Irving Layton reads Osip Mandelshtam

Thank HowardM2.

Osip Mandelshtam (1891 - 1940)

I once did an hour-long T. V. show reading
from your Stamen and Tristia: out there
were my compatriots who had never before
heard of your name and pain, your nightmare fate;
of course, the impresario spoke impressively
about your stay in Paris where you mastered
the French symbolists, your skill as translator
(what pre-Belsen Jew hadn't promiscuously
shacked up with five or six gentile cultures?),
the Hellenic feeling in your prose and poems
-- to be brief, he filled in the familiar picture
of enlightened Jew, ass bard to the winds

Butr when that self-taught master symbolist
il miglior fabbro put you on his list of touchables
that was the end; you perished in the land waste
of Siberia, precisely where no one knows and few care
for in that stinking imperium whose literature
you adorned like a surreal Star of David
you're still an unclaimed name, a Jewish ghost
who wanders occasionally into enclaves
of forlorn intellectuals listening
for the ironic scrape of your voice
in the subversive hum of underground presses

I know my fellow Canadians, Osip;
they forgot your name and fate as quickly
as they learned them, switching off
the contorted image of pain with their sets,
choosing a glass darkness to one which starting
in the mind covers the earth in permanent eclipse;
so they chew branflakes and crabmeat, gossip, make love,
take out insurance against fires and death
while our poetesses explore their depressions
in delicate complaints regular as menstruation
or eviserate a dead god for metaphors;
the men-poets displaying codpieces of wampum,
the safer legends of prairie Indian and Eskimo

Under a sour and birdless heaven
T. V. crosses stretch across a flat Calvary
and plaza storewindows give me
the blank expresionless stare of imbeciles:
this is Toronto, not St. Petersburg on the Neva;
though seas death and silent decades separate us
we yet speak to each other, brother to brother;
your forgotten martyrdom has taught me scorn
for hassidic world-savers without guns and tanks:
they are mankind's gold and ivory toilet bowls
where brute orl dictator relieves himself
when reading their grave messages to posterity
-- let us be the rapturous eye of the hurricane
flashing the Jew's will, his mocking contempt for slaves.

-- Irving Layton


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