Sugar-Paper Blue

Ruth Fainlight

i

Trying to describe a colour
by comparison and metaphor
is as futile as the attempt
to hum the tune I hear in my head.
But I thought everyone knew
what was meant by sugar-paper blue.

Sugar-paper – that thickish, stiffish
somewhat-grainy-surfaced, mottled
faded-navy paper glued or folded
into bags for sugar: the next image
is my aunt and mother sticky-fingered
in the family grocery store.

After school, pushing a metal scoop
through the shifting granular dampness
inside a hairy sack of jute,
they’d fill those bags, then do their homework.
    You understand, there is no proof
    this actually occurred.

I was trying to describe a room
in Leningrad (in ’65
still the city’s name), walls painted
the traditional 19th-century tone
I called sugar-paper blue,
to a friend in New York, years later.

ii

It was the study of my guide’s parents,
two polite Petersburgians
who had survived the siege,
their daughter said, with bodies gaunt
and eyes enormous as Rublev saints
on icons at the Hermitage (‘That’s
how we all looked’), and now, proudly,
showed books, albums, pamphlets
guarded through terrible years.

I turned the pages of thick or flimsy paper,
thought of those writers and artists
gone to the gulags or Paris, and knew
that I was touching holy relics.

‘Here’s Mandelshtam’s first published verse,’
Galya translated. ‘These woodcuts are by Goncharova.
And look: Blok. Bely. Gumilev.’
‘The Acmeist who married Akhmatova?’
(I was such a show-off.) ‘Yes,’ they confirmed.
‘And this is the book with the cycle of poems
dedicated to her by Marina Tsvetaeva’
    – who titled them The Muse, and later said:
    ‘I read as if Akhmatova
    were the only person in the room.
    I read for the absent Akhmatova,’
    – who didn’t hear them, but carried the manuscript
    in her handbag for years, until
    it split at the folds and fell apart.

iii

I was probably not more than 12 when,
in my aunt’s glass-fronted mahogany bookcase –
      dusting its elaborate clawed feet,
      the swagged garlands of leaves swathing
      the hips of the female torsos
      that surged from the column each side
      like naked caryatids, or
      twin figureheads with the fixed eyes
      and stern faces of implacable Fates
      on the vessel of expectation
      which that bookcase, its look and contents
      (the same piece now in my London apartment,
      the one object which I suspect
formed my taste in everything) became –
I found what can only be called
‘a slim volume’, with limp covers,
in an unknown script and language.

I don’t remember Aunt Ann translating
one line from its pages, nor ever
explaining how she came to own it.
But she told me some facts about the woman
who wrote it – the first time I heard
those words: Anna Akhmatova –
   later, I wondered how important
   the coincidence of name might be for her,
   my aunt, who since the sugar-bagging days
   saw herself an artist-manqué.

iv

‘You are an admirer of Akhmatova?’
It was a loaded question, then.
Faces gleaming white against the dark
blue walls and shelves of books
as marble busts in a library,
all three watched me closely.

‘You know I don’t read Russian. But
there are a few translations – ’
I couldn’t go on. I felt ridiculous.
‘She’s ill now,’ Galya said,
‘but still in touch with everything.
And what a good neighbour.’

A neighbour? Hard to imagine her
in such a mundane situation.
Like the taut silk of a parachute
collapsing inward, billowed out,
by contrary winds, the barriers
of time and space changed shape and meaning.

‘Do you hear that sound?’ My gaze followed
Galya’s to the ceiling. ‘She must be
better today, she’s walking around.’
‘Anna Akhmatova lives upstairs?’
My awestruck, disbelieving voice
creaked like the floorboards.

v

Incredulous questions:
as if needing to hear the simple fact
reiterated yet again;
pleading that somehow they help me
to meet the famous poet,
the witness,
the sacred monster,
the old, dying woman –
                    or at least
   help me to see her –
   even if only over the shoulder
   of one of them – who could knock
   at her door and let me look
   even if only a moment –
   just to see her – a glimpse –
   Anna Akhmatova:
                     my obsessed
demand exceeded decent behaviour.
But they firmly insisted, repeating,
as many times as I asked, that what
I wanted could not happen.

vi

I have scanned encyclopedias
and dictionaries, read every entry
under ‘sugar’ and ‘paper’ and ‘blue’:
endless, tedious searchings. But no one
acknowledges the relevance
of those qualifiers, or recognises
the description, though I see it
so clearly: a glaucous sheen
on the cheap, thick sheets of paper.
   Mandelshtam – I hadn’t read him
   then – might have written
   of sugar cones from North Africa,
   but eating blue grapes
   under ‘the burning blue sky’
   of Tashkent, did Akhmatova notice
   one wrapped in blue paper?
(As for ‘papier bleu’, in White Flock
I found it: ‘the blue copy-book
with the poems I wrote as a child’.)

There are other more poetic blues:
azure, cerulean, lapis lazuli,
ultramarine, cornflower, indigo
(the colour of rivers and ocean,
the shadows on ice and snow).
But my imagination
stubbornly returns
to my aunt and mother,
Feigele and Channah – Fanny and Annie –
unhappily filling packets of sugar
(while sucking the crystal residue).
   It’s not as if they came from Russia.
   Somewhere near Bukovina
   was where they were born.

Is it impossible to say:
standing side by side in the damp room
behind the store – like sisters
in a Dostoevsky novel –
their chilblained hands and feet
burned as blue with cold
as Anna Akhmatova’s
heart, mind, soul, body,

or allude to the janitor’s blue cap,
or the blue lips
of the woman who whispered,
‘Can you describe this?’
as she stood in line
three hundred hours
with the other mothers, wives and sisters
outside Kresty prison.
Is it shameful or shameless
that I can’t disentangle the stories?
   How they all must have yearned
   for something to sweeten their mouths,
   or had they forgotten
   even the taste of sugar?

vii

Poetry, maternal figure. Sugar syrup, blue paper.

The Muse: a veiled girl with pipes in her hand.
Cassandra: ‘my words prophesied those graves.’

   sugar syrup, blue paper

‘Not quite a harlot, burning with passion;
not quite a nun, who can pray for forgiveness.’

   sugar syrup, blue paper

Orthodox Russian village women pilgrims.
Michal, Rachel, all the daughters of Israel.

   sugar syrup, blue paper

‘They are very nice when they are courting.’
The face of a child with divorced parents.

   sugar syrup, blue paper

‘Hiding her heart’ from her husband,
drinking to ‘loneliness spent together’.

   sugar syrup, blue paper

‘Everyone looks through a foreign window.
One in Tashkent, another in New York.’

   Poetry.
   Maternal figure.
   Sugar syrup.
   Blue paper.

viii

I wanted to see her.
I wanted to be initiated.
Like a hungry animal
wanting to push its muzzle
into the sticky, blue-sugar secrets
of suffering and poetry,
to lick the gritty essence of love
from the palm of her hand:
such were my ignorant, urgent demands.

The vibration of footsteps,
the sense of a body’s bulk and weight
displacing space, the mystery
existing, alive and breathing
above my head, were maddening.

   That was when – my first trip to Russia –
   after letting me talk, and spin a rope
   of hopeless platitudes more than
   long enough to hang myself,
   a stranger said: ‘If you ever come back,
   then I’ll tell you how it really is.’

   Glad to join our party – the table already
   covered with half-empty bottles and glasses –
   he then revealed he’d last seen his father
   in the witness box at the Doctors’ Plot trial.
   Unsure if there would be a next visit,
   his wife murmured, ‘Murdered’, in my ear.

Remembering this, I had the childish wish
to take the misery of the century
compact it to a small black stone
with the density of a neutron star –
hundreds of million tons per cubic inch –
wrap it up in blue sugar-paper
then cast it into the core of a black hole
from which nothing can ever escape
from which the signals would come
dimmer and redder and fainter
until they stopped for ever ...

ix

What I wanted would not happen. What
I wanted made the rest of my visit awkward.
Quite soon, Galya and I
were saying goodbye to her parents –
and that beautiful blue-papered study –
and walking down the stairs.
   The same stairs, etc, etc.
   All the obvious thoughts.

I stopped to look up at the grey façade
(a handsome building, as I recall) and,
thinking I was very cunning, casually asked:
‘Which window is yours?’ Half-reluctant,
half-amused, she gave the answer I hoped for.

There was a time,
in the Forties, after the war,
when guards were posted
in the street outside her house,
and Anna Akhmatova
was obliged to show herself,
morning and evening, at her window,
to confirm that she had not escaped
or committed suicide.
                         Though I stood
for a long time next day
on the opposite pavement
and stared at the window
hoping to see, behind
the spun-sugar lace of the curtain,
the pale blur of a face
which might be hers,
no one appeared.