The monogram represents iconic Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam much admired by Heaney for resisting the repressive Eastern European political machines that sought to silence him. The poet allegorizes his conviction that men of Mandelstam’s stature will ensure that truth will always come out.
Heaney’s publisher of messages, a magician/contradiction in terms (deaf phonetician), has developed a method of bringing his patient’s interior monologue to light despite the vocal silence imposed by outside forces. He smuggles out what cannot be heard using touch (his hand over the dome of a speaker’s skull) – his skill at unraveling speech formats (diphthong … vowel by the bone vibrating to the sound) has made the unfeasible feasible and defeated censorship.
Heaney’s speaker acknowledges a seismic moment (a globe stops spinning) and fixes on the region at the point where his rotating world globe comes to a halt (set my palm on a contour). His hand rests on the ice-bound Siberian sites (cold as permafrost) of Stalin’s prison gulags where political prisoners were incarcerated.
Associated ideas crowd in: Heaney feels (as his phonetician might ‘touch’) the continuous reverberation (axle-hum) of a well-oiled generator of language and the straightforward honesty (steadfast Russian) of a man who faced repression, imprisonment, exile and ultimate death (Osip Mandelstam).
- phonetician: one skilled in study and classification of speech sounds or who uses phonetics as part of work;
- dome: rounded vault forming the roof of a building or structure, by extension the shape of the cranium;
- diphthong: sound formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable, in which the sound begins as one vowel and moves towards the other;
- vowel: speech sound produced from the vocal tract, with vibration of the vocal cords but without audible friction; unit of the sound system of a language that forms the nucleus of a syllable;
- contour: a line joining points on a diagram with the same value (e.g. metres high or volume);
- permafrost: subsurface layer of soil that remains below freezing point throughout the year, chiefly in polar regions;
- axle-hum: the friction sound made by a rotating spindle passing through the centre of a wheel;
- steadfast: firm and unwavering; ‘secure in position, steady, firm in its place’
- Osip Mandelstam: a Polish Jew originally from Warsaw (regarded at the time as part of Russia) and leather merchant by trade; Russian poet (1891 – 1938) and essayist much admired by Heaney for his resolute public opposition to political extremism; lived in Russia during and after its revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. He was one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets; arrested by Joseph Stalin’s government during the repression of the 1930s was sent into internal exile with his wife Nadezhda; rearrested In 1938 and sentenced to a camp in Siberis Mandelstam died in a transit camp;
- the music of the poem: eleven assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text:
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats or soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies:
- the first couplet, for example gathers together alveolar plosives [d] [t] and bi-labial plosive [p];
- it is well worth teasing out the sound clusters for yourself to admire the poet’s sonic engineering:
- Consonants (with their phonetic symbols) can be classed according to where in the mouth they occur
- Front-of-mouth sounds voiceless bi-labial plosive [p] voiced bi-labial plosive [b]; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f] voiced labio-dental fricative [v]; bi-labial nasal [m]; bilabial continuant [w]
- Behind-the-teeth sounds voiceless alveolar plosive [t] voiced alveolar plosive [d]; voiceless alveolar fricative as in church match [tʃ]; voiced alveolar fricative as in judge age [dʒ]; voiceless dental fricative [θ] as in thin path; voiced dental fricative as in this other [ð]; voiceless alveolar fricative [s] voiced alveolar fricative [z]; continuant [h] alveolar nasal [n] alveolar approximant [l]; alveolar trill [r]; dental ‘y’ [j] as in yet
- Rear-of-mouth sounds voiceless velar plosive [k] voiced velar plosive [g]; voiceless post-alveolar fricative [ʃ] as in ship sure, voiced post- alveolar fricative [ʒ] as in pleasure; palatal nasal [ŋ] as in ring/ ang