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1Published inPoetrymagazine in 2011Reading the Living Archives: The Witness of Literary Artby Carolyn ForchéThe letter arrived on a series of plain postcards in Joseph Brodsky’s penciled cursive,mailed separately from his newly imposed exile in Ann Arbor, Michigan, very near thetownship of my childhood. They contained his advice to a young poet brash enough to sendher youthful efforts to him. You should consider including in your poems more of your own,well, philosophy, he wrote. And on another card:It is also a pity that you do not read Russian,but I think you should try to read Anna Akhmatova.It was, I believe, two years earlier that I had read excerpts from the transcript of Brodsky’strial in the former Soviet Union, condemning him to forced labor. When asked on whatauthority he pronounced himself a poet, he had answered that the vocation came from God.Now he was advising me to read Akhmatova, and so that winter I went into the stacks ofthe Library of Congress and found a volume of her poems, translated by Stanley Kunitz andMax Hayward. Kneeling on the floor between the shelves, I read a passage no doubt wellknown to readers ofPoetry:In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in lineoutside 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 tous 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.Akhmatova referred to this passage asVmesto predisoviia(Instead of a Preface), adding itas prologue to her great poem, “Requiem,” written during the years of her son LevGumilev’s imprisonment. The poem was herpodvig, her spiritual accomplishment of“remembering injustice and suffering” as experienced within herself and as collectivelyborne. Anna’s friend, Lidiya Chukovskaya, remembers her subsisting on black bread andtea. According to the research of Amanda Haight:She was extremely thin and frequently ill. She would get up from bed to go andstand, sometimes in freezing weather, in the long lines of people waiting outside theprisons, hoping against hope to be able to see her son or at least pass over a parcel. .. . The poems of “Requiem,” composed at this time, were learnt by heart by LidiyaChukovskaya, Nadezhda Mandelstam, and several other friends who did not knowwho else was preserving them. Sometimes Akhmatova showed them a poem on apiece of paper which she burnt as soon as she was sure it had been committed tomemory. . . . In a time when a poem on a scrap of paper could mean a deathsentence, to continue to write, to commit one’s work to faithful friends who were

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requiem, Anna Akhmatova, Emmanuel Levinas, I and Thou,

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