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The Man Who Died for Poetry
A Q&A With Christian Wiman, Translator of Stolen Air
When Osip Mandelstam died at age 47 in a Siberian work camp under the Stalin regime, he became one of twentieth-century poetry's most famous martyrs. Vastly talented and fearlessly subversive, he is perhaps best remembered for his scathing "Stalin Epigram," the poem that sealed his fate. A new selection of Mandelstam's poems (Stolen Air, Ecco/HarperCollins) appears this month, rendered in English by poet, translator, and Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman. Recently Wiman was kind enough to answer a few questions about Mandelstam's life and work, the differences between gulag-era Russian and contemporary American poetry, and his own experiences in confronting the ghost of an "overwhelming" genius.
BT: In your afterword you call these poems "versions" rather than "translations." Could you explain the distinction and describe your process in working with Mandelstam's poetry, including your collaboration with poet Ilya Kaminsky?
CW: I think of translations as passing some scholarly smell test: you can read the words of the translation and be reasonably sure of what the words are in the original. Not of the tone, mind you, and rarely of the form, but you can get the words. The translator is effaced, for better or worse, for the sake of the original. I don't think that someone who does not speak the original language can ever expect to produce a real translation in this sense.
A version aims at other things, depending on the translator. Usually, though, it's the tone that he's after, which of course is paradoxical if he doesn't speak the language. The tone has to be gleaned from other sources: the poet's prose, comparing multiple translations, working with native speakers, gut instinct.
I don't speak or read Russian. I did these versions from word-by-word translations provided by Ilya or Helena Lorman (a scholar at Northwestern) as well as transliterations of the originals (the Cyrillic changed to the Roman alphabet) so that I could tell where the rhymes were happening and get a sense of the sounds. I also worked with a lot of scholarly sources to help me think about the context of individual poems.
I wanted to call my poems versions, but as I say in the afterword, the marketing department wasn't keen on that, for sound reasons. They won.
BT: What are the signatures of Mandelstam's style? What in his voice do you find uniquely compelling?
CW: Mandelstam's style is not singular. He could be stately and traditional, ribald and funny, hectic, elegiac. He could handle abstractions and ideas as well as Pope or Browning but then be so musical that other poems approach pure sound. I'm drawn to this range, that's for sure, but I suppose the thing that most appeals to me about Mandelstam is the sense you get from every poem that everything—the poet's very soul—is at stake.
BT: Several poems in this collection (for example, "Herzoverse") show off Mandelstam's lighter side. What is the importance of the comic vision in his work, and what are the challenges of representing it in English?
CW: I think these poems are crucial. We think of Mandelstam as the quintessential twentieth-century European poet, hounded to death by an out-of-control state and writing poems of fierce, poignant protest. He was that, of course, but he was also, right up to the end, funny and friendly and crazed in the best sense. Poetry was fun for him. That's not to say that there wasn't existential anguish in both the process and the poems themselves, but there was also wild delight—which came, ultimately, from an intense love of life. Honestly, I think it's this pure and irrepressible lyric spirit that drove Stalin mad, even more than the famous poem that Mandelstam wrote in mockery of Stalin. Mandelstam—his gift and the untamable nature of it—was like a thorn in Stalin's brain.
BT: I was struck by the end of "Flat" ("Believe me, it won't be sweet Hippocrene / That roars through these walls in the end, / Though it will be ancient and sudden, / And will completely possess us, my friend"), which links political catastrophe with poetic inspiration. Was there a sense in which the horrors of the Stalinist era "made" Mandelstam as a poet?
CW: Honestly, I don't think so, though they certainly made that one poem. The horrors have made the legend of Mandelstam and are inevitably the lens through which we read his work and life. But if there had been no Stalin and no purge, Mandelstam still would have been a poet of severe emotional and existential extremity.
Then there's this: Mandelstam was an artistic genius, the sort that any century produces only a handful of. If he hadn't been driven mad and killed by Stalin, he might have managed to write something of Dantean proportions, that sort of huge unity and music. Dante, after all, was one of his literary gods: one of Mandelstam's best pieces of prose is also one of the best essays on Dante ever written.
BT: The story goes that Elizabeth Bishop used to assign Mandelstam to her students in order to remind them that people have died for poetry. Is his kind of life-or-death urgency missing from contemporary American poetry? If not, who shares it?
CW: I can't think offhand of any American poets who have Mandelstam's urgency, but it's a different country and a different time, and I don't think it would make much sense to say that this is something that's "missing" from contemporary American poetry.
I would also say, again, that Mandelstam is the sort of poet who comes along very, very rarely. Even the two Russian poets whose work is often linked with his—Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva—though their work is more "urgent" than most American poetry, seem to me to operate at a lesser charge than Mandelstam. That's not a qualitative distinction I'm drawing: these are three great poets. It's just that different emotions and perceptions demand different frequencies and intensities.
BT: In what ways, if any, has Mandelstam's poetry affected your own?
CW: He seems to have silenced me. I've written virtually nothing since I fell under his spell. That's partly because I've been writing a prose book and partly because he's just so damn singular and overwhelming. But that's OK. Maybe all the work I've done to learn how to write poetry has all been aimed at this one book.
[Image of Mandelstam via Prague Writers' Festival.]
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."