“Till My Tale is Told” – Part I – “No justice”

“The Soviet totalitarian regime existed for more than 70 years.  It was neither overthrown nor formally brought to justice.  Unlike the Nazis, not one of the Bolshevik leaders were ever tried and punished.  Whereas the Nazi elite was expelled from German public life, the Soviet elite transformed its appearance and remained in power.  Moreover, many sections of Russian society today are nostalgic for the Communist past.”

From the preface of Simeon Vilensky’s English version of “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag”

A former student of mine in Almaty e-mailed me about this great book published by Indiana University Press in 1999.  Liya sent me the poems of Anna Barkova which I’ll feature in my blog this week.  Much different than showing the colorful Buddy Bears, there are some dark, sad stories I believe that need to be revealed.  The following poem is quite graphic but very effective in showing the wrenching of soul against the tethers of Soviet injustice.  Probably in the Russian language it is even more powerful, but see for yourself, the English translation is as good as any Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.

In a common pit, without a headstone,

I shall finish walking my life’s road.

The pages of my writings, rubbed and faded,

May be found by someone in the end;

Perhaps he’ll be insane enough to like them,

To like the vicious prickles of my verse,

‘Genius and power of prophecy suffice here.,

He’ll say. ‘to make this stuff a name of sorts.

And by the verb and adjective agreement

I’d say it was a woman who wrote these texts,

She was a restless soul and nothing pleased her ,

But she’d a sharp, a fierce intelligence.

I’ll send my pupils round the dusty attics,

Yes. all the dusty attics in the town.

With luck they’ll find, I hope, some other matter

That’s written in the same, though unknown. hand.

The students sift the heaped-up sheets of paper .

And grab assorted refuse by the ton.

Mixing the sins I actually committed

With other people’s dull and trifling ones.

All in good time these pupils get to work and-

Enlightening themselves, enlightening others too-

They write their dissertations by the dozen

About my life, sunk in obscureness now.

Their style’s by turn gushing, dull, or dogmatic,

From day to day hypotheses they mint,

So in my common pit I’m fit to vomit,

O, fit to vomit with the tripe they print.

For reasons that the years have cloaked in mystery

(For who can map the darkness of those times?)

This poetess, we’re loath to tell our readers,

Was flung into a labour camp, it seems.

Records allow us to make no suggestion

Of how and for what reason she transgressed;

Without a doubt her action was detestable,

A crime that would make the law-abiding gasp.

And whilst in prison, she was often beaten

(So, at any rate, we may suppose),

But her disciples all showed her devotion,

And her students loved her none the less.

From Fragment Number Eight we may construe that

A patron of the arts came to her aid;

But the paucity of evidence is such that

We cannot speculate on names and dates.

The other texts (q.v.) all have lacunae

So that the work of many future years

Is requisite if scholars are to pinpoint

The reasons why this poet suffered thus.

Oh! Poetess”, not ..poet”! Please excuse me!

But wait a moment! Let us pause for thought!

Might it not be that there is some confusion,

Might my mistake not guide us to the truth?

This intellect, so bitter and unsparing,

Dear colleagues-surely it is masculine?

Cool clarity of spirit so unwavering,

The manner caustic, dry, as desert winds-

Yes, all quite foreign to a woman’s nature:

Colleagues! We ought to track down all the facts,

And when the evidence is on the table,

We may determine character and sex.

How much there is in this that’s truly touching!

How much of general interest in these themes!

Well, to the documents! Begin researching!

Gather the verse, prose, letters, all in reams!

It seems our poet attained the furthest boundaries

Of fame, poetic genius, and old age;

And every town in Russia wished to tender

For the chance to be his final resting-place;

But his bones were buried in deep secret

And proselytes in their devoted crowds

Walked to the place of burial beside him

Along a little path outside a town.

They were decked by the night in starry robes of mourning,

Torches were lit along the coffin’s way…

But regretfully I must inform you

That we have yet to find the famous grave.

‘ But here my bones ring out in indignation,

Beating against a stranger’ s in the pit:

What’s this? I’m buried in a northern graveyard!

You filthy hack, you’re lying through your teeth!

I know that your parade of erudition

Is meant to net you a professorship;

But readers who want to know what I have written

Won’t find me in your fly-blown vinaigrette.

Beyond the grave they’ve given me a sex-change,

When all my life, each hour, I was a she!

Patrons- to hell with them. What use were patrons

In the days that I was forced to see?

And I never had a single pupil

And they didn’t beat me in the gaol;

I was condemned by a ludicrous tribunal,

And my ..crime” was just as laughable.

I lived amongst young women who were stupid

And old ones who were senile and ran mad;

And the watery prison soup they fed me

Made my flesh dry up, my spirit fade.

The funeral procession and the torches

Are all a figment of your clichéd brain-

In a common pit my body rotted,

Whilst alongside five others did the same.’

(c.1954)

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