bright hips, late roses: a meditation on history

bright hips

Yesterday I cut some sprays of rosehips from the Rosa canina that grows around my bedroom window. It is the earliest rose to bloom, early May, and its hips always remind me of those pale pink single blossoms with their golden crowns of anthers. When I go into the kitchen and see the pot of hips on the table, I wonder how the summer passed so quickly. I remember the first warm days of April and how we’d have a glass of wine and a little snack on the deck, surrounded by pots of tulips. John’s been lugging those big pots down the stairs to overwinter in protected areas under the house. How did it pass so quickly?

Two weeks ago I was in Lviv. It was a city I’d long wanted to visit. A few years ago I read East West Street by Philippe Sands and knew something of the city’s 20th century history, not exactly a happy one. Sands uses 3 families rooted in Lviv, and their particular experiences of that city and that century to weave together an extraordinary story of hope, of violence, of terrible loss, and of resilience. That the city was known by 4 different names—Lemberg, Lviv, Lvov, and Lwów— contains its own message of war, aggression, and conquest. I’d hoped we could see a performance at the Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet or Lviv Opera but there wasn’t anything on during our visit.

lviv opera

We did go inside for a tour and it was interesting to see the preparations for an upcoming opera (I think it was Don Quixote). The building itself is glorious but I kept (somehow) remembering the first photograph I saw of it, in East West Street, draped in flags and bunting to welcome Hans Frank, Governor-General of the occupied Polish Territories. He attended a concert in August, 1942, a performance of Beethoven’s Lenore Overture no. 3, opus 72, followed by the Ninth Symphony. He addressed the audience from the orchestra pit:

We, the Germans, do not to go foreign lands with opium and similar measures like the English. We bring art and culture to other nations.

As we explored Lviv, I kept thinking about what happened during those terrible years. The city’s Jews concentrated first in the Lwów Ghetto and the Janowska camp on the outskirts of the city, then Belzek concentration camp: of the 100,000 Jews in the city at the beginning of the war, only about 300 remained at the end. The narrow cobbled streets and beautiful faded houses, the churches, the grand halls: they’d all absorbed the sound of gunshot and shouts, the hammering at doors, the jackboots. I know this is true for so many places in Europe (and elsewhere of course) but I was perhaps more attentive to the layers in Lviv.

Two weeks I was in Lviv. Now I’m at home, thinking and writing about how time accumulates in a city, in memory, in the bright hips of roses on my kitchen table, and in this last spray I cut from the garden just now.

late roses

Lviv won’t leave me alone. When I came home, I re-read East West Street. I tracked down poetry, history, and have peered through my reading glasses at old photographs, wanting to understand where I was in relation to everything else. The poet Adam Zagajewski was born in Lviv in 1945, though his family was expelled shortly after.

…go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.

“And who will you become…”

morning swim

You wake, heart-sick because of a mass shooting, inspired by the ugly discourse (if one can dignify it with the term) of the far-right government to the south of your own country, and then you read that there was another shooting, more innocent people gunned down, also inspired by the awful president and his casual hateful language.

You try to gather what’s good. Deadhead the roses, geraniums.  You listen to Hilary Hahn playing The Lark Ascending over and over again. One son sends a photograph of your beloved grandson eating raspberries and ice-cream in a big bowl. Your daughter talks of a swim with your other son and his family. When they were here last week, you’d wake in the night and come quietly downstairs to work at your desk, the darkness huge around you.

Night is a cistern. Owls sing. Refugees tread meadow roads
with the loud rustling of endless grief.
Who are you, walking in this worried crowd.

Digging in the compost for usable material to mulch some arugula seedlings, you keep one eye out for the weasel. You keep one eye out for tree frogs. When the grandkids were visiting, a tree frog clung to your leg like a child’s hand.

One day your grandchildren were playing in your study and they ran out, screaming, There are ghosts in there! It was part of a game (you think), but yes, there are. (You didn’t tell them this.) Right this minute, you remember how your long-dead family—parents, grandparents, and as far back as you could go—stood behind you as you tried to write their story, in the night (again), when you thought you might have a fatal illness. Well, it didn’t occur to you that you might have that particular condition until a doctor pointed out evidence on a screen in a big hospital, taking you deep into your own lungs, and talking about margins, metastases, biopsies, and you said to him, I never knew my lungs were so beautiful. They’re like contour maps! (He was taken aback, but only for a moment.)

And who will you become, who will you be
when day returns, and ordinary greetings circle round.

In the night, the ghosts still gather. They are people still living (you feel your granddaughter’s hand on your arm, wanting the glitter paints, the tiny wooden bead with the second “l” in her name), they are the children you gave birth to and loved so fiercely that you can’t believe they weren’t wounded by your love (and maybe they were, are, but they still come back to this house and your table, they still tell you they love you), they are the young couple in their celebratory clothes (your white gauze dress, his Harris tweed jacket and impossibly wide-legged corduroy trousers) standing in front of a fireplace, just married. They are your own parents, whose 69th wedding anniversary it would have been, is, today.

Night is a cistern. The last pairs dance at a country ball.

Last night, awake, thinking about how a city mourns its dead, you heard an owl calling quite near to your window. When you got up and went for your swim, the sand at the lake was dense with deer prints and you thought of them coming to drink cool water at dawn, unaware that the world was filled with madmen who shoot children in their mother’s arms, goaded to the action by another madman.

An unknown hand draws the dawn’s first stroke.
Lamps fade, a motor chokes.
Before us, life’s path, and instants of astronomy.

But what do the stars tell us of the violence of men and what they’ll do for their moment of immortality? The stars are indifferent to us. And that might be our salvation.

*The passages of poetry are from “Night is a Cistern”, by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Clare Cavanagh.