How can I write?
The paper is so small
and the sorrows of the world so great
they reach up to the stars.
How am I to fit the whole sky
into my little notebook?
For most of her tragically short life, Ksenia Nekrasova lived in abject poverty without even a bed to call her own, totally dependent on the generosity of friends. She published only one slim volume of poems during her lifetime. Derided and dismissed by most of her contemporaries, she enriched the lives of a whole generation of poets in ways which only later (after her death) bore the indelible signature of her unique vision.
Like her poetry, she was innocent and wild, original and unconventional, pledged to her verses through all disaster. Poetry came to her as naturally as breathing. She jotted it down on any scrap of paper that presented itself: the backs of letters, bus tickets or shopping receipts.
Are they my poems?
or me myself?
It’s all the same:
the difference is only one of form.
Apart from that
but withered petals
on the floor.
In physical appearance, she was modest and small, with dark liquid eyes. Her disheveled appearance, poverty, and strange habits made people assume she was mentally ill. Her voice, always in the minor key, had a distinct singing quality like someone telling a fairy tale to a child. It was composed of rounded vowels and long expressive pauses. (Marvelous were these pauses). When she recited her verses, the index finger of her hand moved if she was conducting an invisible orchestra.
The stories she told of her “idyllic childhood” were without number; but the reality was quite different. Few poets had lives of such tragedy and hardship. Abandoned by her parents at a very early age, she spent her formative years in a state orphanage before being adopted by a middle-aged teacher and his wife.
But there was a lingering (and often repeated) mystery in Ksenia’s past. She had distinct memories of being visited at the orphanage by a richly-dressed woman who brought her lavish and expensive gifts. There were also flashes of a forest monastery whose vast congregation stood up in unison to bless her with thundering applause. Whether the memories were true or not we do not know, for the fictions within which Ksenia Nekrasova lived were not known to everyone. Years after her death, wild stories were still circulating that she was the illegitimate daughter of the last Tsar, or alternatively, of Grigori Rasputin.
If there was ever a time when she was genuinely happy, the War turned everything to ashes. Together with her husband and young son, Ksenia found herself in Central Asia, washed up in the vast tide of refugees fleeing eastwards to escape the German advance. Disease, hunger and desperation were everywhere. During a heavy bombing raid, some flying splinters from a floor blew into her, killing her only son whom she was cradling in her arms. The hands that held the child received the full force of the blast, and Ksenia never again regained the full use of them. (Her childlike, chaotic handwriting dates from this time). Shortly afterwards, her husband’s mind became deranged beyond all remedy and she could no longer care for him. Inconsolable with grief, she broke her mind on the memory of her loss.
Where are you...?
How many times must I call you?
How long must I wait for a response?
If I had a hundred hands
I’d search for you
Through every blade of grass
And sift the dust grains of the earth
Through my fingers
To find your eyes again.
Now began the darkest season of her life: interminable months of wandering through unremembered cities, sleeping in the ruins of deserted buildings, searching for any piece of rancid food to quench her hunger. Her intermittent headaches became more frequent and severe. At times, the tide of depression threatened to overwhelm her.
The rain beats heavily on the roof
The night is black behind the window!
And once again those thoughts –
emerging from dark corners
If only you existed!
Alone, without friends or family, she set out on foot for Tashkent, where by some miracle, she was found by a local family who took pity on her and cared for her needs. As a result, her health began to improve and her mind to brighten. There came a day when the mist finally lifted from her eyes, and she was able to write in her diary:
How beautiful the world is!
If somewhat lonely
among these stars and rocky planets
It was in Tashkent that she met Anna Akhmatova who immediately recognized her unusual talent and furnished her with letters of introduction to important poets. Ksenia could not contain her joy. She began to indulge in the wildest hopes! Before long, she was pursuing her dreams to Moscow where, on the recommendation of a friend, she attempted to gain admittance to the Union of Soviet Writers, without whose endorsement no-one in Russia could be published.
She was fortunate in finding writers such as Stepan Shchypachov and Leonid Sobolev to fight her cause. Her most loyal friend, Mikhail Svietlov, gave a stirring speech to the Union in which he spoke of Ksenia’s desperate material circumstances. Those poets who called her uneducated and naïve, he declared, were guilty of envy. Whatever any of them said in public, they were all secretly jealous of her poetry because no ambition could make her simplicity their own.
The day came when the chairman of the Soviet Writer’s Union, Alexander Fadeyev, invited her to visit him. Ksenia arrived with violets twisted into her hair. She waited outside the house for hours before summoning up the courage to enter. Fadeyev had never met her before, but talk of her poetic powers had penetrated even to his comfortable office in Moscow. When he finally received her, he was overwhelmed by her childlike candor and charm. Ksenia was a revelation to him. The facts of her weaknesses, her wounded voice, and above all the purity and directness of her poetry, made such an impression upon him that he kept her for hours, refusing to let her go, asking her to recite another, and yet another of her verses to him.
When the time finally came for her to leave, he told her in confidence that he had never heard anyone recite their poetry with so much love. “Don’t worry, Ksenia”, he added, “your time will come. Have faith”
But it was not to be. The members of the Union refused her application for membership. Her poetry, they said, was naïve, ridiculous and far too concerned with western bourgeois matters. Her blank verse was wild and chaotic and could not be taken seriously. Many of them tapped fingers to their heads, sniggered, and aired rumors of her madness.
So Ksenia returned to her rented room in the basement of the Writer’s Union, a room in which there was nothing but a single mattress redolent with damp and despair, a room as narrow as one might have expected of a cupboard used to store linens . She told her friends:” I sit here on the floor and put my board on my knees and write. I live well enough”.
Content with the barest, she now asked for nothing. Her salvation, she decided, lay scattered in the pages of her notebooks to which she confided the contents of her soul. Happily, her disappointments did not destroy her joy at being alive, fertile in imagination, a human being with a face and a name.
I touched your hand
And every lilac blossomed
The hawthorn hid its thorns in blooms
And in the twinkling of an eye
The whole world turned into spring...
From this time onwards, she refused all invitations to appear at the fashionable soirees of Moscow writers. “Hope”, she said, “is sooner found among the comfortless than among those who have made themselves at home in a world of greed and hypocrisy”. Spurned by the Union of Soviet Writers, she now began to spend more and more time among the artists and painters of the capital who, recognizing her unusual artistic sensibility, took her warmly to their hearts. They fed and clothed her when she needed it, paid her bills, and gave her somewhere to stay. Many of them (such as Ilya Glazunov and Robert Falk) painted portraits of her which were so stunning they drew all eyes.
In Falk’s famous (1950) portrait of Ksenia, she is shown wearing a red flannel dress and a necklace of pearls. In fact, the poet had made the necklace out of dried beans strung together on a piece of thread (a feat of which she was justifiable proud). The red dress, made famous in one of Ksenia’s later poems, was a gift from her friend Lila Yahontova.
Ksenia spent the last days of her life in dire poverty, always listening for a knock at the door, or waiting for a letter that would confirm that her poems were at last to be published.
At the very end of her life, Destiny seemed at last to to smile upon her when she gave birth to a baby boy, the greatest joy of her life. Ksenia had such wonderful plans for them both, but her dire material circumstances could not be overcome. She was forced to place her son temporarily in an orphanage while she searched for a flat. And it was while she was preparing and decorating a room for them both that she suffered a serious fall, from which she never recovered.
The poet Nikholai Aseyev wrote of her:
“We waited such a long time for a poet like her to appear; and when she did, we put every obstacle we could find in her way.”
She died on February 17 1958 at the age of only 46.
Almost twenty years later, the Union of Soviet Writers admitted her as a posthumous member of their organization.
I shall live a long time, I think
For I am a fragment of Russia
And rivers of pine resin
Flow freely through my veins……
Ksenia Nekrasova 1912-1958.
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