mounds of human heads

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Untitled
Osip Mandelstam
Mounds of human heads are wandering in the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

Original

Уходят вдаль людских голов бугры:
Я уменьшаюсь там — меня уж не заметят,
Но в книгах ласковых и в играх детворы
Воскресну я сказать, как солнце светит…

Photo by Jake Givens on Unsplash

My beast, my age

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The Age

Osip Mandelstam

My age, my beast, is there anyone
Who can peer into your eyes
And with his own blood fuse
Two centuries’ worth of vertebrae?
Blood, the builder, gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the parasite just trembles
On the threshold of new days.

While the creature still has life,
The spine must be delivered,
While with the unseen backbone
A wave distracts itself.
Again they’ve brought the peak of life
Like a sacrificial lamb,
Like a child’s supple cartilage—
The age of infant earth.

To free the age from its confinement,
To instigate a brand new world,
The discordant, tangled days
Must be linked, as with a flute.
It’s the age that rocks the swells
With humanity’s despair,
And in the undergrowth a serpent breathes
The golden measure of the age.

Still the shoots will swell
And the green buds sprout
But your spinal cord is crushed,
My fantastic, wretched age!
And in lunatic beatitude
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like a beast that once was agile,
At the tracks left by your feet.

The creating blood gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
The lukewarm cartilage of oceans
Splashes like a seething fish ashore.
And from the bird net spread on high
From the humid azure stones,
Streams a flood of helpless apathy
On your fatal wound.

The challenge, the pain, the cruelty, the lie of translation…

“Crimes against books” and “compacting human heads”…

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“Mounds of human heads wander into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games, I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining!”

Osip Mandelstam

It has been, rather forgotten by me, more than ten years since I first read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. I recall finding the book in a 1 dollar pile of discards in a bookstore south of Seattle. Having read I Served the King of England in the summer of 1999, on the tail end of my first visits to the Czech Republic and the eastern and central Europe I had been reading and writing about from afar, it had always been a struggle to find this literature. The Czechs I had met to that point seemed hell-bent on a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance about their superior intelligence and artistry, possessing a tortured soul and an impossible language for anyone but them to understand. Guarding it closely – almost jealously – as though it would diminish what they had if anyone else could get a glimpse of the brilliance. I imagine this attitude being more a Cold War-era hangover than anything else. But I don’t know. My path, which at that moment in 1999, was still at least partly paved with stones from the Slavic studies academic arena, did not wind in that direction.

“‘How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, INQUISITORS BURN BOOKS IN VAIN. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh…‘”

In my recent rereading of Too Loud a Solitude, I discovered an Amazon.com “review” (I won’t really call it that so much as I will call it a collection of notes about things that struck me while reading the book) that I posted in 2003. I had forgotten the review, but there were little bits I had remembered from my previous reading.

For example, quotes, such as “It is from books that I’ve learned the heavens are not humane”. Or better yet, the narrator referring to his tale as a “portrait of the artist as an old mushroom face” (which recently took on even more immediacy when a friend described someone’s morning face as looking like a “used teabag”). Reading the book again, the same imagery jumped out at me – the art and its destruction mixed among garbage. The onslaught of technology, wiping out a way of life or a particular job. Or a theme we discuss at work sometimes – the destruction of beauty. One colleague, who lived for some time in Mexico, marveled at the hard work and skill that Mexican women put into creating the most elaborate piñatas – only to see them destroyed, beaten violently until the candy hidden inside exploded out onto the ground. Perfect analogies for the transitory and temporary nature of beauty. It is only here for a moment. The ‘hero’ of Too Loud a Solitude spent his life operating a wastepaper compactor and extracted the lesson that there is beauty in destruction.

Even current events seem to touch upon the timeliness of the message and imagery – for example, the conscientious (if strange) dumpster divers who go looking for treasures in the garbage because we live in the kind of society when people throw away insane amounts of perfectly good things – food, furniture, appliances. Our throwaway society with its millions of starving people (in the US for example) disposes of and destroys everything. It is no wonder we see people as disposably.