In Conversation: Alexander Cigale

Mandelstam's “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

The post-symbolist Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, as dazzling and immediate as he is daunting and complex, is best known in English for the early formal work of Stone (1913) and Tristia (1922). Mandelstam would mature into a poet of visionary modernity in the late 1920s and 1930s. Translator Alexander Cigale is working on an as yet unpublished new volume of selected works by Mandelstam and considers himself part of a Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, after the Golden Age of the 1980s and 90s. While earlier translations established Mandelstam’s reputation in English principally through Tristia and Stone, Cigale chooses to render many of the middle-period “Moscow” poems by Mandelstam, written in the late 1920s and 1930s, and heretofore less well-known in English.  

Cigale has also translated Daniil Kharms, a contemporary of Mandelstam and a poet of nonsense and absurdity akin to Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett, a poet who seems, at first blush, almost diametrically opposed to Mandelstam in temperament and aesthetic. Both Mandelstam and Kharms have become pillars of Russian twentieth-century poetry. Since publishing a volume of selected works by Kharms in 2017, Cigale seems poised to become an esteemed translator of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth Century—and, perhaps, of the twenty-first, since Cigale is also at work on the contemporary poet Mikhail Eremin thanks to an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation.  

As a longtime reader of Mandelstam and Kharms, poet Alexander Dickow asks Cigale about the difficulties and rewards of scaling the highest peaks of Russian poetry, and especially that of Mandelstam’s glittering verse.

Alexander Dickow (AD): Alex, you just published in February 2017 a new translation of selected work by the OBERIU (Russian absurdist) writer Daniil Kharms, Russian Absurd: Selected Writings, from Northwestern University Press. Your latest project is a volume of selected poems by the celebrated Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. I’d like to start with a question about the historical situation of these writers who both reached their poetic maturity in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Kharms and Mandelstam were both destroyed by Stalin. How do you think this manifests differently in these poets’ work?

Alexander Cigale (AC): Stalin was cognizant of and acknowledged the genius of Mandelstam (in a phone conversation with Pasternak). I’m not sure Kharms was on anyone’s radar. He outlived most of his friends because the authorities dismissed him for a madman.

Mandelstam thought about it more. He refers to “the tyrant” repeatedly. But really, he perceived himself and his poetry within the historical context of millennia, even if his responses were highly personal. Kharms deflates it to the pedestrian details of daily survival, which is there in Mandelstam as well, just different in tone. Kharms had either the wisdom or the derangement to exist in a higher reality independent of material existence, a subject on which he often dwells. He was entirely convinced of his own genius, which is what allowed him to thrive so in his own work that no one might ever read. His models were Gogol, Lewis Carroll, the fictional Kozma Prutkov, and Sherlock Holmes. So, you see, they both found their own way to live in eternity. Mandelstam always feels “a personal fate” within a historical context. For Kharms, “that’s all bunk.” But neither kind of genius is defined by either the historical moment or the oppressive system.

AD: Apropos of one particular example, I’ve wondered if the image of the wasp in Mandelstam wasn’t part of a Stalin-related symbolic vocabulary.

AC: Mandelstam’s symbolic vocabulary consists almost exclusively of images of eternity. The wasp (osa) and the bee are associated for him with time and work, and his own nickname (Osya) is a homonym for axis (os’), as in the earth’s axis (not the Axis powers), something like Yeats’s “gyres, run on,” his Spiritus Mundi.

Mandelstam lives not in history but in eternity. It is his almost single-minded pursuit. Kharms is always deflating the grandiose designs. He is a modernist Gogol, and a Holy Fool. It’s always about the carnivalesque and the grotesque for him. Though there are some glimpses of the grotesque in Mandelstam as well, in his most outrageously inventive language distortion and displacement.

AD: When you mention eternity, I’m reminded of the obsessional return to the comparison between salt and stars in Mandelstam’s work, which seems like a fate/destiny motif.

AC: Yes, heaven and earth; the stars are always threatening Mandelstam. The salt is always the salt of the earth. When I finish with the Selected Mandelstam, I want to make an index as an appendix, a sort of dictionary of his symbols. It is the key to understanding his work, and in some sense, they are all extensions of the same thing: eternity. It would certainly be useful to both the general reader and the academic scholar.

In my process, in terms of both the order in which I tackled his body of work, the selection of individual poems I’ve been translating, and the pairing of the poems in my periodical publications, my design has been to pull together poems, sometimes from different periods, sometimes sequences, that work out these symbolic “thoughts.”

AD: So your Selected Mandelstam will be more like a structured tour of the work rather than just a bouquet of favorites?

AC: I sure hope so. I’ve been reading Mandelstam for some thirty years, but I’m still trying to “figure out” the grander design of his “argument,” in the sense of “poetic argument,” which is not a purely logical one. There is always a formal element that involves reconstructing his complex rhetorical structures that span a long chain of associations and that are developed over an arcing, extended syntactic sequence… I must confess that I haven’t been paying very much attention to other translations of Mandelstam for some twenty years now. I simply attempt a translation when I feel more or less ready. I felt that not only have most translators not understood many parts, they haven’t managed to reproduce anything like a fluid syntactic chain in English, and rarely has anyone managed to make it sound musical in English with sufficient consistency, while retaining most of the complexity. Mandelstam’s “argument” is inseparable from his music and, for me, it is that music that has always been primary.

AD: I agree that many other translations of Mandelstam don’t capture the music, but I admire the first translations I encountered, from a selected called The Eyesight of Wasps, a selection of translations by J. Greene.

AC: That was pretty much where I’d left off reading translations. I recall liking them quite a bit, as well as the McKanes’ versions of the Moscow and Voronezh Notebooks from the 1990s. I also loved Bruce McCleland’s Tristia. But in my process, I need to get my hands dirty trying to make my own music with it and have a completed draft in hand before I even considering looking at other translations. When I do look at other translations, it’s just to clarify some factual points for myself or to see how they dealt with certain things.

AD: What initially gave you the idea to put a glossary or index of symbols together as a complement to the selected texts?

AC: I think you may agree that, as practicing poets ourselves, the work of translation, the closest of readings, is somehow an extension of our own need to understand a body of work better as a coherent whole. My own desire to translate Mandelstam has been an ongoing process. There was the initial “golden age” of Mandelstam translation into English, from the 1970s to the 90s, during my school years (Brown/Merwin, Meares, Raffel, McDuff, Greene, and the McKanes) and you said that you admired Greene’s particularly. There is no better example than his Mandelstam: this is a deliberate work that develops over a period of decades. The “index” is but an extension and aid for that, the need for understanding. A Mandelstam reader, including myself, needs all the help she can get, and that includes almost all native Russian readers as well. I had read some Mandelstam in my youth but did not become truly interested until I had a Russian edition of the Collected poems in my hands; my interest at that time was in the originals, not the translations, until I turned to translation myself. And I have considered myself incredibly fortunate to be part of a kind of Silver Age of Mandelstam translation, with recent books by Peter France, Andrew Davis, Kevin F. Platt, the group effort from Ugly Duckling Presse, of course the Christian Wiman/Ilya Kaminsky “adaptations,” and a new volume of selected poems forthcoming this fall from Shearsman, translated by Alistair Noon.

AD: Would you say that because of the metaphorical “arcs” spreading through multiple poems, it’s the work as a whole rather than individual poems that make Mandelstam so challenging to translate?

AC: A bit of both. The typical “errors” tend to one of those extremes: either a literalness that betrays incomprehension, and which requires understanding a particular reference as part of the greater whole, or a disfigurement of the music. In terms of individual, representative poems, I’ve found it useful to divide his work into Early, Middle, and Late periods, roughly by decade, and am structuring my manuscript so (1906-1919, 1920-1929, 1930-1938). Not unlike Greene, my initial focus was to begin at the end, with his so-called Moscow and Voronezh notebooks of the 1930s, where he has resolved the tension of the middle period into a much greater lucidity, so that these primarily image-centered poems are much more easily available, both to comprehension and representation in English. Not only is it helpful to be able to trace the “resolution” of certain symbols/images/themes, but also to have an overarching sense of his development as a poet. I then went back to the early, simpler, essentially late Symbolist work, and only then felt myself ready to tackle the most complex, longer, more irregular and radically modernist poems of the middle and late periods. The Mandelstam most English readers know is represented by those shorter, lucid classicist poems. And these poems alone make it nearly impossible to understand why Acmeism, best known to us through Akhmatova’s and to a lesser extent her husband Nikolai Gumilev’s presence in English, is a high modernism at all.

AD: By the poems most well known to English readers, you refer to the poems of Tristia, I presume?

AC: Yes, Tristia as well as the earliest collection, Stone, and the last, the Voronezh poems. For me, Mandelstam comes into his full maturity with the following two poems in 1923-24. (Interestingly, as has been true for myself, he then takes a long break from poetry altogether in the late 20s, and turns to prose, as if needing to digest what he has accomplished and, with time, discover where it is that he will need to still go.) So, these two key poems are “He Who had Found a Horseshoe” and a 1931 poem that marks Mandelstam’s return to poetry, the first words of which I intend to take for the title of my Selected poems: “Midnight in Moscow.”

Midnight in Moscow. Ostentatiously oriental summer.
The steel toe booties of radial streets scatter with a pitter-patter.
Coiled boulevards luxuriate in pockmarks of blissful oblivion.
Even at night Moscow knows no rest,
When peace escapes from under the hoof beats.

These particular poems are, I would say, the essential core of the work as a whole, both chronologically and in terms of his poetic development, and they offer us a key to reading his whole body of work. But of course, I could only get to them indirectly, so to speak, by first starting “at the ends,” with Stone and the Voronezh poems.

AD: In your translation of “January 1, 1924,” you can see an allusion to the expression “The Noise of Time” (the title of Mandelstam’s major prose work of the 1920s) in the line “the noise—when time’s rivers…”

AC: Yes, “The Noise of Time” pervades most of his poems, and of course that is precisely what he needed to tackle in his late 20s prose, in his pause from poetry, before proceeding to the next phase, and the end. As a practicing poet yourself, I know you will understand that our primary task, in every age, is to have our antennae tuned to what it is that our time demands of us as poets. Not incidentally, Mandelstam pretty much initiates his middle phase with a poem whose first line I intend to use as a subtitle for that Middle period: “My beast, my age.” The word in Russian for “era” and “century” is the same: “VEK.” The poem of that name, from 1922, bears the following lines: “My age, my beast, who’ll manage / To peek within your slitted eyes / And with his own blood suture / The vertebrae of two centuries?” And, you know, we are very much at that same moment now, of “Noise of Time,” when the noise of the previous century is receding and the age has yet to clearly reveal itself. And it is a menacingly ominous one…

AD: Indeed it is.

Alex Cigale’s first full book, Russian Absurd: Daniil Kharms, Selected Writings, came out in the Northwestern University Press World Classics series in 2017. In 2015, he was awarded an NEA Fellowship in Literary Translation for his work on the poet of “the St. Petersburg philological school,” Mikhail Eremin. His own poems in English have appeared in The Colorado Review, The Common Online, and The Literary Review, and translations of classic and contemporary Russian poetry in Harvard Review Online, The Hopkins Review, Kenyon Review OnlineModern Poetry in TranslationNew England Review, TriQuarterlyTwo LinesWords Without Borders, and World Literature in Translation. He recently edited the Russian issues of the Atlanta Review and Trafika Europe and is currently a Lecturer in Russian Literature and Language at CUNY-Queens College. 

Alexander Dickow is a poet, translator, and scholar of French and Francophone literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He is an associate professor at Virginia Tech. His scholarly works include Le Poète innombrable: Blaise Cendrars, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob (Hermann, 2015) and Jacob et le cinéma (Nouvelles Editions Jean-Michel Place, 2017). His poetic works include Caramboles (Argol, 2008), Trial Balloons (Corrupt Press, 2012), Rhapsodie curieuse (Louise Bottu, 2017), and Appetites (MadHat Press, forthcoming). A volume of works by the Swiss poet Gustave Roud, co-translated with Sean T. Reynolds, is forthcoming from Seagull Press, and Dickow has been awarded a 2018 Pen/Heim Translation grant for his work on the Franco-Senegalese poet Sylvie Kandé. Find out more at


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