The Secret Addressee: Six Poems by Osip Mandelshtam

Translator’s Note

The last volume of poetry to appear during Osip Mandelshtam’s lifetime was published in 1928. In the last ten years of his life — before and after his arrest in 1934, during his exile in Voronezh (1937-38) and the year of wandering on the outskirts of Moscow that preceded his second imprisonment in 1938 (Mandelshtam died in a transit camp of the Gulag at the end of that year) — possibilities for publication became more and more “fanciful.” Although Mandelshtam never abandoned hope entirely (attempts to be published were the immediate cause for his arrest in 1938), he largely wrote for future readers. While this was not uncommon at the time, in Mandelshtam’s case it also reflected his poetics.

100th Anniversary Sovie Postcard - Osip Mandelshtam

100th Anniversary Soviet Postcard
Osip Mandelshtam
FROM Wikimedia Commons

Of the poems we have translated for this issue of Cerise Press, some were published before 1928, others long after, but all were composed for a “reader in posterity.” In an early essay, “To the Interlocutor” (1913) and at a time when Mandelshtam’s poetry was widely admired, he had already imagined this reader in the future, unknown and necessarily unknowable, to whom his poems were addressed. “To whom… does the poet speak?” Mandelshtam asked in the 1913 essay. “Normally, when a man has something to say, he seeks out an audience, yet a poet does the opposite.” A poet is like “the seafarer” who “at a critical moment… tosses into the ocean waves a sealed bottle, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon the bottle in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.”

Mandelshtam’s essay includes a critique of a poet he admired, Evgeny Baratynsky (1800-1844), and of a poet, Konstantin Balmont (1867-1943), he did not. “I will find a reader in posterity,” Baratynsky had written, and Mandelshtam responds in his 1913 essay as this reader, as Baratynsky’s “secret addressee.” In contrast to Balmont (“Balmont is always slighting someone, treating him brusquely, contemptuously. This ‘someone’ is the secret addressee”), reading Baratynsky, Mandelshtam writes, “I experience the same feeling I would if such a bottle had come into my possession. The ocean in all its vastness has come to its aid, has helped it fulfill its destiny. And the feeling of providence overwhelms the finder… Two equally lucid facts emerge from the tossing of the seafarer’s bottle to the waves and from the dispatching of Baratynsky’s poem. The message, just like the poem, was addressed to no one in particular. And yet both have addresses: the message is addressed to the person who happened across the bottle in the sand; the poem is addressed ‘to the reader in posterity,’ to me if I find it and, in finding it, become the poem’s “destiny.”

… why then … not a concrete, living interlocutor, a ‘representative of the age,’ why not a ‘friend of this generation’? Because to do so ‘dismembers poetry’ and ‘deprives it of air… The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise,’ and ‘in addressing someone known, we can speak only of what is already known.’

But why write this way? Why write for this unknown reader? Mandelshtam’s explanation is pragmatic and performative. Because Baratynsky writes for an unknown addressee, he also writes differently: “Baratynsky’s piercing eye darts beyond his generation (yet in his generation he has friends) only to pause in front of an as yet unknown, but definite ‘reader.’ And anyone who happens across Baratynsky’s poems feels himself to be that ‘reader,’ the chosen one, the one who is hailed by name.” But “why then… not a concrete, living interlocutor, a ‘representative of the age,’ why not a ‘friend of this generation’?” Because to do so “dismembers poetry” and “deprives it of air… The fresh air of poetry is the element of surprise,” and “in addressing someone known, we can speak only of what is already known.” As a poet, “when I address” my future reader, “I do not know whom I am addressing. Furthermore… there is only one thing that pushes us into this addressee’s embrace: the desire to be astonished by our own words, to be captivated by their originality and unexpectedness.” It is the “reader in posterity” who will guarentee this unexpectedness. “When we converse with someone, we search the face for sanctions, for a confirmation of our sense of rightness” — my sense of the addressee is the telos for my expression. But “logic is merciless. If I know the person I am addressing, I know in advance how he will react to my words, to whatever I say, and consequently, I will not succeed in being astonished in his astonishment.”

How to characterize this astonishment, its particular sense of address? Bakhtin wrote during the early 1950s that “addressivity, the quality of turning to someone, is a constitutive feature of utterance. Without it the utterance does not and cannot exist.” Speech genres which assume the presence of an addressee will differ from those that assume the addressee’s absence. In all instances, however, the addressee will exist in a causal relation to the speaker because utterance “is oriented toward… an actively responsive understanding” where “the active role of the other” is more or less determining” since “the speaker expects a response” and “utterance is constructed… in anticipation… The addressee can be an immediate.” The addressee “can also be an indefinite, unconcretised other,” but in each case “the utterance depend[s] on those… addressed, on how the speaker [or writer] senses and imagines… the force of their effect on the utterance.” Mandelshtam’s “reader in posterity” might be an instance of Bakhtin’s “indefinite, unconcretised other” who exists in a determining relation for the poet. What characterizes the relation of poet to addressee is its indeterminacy: the addressee is unknowable, the addressee’s responses are unknown, the poetic address is determined by a variable — by a future, indeterminant, unknowable influence and its inherently open form. As reader, I play the role of that unknown variable, for the moment the unspecified final cause, a teleological force that impels what the author has written, and Mandelshtam’s sense of the “reader in posterity” can also be an imperative for his translators. The present in his poems are their future; can a task for translation be their astonishment?

— Tony Brinkley

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