“death of the book à la russe”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

We live without feeling the land beneath us,
Our speeches can’t be heard ten steps away.

But whenever there’s enough for half a chat–
Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer.

His fat fingers are plump as worms,
And his words are as sure as iron weights.

His mighty cockroach moustache laughs,
And his vast boot-tops gleam.

A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him,
He toys with the favors of half-humans.

One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers,
He alone bangs and pokes.

He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes–
One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye.

Every execution is a treat
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.

–Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” translated by Clare Cavanagh

I wrote in an earlier post (poem as threat to national security/as terrorist act I: Guantánamo Bay) that in particular historical situations the writing of a poem has been perceived as a terrorist act or as a threat to national security — recent examples of this include poetry written by some of the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, anthologized in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007), and Pussy Riot’s musical expression which led to the imprisonment of  Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Tolokonnikova being currently held in IK-14, in the same penal colony — the Dubrovlag —  that once housed the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was herself sentenced to a lengthy term in the 1980s for writing poetry deemed anti-Soviet.

The paradigmatic historical example of the poem as terrorist act is Osip Mandelstam, whose “Stalin Epigram” was described by his wife as “uncharacteristically coarse.” (Most of his verse is known for its intimate character and its musical play, poems which proceed by a kind of aural logic almost impossible to translate into a new language.) But as Clare Cavanagh points out in her important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Russian and Polish poets of the 20th century have often found the need to insist upon the private nature of the lyric, the stanza or private room as stay against the monolithic culture of the state. The private realm of the lyric in itself becomes by situational necessity a political space. Seamus Heaney once described Mandelstam as “a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’ Mandelstam died because he could not suppress his urge to sing in his own way” (XX The Government of the Tongue). Heaney also describes this effect as “poet as potent sound-wave” (xx).

Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda however also noted in Hope Against Hope that she thought her husband deliberately wrote and performed his “Stalin Epigram” for people they could not entirely trust; she saw this uncharacteristic, “coarse” (‘political’?) poem, as deliberate provocation: he was baiting Stalin. Here is Cavanagh, on this “terrorist act”:

On hearing the ‘Stalin Epigram,’ Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: ‘This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide.’ Mandelstam’s interrogator likewise saw his unauthorized lines as exceeding the reach of literature proper: they were a ‘provocation,’ a ‘terrorist act,’ he charged. And Mandelstam apparently ceded the point: the poem was, he confessed, ‘a widely applicable weapon of counter-revolutionary struggle.’ All three agreed that these were not words, but deeds.
— Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics p.114

Cavanagh offers an interesting challenge to poststructuralist conceptions of écriture, the death of the author, and the death of the book by insisting on the cultural specificity required for such readings (that a metaphorical, not actual, death of the/an author is required). She notes that such phrases as the “death of the author” or the “death of the book” “are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice” (p.110). She goes on to describe the many poets and writers in Soviet Russia who have had to literally burn or destroy or hide or never write down in the first place, their books, in addition to the many poets and writers who died at the hands of the state — hence the title of Chapter 3 on acmeism, a chapter I highly recommend: “The Death of the Book à la russe“.

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