Perseverance is one of 13 “attributes” my oldest daughter’s school studies each academic year.
I bring in poems to share each attribute cycle. This attribute I found the perfect poem for last year– and it was perfect because of the story that framed and created it.
Today I found the book that introduced me to the piece (First Loves, edited by Carmela Ciuraru), and began to reread the selection, noticing what I underlined last year:
…Broadsky’s trial in the former Soviet Union condemn[ed] him to forced labor. When asked on what authority he pronounced himself a poet, he had answered that the vocation came from God. Silence followed, and also the sentence.
It was Broadsky, of the stirring conviction in his vocation, who recommended reading the Russian poet Anne Akhmatova.
Anne was a poet “in a time when a poem on a scrap of paper could mean a death sentence.”
…To continue to write, to commit one’s work to faithful friends who were prepared to learn poems by heart and thus preserve them, was only possible if one was convinced of the absolute importance and necessity of poetry.
These are observations from Carolyn Forché, who coined the term, “poetry of witness.”
Knowing that about her, I see clearly the influence of Anna Akhmatova, who lived and wrote through one of the many intense seasons of the former Soviet Union, while her grown son was imprisoned for the crime of having two parents who were poets.
He was only one of many so imprisoned, and many others did all they could to comfort and care for their loved ones while they were locked away.
Anna wrote about the experience:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day, somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
Carolyn Forché (the poet introducing Anna in this book) says, “I knew that the poet’s work was to describe ‘this’ before I knew what ‘this’ was, but that it was indescribable.”
I knew that [Anna’s] I can was courageous and defiant, less an expression of confidence in her ability than an announcement against the triumph of evil.