I wrote this post back in 2005 but I thought it was worth a second outing to kick off my Tuesday poem slot. Mary started doing Tuesday poems last month and was soon followed by other poets including Tim, Harvey and Helen R and lots more. I'll try and post some by me and some by other poets each Tuesday.
Reading Akhmatova in Midwinter
The revelations of ice, exactly:
each leaf carries itself in glass,
each stem is a fuse in a transparent flex,
each blade, for once, truly metallic.
Trees on the hill explode like fireworks
for the minute the sun hits.
Fields hover: bleached sheets in the afternoon,
ghosts as the light goes.
The landscape shivers but holds.
Ice floes cruise the Delaware,
force it under in unnatural silence;
clarification I watch as I watch
the road – nothing but the grind of the plough
as it banks snow, drops salt and grit.
By dark these are just settled hills,
grains embedded in the new fall.
We, too, make little impression
walking back from town at midnight
On birds’ feet – ducks’ feet on the ramp
Where we inch and scrabble our way to the door,
too numb to mind the slapstick.
How did you cross
those unlit, reivented streets
with your fear of traffic and your broken shoe?
There are mornings when it drips and cracks.
We pull glass bars from railings,
chip at the car’s shadow.
by Lavinia Greenlaw
Lavinia Greenlaw is an English poet, this poem is from her second collection of poetry A World Where News Travelled Slowly, Faber & Faber 1997. The focus of this book is, according to her promotional blurb, ‘the unpredictable act of communication’
Okay, so firstly who is Akhmatova? Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet (1889-1966) seen by many as the greatest woman poet in Russian literature. She wrote confessional, personal poetry. Soviet officials proclaimed her ‘bourgeois and aristocratic’. Her husband was executed in 1921 for charges of participation in an anti-Soviet conspiracy. In 1946 she was expelled from the Soviet Union. When her son was arrested and exiled to Siberia she attempted to win his freedom with poems eulogizing Stalin and Soviet communism. Her work began to be recognized again in the ‘Cultural Thaw’ that followed Stalin’s death.
What knowledge does ice reveal? A fairly obvious reading of this poem is to see the ice and snow as representing Siberia – a prison of ice or even just ignorance. The first stanza: The revelations of ice, exactly: / each leaf carries itself in glass, / each stem is a fuse in a transparent flex, expresses the leaf-like fragility of a prisoner but also, perhaps surprisingly, in the prisoner’s core or stem, is a fuse. The prisoner becomes a potential bomb and the ice a flex, not something that can bend but rather a conduit for the prisoner’s explosive potential. In the final stanza: There are mornings when it drips and cracks. / We pull glass bars from railings, / chip at the car’s shadow. – ice traps and silences in the poem but in the end melts and the prison bars can be pulled from railings in the thaw. The ‘sun hits’ and trees ‘explode like fireworks’; illumination or knowledge thaws and blows apart the prison of ice.
Why do poets write about other poets? Greenlaw is not only writing about a poet she is reading and obviously admires but also about what knowledge, communication and poets can do to free people physically and mentally. She ponders how Akhmatova crossed the icy streets that she herself leaves little impression on as she clumsily makes her way across. Greenlaw appears to be asking herself: How do we make an impression on the world? How do we use our work to enlighten people? I was left feeling compelled to learn more – about Akhmatova and the poem.
I’ll give Lavinia herself the final word; she discussed writing the poem in an interview with Tim Kendall:
Some of the ideas I start with need to make connections before they become possible or even interesting as poems… Once, I wanted to write about an ice storm but bored myself with description. As I sat reading in this snowbound house on the Delaware River, the landscape linked itself to the book in my hands – the poems of Anna Akhmatova, who had her own ice age (and her own ice poem, written for Mandelstam, ‘Voronezh’). She, not the weather, became the subject, described through the detail, clarity and reflectiveness of the ice.