All right, time to jump back into the swing of things here at FP with a poem to liven up our Friday night and maybe give us something to ponder this weekend. One of the great neglected poets is Russia’s Anna Akhmatova, whose work I’ve loved for years, but who I’m realizing has only been featured once on Poetry Friday in 3 years (and it wasn’t one of her better works, either). Anna was a modernist, a lively thinker and a woman willing to speak the truth about gender and inequality—and, perhaps even more bravely, a Russian willing to speak out against Stalin’s murderous treatment of his people. She was censored and denounced, harassed by the state police, and saw her son dragged off to a decade in a prison camp, but she refused to leave her beloved Russia, and she didn’t let the censors keep her from writing. Today, I’ve chosen a piece from early in her career—it predates not only Stalin but the Revolution—but in the boldness of the writing, I think you can imagine how she might have spoken about totalitarianism on a national scale. As always, I’m left to read in translation: I’ve read many translations of this poem, but I like this translation by Jerome Bullitt best. This is “On lyubil“/”He Loved Three Things” from her 1912 collection entitled Evening:
“He loved three things:
White fowls, evensong,
And antique maps of America.
He hated the crying of children,
Raspberry jam at tea,
And female hysteria.
And I was his wife.”
This is a marvelous thing, to me—as I promised in the post’s title, I think this is a whole story contained in 30 precisely chosen words. The character of “him” is so vivid it leaps off the page: the detachment of a man who prefers his cooing pets to handling the emotions of his children, the austerity of a man who prefers the crispness of a choir in song to the lusciousness of jam at tea. I love the exactness of his hobbies—he’s not a generic “map nerd” but this (presumably) Russian man is specifically obsessed with “antique maps of America”. And I think we know without Anna having to tell us that the phrase “female hysteria” is not the speaker’s—it’s a phrase she has heard him say, perhaps often, his lips curling back from it slightly with disdain. Sometimes it takes half a novel to feel we see into a man’s head as fully as we are seeing into this nameless husband here.
And then the beauty of that dagger—“And I was his wife”! In the punch of those five words, we see it all, don’t we? Or enough to immediately step empathetically into her shoes, and see what kind of life unfolds from these premises? Yes, yes, I’m taking a lot of liberties here, assuming this and extrapolating that, but the poem invites us to, and I think it suggests quietly all along “No, you’re not wrong to see all this; it’s all here just as you expected it would be.”
I own an anthology (somewhere in the serpentine labyrinth of the bookshelves that wind sinuously throughout the apartment) entitled The World’s Shortest Stories of Love and Death, where the editors solicited 55-word stories from a wide range of authors (a few of them famous), and they’re delightful, but I think Anna manages to out-punch them while leaving 25 words on the table, which as I understand it is something like a hip-hop artist dropping the microphone. She’s almost too good at this. But I think it’s a fun challenge, and an easy one to complete (compared to most writing tasks): can you write a 30 word story (poetic or not) that feels alive? Why not have a run at it on the back of an envelope, or in the margins of your weekend edition of the newspaper—heck, you can probably tweet it, as long as your words average 4.66 letters long (or less). And whether you do or not, have another read at this tiny delight by Anna Akhmatova that may be over a century old but feels, to me, as fresh as an apple straight from the tree.