A metal the flute has melted

From November 2014

Following is the translation of Osip Mandelstam’s poem The Age by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (trans. 1973) that inspired and pushed my music making:

My animal, my age, who will ever be able
to look into your eyes?
Who will ever glue back together the vertebrae
of two centuries with his blood?
Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of the earth.
Already the hanger-on is trembling on the sills of days to come.

Blood the maker gushes
from the throats of the things of the earth
and flings onto a beach like a burning fish
a hot sand of sea bones,
and down from the high bird-net,
out of the wet blocks of sky
it pours, pours heedlessly
over your death-wound.

Only a metal the flute has melted
will link up the string of days
until a time is torn out of jail
and the world starts new.
The age is rocking the wave
with human grief
to a golden beat, and an adder
is breathing in time with it in the grass.

The buds will go on swelling,
the rush of green will explode,
but your spine has been shattered,
my splendid derelict, my age.
Cruel and feeble, you’ll look back
with the smile of a half-wit:
an animal that could run once,
staring at his own tracks.

(Osip Mandelstam 1923)

The decisions a translator of poetry must make as they translate from the original language into another have always interested me. Poetry involves considerations of the sound of a language and of rhythm as much as the meanings and imagery that emerge from the arrangement of language, not merely a direct or literal A to B. The translator will interpret sense impressions from the original language before considering English expressions that may resonate in a sympathetic way.

Mandelstam’s poems have been known in Russian to have a kind of “cello sound” and their rhythm, to perform “abrupt syntactic somersaults” (Brown 1973, xviii). I love knowing this about their starting points, that there are a whole range of timbral cello sounds in Russian bobbing around and stopping abruptly; available for possible interpretation.

Brown and Merwin’s translation inevitably changes Mandelstam, but their aim is to remain sensitive to “[the poems’] plastic sculpture of rhythm, its tenuously resonating change-ringing on some syllabic bell” (1973, xviii). This is getting down to some syllabic nitty gritty. If we are to admit the search for truth is a myth in terms of approaching ‘an original’ then interpretation both prolongs the life of a poem and disturbs its meaning. The translation above and my own engagement with it may then be examples of potentially exhaustive bodies of translation. If anything is possible then everything becomes meaningless, it has been noted but I believe we are able to judge the language choices Brown and Mervin made. With rhythm and sound in mind their translation viscerally enhances the cruelness of the age in question. Similarly, there is careful judgement in the sonic choices: the flute line I thought about so often while either making music or while waiting for seized muscles to get back to ‘normal’ appears in the version of the poem above. Whereas in this unattributed version the phrase itself is less memorable.

When things are pretty crap, we bide our time by holding on to something. It could be the sound of an (imaginary) flute, writing, listening, gardening — any daily activity that is not destructive. A new time, a new age is made possible by a fleeting faith in a flute that melts metal. Something that is both painful but which helps in reproducing subjectivity

Themes in poems like The Age show that Mandelstam was living at a time of great upheaval. Osip Mandelstam’s biography is very tragic*. He at first supported the Bolsheviks but then found he was on the wrong side of the them as they set up a communist state as they took power when artists were expected to create politically acceptable work (otherwise known as propaganda). He persisted, writing in his own way often on personal, mythic or humanist themes and became reviled, blocked from publishing and began writing children’s books for money. He was eventually arrested for denouncing Stalin and sent into exile in 1934. He wrote many poems during these years. Once returned from exile in Moscow he was arrested again and sentenced to hard labor in Siberia eventually dying somewhere in a Soviet work camp.

So, clearly a very distinct epoch from the one facing us right now. There is nothing as totalising as a revolution dissolving past certainties and a new communist society is not in the process of being set up. Artists are not at risk of being sent into exile for not supporting the status quo with the result of them dying in labor camps.

And yet… there are overlaps. This is an age in upheaval, where the media message is tightly controlled by those in power — language and cultural signs need questioning now more than ever. We are facing major environmental and social crises with our government unwilling to provide useful policies to address these. And while it isn’t artists being locked up, it’s refugees and asylum seekers who are fleeing from places all over the world due to global conflict, persecution, hunger, in continual states of bodily anxiety and abuse. There is no doubt this is an affluent age in the West for a small number, but it’s also a biting, tearing, struggling to put one foot in front of the other just to get by age for an ever swelling amount as well. Cracks are appearing in Australia’s sunny reputation and we may well look back on this time as if it were ‘a broken animal that could run once’.

On this page I started with rhythm and sound and finished with a general contemporary context. It’s possible the two are tenuously connected as Mandelstam drew attention to the sonic, rhythmic qualities of language and image in his poem. There are sometimes limits to how agentic we can be politically. But it is necessary to hold humanity and earth in mind amidst the negative political climate. My music making was one humble effort at doing so.

* (Drawn from Brown & Merwin 1973 + http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/osip-mandelstam)


January 12, 2014

About the piece
Earlier. I had the urge to play this morning, I was unsettled but keen to move forward with sound-shapes. I also thought I might be able to show what I discussed in the above — the norm needing the breach and vice versa — in the piece. Also, because I could feel and I am weirdly being pointed toward melancholy and through thinking about my own daily grinds which I feel obliged to hide from the norms and the mainstreams but which I can’t hide because I spill out uncouth like on many occasions. [later that day I have big seizure that takes me to the ER for many hours.]

[ … ]

Who uses the words ‘epileptic fit’, ‘seizure’, ‘epileptik’ in popular culture? An ep by an experimental duo, a new ‘contemporary’ australian magazine and a UK drum’n’bass label. All different but I suppose common to all would be a certain desire to be associated with an edge, a subculture, to equate an epileptic fit with music/dance, to be challenging, provocative. What are these people’s relationships to epilepsy?