Pushcart 2014: Matthew Dickman, “Akhmatova” (Poetry) from The American Poetry Review, Jul/Aug 2012

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

Modigliani sketch of Anna Akhmatova (1911)

That’s right! Now I remember. I was on the beach
looking at Haystack Rock,
putting my finger into the mouths of sea anemones,
their tentacles sweeping over my knuckles, I was whispering
the word brother
to one, and the word sister to the other
though maybe they were both. I wanted to be close
to another species.

I think of this as a poetic painting in alternating tones: bright, dark, bright, dark; it struck me powerfully, even in the places I don’t fully understand. I don’t have any idea how to talk about it without going through each line, each sentence, each idea, so it’s a good thing it’s available online (thank you, Poets & Writers) in both text and audio , read by the author – I was surprised to discover how young he sounded, then surprised again to find out he’s almost middle-aged. As I read, I imagined someone much older; as I listened, much younger. Alternating tones.

Bright: The opening image of the boy whispering “brother” and “sister” to the sea anemones; poking his fingers into their mouths, into the natural world. Charming, even to me, who tolerates rather than enjoys reading about children and nature.

Dark: “I had been reading about the dark windows / Akhmatova looked through / to see if her son had been let out of prison.” Akhmatova? Some ancient mythological figure, perhaps? (I make no secret that I’m not exactly widely-read) Close; Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet whose life spanned from Nicholas II to Kruschev; her son, historian Lev Gumilev, spent most of Stalin’s reign in a Gulag, and she was none too appreciated post-revolution herself. What does this have to do with sea anemones, with a little boy putting his fingers into nature? I’m not really sure: Hey, reader, yes, these anemones are adorable, but wait, darkness is always just around the corner, a thought away. Who is it that’s in prison, who is it that’s looking through dark windows?

A moment in Light again – I so love the phrase “feeling like I had done a good job being myself” – before returning to Dark:


I heard my third-grade teacher
whisper into my ear
what’s wrong with you? You want to be stupid your whole life?

I get a lot of that, myself. A casual visitor to my apartment, seeing my awkward models of geometric shapes and badly-drawn diagrams of compass-straightedge constructions, asked if I have children, and refused to take no for an answer: “Do you teach, then? Take care of the neighbor’s kids?” Eventually I just changed the subject, rather than explain my recent fascination with Euclid. All the time, I get asked if I’m ever going to try writing again: “If you don’t want to write fiction, you could write essays.” Yes, I suppose I could, couldn’t I.

Recently, my Favorite Math Blogger (Humor Division), wrote a piece for The Atlantic about the gap in perspective between students and teachers: “A moment the teacher barely remembers might stick with the student for years.” We all carry voices, good and bad, light and dark: voices of people who remember what they said, of those who have forgotten, of those who at some point changed their minds, voices of people long turned to dust, voices of people we’ve long surpassed, or still strive to equal, in courage, morality, achievement. We may not get to choose which of those voices we hear, but we get to choose which we listen to.

The poem then returns to Akhmatova, in a section that, particularly when I listen to the reading, sounds like the rhythm of the sea. “No matter… No matter… will still…. will still… will still….”

I got a bit sidetracked during my research by turning up a Greenpeace action against the Russian ship Anna Akhmatova, with protestors defending nature by chaining themselves to the anchor line of the ship working on a deep-sea oil rig; as convenient as those references may be, it took place in summer 2012, far too late to be a reference for this poem (but I do love a good coincidence, not to mention digressions of any kind).

Back to the question of what Akhmatova has to do with a boy exploring nature: Is this “fingers into the natural world” a more general metaphor (well, duh, did I really think it was about anemones?) for a kind of personal liberation from artificial strictures? Anna Akhmatova’s son ran afoul of Soviet authorities due to, among other things, his theory of “passionarity” to explain the rise and fall of powers (I think; I’m not going to begin to figure it out here); talk about poking your finger into nature; does the speaker feel a kinship with the son, chained to his homeroom seat with Mother Nature looking on? Or (and/or) is the speaker looking at the boy (himself) as his son (younger self) as imprisoned, longing for his release from homeroom into the world of anemones? That moment is in the past; it can’t be changed, but neither must it be a permanent state: the boy can grow up and visit all the anemones he likes, it’s only the speaker’s mind that keeps him frozen in the past.

Come out of the dark and play in the light, the water’s fine. Sincerely, Anemone.

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