Back in high school English class our teacher introduced us to the timeless poem Elegy in a Country Churchyard; then he made us memorize all 128 lines of it.
Today, I remember one line in particular that goes, “Full many a gem of purest ray serene the dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.” And the unusual beauty of that line reminds me of how genius is sometimes found in the most modest of lives.
Yunupingu was an Australian Aborigine and I think it’s fair to say that few races on the planet have been as scorned and impoverished as the Australian Aborigines. But they were Yunupingu’s people and he sang of them in a voice some called “the most beautiful in Australia.”
He was born blind 46 years ago. He had no Braille but taught himself to sing in a voice of singular clarity and beauty. He also learned to play the guitar left handed, so he held it upside down. Yunupingu sang stories in his aboriginal tongues about his people and he learned American Gospel from missionaries. His rendition of Amazing Grace is unexpected and haunting.
He died in July.
Another one of my personal heroines died a few months ago at age 63.
Irina Ratushinskaya was a writer and a dissident in the twilight of the harsh Soviet years. Brimming with a zest for freedom that was a hallmark of her poetry, her reward from the state and its censors was seven years of imprisonment. She was judged to be “very dangerous” and suffered much in prison but she “cherished the other brave and resourceful women” she encountered there.
This harsh treatment, however, did not dim her genius or quench her love for Russia. She traveled to the West for medical care and she could have stayed. But she chose to return to Russia, where her spirit and her poetry had been kindled. She also wanted her sons to grow up in Russia, and yes, in its magnificent language.
America has been haunted of late by Russia and Russians. I wish our leaders, always ready to cry threat, would make the effort to read some Russian history; some might even venture into mastering the language, a critical door to understanding.
Russian bullies may always be with us; but even more so will be its poets and patriots.