Jun. 23, 2007
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Poem: "Field Notes" by Galway Kinnell, from Strong Is Your Hold. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
When we were out at dinner
last night and a dim mood
from the day hung on in me
that neither the quenelles
de brochet nor the Pignan
2000 could quite lift,
she disappeared and plucked
out of the air somewhere
some amusement or comfort
and, quickly back again,
laid it in our dinner talk.
When it was time to leave
and she scanned the restaurant
for the restroom, she went up
on her toes, like the upland plover,
and in the taxi home we kissed
a mint from the maitre d's desk
from my mouth to hers,
like cedar waxwings.
When I squished in bare feet
up to the bedroom, I found her
already dropped off, bedside lamp still on,
Theodore Xeonphon Barber's
The Human Nature of Birds
lying open face-down under her chin.
Gazing at her I saw
that she was gazing back,
having been sleeping awake
as the tree swallow does.
I went around the foot
of the bed and climbed in
and slid toward the side lined
with the warmth and softness
of herself, and we clasped each other
like no birds I know of.
Our cries that night were wild,
unhinged, not from here,
like the common loon's.
Literary and Historical Notes:
Tonight is Midsummer Night's Eve, also called St. John's Eve. St. John is the patron saint of beekeepers. It's a time when the hives are full of honey. The full moon that occurs this month was called the Mead Moon, because honey was fermented to make mead. That's where the word "honeymoon" comes from.
It's a time for lovers. An old Swedish proverb says, "Midsummer Night is not long but it sets many cradles rocking." Midsummer dew was said to have special healing powers. Women washed their faces in it to make themselves beautiful and young.
It's the birthday of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, (books by this author) born in a suburb of Odessa in 1889. She was a beautiful, fashionable, 22-year-old woman when she published her first collection of poetry in 1912. The book was filled with love poems inspired by her affair with the then-unknown Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, and no Russian woman had ever written so frankly about love. Akhmatova became a celebrity overnight.
But within a few years, life in Russia became much more complicated, and Akhmatova had a lot more to write about than love affairs. In her poem "In Memoriam July 19, 1914" about the start of World War I she wrote, "We grew a hundred years older in a single hour." After the Bolshevik Revolution, most writers and intellectuals tried to flee the country, but Akhmatova and her husband decided to stay. Her husband was shot in 1921 for allegedly participating in an anti-Bolshevik plot, and the following year, the government informed Akhmatova that she would no longer be able to publish her poetry. She began working on translations and more or less stopped writing her own poems.
Then Akhmatova's son was arrested by the government. She was horrified. For 17 months, she went to the prison in Leningrad every day to try to get news about her son's well-being. There were crowds of other women there, doing the same thing, and one day a woman recognized Akhmatova as the formerly famous poet. Akhmatova later described the incident, writing, "A woman with bluish lips standing behind me ... woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear, 'Can you describe this?'"
That woman's question helped inspire Akhmatova to begin writing her 10-poem cycle "Requiem," which many Russians consider the greatest piece of literature written about Stalinist Russia.
Even though she wasn't allowed to publish her poetry, the government remained suspicious of her activities. To take precautions that her poetry would be preserved, she developed a system. Whenever she wrote a new poem, she would invite a friend over to read and memorize it. Then, she would burn the only copy.
By the end of her life, she had gained more freedom, and she'd become one of the most renowned poets in the world. She died on the 13th anniversary of Stalin's death, on March 5, 1966. A complete collection of her poetry didn't come out in Soviet Union until the late 1980s.
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