one of the motifs of our time,
the poet dragged off
at two o’clock in the morning to a waiting lorry.
The hands of the clock come together
and move apart like a good marriage,
with regularity you can count on.
I passed the first half of tonight in bed
listening to inky uniforms outside
squelching crickets under black jackboots.
I heard trucks rumbling a block away
and lay on my belly like a Gauguin girl,
twisted sidelong, a fist against my heart,
empty and awake, mumbling incantations.
Relax, my wife said, it’s only thunder.
So I turned upright to the blazing comfort
of here, pen and paper ready for whatever comes—
the felicitous phrase, the line, the knock,
the lightning that always strikes at least once
to stop the spinning hands at two o’clock.
2. THE LOGIC OF IT ALL
Because the artist lies,
he is not to be trusted.
Because the artist lies adroitly,
he must be kept from the young.
Shoot him. Shoot the young.
Because in the artist’s lies
he hides the truth,
he is a spy. Hang him.
Unlike the inspired amateur,
the romantic schoolmaster
with truth under his heel,
the artist lives
life after expendable life
in no definite country
and regrets nothing.
3. AKHMATOVA’S EGG
What if nobody comes to eat the egg
set carefully in its china cup
for the favored, hungry visitor?
And what if too many come,
heavy-booted, to sweep the shelves of books
lining the entry to the kitchen?
And what if the egg is unbroken
after the handcuffed are led away
and the weeping have trailed after?
Oh, the starved books torn open on the floor!
Oh, the egg in its brittle cup!
4. THE DOPPLER EFFECT
There is a sound we have grown accustomed to
among all the other city noises,
the metallic goose-honk of the official
vehicles speeding toward an arrest.
And if we have listened to the makers — Lorca,
Mandelstam, Para, Soyinka . . . wherever they are now —
we have grown accustomed to wondering
while we lie open-eyed beside our sleeping lovers
what is hurtling toward us.
5. IMAGINING THE WORST
An NPR Special Report
From my own cell I listened to the screams of others being tortured
down the hall. I became a connoisseur of guesswork: the high whine of anticipation,
the involuntary bellowing of electric shock, thud of muscle and rubber,
the pitched outrage of rape. Names launched into the air, dates, and loud,
Interrupted or final.
When they finally came, they took me into a small room and left, except
for one who unhooked his trousers, held a limp cock against my thigh and
told me to scream.
How was I to understand, after that, the cries I heard all night?
6. CRACKING UNDER PRESSURE
The morning sun slams into my eyes
like a gooseneck lamp in a gangster flick
saying, Talk, Buddy.
Last night I was cuffed and quickmarched
through iron corridors until I woke up.
I need to know my dreams. I need to know
why I wake up bloodshot, my head livid
with the bruise of night
and the Chinese water of birdsong
picking at my brain until I break
7. A RIDDLE
They make us slap
We hear them after
they have gone
before they come again.
Light and breath
draw them near,
those we kill
for singing in our ear.
8. BALLAD OF A TELEPHONE CALL
Stalin: “But he’s a genius, a genius, isn’t he?”
Pasternak: “That’s not the point.”
Fingers poke through sheaves of dossiers,
requisitions for rope and horseshoes,
like greasy worms among the cabbage leaves.
Everybody’s uncle cradles a receiver
to his thick ear, pretending to understand.
It’s a question of poetry. Another poet
stands shivering in his communal hallway,
face wrapped, his body in a threadbare robe
while neighbor children scream for raspberry jam
to spread and swallow on their coarse bread.
We have it in several versions, only one
unforgiving. It’s a question of power:
If Poet Number Two can guess the magic word
Poet Number One may not be shot at once
and everybody’s uncle will sleep better.
The word, Poet Number Two implies, is not
genius, a word his listener begs to hear.
“I want to talk to you,” the poet says,
“about life and death.” Uncle hangs up,
let down not to be tutored in literature.
Poet Number Two accepts responsibility:
He paces the corridor, tries to call back,
throws on his clothes and ranges through a city
shivering with life and death, the close brush
always at hand, the sequence of numbers.
Uncle stares at lines of verse: Can’t breathe.
The welkin writhes with worms, and not
one star is speaking. Is this genius?
It’s genius or Jewish. Spare the kike now,
see what happens next, and sleep well.
Poet Number One in his common cell
tries to dream through the unwavering light
of vines that bud, bloom, bear and spill
rich wine into an outstretched goblet
until he is called to answer to his name.
Men have been hanged for a loaf of bread
and for dreaming of birds.
and work your way out of any prison.
What was my crime? Dreaming that a lord
slept uneasily in his own bed,
putting one word next to another word
and fleeing naked.
I recognized the man who held the cup
as one whose dreams I understood:
Hungry enough, all men are brothers —
those who cast me into the pit
and those who drew me out of it.
If there is found among them one still innocent,
let him be saddled with stolen goods
and humbled with the others.
10. LAST MEASURES
It’s a question of arithmetic:
Whether you are one among forty million
or one among six hundred
how your death is numbered
will be the stuff of monographs
on responsibility. A single
wrapped in the futility of a skin coat huddled over a lighted candle,
making his chapped mouth shape the syllables of remembered lines
in exchange for a slab of bread offered by five — count them, five — hungry
messengers of the criminal element
How thick a slab? How many grams
of fine white flour? Baked
in whose warm oven
for how long?
It is a winter night.
It is the last meeting.
On the makeshift table a candle burns,
burns with a familiar
indifferent yellow flame to illuminate
epigraph: Ward Abbott in The Nation, 2 August
like a Gauguin girl: “The Spirit of the
“The Logic of It All”
the romantic schoolmaster / with truth under
his heel: Nathan Hale, a Connecticut spy caught by the British
during the War for Independence, was found to have his notes hidden in
a false boot-heel. At his execution, he is reported to have said (quoting
Joseph addison’s Cato) “I only regret that I have but one life to
lose for my country.”
“Akhmatova’s Egg” (previously published in Poetry East)
See the account of Mandelstam’s arrest in Nadezhda
Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope.
“Cracking under Pressure” (previously published in Cyphers)
The Chinese water: the so-called “Chinese
water torture” of driving a captive mad by dripping water one drop at a
time on the forehead.
“Imagining the Worst”
NPR: National Public Radio. The poem is adapted
from an actual account.
“Ballad of a Telephone Call” (previously published in
epigraph: The speakers are Joseph Stalin and the
poet Boris Pasternak, in an actual call following Mandelstam’s arrest.
Several images in this poem are derived from Mandelstam’s
lampoon of Stalin, the proximate cause of his first arrest.
only one / unforgiving: Pasternak’s own
interpretation of his behavior.
Can’t breathe . . . star is speaking: A
deliberately clumsy translation of the opening lines of Mandelstam’s
“??????? ?? ???????, “ to approximate the way in which the philistine Stalin
might read the poet.
tries to dream: See the following
“Joseph” (previously published in Denver Quarterly)
See Genesis 39-45. When I wrote this poem, I had
not yet learned of Mandelstam’s own self-identification with the Biblical
Joseph, whose name (in his case, in the form Osip) he shared with Stalin.
See the account of Mandelstam’s death at the end
of Hope Against Hope.
It is a winter night. / It is the last meeting:
Pasternak and Akhmatova poems, images from which inform the following lines.
All of “The Arrest of Osip Mandelstam” has been previously
published in The New Hampshire College Journal.