My Animal, My Age


Henryk Rozencwaijg-Ross (1910-1991) was an official photographer for the Department of Statistics in the Łódź Ghetto from 1940 to 1944.  Born in Warsaw, Rozencwaijg-Ross had worked in Łódź as a press and sports photographer before the war, and was among the initial 160,000 Jews imprisoned in the ghetto in 1940 (of the approximately 204,000 who were eventually forced into it).  As fate had it, he was among the 877 discovered in hiding when the Red Army liberated the city in 1945.  Officially, Rozencwaijg-Ross was responsible for producing identity cards for the ghetto’s residents, as well as promotional images of its factories and administration.  Unofficially, he photographed the atrocities he saw around him, at the risk of his life.  His work survived through some combination of accident and his own cunning.  “I buried my negatives in the ground,” he later said, “in order that there should be some record of our tragedy... I was anticipating the total destruction of Polish Jewry.  I wanted to leave a historical record of our martyrdom.”  After the liberation, Rozencwaijg-Ross dug up almost 3,000 of his negatives, many significantly damaged.  His collection remains the most intact set of Holocaust photographs by a single Jewish photographer, second in its ambition only to the work of Rozencwaijg-Ross’s companion in the ghetto, Mendel Grossman, whose 10,000 image archive also survived the war, but then was lost in the Israeli war of independence.  The Rozencwaijg-Ross collection is now available online through the Art Gallery of Ontario.

For a long time I have wrestled with Osip Mandelstam’s 1922 poem “The Age,” which itself wrestles with many things—the anguish that comes from seeing what death makes and keeps making, the strange creatureliness of loss, and the taunt that slithers through modernity.  In an intensive compounding of metaphors, Mandelstam pronounces suffering that is both existential and historical, the one calibrating and adjusting the other.  The tone is not one of defeat or submission, but a kind of defiant weariness, a plaintive dedication to an unwon struggle for renewal.  Sometimes that renewal appears in the poem as a natural force, “wave after wave of grave aboriginal green,” and other times as the upshot of an isolate calling—the naming of the “who alone” that “can use...word and blood to bind and mend these centuries.”  Whatever its forms, Mandelstam seems certain that renewal is not recuperation as against grief.  Rather it is the song of that grief itself, which draws us in and also draws the serpent, the dark strength that “breathes in time in the grass.”

Of course, Rozencwaijg-Ross and Mandelstam never met and probably never knew of each other.  Mandelstam was born in 1891 in Warsaw to a wealthy Polish Jewish family, raised in St. Petersburg, and educated in Berlin and Paris, before finding his way back to Petersburg and then Moscow.  He was arrested and forced into provincial exile in Voronezh for his outspoken criticism of Stalin, and eventually arrested again.  He suffered a brutal death in a far eastern penal camp in 1938.  It is entirely my conceit as an artist to force them together into the pages of a book, to have them respond to one another, test their preoccupations against one another, for the sake of another age and another world––our own.  It is my conceit to push the brilliant crush of Mandelstam’s images up against the brutal enigma of Rozencwaijg-Ross’s visions, swirling in their own disintegration against a predicating blackness.  It is my conceit to treat one artist’s work as the lost cousin of another’s, to look for points of contact between very different types of formal precision and inner restlessness.  I must admit also to being motivated by a certain fraternal imagination I have of Mandelstam and Rozencwaijg-Ross as Jews and dissident artists.

It is my luck that Christian Wiman has given the powers of his own poetic vision to translating Mandelstam, in Stolen Air:  Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam (Ecco, 2012).   In Wiman’s hands, “The Age” becomes “My Animal, My Age,” and appears in English as if for the first time—a poem tender and unsparing, elegiac and damning, deeply musical and stubbornly averse to lyrical pretension.  For comparison, I have included here two quite different versions of the poem, by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin (the version I originally knew), and Andrew Wachtel.

“A great poet,” writes Ilya Kaminsky on Wiman’s Mandelstam, “deserves many translators,” and cites Mandelstam himself:  “each translator in turn produces a new translation, a new interpretation, a new form of expression in the other language.”  It seems crucial to Wiman’s tasks as a translator that he does not actually know Russian, but worked from Kaminsky’s word-by-word versions and transliterations.  Such a process from the outset is overtly fallible, and also daring.  It challenges the familiar idea of a translation as a compromised version of the original, and also challenges the idea of translation as a vaguely miscreant act of appropriation committed by a lesser poet against a greater one.  In Wiman’s process, the problem is not to press Mandelstam into a respectable but derivative English equivalent, or to reinvent him in and for an alien cultural landscape—essentially to make an American poet of him.  Rather Wiman’s task is to culture Mandelstam’s artistic presence within himself, and then to register Mandelstam’s voice within his own—a kind of poetic equivalent to method acting.  For some readers, this approach forfeits the term “translation” from the start.  For me, it is a tonic approach that puts the old disputes between so-called liberal and faithful translations to the side, and revives translation as a primary type of poetic making.  It grapples honestly with the elemental problem that Mandelstam himself calls a poet’s “secret hearing,” which I understand to mean the particular combination of intuition, receptiveness and ingenuity with which a poet directs consciousness into and through language.  The upshot of Wiman’s work—his success—is a co-creation whose authorship he attributes to Mandelstam, generously and correctly, and whose capaciousness he credits to himself, again correctly.  

From a photographer’s point of view––my point of view––the photographic process itself involves a related set of philosophical complications.  The standard two-step process, first publicly announced by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839, uses a negative image to make a positive one.  The negative can be printed over and over without limit, and can also be printed in a very wide variety of ways, even by adjusting only the simplest variables such as lightness/darkness and contrast.  Each print is an interpretation of the negative––Ansel Adams famously likened a negative to a musical score and a print to a performance of that score––and there is no such thing as a print that is interpretationless.  All prints perform some kind of interpretation, on a spectrum from conventional to non-conventional, i.e. from prints whose interpretation of the negative seems neutral and transparent to prints that seem to call attention to the interpretive act as such.  But convention is just that, merely convention, and it is nowhere written that conventional interpretations have greater validity, depth, power.  

The images of Rozencwaijg-Ross reproduced in this book are in fact, conventional, but with standard darkroom changes of contrast (which I have mimicked digitally), very different meanings emerge from the same negative, from the plaintiveness of the low-contrast rendition to the severity and indeed expressivist illegibility of the high-contrast rendition.  These meanings are irreducible to each other.  All are “contained” within the negative as a potentiality, the key point being that the negative is not like the original text waiting to be translated, rather it is the stuff from which any original is made, with all interpretations having equal status as originals.  In this sense, from a photographer’s perspective, a poem looks something like one kind of “print” of a poetic potentiality in the mind of the poet.  Once it exists, the poem then comes to act like a negative that is “printed” ––interpreted into new forms––as it enters new languages.  More radically, the original poem can be likened to a negative that is “printed” each time a reader receives it.  In this case, the process of interpreting a poem into another language is not so different from the process of interpreting a poem in its original language, inasmuch as other words, images and forms are required to do it.  The difference between entering a poem into new words and entering into a poem using new words is a difference of degree, not of kind.  

Following The Tilted Horizon and Other Pictures from a Very Long Poem (2016), and The Orphan Kaddish (2016), this book is the third in a trilogy that I hope gives soul to an encounter with my own time and my own search.  It is a search that I like to imagine Mandelstam and Rozencwaijg-Ross would understand.

Jason Francisco
October, 2016