“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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poem as risk to national security/as terrorist act pt. 1: Guantánamo Bay

June 23, 2013 § Leave a comment

DEATH POEM

Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the ‘protectors of peace.’

— Jumah Al Dossari, Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007)

The Guardian reported yesterday that the US is escalating tactics to break the current hunger strike at Guantánamo Bay (“US steps up efforts to break Guantánamo hunger strike”). These new, more brutal techniques are said to include “making cells ‘freezing cold to accentuate the discomfort of those on hunger strike'” and “the introduction of ‘metal-tipped’ feeding tubes” into prisoners’ stomachs twice a day, a technique which causes them to vomit. Two-thirds of the detainees who still remain at the prison camp are said to be participating in the strike: there are 166 prisoners still at Guantánamo; 104 are participating in the hunger strike; 44 are being force-fed, a method which violates international medical ethics specified in the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Malta [1].

Jumah Al Dossari, a former detainee at Guantánamo, released in 2007, and the author of “Death Poem,” participated in the first summer hunger strike at Guantánamo in 2005; of this experience he reported to his lawyer the prisoners were willing to die in order to protest the conditions in which they were being held. It has been documented that during his time in captivity Al Dossari tried to kill himself twelve times; once “he was found by his lawyer, hanging by his neck and bleeding from a gash to his arm” (Poems from Guantánamo p.31). US authorities have described such suicide attempts, by Al Dossari and others, as “manipulative self-injurious behavior” (p.2). Marc Falkoff, the editor of Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, in which Al Dossari’s “Death Poem” appears, notes that when “three detainees successfully killed themselves in June 2006, the military called the suicides acts of ‘asymmetric warfare'” (p.2).

It’s not surprising then that if a successful suicide can be understood as “asymmetric warfare,”  poems written by prisoners at Guantánamo over the years might be characterized by the US military as representing a “special risk” to national security. Amnesty International quotes the Pentagon’s reaction to the publication of this volume of poetry:

While a few detainees at Guantánamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art. They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies. (Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. J. D. Gordon, quoted by Amnesty International Magazine, Fall 2007.)

It also sounds very familiar. In 1933 the poet Osip Mandelstam was taken into custody for writing a poem about Stalin (which has come to be known as the “Stalin epigram”):

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches.
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.  (p.100 Hope Against Hope)

He was detained in the notorious Lubianka, headquarters of the Cheka, the secret police. Here he was subjected to many of the same techniques used on the Guantánamo Bay captives, such as sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, humiliation, isolation, a complete cutting off of all that binds a human being to the outside world.

Osip Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, describes how he had even made a contingency plan for carrying out suicide after the inevitable detention by the Cheka, persuading a cobbler to “secrete a few blades” in the sole of his shoe. As with Jumah Al Dossari, Mandelstam attempted suicide by slashing his wrists. Nadezhda writes, on going to visit him there upon his provisional release (on the condition he go into internal exile), “I saw that M. had bandages on both wrists. When I asked him what was wrong with them, he just waved his hands, but the interrogator delivered himself of an angry speech about how M. had brought forbidden objects into his cell — an offence punishable under such-and-such an article. It turned out that M. had slashed his veins with a razor blade.” (p.89, Hope Against Hope).

The parallels continue. Marc Falkoff observes that the majority of the poems written at Guantánamo did not receive security clearance for publication, and remain classified (he is writing in 2007). Many of the poems were confiscated and destroyed before the prisoners could even give the poems to their lawyers. The poems, the military maintain, are a security risk because of their “form and content.” Coded messages might be sent. Poetic language is protean and resists literal interpretations; it can be read in many ways. Falcoff:

Still, the earliest of the poems we submitted for classification review were deemed unclassified, and it was only after the Pentagon learned that we were putting together a book of the poems that the hand of censorship came down. Hundreds of poems therefore remain suppressed by the military and will likely never be seen by the public. In addition, most of the poems that have been cleared are in English translation only, because the Pentagon believes that their original Arabic or Pashto versions represent an enhanced security risk. Because only linguists with secret-level security clearances are allowed to read our clients’ communications (which are kept by court order in a secure facility in the Washington, D.C., area), it was impossible to invite experts to translate the poems for us. The translations included in the collection, therefore, cannot do justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals. (“Poems from Guantánamo,” Amnesty International magazine, Fall 2007).

Nadezhda Mandelstam notes that Mandelstam’s interrogator, Christophorovich, was known as a “literature specialist.” (p.94) (the equivalent I imagine of a “linguist with secret-level security clearance”):

Christophorivich referred to the poem as a ‘document’ and to the writing of it as a ‘terrorist act.’ At our interview he said he had never before set eyes on such a monstrous ‘document.’ (p.97)

Of the other members of the Cheka, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes,

But the extraordinary thing about those times was that all these ‘new people,’ as they killed and were destroyed themselves, thought that only they had a right to their views and judgements. Any one of them would have laughed out loud at the idea that a man who could be brought before them under guard at any time of the day or night, who had to hold up his trousers with his hands and spoke without the slightest attempt at theatrical effects — that such a man might have no doubt, despite everything, of his right to express himself freely in poetry. (p.96)

The prisoners at Guantánamo would have no difficulty in understanding such a right. Marc Falkoff points out that the need to find human expression for their experiences was so strong amongst the early Guantánamo captives that they wrote their first poems, without having access to pen or paper, on styrofoam cups:

Many men at Guantánamo turned to writing poetry as a way to maintain their sanity, to memorialize their suffering and to preserve their humanity through acts of creation. The obstacles the prisoners have faced in composing their poems are profound. In the first year of their detention, they were not allowed regular use of pen and paper. Undeterred, some drafted short poems on Styrofoam cups retrieved from lunch and dinner trays. Lacking writing instruments, they inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste, then passed the “cup poems” from cell to cell. The cups were inevitably collected with the day’s trash, the verses consigned to the bottom of a rubbish bin. (“Poems from Guantánamo,” Fall 2007 Amnesty International Magazine).


[1] See “Letters: Stop Guantanamo Bay force-feedings“, The Guardian 16 June 2013. Shaker Aamer, the last remaining British resident of the prison, has alleged that some nurses participating in the force-feeding sessions have stopped wearing name-tags so that they cannot be identified; he also notes one detainee had a feeding tube accidentally placed into a lung, which caused him to cough up blood. The current hunger strike began in February of this year.

“the idyllic era of cushions was at an end”: 20th century lyric genres

June 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

Some twentieth century lyric genres [1]:

1. poem written on cigarette pack lining and buried, Makronisos, Greece, c.1948:

 “even under the harshest conditions on Makronisos [an island detention centre for political prisoners after the Second World War], Ritsos was constantly writing, on whatever scraps of paper he could find, including the linings of cigarette packs, which he hid or buried in bottles in the ground” — “Introduction,” Diaries of Exile p.viii Translators Karen Emmerich and Edmund Keeley

1a. variant: poem written on cigarette paper, the Small Zone, Barashevo Labour Camp, Mordovia, USSR, c. 1983:

“In minute letters, I write out my latest poems on four-centimetre-wide strips of cigarette paper. This is one of the our ways of getting information out of the Zone. These strips of cigarette paper are then tightly rolled into a small tube (less than the thickness of your little finger), sealed and made moisture-proof by a method of our own devising and handed on when a suitable opportunity presents itself.” — Grey is the Color of Hope Irina Ratushinskaya p.75

1b. variant: poem placed in glass preserving jar and buried in the garden, by night. USSR, c. Stalinist Russia:

“[Andrei Sinyavski] tells how, at the height of the Stalin terror, Alexander Kutzenov used to seal his manuscripts in glass preserving jars and bury them in his garden at night-time.” —The Government of the Tongue, Seamus Heaney, p.97

2. poem hidden in cushion or saucepan, Stalinist Russia, c.1934:

“I began to make copies and hide them in various places. Generally I put them in hiding-places at home, but copies I handed to other people. During the search of our apartment in 1934 the police agents failed to find poems I had sewn into cushions or stuck inside saucepans and shoes….Voronezh [where Osip served part of his sentence of exile after writing the “Stalinist epigram”] marked a new stage in our handling of manuscripts. The idyllic era of cushions was at an end — and I remembered all too vividly how the feathers had flown from Jewish cushions during Denikin’s pogroms in Kiev. M.’s memory was not as good as it had been, and with human life getting cheaper all the time, it was in any case no longer a safe repository for his work….” — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, p.324

3. poem in a burnt notebook, Moscow, c.1938-41

“…suddenly, in mid-conversation, [Akhmatova] would fall silent and, signalling to me with her eyes at the ceiling and walls, she would get a scrap of paper and a pencil; then she would loudly say something very mundane: ‘Would you like some tea?’ or ‘You’re very tanned’, then she would cover the scrap in hurried handwriting and pass it to me. I would read the poems and, having memorized them, would hand them back to her in silence. ‘How early autumn came this year,’ Anna Andreevna would say loudly and, striking a match, would burn the paper over an ashtray…” — Lydia Chukovskaya, The Akhmatova Journals Volume 1, 1938-1941, (p.6)

4. poem remembered during the night shift at the textile factory, Strunino, USSR, c.1950s:

“Working on the night shift and running between one machine and another in the enormous shop, I kept myself awake by muttering M.’s verse to myself. I had to commit everything to memory in case all my papers were taken away from me, or the various people I had given copies to took fright and burned them in a moment of panic — that had been done more than once by the best and most devoted friends of literature. My memory was thus an additional safeguard — indeed, it was indispensable to me in my difficult task. I thus spent my eight hours of night work not only spinning yarn but also memorizing verse.” — Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope p.411-2

5. poem scratched onto Styrofoam cup, Guantánamo Bay, early 21st century:

“Many men at Guantánamo turned to writing poetry as a way to maintain their sanity, to memorialize their suffering and to preserve their humanity through acts of creation. The obstacles the prisoners have faced in composing their poems are profound. In the first year of their detention, they were not allowed regular use of pen and paper. Undeterred, some drafted short poems on Styrofoam cups retrieved from lunch and dinner trays. Lacking writing instruments, they inscribed their words with pebbles or traced out letters with small dabs of toothpaste, then passed the “cup poems” from cell to cell. The cups were inevitably collected with the day’s trash, the verses consigned to the bottom of a rubbish bin.”  — “Poems from Guantanamo”  Amnesty International Magazine Fall 2007

5a. variant: poem burnt onto bar of soap with matchstick, and then memorised, the Small Zone, Barashevo Labour Camp, Mordovia, USSR, c. 1983 Irina Ratushinskaya (see also Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe Books, 1988).


[1] See “The Death of the Book à la russe: The Acmeists under Stalin,” a chapter in Clare Cavanagh’s Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West.

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