How sad, yet beautiful, is the dark brutal soul.
‘’Kederi, kül rengi bir kuş gibi, yavaşça taşıyorum kalbimde.. ‘‘
“The people need poetry that will be their own secret
To keep them awake forever, And bathe them in the bright-haired wave of its breathing.”
― Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)
flipping through a new book of poetry by agha shahid ali and it opens with a poem with an epigraph from an old favourite poet of mine, osip mandelstam. both poets died much too young - agha shahid ali of brain cancer aged 52 of brain cancer, and mandelstam aged 47 in the gulag, of typhoid fever. the way ali reads mandelstam, the way he writes through this line of his to talk about kashmir... it’s so good and painful.
anyway, here’s the poem.
The Blesséd Word: A Prologue
The Hour draws nigh and
The moon is rent asunder.
–THE KORAN, Surah 54.1
We shall meet again, in Petersburg
From an untitled poem, that opening line announces heartbreak as its craft: a
promise like that already holds its own breaking: “We shall meet again, in
Petersburg / as though we had buried the sun there.”
From Kashmir, that Vale where the Titans sought refuge, where, just before
Saturn began to speak to Thea, “There was a listening fear in her regard / As if
calamity had but begun,” from there: “When you leave home in the morning,
you never know if you’ll return.” “We shall meet again, in Srinagar,” I want to
answer Irfan. But such a promise? I make it in Mandelstam’s velvet dark, in the
black velvet Void.
Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir,
Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire,
Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar, in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir,
Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?He reinvents Petersburg (I, Srinagar), an imaginary homeland, filling it,
closing it, shutting himself (myself) in it. For there is the blesséd word with no
meaning, there are flowers that will never die, roses that will never fall, a night
in which Mandelstam is not afraid and needs no pass. The blesséd women are
A patrol is stationed on the bridge and a car hoots like a cuckoo.
Maybe the ages will die away and the loved hands of blesséd women will
brush the light ashes together?
And the night’s sun there in Srinagar? Guns shoot stars into the sky, the storm of
constellations night after night, the infinite that rages on. It was Id-uz-Zuha: a
record of God’s inability, for even He must melt sometimes, to let Ishmael be
executed by the hand of his father. Srinagar was under curfew. The identity pass
may or may not have helped in the crackdown. Son after son—never to return
from the night of torture—was taken away.
And will the blesséd women rub the ashes together? Each fall they gather chinar
leaves, singing what the hills have reechoed for four hundred years, the songs of
Habba Khatun, the peasant girl who became the queen. When her husband was
exiled from the Valley by the Moghul king Akbar, she went among the people
with her sorrow. Her grief, alive to this day, in her own roused the people into
frenzied opposition to Moghul rule. And since then Kashmir has never been free.
And will the blesséd women rub the ashes together? Each fall, they sing her
songs. They create their rustic fuel for winter: they set fire to the leaves, sprinkle
water on them as they burn, and transform them into fragile coals.
But the reports are true, and without song: mass rapes in the villages, townsleft in cinders, neighborhoods torched. “Power is hideous / like a barber’s
hands.” The rubble of downtown Srinagar stares at me from the Times.,
Maybe the ages will die away—we will pray in Mandelstam’s night—and
the loved hands of blesséd women will brush the light ashes together?
And that blesséd word with no meaning—who will utter it? What is it? Will the
women pronounce it, as if scripturing the air, for the first time? Or the last?
Srinagar hunches like a wild cat: lonely sentries, wretched in bunkers at the
city’s bridges, far from their homes in the plains, licensed to kill . . . while the
Jhelum flows under them, sometimes with a dismembered body. On Zero Bridge
the jeeps rush by. The candles go out as travelers, unable to light up the velvet
What is the blesséd word? Mandelstam gives no clue. One day the Kashmiris
will pronounce that word truly for the first time.
(for Irfan Hasan)
..to pass through the worlds of dreams and death.
How sweet the fat earth's pressure on the plow,
how the spring turns the steppe to its advantage...
my greetings then, black earth: be strong, look out—
black eloquence of wordlessness in labor.
Osip Mandelstam, from “Black Earth“
inceden daha ince,
elin beyazdan daha beyaz,
bir dünyada yaşıyorsun,
ve seninle ilgili hiçbir şey
ve sürekli yanan parmakların,
sesinin hiç baş eğmeyen
Do not compare: what lives is incomparable.
I felt a a kind of tender fear
as I took on the plains' equality
and the wide sky became my malady.
I summoned the air, my serving man,
expected from him services or news,
made ready to set out, sail on the arc
of expeditions that could never start.
Where I have most sky I am glad to roam,
and a bright sadness will not let me leave
Voronezh and its adolescent hills
for the clear human hills of Tuscany.
"Do not compare: what lives is incomparable." by Osip Mandelstam (trans. Peter France)
And in your whisper, so much silk,
And so much air, and so much light
Osip Mandelstam. Tristia tr. Ilya Shambat
like the waltz of two words
made of pure fall, silk, and nothing.
Paul Celan, “Go blind at once” tr. Heather McHugh & Nikolai Popov
Night, maybe you don’t need
me. From the world’s reach,
a shell without a pearl’s seed,
I’m thrown on your beach.
Osip Mandelstam, from The Shell (tr. by A.S. Kline)