Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reading Requiem in a Small Town

It was an extraordinary ending to a Friday which had already been painted in shades of surreal by the ceremonies which had taken place earlier in the day.

Although I was driving as fast as I could safely manage through the falling snow, peering warily through the frosty windshield of my frigid vehicle, I realized would be hopelessly late to the reading. 

At long last, I stumbled in my clumsy rubber-soled boots through the door of a small used bookstore, which smelled of paper, dust, and chalk. From their perches on a ring of folding chairs on a plywood floor, a small gathering of men and women glanced up in curiosity.  A respectful hush hung over the place. A young girl had just finished reading Anna Akhmatova's Requiem aloud to the group. 

"It reminded me a bit of Edgar Allen Poe," volunteered one attentive listener. 

Peering over his glasses, the owner of the bookstore, curly-bearded and yet shabbily genteel in flannel shirt and jeans, reminded the group that this was a piece of protest poetry. "The fact that someone found her voice, and used it, at such a time, this is comforting to me," he said. The members of the audience all appeared to swell temporarily in their stature, as if they had gained the strength and endurance of a circle of standing stones. The daintily hand-drawn signs on the chalkboards in the room shivered and shimmered.

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

"I am so sorry I was late," I apologized. I explained that I had come from quite a distance, because I had heard a rumor that there would be an Akhmatova reading at the shop, and that this was no small matter for me. I showed them an early photograph of Anna Akhmatova, at which they oohed and ahed, and explained that she was considered a rebel in many ways, and that Akhmatova usually wrote in rhyming couplets, so that it is difficult to render her work properly in translation.

I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.

Creation of the World, Ivan Aivazovsky

A few minutes later, I found myself reading the first four lines of Requiem aloud, in Russian, to give them just a small flavor of the original:

 Нет, и не под чуждым небосводом,
 И не под защитой чуждых крыл,-
 Я была тогда с моим народом,
 Там, где мой народ, к несчастью, был.

No, I was not beneath a foreign firmament,
Nor protected by foreign wings,
I was with my own people then,
There, where my people, unluckily, were.

The owner of the bookstore, noting my enthusiasm for the subject, mentioned to me that one of his classmates from a local writing class had written a poem on the subject of Anna Akhmatova. Thirstily, I gulped down this information, and promptly bought the journal in which his friend's poem had been published. 

The timely title of this local writer's poem was Stalking Anna.  

Ach, alas! the exhilaration of the evening rushed away from me like a naughty kitten, tugging a ball of string under the divan. I made it safely home, but the next morning found myself stranded in the driveway with an astonishingly flat damaged, that when I brought it to the shop to be repaired, the mechanics demonstrated to me that someone must have taken a knife and slashed the sidewall of the tire. The damage was irreparable. I thanked my guardian-angels for preventing me from venturing out onto the highway in this state, and bought a new tire. It is difficult for me to convert myself to the reality that someone would be capable of such a gesture -- it is as if they are missing a key sense, such as ears, with which to hear the songs of the birds, and therefore they let their frustration at the joy of others overtake them. But this is a small matter. 


Since that evening, time and time again, my thoughts have returned to Anna's Requiem, not recalling her sorrow as often as her strength.  Near the beginning of the cycle of poems, she wrote, Mountains fall before this grief, A mighty river stops its flow...

The names of rivers are invoked several times in Requiem: both the misty Neva, and the silent Don are mentioned. In the end, she allows the melting river to embody her grief:

Let the thawing ice flow like tears
From my immovable bronze eyelids...

...And so may it be that such lessons as we have learned from the chilled lips of the inimitable Anna, allow us room to pause, and review the landscapes of our own lives.

Black Sea, Ivan Aivazovsky

Are things really as they seem on the blinking screen, or does another world altogether beckon to us through the window-pane? 

the song of a shell sapphire melting inside jade a color unnamed Ofra Haza's version of this song defies categoriz...

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