The Ugly Side of Perseverance

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.

Forché has become known for that poetry of witness, and I equally fear and desire to explore her work, because my own (less poetic) heart is already as full of vicarious hurt as I think I can carry. I am pleased, and thankful, for those who will not let evil be ignored, or suffering to be isolated or forgotten, but I ask myself if that is right to celebrate, if I am not one who will also read, listen, participate.

It reminds me of something I mentioned on a friend’s Facebook wall when she described her emotional overwhelm in the midst of the latest global tragedy.

We all now have the option of growing our own individual PTSD gardens.

As if open hearts cannot find enough to make us bleed with our own senses, we now have access to a world of hurt.

And yet we can’t turn away.

I don’t think this is [for us] the macabre rubbernecking at an accident. I don’t think we are looking for blood. I think we are engaged. A perverse sort of perpetual optimism where we are wondering (if not openly asking) if there is something we can do to help. To make it better.

But in these dark, trapped places, sometimes the words are all, and these words are powerful.

Dedication, from Requiem by Anna Akhmatova

Such grief might make the mountains stoop,
Reverse the waters where they flow,
But cannot burst these ponderous bolts crowded with mortal woe….
For some the wind can freshly blow, but we, made partners in our dread,
hear but the grating of the keys,
and heavy-booted soldiers’ tread.
As if for early mass we rose
and each day walked the wilderness,
trudging through silent street and square,
to congregate, less live than dead.
The sun declined, the Neva blurred,
and hope sang always from afar.
Whose sentence is decreed? … that moan,
that sudden spurt of woman’s tears,
shows one distinguished from the rest,
as if they’d knocked her to the ground
and wrenched the heart out of her breast,
then let her go, reeling, alone.
Where are they now, my nameless friends
from those two years I spent in hell?
What specter mock them now, amid
the fury of Siberian snows,
or in the blighted circle of the moon?
To them I cry, Hail and Farewell!

The ugly side of perseverance is that it is not an abstract virtue. It is not something pretty to admire from a distance. To persevere requires something that is not immediately managed, comfortable, or (sometimes) solvable in a foreseeable timeline. It is about endurance, which word itself speaks of something to endure.

It is one of the virtues we pray earnestly we will not be called upon to practice extensively, but we also pray — I pray — we will acquit ourselves well.

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