As part of the “Occupy the Page: Literary Criticism and Activism” festival held March 18-20th, 2013, members of the San Diego State University community chose a poem or piece of prose that they felt exemplified a spirit of literary activism. This series showcases their commentary, and aims to add to the voices occupying the page. Special thanks to the Hugh C. Hyde Living Writers Series, Associated Students, and Poetry International for their support of this project.
Instead of a Preface
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
–From “Requiem” Leningrad, 1 April 1957
On August 1st, 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. World War I, Revolution, Civil War, and Totalitarian terror stirred in Russia. As many Russians fleeted to safety to other parts of Europe and North America, few decided to stay and become witnesses of history. Anna Akhmatova’s multi-part poem “Requiem” expresses her desire to describe human history and human experience within the terrors of war. In a sense, Akhmatova’s description of the human experience is a way to catalogue human history so that it will be preserved, for the future and for the past’s sake. Moreover, Akhmatova expresses that one has a duty, as a living human being, to acknowledge the existence of those who died and those who were lost. Akhmatova also acknowledges that it is not fearful to lose one’s life, but it is fearful to lose one’s life while still containing human experiences and human memories. To lose these experiences and memories are to lose a part of human history. For her, it is important to remember human history because it helps one understand the fragility of human identity, an identity that can easily “pass fleetingly” into something that “had once been.” Akhmatova was a witness to the terrors of war, totalitarian regimes, and human brutality. As such, she leaves readers with the understanding that it is the duty of humans, as witnesses of history, to preserve life, with words. Language, therefore, is the path in which human memories and experiences become timeless.