Friday, June 22, 2012

Poem from Osip Mandelstam

The taunting form of your face
eluded my grasp in the cloud.
God, I called out by mistake—
I’d never called him aloud.

God’s name unfurled from my chest
like a bird from a cage and
soared through the thick, swirling mist.
Behind the bare cage I stand.

                  trans. Holly Woodward

Osip Mandelstam's poem

My mouth is frozen cold—

my skin is shivering,

but the sky dances gold,

commanding me to sing:

Weep, suffer love, know it,

and don’t drop the frail ball,

you tormented poet,

that I’ve lightly let fall.

So this is the real tie

to heaven’s secret realms,

in this heavy, dark sky—

the sadness overwhelms.

What if, above that shop,

this star shining so hard

were suddenly to drop

through my heart like a shard?

translated by Holly Woodward

Two judgments bookend Mandelstam’s work:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses and was about to dismiss them. But Makovsky said that he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” He turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He then had to publish the poems.
A second judgment came n 1934, under Stalin’s escalating reign of terror. Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. He never wrote the lines down.
When a copy arrived on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow knew it. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked him, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Daisy from my Mother's Grave

My great-grandmother, Elizabeth Woodward, wrote poems as a girl growing up in Brooklyn. Her ten children left her with little time to write, but some of her childhood verse was published in the New York papers. This poem in memory of her mother she kept to herself. Into this page of her journal she slipped a tiny wild daisy from her mother’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery.

To a Daisy from my Mother’s Grave, 1852

When hills and meads were brown and bare

And wintry winds swept chilly by

This little daisy blossomed fair

Beneath a cold and foreign sky.

Sweet little flower, it raised its head

Within the Greenwood’s hallowed ground

And smiled above the lovely dead

The last which graced that quiet mound.

In youth the hand of her now cold

Beneath the spot that marked thy smile,

Oft plucked the daisy from the mould

In her and thine own native isle.

Yet like thee from the English shore

Transplanted neath the western sky

She passed away life’s transient hour

Midst peaceful scenes at last to die.

Tis thine to boast no colors gay

Tis thine no stately green to wear

So would affection stoop to pay

A tribute to the one so dear.

I doubly prize the little gem

Since blooming on my mother’s grave

My father snipped thy tender stem

To me this simple flower gave.

Sweet daisy we would learn from thee

To scorn no power that we may hold

The humblest offering that may be

Is oft more dear than gems or gold.