The Church With Five Cupolas: The Lessons of Lowell’s Adaptations of Mandelstam

Patrick Henry, University of California, Berkeley

The West was just beginning to discover Osip Mandelstam in 1965 when Robert Lowell published translations, or rather “adaptations,” of nine late poems in the New York Times Review of Books. This fact, coupled with Lowell’s authority as a poet, afforded him a unique opportunity to shape American perceptions of Mandelstam. Vladimir Nabokov roundly berated Lowell for various “howlers,” and the adaptations do contain a significant number of outright errors, such as mistaking the “A” and “B” streetcar lines in Moscow for “Avenues A and B” (“No, I will not hide from the great mess”). Literal accuracy was never Lowell’s goal, however. As the translator Robert Fitzgerald has remarked, the term “imitation,” which Lowell also used to describe his translations, “warns the reader that what he is about to read is not a version of the original but something in the nature of a collaboration between Cal Lowell and another poem in a different language.” Far more intriguing are those moments in the adaptations where we clearly witness Lowell reading Mandelstam. The title of this paper refers to one such moment in the adaptation of Mandelstam’s 1935 poem “Den’ stoyal o pyati golovakh.” Lowell’s rendition of this image, “Passing the church with five cupolas,” is no simple “howler.” The selected poems by Mandelstam, Lowell notes, “were written during the apocalyptic days of the great Stalinist purges in the Thirties.” In his adaptations, Lowell attempted “to recapture Mandelstamm’s [sic] tone and the atmosphere of his terrible last years.” By substituting a church for the original “five-headed day,” Lowell inevitably invokes the sad history of the Orthodox Church under the Bolsheviks, thereby swelling the pathos of the image as well as domesticating the poem by linking it to an issue about which American readers could be expected both to know and to care. The church image also contributes to Lowell’s clear attempt in the adaptations to cultivate the image of Mandelstam as a great writer persecuted and finally martyred by an inhuman regime, a storyline that continues to inform much writing about Mandelstam to this day, although the poetry suggests a rather more complicated story. Finally, Lowell’s church image and others like it are not simply “misinformation, mistransfiguration, and misadaptation,” as Nabokov put it. In fact, they help us to understand how Mandelstam’s late poetry works, specifically the crucial role of indeterminacy in the production of meaning. In poems like “Den’ stoyal o pyati golovakh,” Mandelstam disrupts the referential function of language such that meaning seems always on the point of crystallizing yet never does so, making an authoritative or exhaustive reading “the goal of subtextual scholarship” not just impossible but undesirable. Lowell helps us to understand this process by rendering reference concrete (the church with five cupolas) and disrupting not the referential function of language, but the associative logic of the poetry.