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based on The Guest, by Anna Akhmatova

 

 

I felt the way he looked at me across the room.

Hungry. A bear in spring. Glass of red wine

in his paws. His gaze hooked into me

 

as I parted the currents of the crowd.

I found a window, stood in its chill,

felt his heat arrive behind me. Scent

 

of tundra. Sweet grass. I did not turn

to him to speak. What do you want,

I said. To meet you in hell, he said,

 

his voice layered in honey and shade.

I met his eyes in the window, saw him

on his hind legs, rippled, as though through a lake.

 

You mean to have us both destroyed,

I said. Watched through our reflections

the falling snow. Tell me, he said,

 

how men kiss you. Tell me how you kiss.

My lips wanted to show him, Like this,

but my mouth formed in a silent O,

 

round as a wedding ring. In the mirror

of the night, I watched his eyes linger there.

And the gold on my finger slipped off

 

as my hands transformed to fins. I knew

some part of me would die. I knew

I would choose to swim.

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We dreamed of revolution.

What came to Russia was terror,

terror that left us voiceless,

faceless, betrayed.

Blood in the streets.

Blood splattered on boots.

Blood that stank like blood.

 

I stood seventeen months

in prison lines three hundred women long,

waited to plead with the hangman

for my son. Seventeen months

I listened to the scrape

of the iron key that never

opened the lock.

 

Leave, said my friends

as they fled our land,

Leave Russia forever, they said.

 

But I could no more leave

the birches and pines,

the high mountains and endless steppes,

no, I could no more leave

the Russian people

than I could leave my own skin.

 

The government called me

an anachronism. They snarled,

“half nun, half whore.” They claimed

I contributed nothing to communism.

Burned my books. Forbid me

to publish more.

 

They killed my ex-husband.

My next husband, too.

They claimed intelligence

was a sin.

 

But when we’re silenced,

that’s the summons for our voice to grow,

and I went from the voice

of one woman wanting

to the voice of over

a hundred million mouths screaming,

screaming for freedom, for justice, for life.

 

They thought that by corseting my words

they could contain them. But they thought wrong.

Now, I whisper poems into the ears of my friends

and my words travel on, become living poems,

poems that throng in the streets.

Poems that stand in line and speak

to the women with blue lips who wail.

Poems that turn into ribbons

that flutter beyond the butcher’s reach.

Poems that slip beneath locked doors

that speak of suffering, futile war.

 

Now I know what art is for.

 

 

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When I met Amadeo Modigliani,

I knew of hunger

what did I know of love?

I was in Paris. On my honeymoon.

As my new husband met with other women

i met with Amadeo, an impoverished Italian Jew.

His paintings not yet famous.

We would walk Parisian streets

in the warm summer rain

and snuggle under his black umbrella

and recite by heart poems from Verlaine together.

He begged me, don’t go back to Russia.

Russia? I said, where is that? It’s Russiya.

Don’t go back to Russiya, Anna.

I did.

 

That winter he wrote me in Petrograd:

Vous êtes en moi comme une hantise;

You are obsessively part of me.

I knew it was true,

that he was more myself

than my own familiar hands.

Back in Petrograd,

I would touch my lips in the mirror

and say my own name

and believe my voice was his.

 

I think of Lot’s wife.

How they told her not to turn,

to not look at Sodom, her home

even as it was being destroyed

but how could she not

turn to the green fields where she had sung,

turn to the bed where her children

were made, turn to the place

of her blood?

 

When I turned back to Paris

because his love felt like home

even though i knew it would be destroyed,

I was not transformed into salt

but into chalk, black chalk, his chalk on paper.

 

I did not know then

how that I would come

to treasure his vision,

how I would tape his drawing

on the wall in every house

i ever lived in so I could live again

between those lines in a time

of wild honey, scent of beeswax candles,

his amber eyes.

 

Amedeo always drew me naked

in long spare lines—

Always from memory when he was alone.

With me, his hands

were too busy for chalk.

 

He’d slip off my dress,

and in my breast,

he’d visit my beloved Russian steppes,

in my waist, he buried himself

in Siberian snow,

and between my thighs,

he was baptized again and again

in the floodwaters of the Neva River.

 

They’d not yet made

a corset that will fit me—

how could it when I

am all of Russia?

 

Oh I loved him. Wrote him poems.

Left red roses strewn on his studio floor.

How airy the light was then.

How I loved being what they would later call me,

 

 

polovina monakhini, half nun,

polovina shlyukha, half whore.

 

 

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There are cliffs inside me.

Every day I run to  the edge

and hurl myself into the sea.

I love the fall, the salt.

 

“You shame us,” they said.

“Poems are nonsense,” they said.

“How badly,” they said,

“you’ve been brought up.”

 

But I am the one who makes baskets

of nettles. And I am the one

found by the lyre. I am the one

who walks rooftops in moonlight.

 

Let others wear a corset,

a bodice, two skirts and a cap to the beach

where they do nothing more than tiptoe on the shore,

I am the one who runs naked

 

beneath my thin dress to swim

in the Black Sea for hours.

And I am the blood of Ghengis Khan.

I am Russian to the core.

 

I am birch and green parks and pines,

and Russia’s endless steppes,

and I am the Russian people themselves

who ask questions of life and death.

 

They call me a decadent Madonna.

They call me half nun, half whore.

Yes. I was born to be an unmasker.

I was born not to be servant, but master.

 

But this is the hour before the dawn.

Can you smell it? Blood in the street.

The shadow of the future is thrown

long before it arrives. And in all of Russia,

 

there is nowhere to hide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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with a line from “Snow” by Anna Akhmatova

 

 

The spruce boughs are empty

of snow as we ski up the old

railroad grade. And when we arrive

at the top, the sky opens up,

an enchantment of blue.

I want to ask her how it felt

to be caged, to be clipped,

to be silenced. But she looks

at me as if to say the mood

is too tender for talk. And so

we let the words disappear

like the snow that is not falling,

and we move together

as good friends do, letting

one lead, and then the other.

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