And I Was Alive

And I was alive in the blizzard of the blossoming pear,

Myself I stood in the storm of the bird–cherry tree.

It was all leaflife and starshower, unerring, self–shattering power,

And it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?

What is being? What is truth?

Blossoms rupture and rapture the air,

All hover and hammer,

Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot.

It is now. It is not.

— From “Stolen Air” by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman (NY: Ecco Press, 2012)

Reading of blizzards and blooming, I can’t help remembering the snow that fell over a cracked October field where my neighbors and I, numb-nosed, sorted tulip bulbs. Halloween was the next day, and there would be a parade in town. It was all we talked of as we fumbled to keep clippers in our gloved hands and snipped mesh bags of the things, trying not to let them tumble. Some of us dug holes, the trowels spitting dirt up into our laps, our sleeves. When the first flakes came drifting, I brushed my caked gloves one against the other and reached up to resnug my wool hat. Others were doing the same, and I watched as dirt spilled off our hands and over our brows and cheeks, not clinging, continuing down into our collars. It was so cold that the earth would not stick to our skin.

Reading of the blossoming pear, I imagine myself in the next-door orchard, sun out, my dog nosing at the slim, liver-spotted trunk of a fruit tree. Apples grow there, too, and plums and peaches. Mostly these last two, the drupes. When summer storms come, they lob the fruits with abandon, hurling them, some landing with a thunk even in my own yard, some splattering, becoming sweet swamps of flesh from which the wrecked stones smolder. The orchard knows violence then, when it’s grown full of itself. But at blossom time, when the trees blush? Only peace, petals falling like time suspended.

In the tulip field, I felt a similar suspension. The early flakes hung dreamlike. But by nightfall, the wind raged through our trees, breaking branches, hurling ice chunks against our windows like the dry, unwelcoming little hearts of the bulbs we’d sorted.

That was a real blizzard. I shivered because the power had gone out and it was cold; and the cold was real, the snow was real, the winds were real. The blizzard that Osip Mandelstam describes in “And I Was Alive” is not.

The poem is a confused one, or at least complicated, in that Mandelstam writes as if viscerally experiencing two seasons at once. “And I was alive,” he begins, “in the blizzard of the blossoming pear.” Going on, he reports the violence and thrill of the blizzard in terms so intense and specific that I want to believe him. He writes of “starshower, unerring, shelf-shattering power,” and I wonder how he could have imagined such things. Taken out of the context of blossoms, “[a]ll hover and hammer” sounds just right for winter snow. That’s what hangs me up: It is in the context of blossoms. For all the wintry madness of his language, Mandelstam insists on the poem’s springtime, balancing cold “starshower” to green “leaflife” and claiming that falling petals — not snow — “rupture and rapture the air.”

I’ll admit it: When I first read the poem, I thought, “He got it wrong.” I was reminded, from the opening line, of what I considered irreconcilable events: the October blizzard and, discrete from that, the next-door blossoming of pears. Finding spring’s groves completely unlike the branch-broken ones of the storm, I blamed Mandelstam for shrieking the dreamy peace of blossom into discordance. The images are discordant as tenor and vehicle, immensely so.

And yet! How much more so as literalisms! I began to imagine a world in which Mandelstam might stand below a flowering bird-cherry, the sky clear, and find himself buffeted by a nonexistent but viciously real storm. No wonder he panics midpoem, vulnerable before the unknown:

…it was all aimed at me.

What is this dire delight flowering fleeing always earth?

What is being? What is truth?

This dire delight flowering fleeing always earth. Stacked this way, the words aspire to expression of an experience that Mandelstam may fear cannot be expressed. I hear in them, teetering, the many subparts of a troubled simultaneity: dire delight flowering, delight fleeing, delight flowering, dire flowering fleeing … All this at once, but more than that. What is being? What is truth? These are queries that we address to God, or in debate of him, or in his absence.

I do not know whether Mandelstam believed in God, but from other poems of his, I believe that — like most of us — he doubted Him. It’s this doubt that I think of now whenever I read the vague but haunting last lines: It is now. It is not. I think of how faith, in so many cases, is itself an experience (a now) of what is not. To feel the divine without seeing it, to experience the concretely absent “starshower” of the heavens … It’s as frightening as meeting winter’s anger in spring. In risking testimony of the “unerring” blizzard, then, Mandelstam verges on the faithful: swearing to himself, or to the world, that he has felt the power of something not quite there.