Some weeks ago I spent a considerable amount of time being talked over. No matter how innocently I spoke, I was immediately psychoanalyzed and assigned a motivation. If I had a question, it was marked as hostile and used to fuel repetitive talking points, not open a discussion for reflection or other themes or — god forbid — criticism. It was always assumed I knew less in any given situation, that I didn’t know what I was saying, and as I have a habit of confessing my ignorance this was used against me. I didn’t quite realize why I was getting angry until I separated myself from the couple with which I was dealing and thought about why every moment with them felt awful. I know they have no idea how bad they were. They probably think themselves ready for sainthood, as they enlightened me about every amazing speech, thought, and deed comprising their lives. They had plenty of stories of how everyone else was wrong about everything, and I rest certain that I have joined their fabulous collection.
I don’t know how seriously to take my own indignation. On the one hand, I’ve been an ass plenty of times and will be plenty more. I like to think while there are a few people who’ve put distance between me and them, they have much larger struggles which my presence cannot help. It’s still strange when what I’m describing doesn’t just happen for an hour (not good), a couple of hours (a bad day), but back-to-back-to-back days, like as if a whole unit is thriving on toxicity, needing imagined enemies, needing the world to see their way, needing an excuse to run away from said world. I suspect I’ve stumbled upon something truly awful, but I remain open to being wrong. Maybe I just ran into people who don’t realize, at this time in their lives, that they have really terrible manners.
I might be wrong, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel miserable. I got run into the ground day after day, after all. I sat for a bit wondering if I’ve abused and bullied everyone in my life, thus making myself prone to attracting behavior this thoughtless. Regret piled upon regret — even when you’ve done a lot of good, you’ve got second thoughts, and I haven’t handled much even remotely well — and I just had to stop thinking. I went to Akhmatova, who lived in a country torn by war and revolution, thirsty for ideals, indifferent to the cries of others, readying itself to kill. She lived in the bleakest of times, and if I had the tiniest iota of her strength, I would be able to move mountains. Somehow, she was able to write this about her own situation: Why then do we not despair?
"Everything Is Plundered..." Anna Akhmatova (tr. Kunitz & Hayward) Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold, Death's great black wing scrapes the air, Misery gnaws to the bone. Why then do we not despair? By day, from the surrounding woods, cherries blow summer into town; at night the deep transparent skies glitter with new galaxies. And the miraculous comes so close to the ruined, dirty houses-- something not known to anyone at all, but wild in our breast for centuries.
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold, / Death’s great black wing scrapes the air, / Misery gnaws to the bone — I cannot say I could even imagine anything like this. My problems seem so small that I feel petty for simply attempting to complain. She felt misery gnaw to the bone — this isn’t just half a week or so, this could be months. Months of watching people close to you die, others break any semblance of trust. Yet I don’t think Akhmatova would dismiss lightly what I’ve written of my own anger and doubt. When she asks Why then do we not despair?, two things are notable. First, she’s surprised herself. She and everyone who remains should be broken; people break in any number of circumstances. Second, “we.” She’s not focused on her own individual mood, which might not be so positive at a given moment. She’s wondering how a people didn’t break. As noted in the paragraphs before the poem, at least two people I know look pretty successful at accusing everyone else, surviving and perhaps thriving in their own bubble.
In these words, Akhmatova sees far less cynically than I do. The land helps a people with its graces. By day, from the surrounding woods, cherries blow summer into town. It holds a particular grace by not being everything, by being one vantage point. At night the deep transparent skies glitter with new galaxies. Akhmatova makes it sound like the land naturally forms a people and thus performs the natural function of a poet, the oldest sort of poet. “Cherries blow summer into town” stands exquisite — fleshy cherries with their fresh smell become the summer that settles on one’s skin, one’s sight. Divinity is not merely sensual, though. “Deep transparent skies” is a phrase I feel blessed for merely reading. Can I eventually do it justice in my own writing? In the depths — in the distance — clarity.
She ends, singing a nation. They believe, I believe seeing them, we believe. And the miraculous comes so close to the ruined, dirty houses. The object of belief is not here yet — it is something not known to anyone at all — but we hope, depending on each other to demonstrate faith. A people unbreakable gives an individual strength. This is a natural assumption, a power wild in our breast for centuries.
I am not sure what to say after all this. I respect Akhmatova greatly. Her strength is something for which I should strive, and if I could write one word with the carefulness, wisdom, and beauty she brings to her craft, I would be an incredible writer. There is a larger, mystical sense of being a people and all that implies; it connects us to the past, makes the present possible, heartens us. All the same, I cannot lie to you. I see my nation freely falling into pettiness, groups of people purposely narrowing their own vision in order to prove themselves right and exert control in a relative sense. This is closely related to certain reactionary, nationalist tendencies, though it need not result in them. Generally speaking, it does create people obsessed with their own personal drama who push others away. There has to be another basis for faith, for knowing hope, even as I accept inspiration from those close to me. I hope I can find that faith by reaching out and reaching within, no matter my disappointment, no matter my smallness.
Kunitz, Stanley and Max Hayward. Poems of Akhmatova. New York: Mariner, 1997.