Book Reviews Features

The Woman of Kitezh: A Review of Annie Woodford’s poetry collection, Where You Come from Is Gone

By Jennifer A Sutherland

header photograph by Leeta Harding

Annie Woodford’s new collection of poetry, Where You Come from Is Gone, is set in rural Virginia but references the legendary Russian city of Kitezh. I found myself thinking a lot of Anna Akhmatova, another poet who wrote poignantly of that place, as I read these stunning poems. Both poets write of beloved places that have been irreversibly changed, and of the people who go on living there. 

Akhmatova remained in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution began. This was a choice and she was always proud to have made it. She had been born into a monied family. Her father held a minor title and a good bureaucratic position. All of this is to say that if she had wanted to emigrate, she probably had the means, and she did not leave. Her reasons for staying were at least partly artistic, as she believed that her poetic voice would be weakened by speaking from anywhere other than her homeland. 

Of the great Acmeist poets, only Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak survived Stalin’s purges. Akhmatova’s first husband was executed for supposed treason. Osip Mandelstam died in a labor camp. Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide. Akhmatova’s tragedy or triumph, depending on whether you are a poet or a politician, was to be made symbolic. She became a sort of holy Russian everywoman, bundled in her shawl, taking food and supplies with other mothers and wives to political prisoners in the camps. Her masterpieces, Requiem and Poem without a hero, were deeply critical of the regime and therefore unpublishable until long after Stalin’s death. Still, her relationship with the Soviets was complicated. Either they saw that she could not be easily disappeared or Akhmatova’s family retained a few connections. She was evacuated to Tashkent for much of the Second World War, where she was able to recite her poetry in hospitals and at social gatherings in relative safety. As for Akhmatova herself, she loved her son – who was frequently arrested based on his father’s “crimes” — and she did what she could for him. During one such time, Akhmatova wrote openly propagandist poetry and it might have kept her son alive. We might today refer to this circumstance as privilege, which is not to suggest that she did not suffer. She did, of course; only those Stalin truly favored ate well. Nevertheless, she had access to resources and she made use of them to bear witness to the suffering of others. She has deservedly become an icon of artistic resistance, but this is myth, not art. Myth is made from symbols and symbols from abstractions. Akhmatova’s poetry is built vividly upon the tangible things that give rise to myth. 

Her poem, “Woman of Kitezh” (or “The Way of All the Earth”), concerns the mythical city. According to the legend, the townspeople prayed to be delivered from an advancing army and the city sank into a lake. There’s no lake in Akhmatova’s poem and the presence of an enemy invader is only suggested. The woman who is the poem’s speaker concerns herself mostly with the journey to Kitezh because the city is no longer there. Akhmatova gives us a glacier, a bayonet, and trenches. The woman takes with her a pine branch and some verse written by someone else on a piece of paper left lying in the road. She expects to be alone when she arrives. 

Henry County, Virginia is Kitezh in Annie Woodford’s collection. So is country. So is family, and body. The speaker in “What I Saw in Bassett Last Sunday,” for example, looks out on:

A parking lot full of old campers,
		    dingy white panels, painted dreamscapes

of deserts, waterfalls & cougars, 	fading.

But she also recalls, as in “I Must Be Born Again:”
. . . the bent note of your vowels
 from somewhere cedars sleep,

the only way there through stone
      and stream, the bank overhung
by rhododendrons so thick

     everything is shadow, moss, & water-call.

To journey to a lost place is to confront the evidence of violence once done there: “Long / sere ridgelines lead me home, where I look at a picture of a man who was lynched nearby” (“Southside”). It is also to fear and name the violence that remains: “The Klan is votive these days. / Old Scratch is showing his face, / though it could just be four-wheeling boys” (“This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender”). Some of these signs are simultaneously tender and awful:

Sunset caught on the crew cuts
of the two boys in front of me,
here to watch a sister play.
               And I thought
of the good burghers of Germany – 
          circa 1933 – 
who dusted each week and kept
their beautiful children clean. 

(“The Children’s Recital”)

Woodford has an eye for the details that keep a myth sensorily present. The faded predators on the trailers’ dirty white panels, the dried out, dead ridgeline, the boys’ sharply angled haircuts. Many of the places in these pieces are beautiful and haunted or were once beautiful and are now seemingly spoiled. That Woodford has written them so faithfully doesn’t mean she hasn’t allowed for some disjunction between surface and substance, and she has left it to the reader to try to reconcile the contradictions or seek an uneasy truce with them. The collection gravitates around the people of these Kitezhes. So, in “Extended Family Love Song,” they gather together and display the ways that home has marked them:

Let’s not talk about the shortness
of breath, the persistent cough,
The clot of blood in the drain,
tendency to fall
asleep while taking off
your shoes (that’s how
my aunt said she knew
my uncle was dying:
she found him sleeping
in his arm chair, Redwings
half-unlaced). No, let’s talk
about drinking cheap bourbon
and Mello-Yello on brackish
ice, playing Rook, our babies’
silken shoulder-blades. How good
it felt to take one week off
in Myrtle Beach, and suck hard
on a Doral to get the cherry going
before holding it to the fuse
of a Roman Candle.

 In “To a Blue Tick Mongrel, Pacing the Pittsylvania County Line,” the speaker is “a dog intent on going somewhere”, following his nose past “lanky pine trees” and “tobacco fields all yellow”. 

I am the hound you find pacing, up
into the curve of scarlet horizons.
My blood tells in the way I hang my head
and move a little side-ways
that I have a coyote way of knowing.

The speakers in this collection understand, I think as the woman in Akhmatova’s poem does, that a journey toward the mythical can be attempted without losing sight of places and people who are difficult to idealize. What does a person of Kitezh, still in the world and capable of speaking, owe to the people who did not flee the sunken city? Only a pine branch. The rhododendrons and the yellowing fields. The verses others would have written down or spoken. 

Where You Come from Is Gone: Poems

By Annie Woodford

Mercer University Press $17

Jennifer A Sutherland’s work has appeared in Hopkins Review, Best New Poets, Appalachian Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her first collection of poetry, Bullet Points, will appear from River River Books in June, 2023. 

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. Find me at my site: An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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