Mandelshtam’s Greek Bees: Five poems by Reginald Gibbons

We present here five poems by Reginald Gibbons from his cycle “Dark Honey” (Last Lake, 2016), engaging in conversation with the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam. The final poem of the cycle, “For your sweet joy, take,” is a close rendering of a poem by Mandelshtam, in which the poet gives to his love a necklace of dead bees, who turned honey into sun. “Mandelshtam’s Greek bees” reflects on the same poem. “Not forgotten now” is (parenthetically and abbreviatedly) dedicated to the Russian poet. “To the futile sound” refracts another Mandelshtam’s poem, submerged under its surface.

That poem belongs to the lyrical cosmos of worlds within worlds. “To the futile sound” describes the frozen earth growing transparent and revealing galaxies underfoot; another poem, “Can’t keep up with fierce,” dizzyingly zooms in from “out-flying nebulae” to a scale of a bee, and then locates a new macrocosm in a grain of pollen on the bee’s rear leg; deep inside that speck the Iliad hides, like a coiled DNA.

Insects on a cosmic scale are not foreign to Mandelshtam’s poetry — in a late poem wasps (osy) suck nectar from the axis (os’) of Earth, and the poet (Osip) envies their vision. “Wasp-vision” also appears in the poem by Gibbons that is dedicated to Mandelshtam — only there the vision is breaking down. In fact, “Not forgotten now” can be read as a rapid evocation of moments of sensory and cognitive breakdown from across Mandelshtam’s corpus. Gibbons imagines Mandelshtam, destined soon to die in Stalin’s camps, murmuring something under his breath, running through a list of his afflictions : “Tongue gone; deaf… grief-struck lungs…”

In Mandelshtam, blindness, deafness, forgetting usually come at moments of emotional peaks, and are genetically connected to Song 31 of Sappho. Mandelshtam’s famous Ja slovo pozabyl, chto ja hotel skazat’ “I forgot the word that I meant to utter” reenacts the iconic hiatus of glōssa eāge ‘[my] tongue has broken down,’[1] by its own hiatus:

Ya tak boyus’ rydanja Aonid,

Tumana, zvona i zyanja

I dread so much the Aonides’ sobs,

The fog, the ringing, the hiatus.

‘Aonides’ are the Muses. A (possibly untrustworthy) memoirist describes Mandelshtam exiting the poetic trance of reading his new poem aloud and asking her abruptly, “But who are the Aonides?” The memoirist did not know, and suggested to substitute them by the Danaids, to which Mandelshtam replied, “But I need that solemn, that tragic, sobbing ao!”[2]

Gregory Nagy has shown that in Song 31 of Sappho “the breaking of regularity by way of interrupting the flow of the music is an intended effect. The sensation of a break is actually intended in the music of the language.”[3] The bravura of the poem by Reginald Gibbons is that it takes the constellation of interruptions, of impossibilities to speak and to hear, and strings them together — shall we say, as a necklace of dead bees? The series of interruptions constitute the music. And instead of the hiatus, Gibbons employs jarring enjambments to make the interruptions iconic:

I don’t sing—I’m some
thing
that barely breathes.
Blocking each ear, a
mountain.

These enjambments are not at all typical for Mandelshtam’s poetry, but they are a part of the artistic transformation that Gibbons accomplishes. The poem “For your sweet joy, take,” which nearly word for word corresponds to Mandelshtam’s poem Voz’mi na radost’ iz moih ladonej “To give you joy, take from my open palms,” is completely different rhythmically, because Gibbons cuts each of Mandelshtam’s iambic pentameters in two and introduces a string of enjambments:

“For your sweet joy, take
“from my cupped hands a
“little glittering
“of sun, a little
“honey — for this is
“what Persephonē’s
“bees have commanded.

The effect that is produced is that of breathlessness, which Gibbons explicitly mentions in other poems: “grief-struck/ lungs,” “I’m some/thing that barely breathes,” “half can’t/ breathe when I try to.” The voice that threatens to break any moment commands attention: faced with the prospect of silence, we listen closely.

Returning to “Not forgotten now:” its sequence of enjambed sensory breakdowns sends us back into the past upstream from Mandelshtam. It is Song 31 of Sappho again:

ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a ro-

ar my ears make.[4]

Perhaps the five-syllable lines of “Dark Honey” have something to do with five-syllable Adonics of a Sapphic stanza.

“Mandelshtam’s Greek bees” meditates on causal links going in reverse, like the bees of Persephone in Mandelshtam’s poem, who turn honey into sun. It appears that “Not forgotten now” achieves a similar effect: a chain of disintegrations resurrects the voice of the poet.

 

Introduction by Natasha Bershadsky

 

[1] https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/3091.gregory-nagy-the-fragmentary-muse

[2] Odoevtseva I. B. Na Beregah Nevy, 206. Moscow, Berlin, 2016.

[3] https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/3091.gregory-nagy-the-fragmentary-muse

[4] Translation by Gregory Nagy, modified.

 

 

Five poems by Reginald Gibbons

 

Mandelshtam’s Greek bees
turn the honey back
into sun. We too
head toward reverses:
leaves transforming their
orange into green.
Don’t shores erode the
seas, don’t riverbanks
flow upstream, aren’t wounds
caused by blood, don’t stars
produce the night, and
doesn’t extinction
vivify the new-
born, don’t dreams produce
our dulled sleeplessness . . .

 


 

To the futile sound
of midnight church bells,
out back someone is
rinsing her thoughts in
unfathomable
universal sky—
a cold faint glowing.
As always stars glint
white as salt on the
blade of an old axe.
Like mica in soil.
The rain barrel’s full,
there’s ice in its mouth.
Smash the ice—comets
and stars melt away
like salt, the water
darkens, and the earth
on which the barrel
stands is transparent
underfoot, and there
too are galaxies,
ghost-pale, silent in
the seven-thousand-
odd chambers of our
inhuman being.

 


 

Not forgotten now,
the poet doomed then
might be imagined
to murmur something:
“Tongue gone; deaf; with few
words and with grief-struck
lungs, black raspberries
for wasp-eyes. And I’m
not unique! . . . and am.
I don’t sing—I’m some
thing that barely breathes.
Blocking each ear, a
mountain. Around me,
in me, numbed nouns that
can’t hear each other . . .
but I hear them. They’re
a one-winged song that
hums down in the moss
and chants in green shade,
solos in prison.
A choir of one voice
on horseback, hillback.

History is the
beast too big for us
to imagine, its
back’s a mountain of
trash, and that’s where I
sprawl, and my ragged
two-winged coat’s starving,
there’s only a word
or two I can warm
my fists with, a last
image or two in
the mind of the wind.”

 


 

Can’t keep up with fierce
accelerating
honey-sweet songs that
call to so much in
me, can’t feel it all
fast enough, half can’t
breathe when I try to.
The scale of the real
is this: each life so
vast but easy as
a blossom to crush.
Pavilions of out-
flying nebulae,
silver galaxies
of cold candlewax,
hang suspended like
whole cities stolen
from earth and floating
only a thousand
miles up.

(Oh that like-
ness is as feeble
as an amoeba.)

What of the epic-
length slipping of all
the human tongues that
have ever spoken?
Didn’t they always
say more than was meant.
What of the silent
deafening water-
fall of all our long-
ing since forever?
And in the clumps of
fire yellow on the
busy-body back
legs of a bumble
bee, each single grain
of pollen a world!
And in the best of
the thousand cities
on each grain, someone’s
chanting another
Iliad. . .
“Sing, Goddess . . .

 


 

“For your sweet joy, take
“from my cupped hands a
“little glittering
“of sun, a little
“honey — for this is
“what Persephonē’s
“bees have commanded.

“A boat can’t cast off
“if it isn’t moored;
“no one can hear a
“shadow that wears fur
“boots; we can’t best our
“fright in this dark wood.

“Our kisses — these are
“all that we can save,
“velvety as bees
“that die if they are
“exiled from the hive.

“They’re murmuring in
“the translucent groves
“of the night; the wilds
“of mountain Greece are
“their motherland; their
“diet is time, lung-
“wort, pale meadowsweet.

“For joy, please, take this
“pagan gift: this rude,
“rustling necklace of
“the bees that died, for
“these had transmuted
“honey into sun.”

 

 

Poems from Last Lake, University of Chicago Press, 2016. Copyright 2016 by Reginald Gibbons, reprinted by permission of the author.

 

For two different translations of Mandelshtam’s poem Voz’mi na radost’ iz moih ladonej “To give you joy, take from my open palms,” see an earlier CI publication.

 



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