Intimate Voices: The Relationships of Verse
The last poems written by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam were scribbled down in various notebooks while he and his wife Nadezhda were living in exile in the remote city of Voronezh. According to his most recent English translator, Andrew Davis, Mandelstam seems to have had the sense that his poems weren't fixed but fluid in form, like constellations of meaning organised around repeated and echoed syllables whos meanings might shift slightly on each recital. In one of his last poems he seems to imagine himself lying in his grave, his lips moving, as future generations of schoolchildren recite his words. The poems are to be repeated quietly, like an intimate secret, as if to a lover or a child. Another poem draws the beam of light from a star down to a lover’s whisper as he consigns his beloved to its protection. Poignantly, Mandelstam is said to have felt this particular poem might be too intimate for publication. The surety of publishing was withdrawn forever in his lifetime, his words preserved only in hidden fragments, and in his wife's devoted memory, for decades after his death.
Alice Oswald’s manifold poetic universe ties human life into the pulse of existence: 'Please realise, friends, Time is moving in this neighbourhood./ This is Dawn, the unspeakable iridescence of all swiftness, / impatiently brushing past, be quick...' , as she puts it in 'For Many Hours there's been an Old Couple Standing at that Window' from the collection Woods etc. Another poem imagines a woman’s life run backwards, all the way back to her un-birthing 'feet first back into nothing', hearing 'that same old humming thrumming sound' that is either that of her own personal history beginning to repeat itself or of the stars themselves. Her most recent book, the Costa-Award-winning Falling Awake, ends with a lengthy piece, intended for performance accompanied by music, about the myth of Tithonus, a young man who fell in love with Eos, the beautiful goddess of dawn. She asks Zeus to grant him eternal life, but forgets to also specify eternal youth. So he ages interminably while she is forever refreshed. In the poem, he is held 'so hunger-eyed he can’t quite die', dwindling away, his frail incessant whisper of desire lost in the 'unanimous unrest' of the dawn chorus.
Oswald's gift is for realising - as in, making real - the hallucinatory urgency of the natural world, and our enfoldment in it. 'Be quick…', she says, and we must bear in mind that "quick" also means "alive".
Anne Carson, whose multi-genred collections can include prose and performance pieces, essays and fragments, as well as poems, is another writer whose work often references Classical myths. The book-length sequences Autobiography of Red and Red Doc brilliantly translate the story of Geryon, a winged, three-headed (or three-bodied, accounts vary) monster with whom Herakles contended in one of his Labours, into everyday modern life as a gay man (‘G’), latterly juggling expeditions into a glacial northern landscape with his (unfaithful, and bisexual) war veteran lover (known as ‘Sad’) with visits to his dying mother in hospital. Her characters carry their mythological attributes over into modern life, and back into myth again. Their love affairs are messy, inconvenienced, awkward, haunted by war and sickness. The elliptical nature of much of Carson’s work, and its unusual formal structure makes it hard to quote from effectively, but perhaps this excerpt can communicate its compelling reconfigured mythmaking:
Emily Berry’s funny, nervous, disjunctive poems often riff on relationship issues. Trees looks ironically at its protagonist’s 'textbook relationship history'; Letter to Husband makes various increasingly desperate stabs at even addressing the absent or errant husband ('dear unimaginable piece of husband/dear husband of the moon'), before ending with a heartrending plea for his presence:
All these poets occupy their own distinctive and wide-ranging spaces, but for each of them our whispering, intimate babble, the language we awkwardly brush against the world and each other, is central and urgent. Heartscribbles. The background hum of our human universe.
Feature image: Detail from 'Young Man Holding a Book' by Master of the View of Sainte Gudule, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://www.metmuseum.org/