And I Was Alive
by Osip Mandelstam (tr. Christian Wiman)
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.
What strikes me in this poem is the complete contrast of the images; the blending of contradictory ideas which turn the soft, gentle touch of spring into an unyielding force of nature. In this instant of floating petals and starlight, the weight of being is bearing down upon the mind. The narrator is in the middle of a moment that is fleeting and yet so wholly present that it is inescapable. He questions himself, questions existence as he is placed face-to-face with something undeniably real.
I was discussing this poem a few weeks ago in a class, and during the discussion, someone brought up Hopkin’s idea of inscape and instress. In Hopkin’s definition, inscape is the identity, the being, the very essence of an object or entity, the whole of what makes something what it is, the “thingness of a thing”*. Instress is the process by which a person focuses on an object and recognizes that inscape.
The narrator of this poem seems captured by instress, seeing in a fleeting glance the fullness of the trees and falling blossoms. Through these, he is confronted with his own self. There is peace and beauty mixed with doubt and danger as he grasps for understanding of life and time. For a moment, he was alive and aware of being, but was unable to know what that meant.
What I come away with is a memory of all the times I have stood breathless, wordless, looking out on some mountain or field of grass or vast sea of woods, and have lost my ability to think. I am reminded of standing outside just before a storm, the warmth of the wind carrying the threat of rain and thunder, and the power of it all makes me want to wait for the storm to arrive. For me, those moments are life-giving reminders to breathe, and so this poem too, makes me pause. Makes me rest.
But perhaps you read it differently. Perhaps for you the blizzard of the blossoming pear, the time intensified, time intolerable is a troubling thought. So I ask this: what are your thoughts on being? When was the last time you stood in recognition of being, and what was your mind’s reaction to the essence of another?