Tuesday, January 24, 2017

MY CHINESE YEAR





As Chinese New Year approached, I began to reflect on the books I read this past year.  I had immersed myself in Chinese culture and language, which I've been interested in for most of my life.  So I thought I'd share three of the many books I read.  Each book is top-notch, beautifully written, evocative, and picturesque.  Each is a memoir that depicts a woman triumphant, at times despite circumstances of misogyny so blatant and palpable as to be shocking.  I encourage readers of this blog to sample one or two of these books, like salty, sweet, or savory dumplings in this, the Year of the Rooster.  Nian nian you yĆ¼!

1.  Good Chinese Wife by Susan Blumberg-Kason

A true love story set in China, Good Chinese Wife depicts the author as an American graduate student at Hong Kong University who meets and falls in love with her Chinese classmate.  Curious about Chinese dating rituals, I found the book compelling, well-written, and completely absorbing as it details the rites of love, courtship and marriage in China as experienced by the author.  At one point, Cai, Ms. Blumberg-Kason's future husband, explains that Chinese couples only date if they intend to marry.  Once Cai and young Susan are married, however, their cultural differences prove insurmountable.  Although I knew the outcome, I wished for a happier ending. 

2. Leaving Mother Lake by Namu Erche Yang and Christine Matthieu

This is a beautiful and poignant memoir (co-authored with Christine Matthieu, an anthropologist).  I'd never heard of the Moso people and their matrilineal culture--with unusual customs and disbelief 
in marriage.  So I thought this was a book I could not miss out on.  It depicts the author's childhood and adolescence in a primitive environment that favors women.  Ms.  Yang reveals the fascinating
details of her youth, steeped in the beauty of the Himalayan mountains and Lugo Lake, her original homeland at the China-Tibet border.  The book culminates in her running away from love (though I wonder what happened to Geko, the young man she rejected) and her village, ultimately to Beijing.  It is beautiful, eloquent, and rare.

3. Journey Across The Four Seas: A Chinese Woman's Search for Home by  Veronica Li

As a young girl, Flora Li asked her mother when she was going to school.  Her mother said, "You're a girl.  Girls don't go to school."  That might have sealed her fate, except that she was determined to better herself and her circumstances.  A memoir of Flora Li's life as told to her youngest daughter, Veronica Li, Journey Across The Four Seas depicts Flora as she struggles to get an education and attend college in China.  Eventually, she gets accepted into a college program, graduates and works at various companies  with tenacity and diligence.  What I liked most was that she triumphed over many personal obstacles--from fending off her husband's girlfriend to raising her five children.  Flora Li is a woman of valor.   In addition, the book captures the tone and events of the turbulent times: the Japanese invasion of Nanking, British colonialism, World War II, with important historical persons such as Chiang Kai-shek.  I loved this memoir!


--Yolanda A.  Reid

Monday, June 20, 2016

ON READING SYLVIA PLATH


While in college, I was an avid fan of the poet Sylvia Plath.  Years later, I made a summer jaunt to a book reading by her biographer, Edward Butscher.  I had a dog-eared paperback copy of his book on my desk that I often referred to.  That day, Mr.  Butscher--a tall slender man with a mostly dark-brown beard--was gracious and cordial.  I was, perhaps, the most eager Sylvia Plath fan he’d  met in a long time, for I’d read most--if not all--of her poetry, her novel The Bell Jar, and Letters Home--a compilation of Plath’s letters. 
I vaguely remember first reading about her in a women’s magazine.  Her life story struck a chord with me.   At the time, I was reading and exploring an assortment of poets and authors with a small group of friends and classmates.  We all wrote poetry.  Once I discovered Sylvia Plath’s poetry, however, I eschewed sharing her poems with the group.  I waded in on my own. 

And I was fascinated by her history.  She was a young woman haunted by her German ancestry.  The famous poem, “Daddy,” however, held no sway with me.  She was too angry (like Thor in one of her poems).   But the poem explained Sylvia’s need to overachieve: she won prizes and excelled academically, as her father and taskmaster, a biologist, demanded.  “I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere/From muses unhired by you, dear mother,”  she wrote in ”The Disquieting Muses”--a lesser-known poem about her mother, a Boston University professor.  After graduating from Smith College in 1955, Sylvia pursued graduate studies in England at Cambridge University.  One night at a party, she met a young man named Ted Hughes.  Several weeks later, she wrote to her mother: 

“The most shattering thing is that in the last two months I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt.  I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large, hulking, healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God. . . .”

On June 16, 1956, Sylvia  and Ted wed in secret—both convinced that he was a poet-genius fated for greatness.  She completed her studies and settled into married life.  Soon she had little time to devote to her own writing.  She promoted Ted’s writings and she worked odd jobs (with a brief teaching stint at her alma mater, Smith).  Nearly four years later, the couple’s baby daughter was born. 
Ted, now her handsome and brilliant husband, was quite popular on the Cambridge campus.  As they sought to sub-let their town apartment, Sylvia  and Ted met a young married couple, the Wevills,  and invited them to dinner.  The young wife, Assia, was a dark-haired beauty Ted no doubt found mesmerizing.  Soon afterward,  he  received a whispering phone call from her.  Sylvia yanked the telephone cable from the wall.  She made a scene.  She demanded fidelity, after all she had sacrificed herself and her talent for the great future together.   So she asked him to leave.  Almost immediately, Ted went to Assia--who was, as he describes her in a poem, sheathed in “flame-orange silks”—with champagne in hand.     

It’s a woeful yet classic story of love gone awry.  As in Sade’s song, This was no ordinary love. 

Eventually, it all became too much—Sylvia had lost (or thrown out) her soulmate who was now partnered with a woman who, by most accounts, was just like herself—beautiful, bi-polar, a budding young poetess madly in love with a genius and now pregnant with his child.  Except that Assia Wevill did not long for fame: she seemed to only want Ted.

In late 1962, during her last winter in Devon, England, Sylvia’s days were dark and grim.   She was ill, had lost weight, and was in between nannies.  (In previous months, she’d had a miscarriage after an appendectomy, followed by the birth of her son.)  In a letter to her mother dated October 18, 1962, she wrote, “I guess my predicament is an astounding one, a deserted wife knocked out by flu with two babies and a full-time job!”  Yet, by waking up before dawn to write, she had regained the confidence in her writing--which she had virtually lost during the marriage:  “I am a genius of a writer. . . .  I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”  She was thirty years old.
But for all the emotion in Sylvia Plath‘s real life, and even in her poems, none of it is reflected in her only novel, The Bell Jar.   At least once, she referred disparagingly to the novel as a “pot boiler”; for this reason, she’d published it under a pseudonym.  Of course, the timespan for The Bell Jar occurs before Ted.  And perhaps he had awakened emotion in Sylvia that only emerged in her later work.  (In the months leading up to her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath had been writing a second novel that was destroyed.)

Nevertheless, I found The Bell Jar’s lack of emotion disturbing.  For most of the novel, Esther, the main character, is depressed.  To quote Plath, it was “A time of darkness, despair, disillusion. . . .”  and “[Esther’s] warped view of the world around . . . seems the right way of looking at things.”    

In contrast, the letters express Sylvia’s true personality and spirit in a more well-rounded way.   I've pondered on her fate and what might have prevented it.  It's true she had a brash happy side; but a dark mood also pervaded her life.  Moreover, although today Sylvia might have been categorized as bi-polar, Ted Hughes bears some responsibility.  Stated bluntly, he behaved like a cad.  His crass actions sent Sylvia (and later, Assia) into a depression from which she never recovered. 
Years ago, I read a long article by Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, about her mother.  Ms.  Hughes bears no rancor toward her father: to her, he was a good dad.  (In fact,  he became the Poet Laureate of England.)  Not surprisingly, the writing gene manifested itself in her, for she is a poet. 

Whether Sylvia Plath influenced a generation of young women--for good or ill--is difficult to assess.  That said, her best poems are masterfully crafted, beautiful, imagistic.  As a wordsmith, she is triumphant.  For instance, her superb poem, “Pursuit,” is a personal favorite:  “Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,/Haggard through the hot white noon. . . .”  And "Tulips," too, is a beautifully crafted poem.  Of the poetry books, my favorite is the incandescent Ariel.* 

For me, however, Sylvia Plath’s poetic legacy is inseparable from the biography.  As a twenty-year-old, I began reading her poems only after I had learned a bit about her life.  And since I wrote poetry back then, I must admit to Plath’s influence (among other poets) on my own poems.  I learned the merits of the unusual word and the exact word.  For instance, in “Channel Crossings,” she uses the word caterwaul—which I like.  That taught me how to build a poem as if I were laying bricks.  
Today, though, I no longer write poems.  My reason is that poems demand a laser-like intensity that is unsustainable long-term.  Sylvia Plath hinted at this in an interview: “Poetry, I feel, is a tyrannical discipline. . . .  You’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space. . . .  I find that in a novel I can get more of life.  Perhaps not such intense life, but certainly more of life.”

So, many years ago, I switched to writing prose exclusively.  I strive to infuse poetry into my prose, and I find it is enough.

--Yolanda A.  Reid

 ______________________________________________________


Since I wrote this essay, I've re-read Ariel and decided that I prefer The Colossus and Other Poems--Plath's first poetry volume.

For more info on Sylvia Plath:


http://allpoetry.com/TedHughes

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylvia_Plath

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/oct/28/featuresreviews.guardianreview8

To read a brief sample of my poetry, visit https://allpoetry.com/Yolanda_A._Reid


Saturday, October 18, 2014

ON READING THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK


 In the summer or autumn of 1989, I began  to read Doris Lessing, intermittently. 
 
As she is a prolific writer,  I got her books from the local library.  I read her novels in sequence, as they had been written.    I started with her first novel,  The Grass Is Singing, then proceeded to the big fat tome,  African Stories, then onto the Martha Quest novels, five in all.  Amid reading the novels,  I purchased a slender,  burgundy paperback copy of her essays—entitled A Small Personal Voice—and read all of that.
  
Tucked in the book of essays was the introduction to The Golden Notebook.   A creative manifesto,  the introduction explained  the thoughts,  feelings and ideas that went into the writing of  this ground-breaking 1962 novel about Anna, a writer who captures the essence of her life in her notebooks.  In addition, Ms.  Lessing  discussed  the novel’s themes, motifs, her inspiration and writing process. 

By the following summer, Nelson Mandela was touring the US.  "Mandela is in Atlanta," I wrote in my journal, in awe.  Everyone was giddy with excitement.   "We are at a juncture of history," Mandela said. So  I began reading up on South Africa and Mandela, to educate myself.

Also, I wrote :  "I have a new idea for a novel.  Something stunning and beautiful.   I'd have to research the countrysides . . . .—I guess.  I read Lessing and she is so specific in her  descriptions—nature, leaves, etc.  .  .  ." 

It was a Faulknerian summer—long, languid, hot.  That July 4th, we sat in the backyard.   A turquoise umbrella gave us shade.  Fire sparklers lit up the air.

I had purchased my own paperback copy of The Golden Notebook, with its peach-and-black cover and a pencil sketch of Doris Lessing, in profile.  And, once I started reading, I knew it was good.  I'd known she  was a good writer, but this novel  confirmed it.  I was a bit annoyed, though,  that she was so rational, cerebral and analytical. 

But most of the time she was on target—not about me personally, but for many women.  

I did not like the Free Women section—not enough to read more than once.  It's hard to say why.  Maybe that it seemed so artificial, so perfect.  They did not seem like real women.   Or any of the women I knew.  But perhaps that was the point: the novel was artifice.  Life was raw, messy, shambolic, with a seemingly random pattern that is hard to discern when you’re living it, and more difficult to convey in a work of art. 

However, I liked the other sections.  In The Golden Notebook, Lessing  conjures so many different tones and characters.  It's hard not to think of it as a tour de force.  During this time, I remembered that she had once been asked why her novels mostly have no black Africans.   She answered that she did not wish to portray a character infused with her own white African  limitations.  For Ms.  Lessing, it would have been inauthentic  to give the character thoughts and feelings she had no scope of knowing.

Even so, I was fascinated by Africa as she described it.  As a young woman with a stubborn artistic sentiment and sensibility, she lived in cloying surroundings  she describes as a "backwater."  Rebelliously, she dropped out of school as a teenager,  then set about, at turns, rambling the African steppes—strewn with kopje trees—and  educating herself in The Novel.

Ms. Lessing  writes of this time in some of her autobiographical essays.  Later, she escaped to the city, got a job as a  secretary and began her first novel.

I did not realize it then, but I had claimed Doris Lessing  as my literary mentor.

So reading  The Golden Notebook  changed my life.  Thereafter, I regarded the novel and novel-writing in a different way.  I learned I could say anything and not make things all neat and pretty in my writings.  There was beauty in the truth, to paraphrase Keats and author Anchee Min.

When I began writing my second  novel, I felt I could say the unsayable.   I could show the verboten, the hidden.  I could know the unknowable and share dark nebulous areas of the spirit—the sublime and the subliminal.  The consciousness of beauty and the super-consciousness of one woman's life.  I sought to get all the tiny details correct—foods, historic details, vernacular.  I wanted to create a world for the reader, and re-create a world for myself—on the page and on the pc screen.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


For more info about Doris Lessing and her writings, visit www.dorislessing.org and www.thegoldennotebook.org.

Note:  At one time regarded as controversial, The Golden Notebook may contain topics offensive to some.

Friday, August 1, 2014

CHINESE CINDERELLA by Adeline Yen Mah



Chinese Cinderella  is the vivid memoir of Dr.  Adeline Yen's bitter and lonely childhood.   She had four brothers and two sisters, but her days were lonely as she was alienated from her family because they blamed her for her mother's death.   She was bullied and tormented and physically abused, and experienced  “a dreadful  loneliness.”

This book is mostly set in Shanghai, China, during the years of Japanese occupation.   At the time, young Adeline's father was a wealthy businessman.   Soon after his first wife's death, he  married Adeline's stepmother--a young, sophisticated, cruel  woman,  who was merciless,  even as she was kind to her own children.

Dr. Yen's tone and writing are, in my estimation, pitch-perfect.   With beautiful prose, she  creates the setting, dialogue, pacing, and descriptions that depict little Adeline's quandary--she was a brilliant, well-behaved little girl among people who had no appreciation for her gifts and talents. 

This book is sure to draw any reader in.  It's certainly the most poignant book I've read this year. Little Adeline was remarkably tough and showed great character and spirit.  Chinese Cinderella is a book about a triumphant little girl.  Though it's a book almost anyone with a heart will appreciate, I especially recommend it for schools and YA book clubs. (Countless scenes could start  great discussions with young adults.)

Chinese Cinderella is destined to be a classic.--Yolanda A.  Reid


  


  

Saturday, May 31, 2014

MY SUMMER READING LIST


As summer approaches, I’ve begun making a list of books I’d like to read this summer.  My summer reading list  this year is separate from the never-ending list of novels, memoirs, and biographies that I usually accumulate.  So I read the book synopsis, critics’ and readers’ reviews,  as I make up my mind about the book.  Often, I will surf  through the author’s website. 

These are the books on my summer reading list, so far:

1—The Invention  of  Wings  by Sue Monk Kidd--This title kept crossing my path: online book clubs, e-forums.  It seems everyone is either reading,  or has read,  The Invention  of  Wings; so I decided to read it as well.  I’ve read the first couple of chapters.  To me, the first page is stunning and beautifully-written.

2—Beautiful Day  by Elin Hildebrand.  I’ve read  and liked the first chapter.  Beautiful Day  is the story of a wedding, a bride, a groom and the notebook the bride’s late mother left her.  This story begins with the bride’s  mother’s notes for the wedding preparations, and details of their lives unfurl.   So I’m pretty sure I’ll get to read it this summer.

3-Chinese Cinderella  by Adeline Yen Mah--This memoir is the author's vivid recounting of her childhood in Shanghai, China.  She had a cruel stepmother, but also had no family support or encouragement.  Dr.  Mah blames Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, for the cruel treatment girls received in China.  In Dr. Mah's case, her mother died while giving birth to her, so little Adeline's fate was sealed from that moment.

4—The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt--This book is over seven-hundred pages (rivaling War  and  Peace--which is one thousand pages, or more).  A few months ago, I read the synopsis and about 3 chapters of this book.  I was smitten.  I decided then that I’d put  The Goldfinch on my list.  And that was before it won a Pulitzer Prize.  My hope is that this novel about art, mystery, and a youngster’s life of hard knocks will sustain me.  I just have to remember that I managed to read War  and  Peace, so I can do this!

5—Mastering  the  Art of French Eating by Ann Mah.  I read Mah’s first novel, Kitchen Chinese, and liked it. This, her second book, is a food memoir on her forays into French food and  culture.  I love food memoirs, so this should be a fun  read. Check out my review of Kitchen Chinese at http://www.yreidbooks.blogspot.com/2013/01/in-author-ann-mahs-first-novel-
kitchen.html.

6—Hope Runs  by Claire Diaz-Ortiz--This memoir chronicles Diaz-Ortiz’ trip to Kenya.  There she met a young boy nicknamed  “Sammy” in an orphanage.  Samuel Ikua Gachagua (“Sammy”) is the co-author, in chapters that alternate.  This memoir--described in the subtitle as a tale of “Redemption”--ought to be a really interesting and inspirational read.  www.clairediazortiz.com/hope-runs-nonprofit/

7—An American Girl In Italy  by Aubrey Dionne.  I read the author’s article on the inspiration for this novel.  She herself travelled through Italy.  Since I love reading travel memoirs and novels set in exotic locations, I look forward to reading  An American Girl In Italy.

8—100 Places Every Woman  Should Go  by Stephanie Elizondo Griest.  I loved Griest’s first memoir, Around  the Bloc, in which she chronicles her peripatetic journeys through Russia, China, and Mexico.  100 Places Every Woman  Should Go  purports to be a travel guide for any woman who wants to globetrot.  It should be an informative and fun read!  To read my review of  Around  the Bloc, go to http://www.yreidbooks.blogspot.com/2012/10/around-bloc-my-life-in-moscow-beijing_10.html.

9—Ines  of  the  Soul  by Isabel Allende.  I’m a fan of Isabel Allende’s writings. Infused with both reality and magical realism, her work has inspired me.  Ines  of  the  Soul  is actually a historical ‘novel’ based on the life of Ines Suarez, a 19th Century woman who helped found and colonize Santiago, Chile.  Sounds interesting!  www.isabelallende.com

10—Rat Girl: A Memoir by Kristin Hersh.  To me, the title alone is intriguing.  The book description promises a book about a life filled with isolation and longing.  Kristin Hersh is a musician, songwriter, and a member of the rock band Throwing Muses.  Rat Girl  inspired a ‘musical’ of sorts by the same name.  www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rat_Girl


Bear in mind, this is a list of my intentions.  I’ve no idea what I’ll have actually read by summer’s end.

--Yolanda A.  Reid



Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Q & A with AUTHOR YOLANDA A. REID

                                                     




Q: Favorite authors?

A: I go through books and authors in phases.  That said, I remember how accomplished I felt after reading The Golden Notebook  by Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.  A true masterpiece. So she's a favorite. I also love Wuthering Heights.  Emily Bronte wrote one of the most original books in English literature.  Among contemporary authors, I really like Elizabeth Gilbert.  She inspires me. 


Q: Favorite book?

A: Wuthering HeightsThe Golden Notebook  is a close second.


Q: Favorite genres?

A: Memoirs and biographies.  Novels, too.


Q: What inspired you to write The Honeyeater?

A: I really don't know, except to say that I felt compelled to write it.


Q: We've never seen a negative review by you.  Why?

A: I make an effort to write reviews of books I really really like (4 stars) or absolutely love (5 stars).  I made a conscious decision to do that.  I just don't want to be panning a book or an author.  I've actually started to read a book for review and halfway through decided I did not like/love it, or it wasn't what I expected, or whatever.  When this happens, I change books.


Q: Chick lit?  or Contemporary romance?

A: If I thought too long about it I might be offended by the term 'chick lit'.  But I don't. It's a term that emerged from our culture.  'Chicks'.  Of course, there's no such thing as 'guy lit', as far as I know.  That's something to ponder.  But I don't dwell on it.  It's best to focus on more important issues, like global warming/climate change, starving children, world peace, etc.


Q: In your essay, "How I Wrote My Second Novel", you write that you did research for The Honeyeater.  What kind of research?

A: I wanted the book to feel authentic, so I was scrupulous about all the details.  I researched the news events.  I wanted to depict all the historical/news details accurately.  I researched furniture and art.  One  character in the book is very stylish, elegant, regal in a Chanel-type suit.  So I researched that.  Also, foods--a recipe.  I researched names of places and characters. I also consulted a world map, to guide me throughout.

I'm very detail-oriented, in general, so it was second-nature to me to be very detailed as I wrote The Honeyeater.


Q: To Sequel or not to Sequel?

A: That is the question! A sequel hadn't occurred to me until recently.  That there might be something else to say about these characters.  Earlier this year, I began to think about Eulalia's life after  The Honeyeater  ends.  So who knows? I've jotted down a few notes. That's all I care to say.  I like to take a long time germinating ideas for a book. 


Q: Do you have a favorite character from the book?

A: Eulalia is a favorite, of course.  I love how she grew and changed and developed.  She was so in love, but very naive. What she lived through might have broken any one of us.


Q: How did you prepare to write this novel?

A: I had reams of paper, folders with newspaper and magazine clippings.  Journal entries.  Huge envelope filled with notes.  From those notes, I created my outline and synopsis.  In addition, I researched online and offline: the encyclopedia and dictionary are invaluable resources to me as a writer.

Also, all of my reading helped prepare me to write The Honeyeater. And I don't think I could have written it before I wrote my first book.  Although they are different genres and styles, I needed the experience of having written  Porridge & Cucu.  I learned so much as I wrote it, and those lessons helped me to write The Honeyeater.

For more details, read my essays "How I Wrote My First Novel" and "How I Wrote My Second Novel."


Q: Who influenced your writing?  What authors are you indebted to?

A: Doris Lessing, Elizabeth Gilbert, Emily Brontë, Isabel Allende, Louise Erdrich, Shakespeare.


Q: At one time, you wrote poetry.  Could you explain how you transitioned to writing fiction?

A: I wrote poems from the time I was a child  through highschool, but it was all hidden.  My friends knew about me writing but they never got to see any of it.  I had two professors in college who encouraged me to write poems. The first taught me the craft of writing poetry.  And the second encouraged me to send the poems out to magazines/literary journals.

I was a bit timid about sending my poems out.  Each poem was like a baby I couldn't bear to part with. And there's a fear of bearing one's soul for all to see; but nervous as I was, I persevered.

One day, I remember looking over my papers. I had compiled my poems into a book (rejected by several publishers, sometimes with a beautiful note from the editor--i.e., These poems are lovely, well-written.  But we're booked for five years.  Maybe you could send them to Publisher X). I counted between  seventy to a hundred--about eighty or so poems.  Those were the good ones. I read them in sequence, and when I finished I felt I'd said everything I wanted to say in poems.  I wanted a larger canvas, so to speak.

I'd already kept my journal for many years.  I also wrote stories, sketches and essays.  My mom pointed out that the poems, though well-crafted, were not commercial.  She said that one always heard of bestselling novels/novelists (think Jackie Collins).  Maybe I should do that. So I decided to put all my energy into fiction writing.


Sunday, August 18, 2013

ON THE LIFE AND POEMS OF ANNA AKHMATOVA


Anna Akhmatova discovered a lyre-shaped charm when she was a young child.  As a result,  her nanny predicted that little Anna would grow up to be a poet.  When she decided to be a poet, Akhmatova’s  father, Andrey,  demanded that she choose a different surname so as not to tarnish the Gorenko family name.  Akhmatova herself explains his concern, and her high-born family ancestry:


No one in my large family wrote poetry. But the first Russian woman poet, Anna Bunina, was the aunt of my grandfather Erasm Ivanovich Stogov. The Stogovs were modest landowners in the Mozhaisk region of the Moscow Province. They were moved here after the insurrection during the time of Posadnitsa Marfa. In Novgorod they had been a wealthier and more distinguished family. Khan Akhmat [was] my ancestor. [...]  It was well known that this Akhmat was a descendant of Genghiz Khan. In the eighteenth century, one of the Akhmatov Princesses – Praskovia Yegorvna – married the rich and famous Simbirsk landowner Motovilov. Yegor Motovilov was my great-grandfather; his daughter, Anna Yegorovna, was my grandmother. She died when my mother was nine years old, and I was named in her honour.*


So, for a pen name, she chose the aristocratic name Akhmatova—the name of her  great-grandmother, who had been “one of the Akhmatov  princesses.”  She then ventured into the  life of,  in her father’s words, a  “decadent poetess.”

***

One spring years ago, I first discovered Akhmatova  when  I saw the  beautiful Cubist painting, “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” by Russian artist Natan Altman.  Clothed in a long royal blue dress, her legs crossed, Akhmatova bears her characteristic solemn  expression in the painting.  (She never smiles.)  Her shoulders and arms are enveloped in a shawl the color of mustard; her face, with an “aquiline profile”; her neck and collarbone are pallid, nearly transluscent.  She looks regally  away from the observer, unbowed yet weary.

In the poem “A string of little beads at my neck,” she gives an accurate self-portrait:

 
A string of little beads at my neck,

In a broad muff  I hide my hands,
The eyes stare vacantly,

They never shed a tear.

 
And the face appears pale, 
Against the lavender silk,
My straight bangs

Almost reach my eyebrows.

 
And how dissimilar to flight

Is my halting step,
As if it were a raft beneath my feet,

Not these wooden parquet squares.

 
And the pale lips are slightly parted,

The breathing laboured and uneven,
And over my heart tremble

The flowers of a non-existent meeting.

 
***

A grey-eyed beauty with a wistful solemn expression, Akhmatova was eleven years old when she began writing poetry.  In Anna of All the Russias, biographer Elaine Feinstein states that by age sixteen, a deep melancholy  pervaded Akhmatova’s  personality.  She published her first poem—entitled “On his hand there are many shiny rings”—one year later.   Then, at  age twenty-one, she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a fellow poet she knew  from childhood.   He had loved her with an unwavering love.  Once she’d decided to accept Gumilyov’s marriage offer, she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I believe that it is my fate to be his wife.  Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do.”

Eight years later, in 1918, they divorced.  Two lines from her poem, “Departure,” might describe how Akhmatova felt in the months that preceded the divorce:  “I cannot say if it is our love,/Or the day, that is ending.”

In search of love, she wed twice more—to men who did not truly understand or appreciate her.  Or they may have loved her but not in a way she needed.  “He loved three things, alive”  is the first line of one visionary poem that hints at her predicament:

 
He loved three things, alive:

White peacocks, songs at eve,

And antique maps of America.

Hated when children cried,

And raspberry jam with tea,

And feminine hysteria.

…And he had married me.

 
Of one lover, she writes,  “He talked of the summer and said,/How absurd—a woman poet!” Nonetheless, she was sought after as a beauty; and so had several relationships.  To a former lover who had recently wed someone else, she wrote:

 
I won’t beg for your love.

It’s safely laid aside….

I won’t be penning jealous

Letters to your bride.

But be wise, take my advice:

Give her my poems to read,

Give her my photos beside –

Be kind to the newly-wed!

***

Many of the poems are self-revealing, yet understated.  Akhmatova gives a woman’s perspective in a time of misogyny in Russia.  A wife was basically a commodity: women were often reviled and abused.  Incredibly,  a  Russian proverb was:  “The more you beat your wife, the tastier the soup will be.”

Luckily, Akhmatova did not witness such brutality as a child.  Several poems evoke sentiments from her sheltered childhood.  She was  “the wild girl”  that jumped into the Black Sea with scant hesitation.   The beautiful poem,  At the Edge of the Sea, draws on this magical time in her life.

In  Northern Elegies,  Akhmatova describes her mother, Inna, with tenderness:

 
She had an uncommon name, white hands
And a kindness that has come down to me:
Though it has been a useless inheritance

In this harsh life of mine.

At the bottom of her well of sorrow is, perhaps, that Akhmatova never actually raised her son, Lev.  At her husband Nikolay’s insistence, Lev grew up with his grandmother and only saw his mother in summer. 

Of  Lev the child—beloved in absentia—she wrote:

 
I know you won’t be able to

Remember much about me, little one:
I didn’t hold you, or even scold you,

Or take you to Communion.

 
Sadly, Lev in later years expressed that he did not feel loved.  He wrote, “If I were not her son, but the son of an ordinary woman, I would have been before anything else a blossoming Soviet professor. . . .”  During his lifetime, he was a well-regarded historian of Eurasian subjects, and wrote poetry.  Not surprising, however, his relationship with Akhmatova was  turbulent; and he never  forgave her.

***

 The early poems are simple, brief, ethereal in nature.  They describe real moments and loves in her life.  I think of an Akhmatova poem, phrase or image long after I’ve read it.  The image—of “raspberry jam with tea” or  “lavender silk”—floats into my consciousness and stays with me. 

The later poems are longer, more complex in imagery and ideas/ideology.  They are the poems of a mature “poetess”; they evince masterful craftsmanship.  Akhmatova wrote some of these later poems in hardship, during a turbulent era in Russia.  In the months before the Bolsheviks came into power, women stood in ‘bread lines’ for hours, daily.  In  Requiem, she states that she  “stood [in line] for three hundred hours”;  and she refers to herself in an ironic situation:

They should have shown you, little teaser,
Little favourite, friend of all, 

Sylvan princess, happy charmer, 
What situation would be yours –

As three-hundredth in the line

You’d stand. . . .

Thus, these later poems transformed Akhmatova into the voice of  “a hundred million people.” 

That said, I ‘enjoy’ the shorter  poems more—mostly because they are subtler, seem more personal and heartfelt, are infused with  genuine emotion.  These shorter poems reflect a “lyrical soul”—as Akhmatova’s friend described her; but they also make one reflect on one’s own life.

Five original volumes of poetry are the core of  Akhmatova’s oeuvre: Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), White Flock (1917), Plantain  (1921), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922).  Each volume flung out into the world, like a blue frisbee.   For this essay, I read  Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem,  with  poems compiled from each of the Russian poet’s major works; it is brilliantly translated by British scholar A.S. Kline and an excellent introduction to Akhmatova.

***

In an homage to artist Boris Anrep, the love of her life, Akhmatova laments  aspects of her life and asks her lover to forgive her:

 
The evening light is broad and yellow

Tender, the April chill.

You are many years late,

Yet I am glad you are here.

 
Sit down now, close to me,
And look with joyful eyes:

Here it is, the blue notebook,
Filled with my childhood poems.

 
Forgive me that I lived in sorrow,

Rejoiced too little in the sun.
Forgive, forgive that I mistook

Too many others for you.

 

--Yolanda  A.  Reid
 

 

Feinstein, Elaine.  Anna of All the Russias (2007).  http://www.elainefeinstein.com/Anna-Akhmatova.shtml

*“Biography Of Anna Akhmatova” (article).  http://www.poemsclub.com/biography-of-anna-akhmatova.html#ixzz2cF759Quk

For the  FREE  ebook of  Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem (translated by scholar A.S. Kline), visit http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Russian/Akhmatova.htm  

http://self.gutenberg.org/eBooks/WPLBN0002171667-The_Selected_Poems_of_Anna_Akhmatova-by_Akhmatova__Anna.aspx

For more info:

http://www.poemhunter.com/anna-akhmatova/

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/anna-akhmatova

To view the painting “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova” by Natan Altman, visit http://www.auburn.edu/~mitrege/russian/art/altman-akhmatova.html

To view the art Akhmatova inspired, visit http://artoftherussias.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/akhmatova-in-art/