Russian poem

LevitanAnna Akhmatova never left Russia, although she had a difficult life here–persecuted, unpublished, her family and friends always at risk. Here’s an Akhmatova poem that seems to me to speak to her choice to stay. We saw this painting of her today, by Isaac Levitan, at the Russian Museum.

Lot’s Wife

And God’s luminous messenger, larger than life,
led the one righteous man along the black mountain.
But regret cried out to his wife:
“It’s not too late, you can still catch a glimpse
of Sodom, the red rooftops of home,
the square where you sang, the yard where you spun,
the tall house, its windows abandoned—
the house where your sons and daughters were born.”

She looked back—a sudden arc of pain
stripped her eyes of sight,
fused her feet to the ground—
her flesh became transparent salt.

Who will mourn this nameless woman?
She seems the least of all we lack.
Yet I, for one, can never forget
how she gave her life for one look back.

Anna Akhmatova, 1924

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What a country!

yakov2One of Yakov Smirnoff’s signature jokes is about getting off the plane in the United States and seeing on a billboard “America Loves Smirnoff,” which he follows with the line, “What a country!” But here are two excerpts from one morning’s NY Times, which Larry read to me while I made breakfast.

The combination made me grateful for such a country, in all it’s crazy diversity.

The first is about the journalist Jayson Blair, who managed to hoodwink the Times for years, plagiarizing stories and inventing interviews and facts. The first is from a new film about Mr. Blair and his career:

“But perhaps the most potent of all the films commentaries comes from the soon-to-resign executive editor on that walk, Mr. Raines, who says ‘We were dealing with a disturbed individual exhibiting sociopathic behavior, two primary traits of which are lack of empathy and a highly manipulative personality.’ Jayson Blair is now, the film reveals, working successfully as a life coach.”

The last line made me drop the knife, I was laughing so hard. And then a couple of paragraphs from David Brooks, writing about a legendary meeting of Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova, whose work I’ve translated:

berlin “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgements.

“That Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversion because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves… Continue reading “What a country!”