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Poem of the week: Iota and Theta … by Ossip Mandelstam | Poetry


Iota and theta, flute
Greek does not give recitation –
vague and disreputable,
trench-crosser, he matured and lingered.

You can’t let it out of your hands:
grit your teeth, you can’t stop it.
You can’t get her form out of your mouth.
No tongue can squeeze words through it.

The flutist knows no rest:
he believes that he is alone, that one day
he shaped the birthplace he left
his of the Aegean, of purple clay.

With the whisper of lips that love honor
that sound and echo in whispers,
he is in a hurry to farm
and chooses his tones, concisely.

He takes steps we’ll never repeat
just clay in the open palms of the sea,
and as soon as the sea is in sight,
my calculations are turning into cancer.

I don’t even like my lips –
murder also hangs on this vine –
helpless I let the flute sink
its equinox on the decline…

Translated by Alistair Nunn

Living in exile in Voronezh, in southwestern Russia, between 1934 and 1937, poet-acmeist Vosip Mandelstam wrote about 90 poems. (As noted by Alistair Noone, translator and editor a new edition by Shearsman Booksit can be difficult to determine what counts as a separate poem.) Although self-contained, Iota and Theta … (formally untitled, like most of Voronezh’s compositions) has important neighbors: Lush Crete Blue Isle, Nereids, and others from the preceding pages even more organize Mandelstam’s restoration of his fundamentally classical orientation.

Iota and Theta… from the Third Workbook and dated April 7, 1937, is the answer, according to the memoirs of Hope Mandelstam. Hope against hope , before the arrest of a German flautist known to the couple, they were simply called “Swabian”: he was accused of espionage and died in a labor camp near Voronezh. Hope records her husband’s repeated anxieties about whether Schwab was able to take his flute to the camp and, if so, whether further charges would result. These anxieties seem to be intertwined in the poem with Mandelstam’s memories of his own imprisonment, torture, and suicide attempts, as well as some deep forebodings about the approaching post-exile period.

Displayed in art museum built in 1933 in Voronezh, there were images of flutists on the Greek earthenware. These images and possibly “choruses without tone” recalled from Keats’s ode, create a silence that haunts Mandelstam’s quatrains.

His placement of the consonants and vowels in the opening line seems to create the sound of a modern flute that Schwab would have played, but the other effect of highlighting the two separate Greek letters is a reminder that the Greek flute, aulos, often included two pipes. Mandelstam shows both the humble informality of the instrument (being “unsculptured”, it is absent from the mainstream artistic records of classical Greece) and its tenacity. The “hardening” at the end of the first stanza, and words like “grip” and “squeezing” in the second, inevitably suggest rigor mortis, as well as unruly, unruly, bodily possession – the struggle for life. Non’s complex neologism “trenchman” transfers the Russian word “trench” or “trench” to the combat zone and reminds us that a flute in military uniform becomes a pipe. Thus, a melody or verse can bear fruit as a weapon.

In the third stanza, the unknown creator of the Greek vase and the poet, the creator of his artistic “homeland” and personality are intertwined. Perhaps there is an old creation myth behind the image, but no divine potter is visible: artists sculpt themselves, and this one even formed “his native sea.” The purple color of sea clay suggests the “wine-dark” intensity of its blue, and perhaps the intertwining of life and blood in battle.

As the flutist poet looks deeper into his own sources of inspiration, the pressure of responsibility increases. He “practices austerity,” an artistic basis, yet his art risks starvation because it needs the freedom of range to flourish. Now the artist seems to have become an amphora. The sea that he seemed to have formed earlier floods and drowns him. Art is drowned in history. And the poet’s own story grammatically includes the poem as it enters the last six lines. The economy of his art collapses and lies multiply: “my calculations turn into cancer.”

Mandelstam composed his poems by speaking them aloud, and it is this physical act of creation that is evoked by the insistent “whisper” in the fourth stanza and the fatal rush of seawater in the fifth. As Nunn’s commentary makes clear, Mandelstam sought in some poems to offer some compensation for the humiliating Stalin epigram, and internal conflict seems to shape the dialectic of the Greek flute. Poems, the most true to the poet himself, the most “honorable”, able to accuse and destroy him. And in a political machine that defers to the whistleblower, moral suicide is the abhorrent alternative. In the final stanza, the flutist poet turns to his own mouth, the necessary means of communication for one whose compositional process was so closely tied to speech. The flute in its final form takes on a cosmic dimension from the equinox analogy, but a limit is reached. The final eerie gesture in the poem is to lay down an instrument that will never be picked up again.

In this poem, as elsewhere, Alistair Nunn’s translation aims to bring into English not only the knotty density of Mandelstam’s meaning, but also the metrical and assonant effects of the original poem. A tetrameter rhythm can be fast, light and nimble like a flute, or heavy and pounding like clay, depending on the choice of diction. The accentual instabilities of English tetrameter add to the improvisational nature of these poems. These are to some extent experiments – as can be seen from Nunn’s choice of the term “workbook” over the usual “notebook”.

Together with the accompanying essay and appendix, this collection of the Voronezh Workbooks is an important contribution to Mandelstamian scholarship—and to the understanding of the general reader. A collection of lighter poems by the same poet Occasional and humorous poemsat the same time, a generously annotated record of the poet’s young, funniest days is published.

The Russian text of this week’s poem can be read here.

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