Jonathan, we met some years ago at Emory University. I was there to give a reading and visit with Natasha Trethewey’s class, and you were there as the Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry. I sense, perhaps, some of Natasha’s influence in the sequence featured in this month’s Congeries, part of a book-length sonnet sequence about the siege of Leningrad in World War II. Am I right? Natasha is, of course, a poet who herself is fond of historically based “project” books, and she also is an advocate for the sonnet and other received forms. What drew you to the project? What drew you to the specific subject matter?
My experience as the Creative Writing Fellow at Emory was an especially formative time. Natasha was a wonderful mentor and friend. While my interest in the intersection of historical material and poetry predated my selection as the Creative Writing Fellow at Emory, I learned much from Natasha’s ability to balance the rich narratives, complexities and ambiguities of historical information with the immediacy, intimacy and singularity of an individual poem or poetic sequence.
Natasha’s work provides an excellent model for how a poet can use research in such a way that it buttresses, rather than supplants, the thematic and aesthetic qualities of the work. Native Guard is an excellent example for how the personal and the historical can resonate simultaneously. The tension of divisions (she uses the term “exile” in the book’s epigraph) permeate the book: North from South, Confederate from Union, present from past, public from private, state from state, white from black, mother from father, parent from child, the physical from the psychological, etc. I could go on and on.
For poets, one of the great lessons from Natasha’s work is that the tensions of opposition are not only frequently irreconcilable, but the recognition of that irreconcilability is essential to what I would broadly call the “honesty” or “fidelity” of the work. Natasha’s writing and mentorship taught me that the role of the poet is not to attempt to relegate or suppress historical and personal tensions, but to clarify them, to champion the historical memory of those tensions. The greatest threat to art and to historical memory, perhaps, is not erasure, but distortion—nostalgia and sentimentality are the wolves forever at the door.
Conversely, by reading bad historical fiction, you can also learn much of what NOT to do when writing poetry informed by historical material. When reading bad historical fiction, you come across sections where it seems as if the author is downloading research into the novel. Mid-carriage ride, one character suddenly says to another character, “If you look to your left, you will notice that these lampposts contain gas-powered lanterns that are fueled by kerosene instead of natural gas.” There is a great temptation in the historical poem or novel to privilege research over character (and sometimes over the aesthetic quality of the language itself).
I should also say that as I type this, I imagine my brother raising his hand in the back of a darkened auditorium. My brother has a PhD in history and is an excellent scholar, and I imagine him asking, “Isn’t it true that you were never a very strong history student, and sometimes cut class, and that you frequently found history class to be ‘boring’?” My answers are, “Yes, yes, and yes.” I was frequently bored by what I perceived to be the purely factual presentation of historical material. In his book, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says that when language exists only to convey information, that language is dying. Think of the phonebook. Think of the manual for your lawnmower. What impulse would encourage you to return to that language once you have processed that information? I find the same limitations true of art that only exists to convey information. My interest was always in the anecdotal and the personal in history class. Who was the only U.S. President to get stuck in the bathtub in the White House? Taft. He was so fat that his aides had to grease him with butter to get him out. That’s the sort of material I always loved. I don’t remember one piece of Taft’s legislation.
In the introduction to my book-length sequence about the siege of Leningrad, I write about my visit to the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad. In the museum, there were two small artifacts that remained my touchstones as I worked on the poems: a three-panel photograph that showed a young woman aging immensely over the 900 days of the siege, and an artist’s representation of the daily ration of bread (about the size of two fingers) that each citizen received at the height of rationing. These small gestures provided entry for me into material that might otherwise have been too unwieldy to manage.
Why have you chosen the sonnet to contain, if that’s the right word, this particular subject matter?
I think you are absolutely right to join the concepts of form and subject matter. Creative writing conferences and workshops will frequently discuss the idea of a writer “finding” his or her “voice,” but the conferences and workshops will focus less on a writer finding the right form for his or her subject matter. In my experience, the search for the right form for material has been much more productive than the vagaries of trying to find the right “voice” for a piece. Form, of course, does not have to mean traditional form. I recently published a 2,000-word, one-sentence-long poem in New England Review. Finding that specific form, for me, was crucial to completing the poem because the form crystallized the trajectory of the poem—the progression from Rembrandt painting “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” in the 1600’s to the painting’s theft in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
Using sonnets for the siege of Leningrad sequence created, counter-intuitively perhaps, a strong sense of forward movement and capaciousness in the writing process. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Seamus Heaney discusses how poetic form is both “ship” and “anchor,” and I have found that paradox to be accurate for my writing process. The perceived restrictions of the form simultaneously propel each poem to its completion. The bottle makes the genie stronger, not weaker.
Additionally, I felt that the sonnet was the most compelling vehicle for the subject matter of the siege because my goal was to attempt to engage the siege on the level of the individual. “Stanza” in Italian translates (at least according to Google Translate) to “room” in English, and I felt that each of these sonnets was essentially a small room that I entered and exited in the lives (both historical and invented) of the individual personae. My hope is that the narrative of the siege builds around the collage of the individual sonnets.
How much research has gone into the project? Judging from the many notes, it must have been a great deal.
As I mentioned above, I was never a great student of history. I would define the notes as the product of reading and study, more so than research. Research, for me, implies primary sources and a visit to archives where you are required to wear surgical gloves when handling manuscripts, and someone stands over your shoulder to make sure that you don’t sneeze on the pages. In my use of notes, I attempt to provide the additional contextual information that might be essential to the poem. In many ways, I am riffing in the poem on the material presented in the notes from the nonfiction books I consulted. In my reading and study, I was drawn to the interesting and compelling anecdotes that I could use as the basis for poems. In the Taft example I mentioned above, I could easily see myself writing a poem centered on that anecdote. I would feel comfortable imagining and embellishing the particulars of the scene, while also acknowledging the specificity of the historical moment. For example, where did the assistants get the butter? How did the kitchen staff respond? Why was there no water in the tub? Did Taft call out for help or was he silent? Did the attendants draw straws to see who had to apply the butter? Did his removal make a reverse suction sound or did he slide out like a Christmas turkey? These sorts of “imaginings” are limitless, and, in my opinion, fair game when writing historical poetry or fiction. What would not be fair, I think, would be to change or manipulate the know facts of history, like the facts of Taft’s death or birth or political affiliations.
Can you speak to the process of inventing and occupying personae in these poems? I mean, do you go through any particular ritual, as actors frequently do, to get into character?
I think the idea of preparing for the poems in the way that an actor prepares for a role is very interesting. There are many similarities, I think. One aspect I find to be similar is that so much of writing, for me, is initially imagistic rather than linguistic. I feel like I have hard time writing a poem until I can literally see the initial images in my mind’s eye. When Conrad said that the greatest power of the written word is to make you “see” (even more than make you “feel” or “hear”), I’ve always interpreted this statement literally—that the greatest power of the written word is in its imagistic potential. When the screen goes blank in my mind, that’s when language dries up. So I can certainly understand how this relates to acting – this ritualistic and intuitive sense of embodiment.
But I also think there are many differences as well. I always liked the story about Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier acting together in Marathon Man. Allegedly, in classic method acting form, Dustin Hoffman stayed up all night before a scene in which he was supposed to convey exhaustion. When Laurence Olivier saw a haggard Hoffman on set, Olivier allegedly said to Hoffman something like, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?” This distinction gets at the paradox of artistic creation, I think. I certainly don’t do any kind of method acting to try to inhabit the personae of the poems because, in one sense, they are all “me” already. While I certainly haven’t had the same specific experiences as the individuals during the siege, I do have a rich reservoir of experiences from which to draw that potentially touch on similar emotions. One great pleasure of literature, I would argue, is its ability to simultaneously provide familiarity and strangeness.
Conversely, though, I would also say that the “method acting” approach to writing is productive as well. Let’s say you are trying to write about having to search for your mother’s watch in the snow. To get a sense of what that is like, go hold your hand in the icebox (I do live in Florida) for a couple of minutes and see how the muscles tighten. Record how the skin grows slightly numb and feels rubbery. Stick your cold hand under warm water and feel how it stings. All of this can be the access point for a poem. A great example of the “method acting” poem might be Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.” That one detail, of how the arch of the persona’s foot is sore from climbing the ladder rungs, authenticates (for lack of a better word) the entire poem for me.
At University of West Florida, where you now teach, you’re the Editor of the online journal Panhandler. Can you tell us a bit about that? Do you find that editing a journal and writing poetry are activities that work with or against each other?
I’d like to begin by saying how much I’ve appreciated the support I’ve received from my colleagues and students at UWF. One of great benefits of working at a mid-sized (we’re about 13,000 students) university, is that I have some institutional resources to help support the program on one hand, and a relative amount of flexibility and autonomy on the other hand. That flexibility was certainly present when I proposed the transformation of the magazine to a folio-based format, and then to an online format. I’m currently working on trying to establish a book-publication imprint for the journal, which would be very exciting.
I suppose that editing a literary journal is kind of like being a judge on one of the singing shows on television. The process doesn’t really teach you anything new about the writing process (in the same way that being a judge on the singing shows probably doesn’t teach you anything new about singing). What the open submission policy does do, though, is give you a pretty good sense of what is being produce by a broad cross-section of writers. We certainly don’t get the same volume of submissions that major journals receive, but what the process does cultivate is my ability to tell very quickly whether or not I am going to be interested in a submission. Just like aspiring singers, aspiring writers reveal their abilities (both good and bad) almost immediately.
You live in what I assume must be a fairly interesting part of Florida, perhaps closer to New Orleans than to Orlando. What’s the writing scene like there?
The apropos line about Florida is that “Florida is more southern the farther north you go.” Culturally, Pensacola is definitely more “Deep South” than “Miami Beach.” In football, the locals root for the Saints, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida State, and UF. Mardi Gras started in Mobile, which is only forty-five minutes away. Pensacola actually predates St. Augustine as the oldest settlement in the U.S., but the Pensacola settlement was blown off the map by a hurricane, so St. Augustine is the oldest permanent settlement. Pensacola has a long history of religious fundamentalism: the Brownsville Revival took place here in the 1980s and 1990s; one of the nation’s largest non-accredited religious universities is based in Pensacola; and the nation’s first abortion clinic doctor murders took place here in the 1990s. Yet Pensacola is also very progressive in other ways: one of the largest gay pride events in the world takes place (50,000+ attendees) on Memorial Day at Pensacola Beach; the city has two vegan restaurants and several yoga studios; and the Andrews Institute for sports medicine is here—RG3 is having his knee operated on right now as I type this. These groups sometimes interact in both aggressive and accepting ways. As a citizen, I find these tensions to be frustrating and regressive. As a writer, I find these tensions to be fodder for investigation into the human condition.
Your poem, “Conflagration and Wage: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911,” was selected by the Manhattan Choral Ensemble as the libretto for original music composed for “Requiem: Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Centennial” — a commemorative concert for the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That must have been exciting for you. How did that all come about, and how did you feel about the final product? Was it a success?
I feel very fortunate to have been able to participate in a small way in that production. I had published the sequence in TriQuarterly several years ago, and one of my friends was one of the original participants in the Manhattan Choral Ensemble when he was a student at Yale. The MCE tries to produce productions that are attached in some way to the city, and they were working on putting together a production to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. They wanted to intersperse original compositions by NYC composers into a production of Maurice Durufle’s Requiem, and the directors of the MCE were looking for libretto material for the original composers. My friend, Matt Laufer, introduced the MCE directors to my poetic sequence, and the individual sections were a good fit to send something of a manageable size to each composer. I really enjoyed speaking over email with many of the composers, and they were very kind in their comments about the sections of the poem. My grandfather was the Dean of Music at a university in West Texas, and I remember some of his discussions with me about the composition process when I was younger. When I spoke with the composers, I expressed to them that I was perfectly fine with them changing or arranging the materials of the poems to best serve their compositions. I didn’t want the composers to feel restricted by the poems. My hope was that the composers would create a collaboration that was completely new. Some of the composers stayed very close to the text, others took a very impressionistic approach. I was deeply moved by how everything worked together, including the audiences’ appreciation, reverence, and attentiveness. My wife and I and one of our friends went to find the original Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building the night before the concert. It’s in Washington Square. The building is part of the NYU campus—a physics building, I think.
What’s next for you, Jonathan?
I’ve been working on what I broadly call “investigative essays” for the last couple of years, which has been a lot of fun. They get me out in the world more. The impulse grew out of some of the nonfiction writing workshops I teach—I wanted students to experience the world more and write about it, and I felt like I had better get out there more too. In the last few years, I’ve been working on pieces about recreating D.B. Cooper’s skydive over Mt. Hood, the criminal justice system in Pensacola, the Holy Land Experience Theme Park in Orlando, and organic farming in Cuba. I’ve also been working on new poems. You never know where any of this will lead. The process never gets easier, but that’s what draws me back again and again.
The Ice Road
—“The Ice Road” is an excerpt from a book-length sonnet sequence entitled, Barbarossa: The German Invasion of the Soviet Union and the Siege of Leningrad. “The Ice Road” focuses on the first winter of the siege and the establishing of the supply road across the frozen Lake Ladoga.
1. The Children’s Sleds
The sound is like two gates pried back against
their hinges, like a lone, shrill voice, like stoves,
ten thousand kettles shrieking, like the sense
that ice will fissure, split, like splintered bones,
like hammers plunging down on railroad ties.
The city is a common grave—the ground
unyielding, frozen, as two women guide
a sled through Nevsky Prospekt. They are bound
together by the body on the sled,
the child between them, by the sound, the grind
of other sleds, all carrying the dead,
all scraping towards a cemetery lined
with bodies. How the cold will keep them, take
them all—for mercy, for its absence’s sake.
2. The Ice Road across Lake Ladoga
The sight of water underneath the ice,
the way it plumes beneath each horse’s step,
the way it seems to darken like a rind,
then thin out unexpectedly, then seep
onto the surface—blood that courses, dries
as skin again—takes form and hardens, breath
itself. The path across the ice must rise
beneath the surface like a vein, no less
than everything, no more. The oxygen
that fills each body lifts the ice—a thought
exhaled, inhaled—as each man takes a step
on faith, on fear, suspended, held aloft,
as if the road had risen to him, hands
beneath each step, as fists on which to stand.
3. A Stolen Ration Card
There is no power granted with each death.
The only wisdom is the certainty
of law that stolen ration cards will bring
the verdict of the soldiers, passionless,
onto the bearer of the card. The theft
itself is not the central crime. The greed
of anonymity is the misdeed.
The Russian soldiers break their ring to let
the man whom they’ve surrounded move against
a wall. The bullet, passing through the man,
must lodge itself in something firm. In pairs,
the soldiers search him afterwards, a fence
of legs around him, as his last three breaths
evaporate like chimney smoke in air.
4. Russian Supply Trucks Crossing the Lake at Night: Photograph
Each parachute descending opens like
my mother’s hand above a candle flame,
her cupping of its light before her face.
Bent over me, she lingered, gaze inside
the flickering, her worried mouth pursed tight.
In two weeks, when the fever lifted, day
drew me to it. Released from bed, I stayed
beyond her, only coming home at night.
I’d hear her heavy limp outside my door.
The floorboards jumped with every other step,
then silence as she peered into my room
to find me curled and feigning sleep. She’d turn,
and then the sound would start again—the left
foot hard, the right foot sliding like a broom.
5. One Leningrader Discovers in a Snowdrift the Discarded Heads of a Man, Woman and Young Girl
The woman likely tied the young girl’s braids,
pulled hard on them, her left hand parting curls,
her right hand weaving, holding firm—the whirl
of childhood caught impatiently in reins
and bridle. In that grasp, the daughter brayed
to be released; she squirmed and stamped, the world
beyond her, spinning still. Her words unfurled
into that room as proof of will, as prayer.
When Orpheus, in death, his head adrift
atop the river Hebrus, sang out still,
his body, torn from him, was silent. Sift
your hands into the snow until you feel
them sting the way that silence stings. Don’t lift
your gaze, your voice. Bend down in reverence. Kneel.
6. Through the Ice
The first sound is a whine, a splintering
as tilting ice beneath the truck breaks loose
the way a broken bone will push through flesh.
The truck slides aimlessly, one back wheel freed
and spinning as the truck begins to sink,
rear axel first—an animal confused
the moment of the shot, an elephant
that shudders through its haunches, drops to knees.
The cold is like a blow against the chest,
a fist and vice at once. The driver’s hands
work frantically. They move like rats. They grasp
at everything. The truck’s two headlights spread
light deeper in the water’s darkness, dust
specks glinting in the beams like beads of sand.
7. All is Darkness
In winter, all is darkness by degree—
the evening is a lesser night, the day
like evening. When the soldier first is seen
he too resides in darkness. Shadows drain
his features, steep his coat, his beard, with grays
and blacks like snow that melts then freezes hard
again. There are no dogs, no cats—no strays
of any kind. The soldier’s image starts
the night to slither. Stone walls ripple. Carts,
abandoned, creak in alleyways. The sky
descends. The rustling sound of leaves his heart
makes in his chest is heard by no one. Fly,
thrums through his ribcage, fly, as walls fall in,
bloom hands that pull him, silent, to their dens.
8. When All Paths Fade
There is no road, no lake, no map, just stakes
placed intermittently to mark the course.
The slightest deviation—tapping breaks
to dislodge ice or reaching to the floor
to free a wrench wedged in the pedals—turns
the truck into an animal that slides
at will, into a dead bear spinning, four
legs splayed, his body flush against the ice.
At what point does the driver first surmise
that he is lost? What settles over him,
what enters him, when all paths fade? What flies
into the truck’s dark cab, extends its limbs
and binds the driver with its wings and claws,
its curved beak nipping at the driver’s jaw?
We set out on the frozen lake alone.
My friend is lying on his side, his knees
pulled to his chest, his body wrapped beneath
our only blanket. As his breath curls out,
I watch him in the rearview mirror. Cold
myself, I’ve packed the car with newspapers
as insulation under him, the seats,
along the floorboards, in the doors and roof.
The feeling on the lake is that the world
is moving under us, that we are still,
and that the engine of the world grinds gear
to gear, its metal teeth entwined the way
two boars will lock their tusks, or how two hands
will interlace their fingers then let go.
10. Whom None Command
The women fall together on the stairs,
the black-ice-coated stone, the bodies hard
atop the frozen Neva like stray pairs
of logs unmoving towards a mill, whole cords
of wood stopped motionless. Like swollen boards,
the ice creaks underneath them, strains and cracks
the stone. Two holes cut in the ice have formed
a source for water as the sky retracts
from view and stone walls rise. The light refracts
and forms a kind of tunnel holding all,
the lucky ones who fill their pails, whose tracks
across the Neva’s dusting, on its caul
of snow, are missives from the recent and
long-dead—those born, unborn, whom none command.
11. The Supply Chain is Established
The rows of trucks, the station on the lake’s
far side, appear out of the ice like teeth
along a jawbone. Shifting down, we shake
together with the truck. The brake pads seize
then shudder, slip then grab. I haven’t seen
the station in a year, and when I climb
down from the cab, I buckle at the scene.
The rows of trucks unloading flour, lines
of them on one side of the station, wind
like vertebrae. They vibrate like coiled springs
as other trucks refuel, load up and find
the tracks across the lake again. A team
of workers greats us, hands us each a roll
dipped into broth and steaming in the cold.
12. A Cure for Scurvy
One slight deficiency deforms the mind,
the body. Sores and welts rise up. Raw gums
bleed out. The remedy, like all things from
the earth, is elemental: oranges, limes
and lemons, any source of vitamins.
And though the body, derelict, consumes
itself, with treatment it will heal its wounds,
a kind of suturing, reversing time.
Since fruit is rare, a Russian scientist
extracts the medicine from pine needles.
Eight factories distill the extract. Bits
of glass are melted down and shaped to vials.
The taste is like ground aspirin. It sifts
down through the body, both pure light and bile.
13. Two Shoots of Green
From chaos there came order. On the lake,
the line of trucks moved swiftly. Bombings slowed.
The drivers loosened at the wheel. Night flowed
around them, and the snow spread like a wake
out from the ruts that formed the road. No breaks
ran through the line of trucks. They jostled, full
of fuel, supplies. Beside a cast-iron stove,
a woman hummed while slicing cornmeal cakes.
As stew steamed in a pot, the earth-walled room
the men had carved out at the station seemed
to inhale with the woman, with the boy
who manned the stove. A soldier, laughing, leaned
against the wall to show the woman two
birch shoots unfurling there their first green leaves.
14. Russian Tank Crewmen Accept Chocolate from a First-Aid Worker: Photograph
The young men clad in winter camouflage
lounge on a tank. Their clothes, the snow, are white—
a crew of matching ghosts. One soldier lights
a cigarette. It flares as he inhales.
The conversation of the soldiers trails
from them—it vaporizes—with the sight
of someone coming up the road. The bright
red of her fur-lined coat contrasts the males—
a lone camellia blossom in the snow.
She waves to them, this young girl who’s a nurse,
one hand deep in her pocket, fingers rough,
the muscles aching in between her thumb
and forefinger from pulling sleds—a hearse.
The men, like school children, line up at once.
15. Symphony No. 7
The cockpit of the single-engine plane
reverberates as shells explode in air
and flak bursts rise within the clouds like flares
in negative, like charcoal lines conveyed
across white canvas. In the air, the name
of the composer, like a coal, is seared
into the pilot’s mind. His shadow tears
across the snow. The markings on the page
mean nothing to him—ink marks, rows and lines.
He almost hears a voice above the thrum
of two propellers, hears her song—the sound
heard only as vibration deep inside
his skull—the song the weeping girl had sung
when handing him the music on the ground.
16. Russian Engineers Cut German Barbed-Wire Barricades to Clear the Way for Soviet Ski Troops and Cavalry: Photograph
The horses and the men both stamp their feet,
the ski troops leaning forward on their poles,
the horses snorting as their damp coats steam,
their sweat evaporating in the cold.
The engineers work quietly. They lie
down on their backs and lift wire cutters to
each line the way a turtle’s beak will rise
beneath the surface of a pond. With few
words spoken, soldiers point and nod, each barbed
wire snip a click. The engineers all breathe
like snipers, counting exhalations. Storm
clouds meet the long horizon in a seam.
Night falls. The Russians, charging on the snow,
appear as gods unbound to earth, as ghosts.
17. The Dream of Summer
The snow diminishes—an argument
abandoned, slowly first, then rapidly.
The sun pursues an oblong path. It spins
across the sky. It turns both as a dream
and as a symbol. Cabbages throughout
the Summer Gardens sprout where lawns once spread.
Potatoes rise from armaments, and crowds
fill Nevsky Prospekt. Teeth sink into bread.
The warm crust fissures like an eggshell. Dreams.
All dreams. The light a dream. Tobacco smoke
that curls from cigarettes, a dream. Tea steams
in cauldrons as a woman bends to stoke
the growing fire. The dark wood twists and cracks,
transforming in the flames to heat, to ash.
Sonnet 1: The children’s sleds, suddenly they were everywhere… The squeak, squeak, squeak of runners sounded louder than the shelling. On the sleds were the ill, the dying, the dead (Salisbury 435).
Sonnet 2: Four inches of ice could support a horse without a load. A horse pulling a sledge with a ton of freight required 7 inches of ice. A truck carrying a ton of freight needed 8 inches of ice (Salisbury 408).
Sonnet 3: Colonel Bychkov, a Leningrad police officer, kept a diary of the problems he encountered day by day. One of the most critical was the theft of ration cards at the beginning of each month. Anyone losing his card at the beginning of the month certainly would be dead before he could get a new card. The military patrols observed no judicial procedures in such crimes. They simply halted suspicious persons, searched them, and if stolen cards or unaccountable food supplies were found, they shot the person on the spot (Salisbury 477-478).
Sonnet 4: Supply trucks creep across the lake on a winter night. Drivers left their headlights on after dark because experience had shown them that German planes could pick up the convoys anyhow: the pilots dropped parachute flares in order to illuminate their targets (Bethell 125).
Sonnet 5: One Leningrader, walking through the world of ice late at night, came upon a bloody snowdrift into which had been hurled the heads of a man, a woman and a small girl, her blond hair still plaited in Russian braids. The bodies, he felt certain, had been carted off by the cannibals for butchering (Salisbury 478).
Sonnet 6: The vehicles sometimes fell through the ice, drowning their drivers (Bethell 124).
Sonnet 7: Coming into Leningrad late at night, at an hour when there was hardly a patrol on the streets,… soldiers not infrequently fell victim to attacks by the cannibals. [Soldiers] were regarded as preferable victims since they had been better fed (Salisbury 478).
Sonnet 8: In blinding blizzards, drivers frequently wandered off course and froze to death. More than 1,000 vehicles were lost in crossing the lake (Bethell 124).
Sonnet 9: [A reporter was discharged from the Leningradskaya Pravda and expelled from the Communist Party] for using the newspaper car to transport a sick colleague across Lake Ladoga (Salisbury 452).
Sonnet 10: A dozen holes had been broken in the Neva ice, and hundreds of women, pails in hand, were moving toward the holes. The women, making their way toward the water, had to wind around the bodies of the frozen dead. The granite steps leading down to the Neva were sheathed in ice, so thick it was almost impossible to climb up or down. The women slipped and fell, some never to rise again (Salisbury 467).
Sonnet 11: Everywhere lay abandoned and broken-down trucks. At the station there where thousands of boxes of flour and a chain of hundreds, possibly thousands, of trucks, like a conveyor belt, bringing new loads to the station, unloading and then turning about for the return trip across the Ladoga (Salisbury 500).
Sonnet 12: Scurvy was universal. Professor A.D. Bezzubov invented a process for extracting Vitamin C from pine needles. Eight factories were put to work making pine-needle extract, and 16,200,000 doses were produced in 1942 (Salisbury 507).
Sonnet 13: Day and night the movement never halted… The Ladoga route had been brought into order. It was in constant flow, food and fuel pouring into Leningrad, people pouring out. In a dugout, [a woman] sat with a division commander. It was so warm near the little iron stove that two or three birch shoots had pushed through the earthen walls and begun to sprout a few tender leaves (Salisbury 504-505).
Sonnet 14: The photograph referenced is credited to the Library of Congress.
Sonnet 15: In the Radio Orchestra archive, there is a fragment of an order from Party command instructing the station: “By any means, get a score of [Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7] from Moscow. Transport it to Leningrad as soon as possible.” In March 1942, a light plane flying the perilous route over Nazi lines to bring first aid also brought Zhdanov the manuscripts he wanted (Vulliamy 16).
Sonnet 16: The photograph referenced is credited to Novosti Press Agency.
Sonnet 17: The white nights brought back to Leningrad an appearance of ease and relaxation. In the Summer Gardens fields of cabbages replaced grassy lawns. Between the antiaircraft batteries on the Champs de Mars sprouted potato patches. On the steps of the Kazan Cathedral a copper samovar bubbled and women drank tea made of some kind of herbs. Everyone rolled his own cigarettes with paper torn from strips of old Pravdas. They lighted them with magnifying glasses. No matches were needed so long as the sun shone (Salisbury 535).
Bethell. Nicholas. Russia Besieged. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books Incorporated, 1980. Print.
Salisbury, Harrison. The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. New York, NY: Harper and Row,
Vulliamy, Ed. “Orchestral Maneouvres.” The Observer Magazine 25 November 2001: 16. Print.