On Indices of First Lines

by Eric Bies

There I sat (or stood (or, who knows, hovered )), trying to read Osip Mandelstam…

(…not, to be sure, the early Stone poems; not the later Poems poems; not the Egyptian Stamp, not even the essay on Dante, but his final literary effort: cobbled together from the vantage of that characteristically Soviet brand of exile-cum-vacation, about 500 klicks south of Moscow), in this case, the Andrew Davis translation of the Voronezh Notebooks.

As I sat, etc., and perused the table of contents, I noticed that the book contained—in addition to its eighty-nine numbered poems and introduction—an index of first lines.

I remembered the first time I’d noticed such an index. The memory of the encounter was fresh enough—not quite far enough back to not resound so readily with the powerful shame of my nervousness in the company of poems. I remembered how, once, attempting to temper this skittishness, I’d picked out a couple of battered volumes of Auden and Coleridge, friendly clothbound entries into the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series that are with me still. Now as then they remain neat, tidy, approachable: they were, for a reader who’d made the frosty acquaintance of Eliot and Pound, poetry on training wheels. And instrumentally, at the back of them, one could and still can make alphabetical reference to each poem by the words with which it starts. So, too, I remember noticing this then: that that Auden began with “A cloudless night like this” and ended up “Wrapped in a yielding air, beside.”

Later, but not too much later, I took notice (if not any interest in the real utility) of similar indices appended as yet more backmatter to yet other editions of bound selections, collections, and completions of the poetry that continued to unman me.

Then: the Voronezh Notebooks, and as I read—page twenty, eighteenth poem of the first notebook—or attempted to read (with the unfathomable doggedness of the chronically defeated), the contents of its table of contents began to assert a certain pride of place in recent memory, edging into (indeed shimmering brightly at) the limits of my groping cogitations. The specter was not, at first, violent. But gradually, and then inescapably, I found myself overrun by the insane suggestion that I must—must—in a madcap flash of page-flipping, vault ahead to the end of the book.

To this day I cannot reckon the imperative force with which this internal command bore down upon me. I simply could not stay my hand. I needed to pitch myself, headlong and rather head-down, to the bottom of the Notebooks, where I knew that the Index of First Lines (now broad and glossy, clad in brass) had spread its seductive apparatus. But even then my better thinking was slipping and dripping through, running to questions like: Why? I had set out to read some poems, hadn’t I? so I tried to read on, and I did, I read. And my mind moved in loops. How many times can one reread a line like “The extra length of Paganini’s fingers”? But I read, and I tried to read on, and I thought: Who in the hell is Paganini? and sweat gathered in the space between my eyebrows, and I flagged in my reading, and sweat dripped from the tip of my nose like the ink from a well-squished dropper.

So I dropped Paganini’s digits. I made my leaping lunge. What I found astounds me still.

By the operation of chance, providence, Oulipian initiative, or my own mounting paranoia, there on page 105 a set of unknown and unread texts began to disclose their secrets to my unblinking eyes and dropperish schnozz. I was frozen and elated. I felt as though I’d outwitted the front of a smuggler’s bible and glimpsed the handgun pressed inside, and I could not help but to marvel at the ingenuity of its conceit. Neither could I make heads or tails of what was beginning to unfold before me; for, then and there, this Index of First Lines instantaneously morphed into an Index of First Lines. Then, in rapid succession, the title (seen on spine and cover), the copyright page, even the author’s Wikipedia bibliography—each set about its own creaturely mutations. Don’t ask me why but I have always thought of proper nouns as officers in uniform. Well, the bunch of them that moment assumed an aspect at once sinister, conspiratorial, and irresistible.

Reader, I looked down, over, and across that page, and out in plain sight were unaccounted poems, new poems, by Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam. The Index poured them out in pint glasses:

A day reared upon on five heads. For five whole days

A living being is incomparable; don’t compare

All praised, all black, all cosseted and coddled

All the disasters that I see

Alone, I look into the face of the cold

Amid the noise and scurry of the people

Armed with the eyesight of skinny wasps

As a star-stone somewhere whacks the earth awake

I thought: What is a star-stone? and couldn’t say, but it is certain that I had sensed the shock of its whacking. I had awoken to terrestrial applause.

It’s true, I lie in the earth, moving my lips

Let this air be witness

Like a postponed present

Like Rembrandt, that martyr to chiaroscuro

Like wood and copper, Favorski’s flight

Let this air be witness: and it, too, morphed, I watched it change: let this heir be witness.

Inspired, I remembered my pocketful of Auden…

…fever filled my ears with hot blood, and, let’s face it, I probably looked possessed, the sweat still rushing to the tip of my nose (spinning it forth like an instant stalactite), as I grabbed and flipped to the back of that tiny edifice of literary architecture. Was I surprised when I found inside it another poem, until then, too, hidden from the world?

This lunar beauty

Thumping old tunes give a voice to its whereabouts

Time will say nothing but I told you so

To ask the hard question is simple

Underneath an abject willow

Underneath the leaves of life

‘We have brought you,’ they said, ‘a map of the country’

I thought: They brought me the map! and sped on.

In my copy of the Modern Library edition of Rilke, Selected, whose editors had interspersed titles with first lines, I located three gleaming truths, renegades to the scholastic impulse: 

Erect no gravestone for him. Only this:


Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas

Everything is far


I am blind, you outsiders. It is a curse

I am, O Anxious One. Don’t you hear my voice

I find you, Lord, in all Things and in all

I have my dead, and I have let them go

I kept myself too open, I forgot

I live my life in widening rings

And (!):

You are lonely, my friend, because you are

You playmates of mine in the scattered parks of the city

You who are close to my heart always

You who never arrived

You, you only, exist

I thought: Everything is far, and I live my life in widening rings, that only I exist.

I thought: What genius! What genuine repetitious genius! But then—I felt myself turning on my heel. I stood again before the bookcase, and, not knowing where I’d stop, guided at each step by a kind of tuning fork of the fingernails, finally, I seized upon it: Basho: his Complete Haiku in the Kodansha edition. There I found four poems, or four found me (for who knows when one’s, of a sudden, an heir to such cosmic mysteries?). Moreover, who could have guessed that the grandmaster of haiku had marked his greatest poetic achievements so authoritatively outside the genre? Look:

Buddha’s birthday

Buddha’s death day

building a bridge

buried in moss

And look:

how curious

how enticing

how enviable

how glorious

how harsh

how interesting

how long

how pitiful

how pleasurable

how precious

how rare

how serious

how touching

how very tasteful

human voices

hurry up and bloom


And look:

in a barley field

in a humble cottage

in a stork’s nest

in all directions

in bindweed flowers

in blowing wind

in both hands

in everyone’s mouth

in full bloom

in holiness

in June

in many frosts

in many places

in one house

in summer rain

in the middle of a field

in the night

And see how

people do not see

people growing old

perhaps I’ll be one

picking up rice seedlings

pickled in salt.