Akhmatova: grief, revolution, icebergs

I

I found out how faces wilt
How beneath eyelids fear looks out
how suffering cheeks become stiff pages of cuneiform
How black hair
Is suddenly made ashen.
And how, on submissive lips, smiles wither
and fright trembles in a small dry laugh.
And I do not pray for myself only
But for all who stood with me
In the fierce cold and in July’s white heat,
Under the red unseeing wall.
(–Requiem, Epilogue)

She waits for news of her son in prison. So many wait with her.

I love Akhmatova (1889-1966), know there is so much that can’t be translated. Langauge, of course. But meaning also, because of this very specific kind of writing which means probably that me, here, now–I can never read most of the meanings she intended.

Objects, events and characters have been omitted. We feel their existences [though ‘we’ don’t always, because this is not our context] but can’t find them on the page. The images that are there, however, have a strange aptness to this missing context … Acmeism. The explanation we like best is that the Acmeist poem is supposed to be like the tip of an iceberg. Only one-tenth of its mass juts out of the water, but the submerged nine-tenths is also present.
— Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton, 24

But that’s all right.

I also love this quote from Korney Chukovsky:

It looks as if all of Russia has divided into the Akhmatovas and the Mayakovskys. There is a gap of thousands of years between these people. And they hate one another.

Akhmatova and Mayakovsky are as hostile to each other as the times that made them. Akhmatova is an assiduous inheritor of the most valuable pre-revolutionary treasure of Russian literary culture. She has many ancestors: Pushkin, Boratynsky, and Annensky among them. She has that elegance of spirit and the charm that one acquires through centuries of cultural tradition. … Akhmatova has kept the old Russia, the motherland, “our soil.” He, like a true bard of the revolution, is an internationalist, a citizen of the world, who treats with indifference the “snowy monster,” the motherland…He is in the street, at a mass meeting, in a crowd, he is himself a crowd…

And then, like me, despite being a diehard for the revolution’s hope if not its outcome:

I can say of myself only that … to my surprise, I love both of them … (15-16)

She was from St Petersburg with its shifting names, the heart of the Russian revolution, the siege of Leningrad:

excerpt from ‘To My City’:

And when you did not become my tomb,
You, granite-like, satanic, kind,
You turned pale, became dead and silent,
Our separation is a lie:
I can never be separated from you,
My shadow is on your walls,
My image is in your canals,
The sound of my steps is in the rooms of the Hermitage,
Where I walked with my friend,
And in the old Volkovo Field
Where I could weep freely
Above the silent communal graves.
And what has been noted in the first part
Of love, of passion, of betrayal,
Free verse has thrown down from her wings,
My city stands ‘sewed up’…
The grave-stones weigh heavily
Over your unsleeping eyes.
But it seems as if you follow me,
You who stayed to die
In brightness of steeples
in brightness of water.
–finished in Tashkent, August 18, 1942

From ‘Secrets of the Trade’

X

So much waits,
To use my voice;
A certain wordless rattle
An underground rock in the dark
And something
That fights its way out
Through smoke.
My account’s not settled
With fire
With wind, with water…
So that in light sleep
Suddenly, gates open up
And I go out
Toward the Morning Star.
–1942

The final poem of this lovely collection:

A land not native
That stays in the mind
like a native land
And in the sea, a water not salty
And caressingly cold.

The sand underneath
whiter than chalk
And an inebriate air,
And the rosy body of the pine
Naked in the sunset.

And in this last light
on waves of ether
I can’t tell if the day ends
Or the world, or if it is only,
In me again,
the mystery of mysteries.
(1964)

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Grindleford to Hathersage: Quarries, Millstones and Little John’s Grave

We took the train to Grindleford with a walking plan in place, but as the train wheels span us forward across the moors our hopes were quietly dashed by the mist setting low and low across the peaks. We sat in Grindleford Station Cafe and had the best bacon and egg sandwich I may possibly have ever had, pondered plans. Set off in the wrong direction for Padmore Gorge. Turned around.

We walked through midday’s leafy dusk, boulders covered with moss and great thick trunks of trees rising from massive gnarling roots, the rush of water, twisting branches of oak dark against the emerald green. Some of the leaves glowed golden, already beginning to turn with the coming fall but the day was warm enough to climb the gorge in T-shirts.

Grindleford to Hathersage

Grindleford to Hathersage

Grindleford to Hathersage

The map showed a stone circle, an old settlement, which we decided to leave the gorge to try and find. We failed in this, but found instead a haunting landscape quarried from the earth long enough ago that its edges have been blunted, harsh planes softened by soil and growing things. Spectacular mushrooms that hardly seemed real.

Grindleford to Hathersage

We climbed out to find ourselves on a strange branching isthmus of earth, quarries falling away to each side. A multitude of paths not marked on our map, bracken and white birches. We climbed down and then up again.

Grindleford to Hathersage Walks

Grindleford to Hathersage Walks

A graveyard of millstones. This uncanny landscape the creation of backbreaking labour, skill expended and so much of it in vain. Moss grows on these rolling stones left to sit here across centuries, no longer needed to grind our wheat. The story is that this is Napoleon’s fault, that damn war and shifting technologies which I partly make up and poorly remember as a good story, initial provenance possibly M. John Harrison via Mark, unverified by wikipedia.

Grindleford to Hathersage Walks

Grindleford to Hathersage Walks

Grindleford to Hathersage

Then we crossed the road, and climbed up up onto the moors, the mist retreated to a more picturesque degree and revealed the glories of the Peak District, one of my favourite places on earth.

Grindleford to Hathersage

Grindleford to Hathersage

Grindleford to Hathersage Walk

A woman was flying a drone, it’s ominous buzzing and angry red lights filled me with terrors imagined from places where these military toys carry surveillance and death. We left her quickly behind, the wild beauty of this place swallowed up the ominous, fragile metal thing. How soon it would rust away here, as though it had never been.

And then, briefly, the sun came out.

Grindleford to Hathersage Walk

Grindleford to Hathersage

We continued down, down into Hathersage. Sent tired feet in search of Little John’s grave, thought of Robin Hood.

Grindleford to Hathersage

Thought more of dinner. Walked down beside the river and were sent wrong by directions to the pub. Encountered mist rising.

Grindleford to Hathersage

Then we retraced steps, climbed again, tired, the sun setting across the valley.

Grindleford to Hathersage

Happiness. More happiness in the Millstones Pub and the shape of pints and Yorkshire puddings of the very best kind, heaped with riches.

Grindleford to Hathersage

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Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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A saint for every house, Malta and Gozo

Well, almost every house. In Valletta it is also every corner. Streets are full of shrines. Especially in Mdina/ Rabat, even where there is no saint, there is a nature scene, or a thanks to country that has made a family member welcome(ish) and able to send money home. They are amazing.

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My door and doorknocker obsession, Malta and Gozo

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Forgiving the Inquisition, Birgu

We visited the Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) — I was curious, was just about to finish Q by Luther Blisset, a splendid telling of the Protestant battle for faith and a revolution of the poor and oppressed which helped give rise to the inquisition in a wave of incredibly violent repression. As Q makes clear, for some this involved faith, but this was as much about maintaining the old order and the jockeying for power between the Pope, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and the German princes and their small states. Henry VIII is also up in this mix. It had to do with money as well of course, much of which was confiscated from Jewish and Marrano money lenders along with others who refused to ‘repent’.  None of this complex history is reflected here, but formed the background in my head. There is no acknowledgment of a pervasive atmosphere of fear created by the constant demand to denounce self and neighbour, the burning of books, the treatment of any curiosity as heresy, the absolute power over life and death held by all too human Inquisitors.

You cannot feel the darkness here.

The description on the website, which I confess made me choke just a little.

The Inquisitor’s Palace, situated in the heart of Vittoriosa, is one of the very few surviving palaces of its kind which, in the early modern period could be found all over Europe and South America. Many of these palaces simply succumbed to the ravages of time or were victims of the anti-reactionary power unleashed by the French Revolution. Fortunately, the Maltese Inquisitor’s Palace, throughout its five centuries of history, always hosted high-ranking officials representing the main powers on the island, who therefore ensured its survival.

Mgr Pietro Dusina arrived in Malta in 1574 as the first general inquisitor and apostolic delegate of the Maltese Islands. The Grand Master offered him the unused palace as an official residence. Almost all successive inquisitors sought to transform the palace into a decent mansion.

From the museum itself, the nicest description of the inquisition you will ever read:

Vittoriosa

The building itself is made up of huge rooms, incredible wooden ceilings and bands of frescoes beneath them.

Vittoriosa

The staircase was central, and your rank defined where the Inquisitor met you on it. The absurdities of hierarchy.

Vittoriosa

Like this marble entry that seem better suited to the outside of the building not the inside.

Vittoriosa

There are fascinating things here, exhibits from the archives kept as evidence in the trials, amazing things really. Like a magical hat with spell in Arab script used by Didacus Mifsud against heavy headaches, confiscated by inquisitor Fabrizio Verallo (1600-1605)

Vittoriosa

Magical spell … included as evidence by Inquisitor Lazzaro Pallavicina (1718-1719)

Vittoriosa

This devotional image, originally hanging in the prisons of the Order of St John, was the target of convict Grazio Laura who started throwing stones at it after loss in gambling. Reported by his inmates, the offender tried to defend himself stating that he erroneously hit the image while throwing stones at mice. He later admitted and was whipped in public.

Vittoriosa

There was a great book burning here in 1609, among them Rabelais’ Les Oeuvres.

The description of torture:

Rarely inflicted by Inquisitors, torture was not a sanction in itself, but a means to extract truth during trial. It was generally used when the accused persisted in declaring himself innocent when the Inquisitor was absolutely sure about his guilt. It was applied following strict rules and after considerate guidance.

They have a paper signed by Caravaggio here, witness in a case of bigamy 1607-1608

Vittoriosa

Abjuration (a public solemn confession of repentance, necessary prior to any verdict by French Theologian Michel Moren in from of Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino (1587-1590, 1591-1592)

Vittoriosa

Ominous signs:

Vittoriosa

On Corporal Punishment:

Corporal punishments were generally vindictive, containing an element of shame to make up for the harms committed. This included kneeling or whopping in public, rowing on galleys, nursing in hospital, work on fortifications and imprisonment. Such sanctions were inflicted in less than 10% of cases.

On Confiscation:

Not to be misinterpreted as working towards financial rather than spiritual gain, inflicting fines and confiscation of property and belongings were generally forbidden by the Supreme Congregation in Rome. Inquisitors however did confiscate devotional material on account of their improper use.

Devotional paper with Corona of Spirit confiscated by Inquisitor Paolo Bellardino for inappropriate use.

Vittoriosa

There are some brilliant, incredibly complex Arabic charts. In explanation:

In a complicated case of witchcraft Maltese architect and military engineer Vittorio Cassar appeared before the Tribunal…He produced a lot of evidence in Arabic text…Cassar was warned and absolved.

Vittoriosa

Vittoriosa

But I wonder what they really were. Especially as the Arabs were still more advanced in their knowledge, mathematics, architecture and engineering than the Knights of Malta at this time…

The incredible recounting of a case against 40 witches:

Prisons were probably stretched to the limit when Inquisitor Visconti had to arrest forty witches accused of love witchcraft in 1625. Their trial lasted three years and provides precious insights into Maltese spells. They abjured and were sanctioned with public flogging, perpetual exile and attend [sic] for confession and holy communion four times a year for four years.

‘had to arrest’. A mad sentence.

Two Quakers were held here, Katherine Evans and Sarah Cheevers, arrested in 1658 for spreading Protestantism, they were discharged without sentence — four years after arrest. I wonder how these women arrived here, what their goals were. Why this illustration should accompany their story.

Vittoriosa

The inquisition created a school of Arabic to teach missionaries, to allow them to preach the faith among slaves in Malta and other Muslim lands. Slavery is referred to so off-handedly here, as though it wasn’t really serious.

The Inquisition remained in operation in Malta until the arrival of Napoleon in 1798. Hurrah. But they were already on their way out. They have a brilliant letter in cypher to Inquisitor Antonio Felice Chigi Zondadari (1777-1785) about earlier attempts to get rid of the Inquisition in Naples.

Vittoriosa

We move to descend to the prison cells. Shh.

Vittoriosa

The roles of the prison warden are given here beside his spartan quarters, incredibly contradictory I find, written to be abused to the warden’s own benefit but very much of their time.

Vittoriosa

Just outside, through the bars, you can see a sun dial carved in 1730 by prison warder Leonardo Palombo. I wonder how he arrived here in this position, what he wanted for himself rather than this:

Vittoriosa

The ominous timeline of a trial:

Vittoriosa

The judgment chamber:

Vittoriosa

A description of the purpose of the many edicts:

Every now and then the Inquisitor would feel the need to issue an edict thereby reminding people of their obligations as good Catholics to report any kind of misdeeds against the Catholic faith and the punishment incurred by those who did not do so.

They had 12 days, if they failed to report they were automatically excommunicated, and only the inquisition could lift the excommunication.

Activities that had to be reported:

  • Abuse of sacraments for superstitious remedies
  • Owning or perusing of prohibited books
  • Infringement of abstinence
  • Bigamy
  • Apostasy to Islam
  • Magical activities
  • Solicitation during confession (!)
  • Heretical opinion
  • False witness
  • Hear confession or say Mass without permission
  • Blasphemy
  • Lack of cooperation with the inquisition to eradicate heresy

On the Torture Chamber

This room was used alternatively as a prison cell, the prison warden’s room, and a torture chamber according to the needs of the palace at the time. These ‘secret’ stairs were used to elad prisoners, or those who wanted to denounce someone to the Inquisitor, straight into the Tribunal Room without using the main staircase, thus not exposing himself to others. … Utmost secrecy was of paramount importance for the legal procedure of the Inquisition.

On torture itself:

Vittoriosa

And on to the cells. Small squares like those of Gozo’s Citadel. A view from the prison yard to freedom up above.

Vittoriosa

The happiest thing about this place? A prisoner managed to dig himself free EIGHT TIMES. But there is nothing else happy about this place.

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Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.