Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Can you describe this?" And I answered, "Yes, I can."

I have been falling in love with the words of Anna Akhmatova.

For those who don't know, Anna Akhmatova was a poet in the Soviet Union. She lived through Stalin's purges and the Great Terror of the 1930s. 

And she refused to be silent. 

Oh, Anna. How to describe Anna? I feel like my words don't do justice to her resilience, grace, and strength. (But if you do want to read a beautiful, stunning post on Anna Akhmatova, you should read Em's blog post about her here.)

But, if there is anything I will say, I will say that Anna Akhmatova was strong. Oh, was she ever strong. 

She had everything taken from her. Her son was arrested and sent to the Gulag. Her husband was killed. Many of her closest friends were also arrested and executed.

But she refused to give up. And she refused to run away. 

About a month ago, I decided to write about Anna Akhmatova for my Soviet history class. I decided that I needed to study a resilient woman. I needed to study her life in depth. And so I chose Anna. 

I haven't been disappointed. 

Can I share with you a few of her poems that I love? There is just so much emotion in them. So much raw emotion and strength. They were both written during the 1930s. During that time when so much innocent blood was spilled and so many lives were destroyed. 

This one was written in 1933, and talks about the blood spilled by the Bolsheviks: 

Wild honey smells like freedom, 
Dust--like a ray of sun, 
Like violets--a young maid's mouth, 
And gold--like nothing. 
The flowers of the mignonette smell like water, 
And like an apple--love. 
But we learned once and for all
That blood only smells like blood . . . 

And in vain the vice-regent of Rome 
Washed his hands before all the people, 
Urged on by the ominous shouts of the rabble; 
And the Scottish queen 
In vain washed the spattered red drops
From her slender palms
In the stifling gloom of the king's home . . . 

I don't know why this poem resonates so deeply with me. "But we learned once and for all/That blood only smells like blood." That line. It gives me chills. Especially after learning so much about Soviet history the past couple months. The quotas. The prisons. The show trials. The blood. How do we let ourselves lose our humanity? "Blood only smells like blood." 

The other poem which has deeply affected me is her Requiem. This cycle of poems is . . . there's not a proper word in English to describe it. But it is extraordinary. Simply exquisite. She tells her story of losing her son to the NKVD and then waiting in line outside the prison walls of Leningrad--waiting for hours, days, months, years--for something--anything--some kind of information about his fate. But this poem isn't just about her. It is about all of those women in Leningrad. It is their story. She gives voice to the voiceless so that history will not forget. 

And Requiem beautifully captures the despair of the time. The anguish. The grief of a nation and of the women of this nation. But there is also an element of hope Requiem. A sense of dignity. The promise that she will not give up, so that history will remember. Evidence that the human spirit cannot be crushed. And it is incredible. 

Here are some of my favorite parts of Requiem

Instead of a Preface

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone "recognized" me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there): 
"Can you describe this?" 
And I answered, "Yes, I can." 
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face. 

The Sentence

And the stone word fell 
On my still-living breast. 
Never mind, I was ready. 
I will manage somehow. 

Today I have so much to do: 
I must kill memory once and for all, 
I must turn my soul to stone, 
I must learn to live again--

Unless . . . Summer's ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window. 
For a long time I've foreseen this 
Brilliant day, deserted house. 

Epilogue I 

I learned how faces fall, 
How terror darts from under eyelids, 
How suffering traces lines
Of stiff cuneiform on cheeks, 
How locks of ashen-blonde or black 
Turn silver suddenly, 
Smiles fade on submissive lips
And fear trembles in a dry laugh. 
I pray not for myself alone, 
But for all those who stood there with me
In cruel cold, and in July's heat, 
At that blind, red wall. 

Her words are powerful. Powerful, real, and stunning. She speaks for all the women--the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and others--who stand by that brick wall at Kretsy Prison, waiting, hoping, praying for some news . . . even if it is the worst news. 

Because that not knowing is the worst of all. 

But she wrote so that the world would know. 

I've studied a lot of poets in my life. But I think . . . I think that if I could write like anyone, I would choose to write like Anna Akhmatova. 

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