Tag Archives: grief

Akhmatova: grief, revolution, icebergs


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’


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.

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.




A Place to Call Home

It’s been such a long few weeks of trying to recontact people I talked to months ago facing homelessness… many homeless still. Others housed. Some in prison. Most impossible to contact. I’ve been across Wales, away from my own home for most of the month, and work hasn’t stopped while I’m away. I’ve edited an issue of City, and written this piece about my hopes for Labour policy and homes that support life as it should be lived for a Verso ebook, also online with Salvage. Of course it could not look away from Grenfell, my heart is still broken.

A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision that there should be housing for everyone, though what makes a home is perhaps not so simple. As Kim Dovey writes, home is deeply intertwined with our identity. It centres the relationship between ourselves and the earth, centres our connection to community and culture and society, to our past with its memories, and to our ability to grow into our full potential with the power to define our future. A home should be a place of strength and safety.

A home should not be what kills us.

Yet Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoking to consume its survivors’ past and their present, their safety and security and community. It greedily consumed a still unknown, possibly never-to-be-known, number of human beings who trusted it and built their lives within its walls. Each of them was a world of stories and dreams and laughter. Only memories and ashes now, a gaping hole in the hearts and lives of those who loved them.

But I tried to dig down, go further. Think about how housing should be rethought before it is rebuilt. It was so hard to write, everything has been hard to write. Grief has been ever-present this month. Fundraising for the funeral for Julian, fundraising for Chelsea’s Silas and his future now that hers has been erased. The murderer of Philando Castile set free, a jury who could see what I and the rest of the world saw and do nothing. My friends sharing stories and fears, and nothing can ease fear for their lives in a country that puts no value on any Black life. On another front. My mother fighting to get the medicine she needs to live, and the Republicans doing what they can to take away the little and the imperfect support she now has. And bombs keep dropping and people far from here are still dying and millions are in movement across this earth and home has become such an impossible thing and their grief rages like a forest fire beside my small blaze.  I suppose this diminishes neither. I just wish there were more that I could do.


For him she got clean. For the baby, when he was tiny, still inside her.

She’d tried before. Her mom went and got her. She tried. Went back. Tried again. Family in pieces around her. Love for that man a big pull, heroin a big pull too. You will lie, cheat and steal for both of them. They were something to hold on to in this world that hates Black women, I guess. Something.

Lucky for all of us, love for her son proved stronger than the others. Love for herself seemed to come with it, and that was beautiful to see.

He was born too early, so early, still in his birth sac, a miracle baby. A tiny, beautiful thing.

For him she stayed clean. Counting day by day as you do. Fighting week by week, month by month. Celebrating every anniversary. She stayed clean.

For him she got it together, got a job.

For him she ate better, celebrated filling out again, getting healthy. Had just gone vegetarian. Celebrated her skin clearing. Wore bright red lipstick and amazing great big green-framed glasses and they looked so damn good on her. She had the most beautiful smile.

Two years her family and friends had her back, with life and hope ahead of her.

All for him.

Now lost. The doctors told her something like stomach flu, sent her home. But night before last she died in hospital. Completely unexpected. Total shock.

Lost to her parents, lost to her son, lost to us.

My heart a little more broken.

This morning I woke up to the news because they couldn’t get hold of me yesterday, and I thought how the US just keeps taking and taking. Just keeps killing its children, young mothers and fathers — grandparents still raise our next generation. I am too far to be any help, I grieve at an immeasurable distance.

This morning too I woke to the news of the attack on London Bridge, the deaths in borough market. Just as two weeks ago I woke to the Manchester bombing. In our world torn apart by war and wracked by addiction I know every morning is this morning for so many. If only our love and solidarity could end this. I know we can only do our best, but I want to end this and I know I am not alone but I cannot see our way.

Charleston and Charleston and Charleston

Sitting here trying to work and everywhere is full of the Charleston killing, numberless posts trying to redefine and claim and contextualise, pourings out  of anger, grief, fear. Call it terrorism, call it a massacre, how dare you call it the #CharlestonKilling, why don’t you say #JeSuisCharleston (but that makes no sense to me because I sure as hell wasn’t Charlie Hebdo and that media outpouring got ugly real fast). No, I don’t like this frenzy because in a way it just represents all of these emotions and despair and no one knows what to do. So we fight over words.

At our best, we remember and grieve for those who have died and all the people who loved them.

I too despair over the scourings of media except for the honest words of Jon Stewart from the Daily Show. He sums it up I think. Even if we do look into the abyss of race in America — though I think it needs to be more specific to the abyss of white violence, white privilege, white supremacy — even if we look into that abyss we won’t do jack shit. And that’s what he can’t get his head around.

I can’t either.

I just sit here full of grief and rage and it feels as though there is nothing I can do.

Like everyone else I’m just writing something, talking something to draw the poison out because no, I am not all right.

Seems like we have been battered over the head, grief upwelling for so many humiliated, hurt, jailed, beaten, murdered and driven to suicide. Cops keep doing what they do. Vigilantes keep doing what they do. Fox just talks the way it always talks, shoveling their same old shit, the rest of the major news outlets straggling in their wake along the spectrum of denial. Meanwhile poverty, segregation, slum housing, shitty schools, no health care, no healthy food, no jobs, no hope — all these things are killing people of colour even faster than white people are killing them.

Structural, systemic racism that continuously erupts in violence. That’s what we got.

Something has to give, to change, and I just don’t see what it will be. I don’t see white folks giving up a damn thing, even attempting to try and deal with what we have become, much less succeeding. Probably because it’s so wrapped up in all that we were, centuries of covering up exploitation and hatred and land-grabbing and slavery and genocide. Probably because all that history is present with us still, in things we believe but especially in terms of who has wealth and privilege and who does not, and just what exactly whites (and people who identify with them of whatever colour because this shit is real complex) are prepared to do to protect that. We have not equipped ourselves to deal with that, because that will take a whole lot of hard work involving skills and know-how. But the fury directed at those schools who are doing anything to equip those skills or talk about what this country is actually founded on — well.

And then there’s the fact that South Carolina still flies the confederate flag…I don’t even…I don’t even have words for that. Though of course, maybe it’s better all out in the open and not hidden behind liberal words just as intent on preserving power and privilege. But no, actually, take down the damn flag.

I sit here afraid for so many people I love in the U.S. Part of me feels that’s a little crazy, to have this fear in my stomach. But I look at this news and I know it isn’t.

Don Toñito Mendez, Presente

Growing up poor, I was predisposed to believe in revolution. Don Toñito only confirmed me in this.

When I was 21, I moved to LA because I had finally found work fighting the immigration fight, finally gotten a job at CARECEN. I started work the day I flew in, a horrible, brown, smoggy day — we arrived downtown before I could properly see it. My heart hurt.

I missed home. I kept missing it for years, but those first six months were the hardest months of my life I think. Those first six months when I slept on the floor and cooked with only one saucepan. Starting in a city like that, no money, no friends or family, no car, no hard city face to keep men away.

Don Toñito was one of the people who helped me through it. Kindness radiated from him, a huge smile always, one that filled a room. I towered over him, because my own childhood poverty still came with good nutrition, proper protein, vaccinations. I couldn’t understand him very well at first, was still getting attuned to the sounds of El Salvador so different from Mexico, but it didn’t really matter.

He took the pictures that people needed to renew their work permits, apply for residency and citizenship. He sold beautiful crafts — downstairs I still hang my keys from the enameled wood of a Salvadoran village and a Dios Protege Este Lugar. But best of all, he sold books. Spanish books, radical books, with cheap covers and thin paper. Marta Harnecker, Radio Venceremos, Liberation Theology, Roque Dalton, Manlio Argueta. I saved up for them.

It is all foggy now, too distant. He told me stories of San Salvador streets from when he was a kid, and best of all, the FMLN, the struggle. Mostly stories about close shaves, like the time the soldiers were searching for him and Violeta Menjívar, some of them walking down the streets, others along the roof. He loaned me an old cassette of songs about Che Guevara, told me about Victor Jara, showed me footage on battered old VHS  of the FMLN entering San Salvador after the war was over. Told me jokes I didn’t always understand, but couldn’t help laughing with him.

I would sit and write people’s stories about death and destruction, rape and torture. They still fill me those stories. When it was too much I would go say hello to Don Toñito and he would make me feel better, make me instinctively feel the love and hope for the future that was the foundation for the FMLN’s fight. The need in that place and at that time to fight to change the world. This could not redeem such suffering, such brokenness, but help situate it, help to bear it.

Because I was only holding the reflection of it in my heart after all, not the actual shattering grief.

Don Toñito held this grief, transformed it into a radiating kindness and humour and hope. I was so proud to be his friend, and there is no one I would trust more to help transform this world into a better one. He lives on in the way I see things, the way I struggle for change, and hopefully, in a piece of my smile.

Compañero Don Toñito, presente.