With Death Looming, Two Astonishing Poems of Presence – Mandelstam and Stafford

The Russian poet Osip Madelstam (1891-1938)

AND I WAS ALIVE

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,
Myself I stood in the storm of the bird-cherry tree.
It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self-shattering power,
And it was all aimed at me.
What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?
What is being? What is truth?
Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,
All hover and hammer,
Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.
It is now. It is not.

(4 May 1937)

Osip Mandestam, from Stolen Air, selected and translated by Christian Wiman. Ecco Press, 2012

Thanks to a Twitter post by Ilya Kaminsky, the Ukranian/American poet, I was reminded of this poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam a few weeks ago.

Without context, what a singular poem of presence, of isness. A poem of celebration of living, of this miracle earth. With context, simply astonishing. This is the last poem Mandelstam wrote according to his translator Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry and now a teacher at Yale Divinity School.

Mandelstam wrote his poem in a Siberian prison/work camp for undesirables. He had fallen into disfavor with the Russian regime years before for a poem that mocked Stalin.  Already in ill health before his final imprisonment he died later, in 1938, in a transit camp. As Wiman says in an interview he died for poetry.

I can’t comment on the original poem in Russian but the music in this so-called version by Christian Wiman, former editor of Poetry is so arresting. Especially this line: What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth? Doesn’t that just about sum it all up! A line loaded with the yes and no that makes up our reality here on earth.

A man in a work camp, victim of two previous heart attacks and yet he could write a poem this vital. Facing his end. He must have known this. And I think of the American poet William Stafford and his remarkable poetic testament written three days before he died. Lying in his death bed, still paying utter attention to the vital sounds and smells of the world around him.

American poet William Stafford (1914-1993)


You Reading This, Be Ready

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life –

What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.

William Stafford from The Way It Is – New and Selected Poems,Graywolf Press 1998.

Stafford wrote this August 26th, 1993 two days before he died at home in Oregon. His third last poem. Famously, he is said to have written a poem a day all his adult life.

To die with that aliveness. What an example. Thank you Osip and Bill.

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