‘and leave your senseless, sinful land’
What do you do when your home no longer feels like your home, but it is – it has to be?
I first became preoccupied with this question in a small way; in relation to the village in which I’ve lived all my life, and specifically how isolating it felt to grow up there as a closeted lesbian. But perhaps this year – which has been so difficult for so many of us, in so many different ways! – I’ve been made to think of it more broadly.
I came across 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, the new collection edited by Boris Dralyuk, in the library the other day and I could hardly believe my good luck. I’ve been excited for it since I heard about it prior to its release, and usually it takes a good long while for recently-published books to make their way to my local libraries, so finding it there was Christmas come early. I haven’t finished reading it yet, but my favourite from the collection so far articulates the question of belonging perfectly for me; a poem by Anna Akhmatova written in the autumn of 1917. My preoccupation with home and belonging in ‘real life’ is something that I’m always trying to seek out in books and she treats it so well, here, and expresses things just as I feel them.
England is home to me as Russia was to Akhmatova. Whatever the future holds, next year or any year, it is still my home. On a smaller scale, however isolating it may feel to be the ‘only gay in the village’, and how lacking in community in comparison to the city I still find it, it is still my village. These are storms I must weather.
When the nation, suicidal,
awaited German guests,
and Orthodoxy’s stringent spirit
departed from the Russian Church,
when Peter’s city, once so grand,
knew not who took her,
but passed – a drunken harlot –
hand to hand,
I heard a voice. It called me.
“Come here,” it spoke consoningly,
“and leave your senseless, sinful land,
abandon Russia for all time.
I’ll scrub your hands free of the blood,
I’ll take away your bitter shame,
I’ll soothe the pain of loss
and insults with a brand new name.”
But cool and calm, I stopped my ears,
refused to hear it,
not letting that unworthy speech
defile my grieving spirit.
Anna Akhmatova (trans. Margo Shohl Rosen and Boris Dralyuk)