You must not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to hate. Not because your tormentors have not earned it. But if you allow hatred to take root, it would flourish and spread during your years in the camps, driving out everything else, and ultimately corrode and warp your soul. You will no longer be yourself, your identity will be destroyed, all that will remain will be a hysterical, maddened and bedevilled husk of the human being that once was.
Ratushinskaya, from Grey Is the Colour of Hope
In March 1983, on her 29th birthday, Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a hard-labour camp for crimes against the Soviet regime. What was so terrible a crime that the authoritarian government of Konstantin Chernenko thought to sentence a former schoolteacher and physics graduate to a seven-year maximum sentence in harrowing and torturous conditions? The crime was poetry.
Born in Odessa, she wrote poetry while working as a schoolteacher before graduating with a Masters of Physics in 1976 (deciding to pursue a technical profession due to the oppression of the humanities by the then-communist regime), and she continued to write poetry after receiving her degree. Even though her early work centred on the theological, romantic, and philosophical, it was still enough to warrant the inquisition of the Soviet power structure.
In an interview given in 1987 at Northwestern University, shortly after her arrival to the United States, Ratushinskaya delved into how her poetry transformed to become the sort of speech that the Soviet political machine sought to silence, saying:
… I cannot refuse to write about [prison] bars, because they exist in our country. … It is very painful to me, because our people allowed it to happen.
Having developed a love for poetry as a young child, she would commit her works to memory; she never understood or related to the need to write poems down, a skill that would appear useful during her years of political incarceration.
At the labour camp, she found her poetic voice not diminished but strengthened. It was in the solitary confinement of a cell that she would compose the poems that would become Pencil Letter—a collection that, unbeknownst to her jailers, would be published by the famous poetry house BloodAxe, and would be read by people all the way up to the President of the United States. It would have a profound affect across the world not only for human rights, but also for literature.
When Ratushinskaya wrote the poems in Pencil Letter not for literary acclaim but simply to survive the ordeals of imprisonment. When she was smuggling them out and sending them to her husband, she never imagined that they would get published. The very arduousness of smuggling poetry out of the prison tells of the drive that she had for writing, and alludes to the symbiotic nature of poetry to her everyday life, later telling that she “…cannot live without writing poems.”
Initially carving the poems on soap until she could commit them to memory, Ratushinskaya eventually would transfer them to bathroom tissue in small hand, before getting them out of the camp to her husband. The end of the collection includes life-size photographs of the original transcriptions on the tissue paper, once again illustrating the effort it took for her to save her work.
This is where the magnificence of Pencil Letter lies. The collection itself may be of inconsistent quality, but it is the sum of the parts that is the goal of the poet. She was peaceful in her protest against a regime that was known for its oppression of the arts, minorities, women etc., and in her poetic voice was a tool where she could spread the ideas of equality and non-oppression in society. She was imprisoned for her beliefs, and went through the near-death experience of a Soviet labour camp, but she never once gave up nor held a thought to stop writing, to stop the art that had made an authoritarian regime waver.
In these pages, we see how Ratushinskaya beautifully crafts language into evocative pieces of literature that give the reader an insight into the mind-set of a political prisoner. The language always maintains a sense of dual personalities, grounded both in reality and let loose to wander into fantasy; the melding of these guides the reader through a surrealistic journey that wanders from the plains of communist Russia, through the living rooms and childhoods of various characters, through the skies above her prison, and through conversations with God—conversations that at times seem more confrontational than confessional. Originally written in Russian and translated into English, one can only imagine the wonder of the untranslated works. They say that poetry never truly translates, and if so, then the vast eloquence of her works could only allude to the passion with which she initially scribed the poems.
More affecting is that the poems still resonate and are still relevant to the world we live in. At times they can carry an air of the melodramatic and the trite, but we must remember that these are the words of revolution, and what revolution is ever carried on the notes of a quiet voice? This revolutionary voice is no more starkly observable than between the pages of contrasting works. For example, in “Jacob”, Ratushinskaya weaves the tale of Jacob wrestling with God, linking it to the current sons of Russia who fought for freedom, and then pages later, she writes “Somewhere a Pendulum Moves”, opening with:
Somewhere a pendulum moves, and softly a cuckoo is
Why should she count the hours, and not the long years for us.
And in the abandoned house, the old woman opens the
At the appropriate time, and with the same care as before.
The two poems demonstrate the range of voice the poet uses to convey the message of her dissent, moving from what is myth to the modern day, to the despondent imagery of the hollow homes where the disappeared are remembered—the cuckoo clock keeps chiming and performing its daily routine, and in doing so, bears witness to the mourning of the woman in the poem.
The collection of poems in Pencil Letter is born from this despondency. No matter the beauty of the language, they are desolate works written in a trying time; and the more these works strive to become lighter, the more observant the reader is to their birth-rights. They are at times full of loneliness, at others full of a hopeful clutching, and at certain points they reach a crescendo, mirroring the moods and thoughts of the poet. But most affectingly, they are quiet and not defeated, but suffering—this is when they are most poignant.
The collection has a tendency to become overwhelmed with its own sense of purpose. It is dense and full of references that modern readers may not understand. Nevertheless, it is a definite must read—for its place in the annals of literary history and for the significance it held in the barriers it shattered, for both politics and a woman’s voice in the poetic world. Pencil Letter is a microcosm of all that fervent passion that was ensconced in the human revolution of the 80’s. Though it garnered Ratushinskaya an extension in her sentence once its publication was discovered, the collection—like her—never collapses.
She passed away last year in Russia, a land that tried her and tried to break her. But like her works and her determination, the love for her homeland never left her, and so in Pencil Letter her message will be carried for generations beyond us all.
D. Mars Yuvarajan is a Tamil New Zealand poet. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in New Hampshire, when not traveling the world. He has published six poetry collections to date: Night Owl and Other Poems, Kintsugi, .M.oments (Volume One), Quiet Songs From Yesterday, We Live With the Departed, and In My Dreams I Walk Through Killing Fields. He owns and runs the independent publishing house Works of Mars Press.