Poetry Friday: Confluences come when they will… or, how to get from Lucinda Williams to the Siege of Leningrad in a single blog post

h1 March 21st, 2008 by eisha

Soviet ski troops near the Hermitage Museum heading to the front.Here’s something you might not know: Lucinda Williams, an excellent songwriter for whom Jules and I share a deep and abiding love, is the daughter of a poet. I think I had maybe read that in an interview or two, long ago, and then more or less forgot about it. But I recently stumbled across this article about the two of them, and my interest was piqued. So I looked up Miller Williams, and I found out that he read a poem at President Clinton’s second inauguration. I also discovered this poem, “The Curator.”

There are images here that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Seriously.

The poem takes place during the Siege of Leningrad in WWII. The narrator, a young curator at the State Hermitage Museum (Did you see Russian Ark? Yeah, that place), describes how the museum staff had prepared for the German onslaught by packing up the paintings and storing them elsewhere. But they left the frames hanging on the walls to make it easier to rehang the paintings when it’s safe again…

Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.

Well, the staff stayed on to clean the rubble
after the daily bombardments. We didn’t dream—
You know it lasted nine hundred days.
Much of the roof was lost and snow would lie
sometimes a foot deep on this very floor,
but the walls stood firm and hardly a frame fell.

Here is the story, now, that I want to tell you.
Early one day, a dark December morning,
we came on three young soldiers waiting outside,
pacing and swinging their arms against the cold.
They told us this: in three homes far from here
all dreamed of one day coming to Leningrad
to see the Hermitage, as they supposed
every Soviet citizen dreamed of doing.
Now they had been sent to defend the city,
a turn of fortune the three could hardly believe.

I had to tell them there was nothing to see
but hundreds and hundreds of frames where the paintings had hung.

“Please, sir,” one of them said, “let us see them.”

And so we did. It didn’t seem any stranger
than all of us being here in the first place,
inside such a building, strolling in snow.

A gallery in the HermitageThere’s one of the images that has seared itself into my brain: soldiers, standing in an opulent gallery strewn with rubble and snow, staring at empty picture frames while the curators… well, you really must read the rest of the poem. Goosebumps guaranteed.

Apparently this is based in fact, too. Here’s an article from an exhibition at the Hermitage about the Siege years that describes what life was like for the curators:

“The museum not only withstood the bombings, but continued its routine work, safeguarding its exhibits and buildings, hosting surrealistic tours of its vacant halls… The starving defenders of the Hermitage found solace in the thought that core collections would survive though they themselves might die.”

Amazing, isn’t it? What a story. And what a poem. And what a weird confluence of topics in this one blog post.

*** edited to add… ***

Poetry Goddess Elaine is on round-up duty at Wild Rose Reader. Do check out the other entries, if you haven’t already.

11 comments to “Poetry Friday: Confluences come when they will… or, how to get from Lucinda Williams to the Siege of Leningrad in a single blog post”

  1. Goosebumps: received. Yowza, that was good. Wouldn’t it make a good movie, somehow?

    I do remember—maybe an interview in Paste?–reading about Lucinda’s father being a poet. Of course, she is one, too, even if we call her a songwriter. I Just Wanted to See You So Bad is one of my favorites. And Car Wheels on a Gravel Road… and many others.

  2. The Madonnas of Leningrad, by Debra Dean, is a fictionalized account of life in the Hermitage during the war. The story is told as flashbacks by an elderly woman with Alzheimers who lived in the Hermitage during the siege. I read it when it first came out a couple of years ago and, while I don’t remember it being a “you’ve got to read this” book, the account of life during the war was fascinating.

  3. I think this quote you posted is even more powerful than the poem itself (which is also amazing):

    “The starving defenders of the Hermitage found solace in the thought that core collections would survive though they themselves might die.”


  4. Sara, it would make a GREAT movie. Have you thought about writing a screenplay?

    Catherine, thanks for the info – hadn’t heard of the book, but now I gotta look it up.

    Dana, I know, doesn’t it just break your heart?

  5. Oh wow. I’m stunned and amazed. Thanks for enlightening me! Yes, somebody’s got to do a movie.

  6. What a phenomenal poem. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. God, that is a creepy awesome subject. I totally agree that the image of the curators lecturing on the unseen will be with me forever. Yikes! Fantastic stuff!

  8. I think it’s all the more creepy/powerful because of the conversational style he uses. Like he’s really just sitting in a bar, leaning across his beer to tell you this story. Glad you all dig it too.

  9. Very cool, Eisha! Great story too.

  10. Damn. That’s good.

  11. Lucinda and Gillian too! I like your book choices and your taste in music…

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