A couple of weeks ago I came across this extraordinary little poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, whose translater is the American poet Christian Wiman - of whom, more soon.
In 1934, Mandelstam was arrested for writing an epigram critical of Stalin. He and his wife were exiled, then later given a reprieve. He wrote that only in Russia was poetry taken seriously: "Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" During the Great Purge, he was again arrested for anti-Soviet views, and sent to a Siberian concentration camp where, in December 1938, he died.
This poem was written on 4 May, 1937. It's one of the best expressions I've ever seen of the fleeting fitful beauty of being alive, the futility and absolute urgency of trying to say what it is. It has added plangency given Mandelstam only lived another nineteen months. This poem, ‘And I was Alive,’ is going straight to the top shelf of poems that help me live.
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.