‘Kindness saves us’

Chris McNab | 11 January 2019

It’s been one of those humbling days. The first of Kazakh poet I met was Marfuga Aitkhozina, an elderly, still extraordinary, lady known lyrically as the ‘Swan of Poetry’. Chinese born, she moved to Kazakhstan in 1958 and shortly thereafter (1962) published her first works of poetry, beginning an exceptional literary career that has arched across seven decades. Exuding a delicate yet shining spirit, and an open-book kindness, she spoke at length about her life in words.

For those who have not read it (if not you will soon get the chance), much of Marfuga’s poetry is impelled by the natural world. Wind and mountains, thundering rivers and crystal streams, birds and rain, skies both low and threatening or lofty and deep – the full spectrum of nature draws out her words, which flow soothingly yet energetically across the page, like fast water across smooth rock. In her work, nature also seems to act like a bridge, connecting the Kazakh people to their intrinsically poetic character: ‘All Kazakhs are poets’, Marfuga told us earnestly.

That perspective was a resonant and persistent theme of today. In addition to Marfuga, I had the good fortune to speak with two other poets of exceptional talent: Akkushtap Baktigereyeva and Aliya Dauletbayeva. Although their work differs notably in theme and timbre from that of Marfuga, the message came through again from both – poetry is in the national blood, and embedded in the cadences of the language itself.

Yesterday I ruminated on the reasons behind Kazakhstan’s clear sense of national unity and pride, despite the turbulence of its history. Well today, that spirit was in evident force, and the answers to my questions emerged more clearly. All the poets seemed to place poetry and humanity on the same page. Akkushtap, for example, above all wanted the reader of her translated work to sense that ‘kindness saves us’.

Marfuga echoed these views. I asked her directly what it was that produced Kazakhstan’s sense of national unity, despite the traumas of its history and the ebb and flow of its diverse ethnicities. Her answer was, quite simply, kindness and generosity of spirit. New arrivals to the nation, as long as they did not come in war, were folded into the Kazakh family, through gentle acceptance and the absence of petty jealousies. To many in the Western world, such an argument may seem overly sentimental and simplistic, but such is the openness of the Kazakh people that it is hard to doubt.

About the author

Dr Chris McNab is an author, editor and publishing consultant, who has a long-standing relationship with both Cambridge University Press and with Kazakhstan. Chris is working as the editor of the poetry anthology for this project.

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