Ilya Kaminsky

Musica Humana

[an elegy for Osip Mandelstam]
[A modern Orpheus: sent to hell, he never returned, while his widow
searched across one sixth of the earth’s surface, clutching the saucepan with
his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in case they were
found by Furies with a search warrant.]
While there is still some light on the page,
he escapes in a stranger’s coat with his wife.
And the cloth smells of sweat;
a dog runs after them
licking the earth where they walked and sat.
In the kitchen, on a stairwell, above the toilet,
he will show her the way to silence,
they will leave the radio talking to itself.
Making love, they turn off the lights
but the neighbor has binoculars
and he watches, dust settling on his lids.
It is the 1930s: Petersburg is a frozen ship.
The cathedrals, cafés, down Nevski Prospect
they move, as the New State
sticks its pins into them.
[In Crimia, he gathered together rich ‘liberals’ and said to them strictly: On
Judgment Day, if you are asked whether you understood the poet Osip
Mandelstam; say no. Have you fed him? – You must answer yes.]
I am reading aloud the book of my life on earth
and confess, I loved grapefruit.
In a kitchen: sausages; tasting vodka,
the men raise their cups.
A boy in a white shirt, I dip my finger
into sweetness. Mother washes
behind my ears. And we speak of everything
that does not come true,
which is to say: it was August.
August! the light in the trees, full of fury. August
filling hands with language that tastes like smoke.
Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.
(The younger brother of a cloud,
he walks unshaven in dark-green pants.
In cathedrals: he falls on his knees, praying HAPPINESS!
His words on the floor are the skeletons of dead birds.)
I’ve loved, yes. Washed my hands. Spoke
of loyalty to the earth. Now death,
a loverboy, counts my fingers.
I escape and am caught, escape again
and am caught, escape
and am caught:
in this song,
the singer is a clay figure,
poetry is the self—I resist
the self. Elsewhere:
St. Petersburg stands
like a lost youth
whose churches, ships, and guillotines
accelerate our lives.
[In summer 1924 Osip Mandelstam brought his young wife to St. Petersburg.
Nadezhda was what the French call laide mais charmante. An eccentric? Of course
he was. He threw a student down the staircase for complaining he wasn’t published,
Osip shouting: Was Sappho? Was Jesus Christ?]
Poet is a voice, I say, like Icarus,
whispering to himself as he falls.
Yes, my life as a broken branch in the wind
hits the Northern ground.
I am writing now a history of snow,
the lamplight bathing the ships
that sail across the page.
But on certain afternoons
the Republic of Psalms opens up
and I grow frightened that I haven’t lived, died, not enough
to scratch this ecstasy into vowels, hear
splashes of clear, biblical speech.
I read Plato, Augustine, the loneliness of their syllables
while Icarus keeps falling.
And I read Akhmatova, her rich weight binds me to the earth,
the nut trees on a terrace breathing
the dry air, the daylight.
Yes, I lived. The State hung me up by the feet, I saw
St. Petersburg’s daughters, swans,
I learned the grammar of gulls’ array
and found myself for good
down Pushkin Street, while memory
sat in the corner, erasing me with a sponge.
I’ve made mistakes, yes: in bed
I compared government
to my girlfriend.
Government! An arrogant barber’s hand
shaving off the skin.
All of us dancing happily around him.
[He sat on the edge of his chair and dreamt aloud of good dinners. He composed his
poems not at his desk but in the streets of St. Petersburg; he adored the image of the
rooster tearing apart the night under the walls of Acropolis with his song. Locked up
in the cell, he was banging on the door: “You have got to let me out, I wasn’t made
for prison.”]
Once or twice in his life, a man
is peeled like apples.
What’s left is a voice
that splits his being
down to the center.
We see: obscenity, fright, mud
but there is joy of shape, there is
more than one silence.
— between here and Nevski Prospect,
the years, birdlike, stretch, —

Pray for this man
who lived on bread and tomatoes
while dogs recited his poetry
in each street.
Yes, count “march,” “july”
weave them together with a thread –
it’s time, Lord,
press these words against your silence.
— the story is told of a man who escapes
and is captured
into the prose of evenings:
after making love, he sits up
on a kitchen floor, eyes wide open,
speaks of the Lord’s emptiness
in whose image we are made.
he is out of work– among silverware
and dirt he is kissing
his wife’s neck so the skin of her belly tightens.
One would think of a boy laying
syllables with his tongue
onto a woman’s skin: those are lines
sewn entirely of silence.
[Nadezhda looks up from the page and speaks: Osip, Akhmatova and I were
standing together when suddenly Mandelstam melted with joy: several little
girls ran past us, imagining themselves to be horses. The first one stopped,
impatiently asking: “Where is the last horsy?” I grabbed Mandelstam by his
hand to prevent him from joining; and Akhmatova, too, sensing danger,
whispered: “Do not run away from us, you are our last horsy.”]
— as I die, I walk barefoot across my country,
here winter builds the strongest
solitude, tractors break into centaurs
and gallop through plain speech:
I am twenty-three, we live in a cocoon,
the butterflies are mating.
Osip puts his fingers into fire; he
gets up early, walking around
in his sandals. Writes slowly. Prayers
fall into the room. Moths
are watching him from the window. As his tongue
passes over my skin, I see
his face from underneath,
its aching clarity
– thus Nadezhda speaks,
standing in an orange light,
her hands are quiet, talking
to themselves:
O God of Abraham, of Isaak and of Jacob
on your scale of Good and Evil,
put a plate of warm food.

When my husband returned
from Voronezh, in his mouth
he hid a silver spoon –
in his dreams,
down Nevski Prospect, the dictator ran
like a wolf after his past,
a wolf with sleep in its eyes.
He believed in the human being. Could not
cure himself
of Petersburg. He recited by heart
phone numbers
of the dead.
O what he told in a low voice! —
the unspoken words became traces of islands.
When he slapped
Tolstoy in the face, it was good.
When they took my husband, each word
disappeared in a book.
They watched him
as he spoke: the vowels had teeth-marks.
And they said: You must leave him alone
for already behind his back
the stones circle all by themselves and fall.

[Osip had thick eyelashes, to the middle of his cheeks. We were walking along
Prehistenka St., what we were talking about I don’t remember. We turned
onto Gogol Boulevard, and Osip said, “I am ready for death.” At his arrest
they were searching for poems, all over the floor. We sat in one room. On the
other side of the wall, at a neighbor’s, a Hawaiian guitar was playing. In my
presence the investigator found “The Wolf” and showed it to Osip. He
nodded slightly. Taking his leave, he kissed me. He was led away at 7A.M.]
At the end of each vision, Mandelstam
stands with a clod of earth, throwing
bits at the passers-by. You will recognize him, Lord:
– he hated Tsarskoe Selo,
told Mayakovski: “stop reading your verse, you are not
a Rumanian orchestra.”
What harmony was? It raveled
and unraveled; Nadezhda said the snow fell inside her,
she heard the voice of young chickens all over her flesh.
Nadezhda, her Yes and No are difficult
to tell apart. She dances, a skirt tucked between her thighs
and the light is strengthening.
In each room’s
four corners: he is making love to her earlobes, brows,
weaving days into knots.
He is traveling across her kitchen, touching furniture,
a small propeller in his head
turning as he speaks. Outside,
a boy pissing against the tree, a beggar
cursing at his cat –that summer 1938–
the walls were hot, the sun beat
against the city’s slabs
‘the city that loved to say yes to the powerful.’
At the end of each vision, he rubbed her feet with milk.
She opened her body, lay on his stomach.
We will meet in Petersburg, he said,
we have buried the sun there.

Ilya Kaminsky
Musica Humana was published in Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004). Kaminsky’s wife, Katie, is the second reader on this track.
Appearing on From the Fishouse with permission of the author.