Poem: Adrienne Rich, ‘Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev’

Leader of a woman’s climbing team, all of whom died in a storm on Lenin Peak, August 1974. Later, Shatayev’s husband found and buried the bodies.

The cold felt cold until our blood
grew colder then the wind
died down and we slept

If in this sleep I speak
it’s with a voice no longer personal
(I want to say with voices)
When the wind tore our breath from us at last
we had no need of words
For months for years each one of us
had felt her own yes growing in her
slowly forming as she stood at windows waited
for trains mended her rucksack combed her hair
What we were to learn was simply what we had
up here as out of all words that yes gathered
its forces fused itself and only just in time
to meet a No of no degrees
the black hole sucking the world in

I feel you climbing toward me
your cleated bootsoles leaving their geometric bite
colossally embossed on microscopic crystals
as when I trailed you in the Caucasus
Now I am further
ahead than either of us dreamed anyone would be
I have become
the white snow packed like asphalt by the wind
the women I love lightly flung against the mountain
that blue sky
our frozen eyes unribboned through the storm
we could have stitched that blueness together like a quilt

You come (I know this) with your love your loss
strapped to your body with your tape-recorder camera
ice-pick against advisement
to give us burial in the snow and in your mind
While my body lies out here
flashing like a prism into your eyes
how could you sleep You climbed here for yourself
we climbed for ourselves

When you have buried us told your story
Ours does not end we stream
into the unfinished the unbegun
the possible
Every cell’s core of heat pulsed out of us
into the thin air of the universe
the armature of rock beneath these snows
this mountain which has taken the imprint of our minds
through changes elemental and minute
as those we underwent
to bring each other here
choosing ourselves each other and this life
whose every breath and grasp and further foothold
is somewhere still enacted and continuing

In the diary I wrote: Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love

In the diary as the wind began to tear
at the tents over us I wrote:
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength

In the diary torn from my fingers I had written:
What does love mean
what does it mean “to survive”
A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow We will not live
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives

Adrienne Rich, 1974

I’ve been reading a lot of Adrienne Rich recently and this poem has been haunting me, perhaps because I’ve been thinking about the question of how to face death.

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2 thoughts on “Poem: Adrienne Rich, ‘Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev’

  1. It’s very unfortunate that you didn’t include italic formatting in reproducing this poem. The italics were essential to the poem as published.

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