On Wednesday 31st I’m reading in Bath, 7.30 at St James Wine Vaults (see also Facebook). The pub is just off Julian Road behind the Royal Crescent, as I know well having grown up in Bath, insofar as I ever did. My mother was born nearby and the youth club I went too wasn’t far away either. Some of the poems I’ll be reading happen in Bath, including the second below in which I met Osip Mandelstam.
He was one of the group of poets that included Anna Akhmatova. He greatly upset Stalin with a satirical poem and was imprisoned in the Lubianka, tortured there, then released into exile with his wife Nadezhda. His untitled poem below was inspired by his contemplation of what he feared lay ahead for Nadezhda. As it happened she was never imprisoned. Osip though died in a transit camp in far-eastern Siberia four years after this poem was written.
Poetry being what it is, I have, impossibly, met Mandelstam on several occasions and I read him often, sometimes in a now yellow book I got in the Amnesty Bookshop in Bristol, about twelve miles west of Bath (see previous blog). I hope the poem makes sense of all this, and also the other way round.
I hope too you can make it to the Wine Vaults and that Osip and Nadezdha come too. Mine’s a pint, but I expect our Russian guests will have red wine. Come along to Poetry & a Pint and bring some friends. Poems and a drink is what we need in these strange times.
Your narrow shoulders are to redden under scourges,
Redden under scourges and to burn in frosts.
Your child-like arms are to lift heavy irons,
To lift heavy irons and sew mailbags.
Your tender soles are to walk barefoot on glass,
Barefoot on glass and bloodstained sand.
And I am here to burn for you like a black candle,
Burn like a black candle and not dare to pray.
Osip Mandelshtam, 1934, translated by James Greene, Selected Poems, Penguin 1991
Osip Mandelstam’s boat
“Who can know from the word goodbye
What kind of parting is in store for us?”
Osip Mandelstam, Tristia, trans James Greene
I knew this green-brown river wasn’t the Neva.
I knew a city in the south-west of England
could not be Petrograd or St Petersburg.
But for the course of this afternoon’s return
I had decided it could at least be Leningrad
and it was no surprise at Bennett Street to see you
at a door where the porch was a curving shell
full as a sail, trim as verses crossing classical times
and the black sea, Osip, of your own exiles.
We walked down to greyed limestone parapets.
They were warm to the touch as we watched
gulls below us dipping on and off the water.
I pointed out for you which way the coast lay,
turned to say ‘But let me show you over there
the haberdashery, pies, and second-hand books,
where just beyond the entrance we might hear
my father arguing with a butcher, then touch
and all but taste costume jewellery, or buy tea.’
This was how, in the market’s cool dark, we were
just in time to see my younger self with a friend.
We followed, but lost them in the guitar shop
as they went a back way past pianos to racks
of records A to Z that they could not afford.
Then I find I’m not sure what year this is exactly.
I know there was no violet shadow on snowfall
on the towpath as we exchanged carefully folded
sheets of paper by an iron bridge over the canal.
We shook hands at the station, and although
I could still imagine you at a bay window there
looking out across sloping terraces, Nadezhda
writing at a card table behind you, I didn’t expect
us to meet again, either in my old home town
or here where I’ve lived undisturbed for years.
So turning a page in a second-hand bookshop
it took me some time to realise that it was you
crossing that brittle yellow twilight in a boat.