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

Iota and theta, the flute
of the Greeks gives no account –
insculpted and little reputed,
trench-crosser, it has matured and tightened.

You can’t drop it:
grit your teeth, you won’t master it.
You cannot draw its shape from your lips.
No language can impose words through it.

The flautist has no rest:
he thinks he’s alone, that one day
he shaped this birthplace he left,
his Aegean, of purple clay.

With a whisper of honor-loving lips,
that resound and remember in whispers,
he hurries to practice economy
and chooses his tones, fists clenched.

He takes steps that we will never take again,
just clay in the open hands of the sea,
and as soon as the sea is in my sight,
my accounts are turning into cancer.

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

Translated by Alistair Noon

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While living in internal exile in Voronezh, southwestern Russia, between 1935 and 38, the acmeist poet Osip Mandelstam composed around 90 poems. (As noted by Alistair Noon, the translator and editor of the new edition of Shearsman Books, it can be difficult to determine what counts as a separate poem.) Although self-contained, Iota and Theta… (officially untitled, like most compositions) has important neighbours: “Lush Crete’s the blue island”, “Nereids” and others from the preceding pages further orchestrate Mandelstam’s reclamation of his fundamentally classical orientation.

Iota and Theta… from the Third Workbook, and dated April 7, 1937, is a response, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir, Hope Against Hope, to the arrest of a German flautist the couple knew, referred to simply as “Schwab”: he was accused of espionage and died in a labor camp near Voronezh. Nadezhda records her husband’s repeated concerns about whether or not Shwab had been able to bring his flute to the camp and, if he had, whether further incriminations had resulted. These anxieties seem to be intertwined through the poem with Mandelstam’s memories of his own imprisonment, torture and attempted suicide, and some deep forebodings about the approaching post-exile period.

Exhibited in the art museum built in 1933 in Voronezh, Greek earthenware included depictions of flute players. These images, and perhaps the “toneless ditties” remembered in Keats’ Ode, provide the silence that haunts Mandelstam’s quatrains.

Its display of consonants and vowels in the opening line seems to evoke the sound of the modern flute that Shwab would have played, but another effect of distinguishing two particular Greek letters, is a reminder that the Greek flute, the souls, often consisting of two pipes. Mandelstam suggests both the instrument’s humble informality (being ‘unsculpted’, it is not found in the major artistic register of classical Greece) and its tenacity. The ‘tightening’ at the end of the first stanza and words such as ‘grip’ and ‘tightening’ in the second inevitably suggest rigor mortis and defiant, intractable bodily possession – the fight for life. Noon’s compound neologism “trench-crosser” takes the Russian word for “ditch” or “trench” in the war zone, and reminds us that the flute, in military uniform, becomes a fife. Thus, a tune or a poem can bear fruit as a weapon.

The unknown creator of the Greek vase and the poet, creator of its artistic “birthplace” and identity, seem to intertwine in the third stanza. Perhaps an old creation myth shimmers behind the image, but no divine potter appears: artists mold themselves and this one even shaped “his native sea”. The purple color of sea clay suggests the “dark wine” intensity of its blue, and perhaps an intertwining of lifeblood and bloodshed in battle.

As the flautist-poet scrutinizes his own sources of inspiration more deeply, the pressure of responsibility intensifies. He “practices economy”, an artistic essential – but his art is in danger of starving because to thrive it needs freedom of range. Now it’s as if the artist had become the amphora. The sea that he once seemed to have shaped, floods and submerges him. Art is drowned by history. And the poet’s own story subsumes the poem grammatically as it enters the last six lines. The economy of his art is collapsing and the lie is multiplying: “my accounts are turning into cancer”.

Mandelstam composed his poems by speaking them aloud, and it is this physical act of creation that is evoked by the insistent “whispers” of stanza four and by the fatal irruption of seawater in stanza five. As Noon’s commentary makes clear, Mandelstam strove in some poems to offer some redress to Stalin’s derogatory epigram, and the internal conflict seems to shape the dialectic of the Greek flute. The poems most faithful to the poet himself, the most “honourable”, have the potential to incriminate and destroy him. And, in a political machine that pardons the informer, moral suicide is the hideous alternative. In the last stanza, the poet-flutist turns on his own lips, the essential means of expression for one whose compositional process was so intimately linked to the spoken word. The flute in its final form acquires a cosmic dimension by analogy with the equinox, but a limit has been reached. The last terrible gesture of the poem consists in laying down an instrument that will never be taken up again.

In this poem as elsewhere, Alistair Noon’s translation aims to transpose into English not only the knotted density of meaning of Mandelstam, but the metrical and assonantal effects of the original poem. Tetrametric rhythm can be fast, light and nimble like a flute, or heavy and dull like clay, depending on the choice of diction. The accentual instabilities of the English tetrameter add a quality of improvisation – which is true to the nature of these poems. They are, to some extent, experiments – as implied by Noon’s choice of the term ‘binder’ in preference to the usual ‘notebook’.

Together with his essay and accompanying appendices, this collection of Voronezh’s workbooks is an important contribution to Mandelstam’s scholarship – and to the general understanding of the reader. A collection of lighter verse by the same poet, Occasional and Joke Poems, is published simultaneously, the generously annotated account of the younger and happier days of the poet’s life.

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

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