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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Trees Burn in the Forest with Gilded Flames

(1957-D, No. 1 by Clyfford Still, 1904-1980, American
Abstract Expressionist painter)

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a great Russian poet who bore witness to the terrible plight of his country under Stalin. He died in a transit camp in the Gulag Archipelago, as he was beginning to serve a five-year sentence for “counter-revolutionary” activities. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he wrote. “It gets people killed.”


Christmas trees burn in the forest with gilded flames,
toy wolves glare from the bushes —

O my prophetic sadness,
O my calm freedom,
and the dead crystal vault of heaven laughing without end!

1 comment:

Charlie T. said...

The background information about Mandelstam opens up a, perhaps unintended, new angle to the poem.
The juxtapostion of the cherished "Christmas trees" and the malevolent, yet awe-inspiring, "gilded flames" is particularly striking.
Similarly, the use of the language in "toy wolves" removes the villainy from the canines who seem more preoccupied with the fire than other, less-wholesome, activities.
In the second stanza, Mandelstam's use of language in the phrases "prophetic sadness" and "calm freedom" allow the reader to grasp the tone of the poem and character of the speaker.
The last line is particularly powerful, the imagery of the phrase "dead crystal vault" when describing a component of heaven is made eerie by the last words "laughing without end!" which imply a jeering or unfriendly nature when read in context.