(From a letter by L.G. Hertz responding to a question about the lines from Phantom Order:)
Papered in the bedroom wall
Arise from continents that fall;
I once stayed in a house in which the bedroom walls were covered with a mix of wallpaper remnants from different rolls. The wallpaper patches had accumulated over the years. It turned out that the house was built over a geologic fault, and the owner, acknowledging that the cracks in the wall were due to the forces of planet Earth, minimized his losses in the face of his opponent’s overwhelming advantage.
This consciousness of the leaps in magnitude behind everyday things, the sudden sense of the universe geared down to human scale, is beautifully expressed by Osip Mandelshtam in the striking image of the “vertical lake” that opens his poem about Gothic cathedrals: Я видел озеро, стоящее отвесно, I saw a lake standing vertically. Here, the cathedral wall built of Lutetian limestone is recognized as an upturned lakebed or seafloor that had formed millions of years before. The limestone itself built up from the remains of aquatic life. Thus, the stone of the cathedral walls contains the bodies of ancient fish who have now erected a structure for themselves on land: Играли рыбы, дом построив пресный, The fishes were swimming about; they’d built a freshwater house.
This geologic sense is reinforced with a flourish in the poem’s last stanza in the image of a town fountain built of sandstone that flings its water into the air:
И влагой напоен, восстал песчаник честный
И средь ремесленного города-сверчка
Мальчишка-океан встает из речки пресной
И чашками воды швыряает в облака.
Imbued with moisture, the honest sandstone has risen, and midst the artisanal cricket-like town, Little Boy Ocean stands up out of the freshwater river and flings cupfuls of water into the clouds.
The sandstone that was once saturated as an underwater sedimentary layer has been geologically uplifted; has been quarried — brought up and out into the air (восстал); has been formed by a sculptor in a town full of artisans (средь ремесленного города-сверчка); and now in the form of a fountain standing on a pedestal (встает), is once again filled with water, this time freshwater from a river.
Why is sandstone described as “honest” (песчаник честный)? The sense here is similar to the English idiom “honest and hardworking.” Sandstone, while reliable structurally as a building material, is less glamorous than marble, its metamorphic cousin, and being easier to work than marble, is often used for ornamental statues and fountains.
What is a город-сверчок, a “cricket-town”? To me it suggests a town filled with craftsmen such as carpenters, masons, and sculptors, all at work sawing, scraping, and pinging like a cricket.
And who is Little Boy Ocean (мальчишка-океан)?
The oceans that surround France today and their river tributaries are millions of years younger than the Eocene seas, lakes, and rivers of the cathedral limestone and the fountain sandstone. Hence the twentieth-century river that feeds the fountain and the sea to which it contributes could well be considered mere youngsters.
Yet I rather think that this boy-ocean who rises from sedimentary rock, the compressed soil of eons, comes from Mandelshtam’s playing on the Greek root pedo- which means both “soil” and “child,” derived from pedon “soil” or pais, paidos “child.” We find in Russian (and in English) two entirely different fields both called педология pedology: one the study of soil formation and the other the study of child development. To play on the double meaning of this Greek root seems to me just the sort of thing that Mandelshtam would do.
Every reader understands a poem in his own way. If I am asked how I know that мальчишка-океан is a fountain, I reply, “Water tossed into the air is a fountain, is it not? Little boys are playful, and fountains are playful. Cupfuls are fistfuls. An ocean is fed from springs and rivers just as a fountain is.” This stanza is clear to me intuitively, but of course there are logical approaches as I have mentioned that could be adduced to arrive at the same understanding.