After some pensive moments twirling her braids and gazing out at a frozen landscape, she wrote her first poem, “Snowflakes,” published when she was in fourth grade. “My teacher, who was not very kind, would yell at me in front of the whole class for staring out the window and daydreaming,” Anya Krugovoy Silver says, “but in fact, that’s basically what I do now when I write a poem—stare out my window and contemplate.”
The daughter of a Ukrainian-born literature professor, she developed, early on, an ear for the mystical powers of language and a keen and searching eye for beauty: “The poem was the wood and the way out of the wood.”
Silver grew into a widely published poet whose work is noted for divining the transcendent in unlikely places — the post office, a drive through fog, the laundry room (see “Canticle to the Washing Machine”). She shares that rapturous world-view with students at Mercer, where she teaches English, along with her playwright husband, Andy. This fall, Louisiana State University Press published her first book of poems, The Ninety-Third Name of God, which earned her the “Artist of the Month” designation from the journal, IMAGE, and is expected to establish her as one of the country’s leading literary voices.
“These poems reveal the word made flesh — incarnate experiences cracked open to light, celebrations of the meaning found in suffering and in healing, in death and in birth,” writes Jill Baumgaertner, poetry editor of the Christian Century.
God knows, it is difficult enough to persevere as a poet under ordinary circumstances, but for Silver and those who love her, this collection reverberates with heightened meaning because it draws from such profound and bittersweet inspiration. She was pregnant, preparing to bring another life into the world she reveres, when, in the second trimester, she received another medical diagnosis: inflammatory breast cancer. It was the aggressive kind — “rare as hen’s teeth,” the doctor said — with the odds of survival for another two years estimated at one in five. She was 35 at the time; her husband’s mother had died of breast cancer at 42.
Assured that chemotherapy would not harm her unborn child, Silver began a grueling regimen. As her belly swelled, she lost her hair, and her body suddenly became the ultimate metaphor.
“I would see these other pregnant women looking beautiful and radiant, like Mother Earth, and there I was, sick and covering my head,” she says. “I looked like a tragic figure to some and a hopeful one to others. Still, the pregnancy gave me something to focus on besides cancer.”
She finished her first round of chemo in April of 2004, and the following month, her labor was induced early and she delivered a healthy son, Noah Samuel.
“Hannah had promised God that if she got pregnant and had a son, she would name him Samuel,” Silver says, alluding to the Old Testament. “In Hebrew, my name is Hannah.”
In an early photo, both mother and baby are bald. Silver resumed her treatments and underwent a mastectomy, followed by radiation therapy.
Then she began to write with life-or-death intensity. Some of the poems that accumulated on her desk resonate like triumphant hymns; others pierce like lamentations. Her work is exquisitely accessible, but not at all simplistic — celebrating the flesh along with the spirit, this world as much as the next, and mysteries as much as certainties.
“My poetry got a lot better,” she says. “Nothing focuses your mind and helps you see clearly what’s important quite like cancer. It made me want to explore, even more, the beauty and divinity of the ordinary world.”
Silver went into remission for five-and-a-half years. Her hair grew back. Noah entered first grade. She was preparing for her big book launch. Then came the news: the cancer has recurred.
“I thought it was gone forever, but I’m back in that place,” she says, matter-of-factly. “It’s a little like being a citizen of two countries, or an immigrant who doesn’t quite know the language and stands around, feeling self-conscious in a scarf, different from everyone else, from the healthy people.”
Silver grew up in Pennsylvania, where her father taught at Swarthmore College. Her mother was German. “I learned the native languages of my parents before I learned English,” she says, “and lived in this atmosphere where literature, philosophy, and politics were always discussed and debated, often loudly, around the dinner table, by people from different countries.”
Her grandfather had been murdered by Stalin, and her father was a refugee who brought her up in the Russian Orthodox Church. She attended Haverford College before heading South to Emory for graduate school, where she met Andy, also of Russian descent, but Jewish. Anyone who has seen “Fiddler on the Roof” knows that just a few generations ago on the steppes, their union would have meant trouble, if not a death sentence.
“When I first saw her at a party, I thought Anya was a Russian exchange student,” he says, wrestling with Noah on the floor of their home on the edge of Tattnall Square Park. He pauses to look up at her and smile. “I thought she was way out of my league. I went to one of her readings, and she was cool as a cucumber. We would dance until 3 a.m. at Masquerade and then eat at the Majestic diner.”
In a poem titled “Marrying Outside the Faith,” she writes movingly about what each surrendered, and gained, in their respective religious identities. “I still love the sights and smells and introspection of the Russian Orthodox Church, but it’s a little too conservative for me,” she says.
The couple moved to Macon to teach at Mercer in 1997 and settled into an industrious, academic lifestyle, enriched with scribbling, social activism, and Sunday mornings at an Episcopal Church.
“We immediately formed a sibling-like ‘writers group’ of two,’” says Gordon Johnston, head of the English department. “For twelve years Anya has told me to find a better verb. For twelve years I have told her to lighten up on the pussywillows and the fiddleheads. I know how church bells haunt her, how infatuated she is with spices and Marys and the names of flowers. Her poems let us overhear essential inner conversations. She lets her reader share in her prayers.”
She had a couple of miscarriages before conceiving Noah and then encountering the dark muse she did not want.
“I think the pink-ribbon thing is wonderful — we all want to hear stories of survival and support, to know we’re not alone,” Silver says, “but I don’t want to celebrate cancer. And I don’t think women should feel pressured to celebrate it or always serve as a role model of positive thinking for others — there is enough to deal with, just having it. If I hear someone announce, ‘I’m glad I had cancer,’ I think, ‘Really? Are you out of your mind?’”
Still, Silver says, she has been told that her writing, with all of its exultation and exaltation, could use more rage.
“I don’t want to be the Angry Cancer Poet!” she says.
She simply wants to be a Poet, capital “p,” among other engaging and challenging roles — a mom, a wife, a teacher — and, in that calling, she does not blink. In “Letter to Myself, in Remission, from Myself, Terminal,” she writes: “You’ll come to hate your own poems, read them as pretty wisps of wishful thinking, all those images just a splash of colored oil sloshed over a pool gone rancid.”
Aligning such emotional words with precision helps her “impose order on a disorderly world,” Silver says. “This is weird, but when I’m writing a poem, it often seems to come up from some place inside me. If I had to pinpoint the organ of inspiration, it would be somewhere right below my belly button.”
The process functions as a form of prayer, she says, as well as a way of addressing the hard questions of theodicy, or suffering.
“I never thought of this experience in terms of ‘God has a purpose for making me feel like crap,’” she says. “I don’t think of God as this sadistic micromanager who wants me or anyone else to feel pain. When I was at my lowest, my weakest, my most needy, is when I felt the sustaining presence of the divine the most. I suspend questions I can’t answer; I let myself not know. I’m not trying to pin down God in my poems or offer easy, pat answers because there aren’t any.”
Just an undeniable sense that a spirit, “not finite and not human,” soothes her, she writes, when she has “lain back for the burning of my skin, covered my face and cursed.”
Silver is undergoing chemotherapy again. “We caught it early, though,” she says, “and there is so much joy in my life. That’s what is so glorious about the world — it’s so intensely beautiful. Even sitting in the chemo room watching the medicine drip, drip, drip into the plastic tubing. It is actually very soothing to watch, and the bubbles are quite beautiful.”
She looks luminous, in fact, not sick. Her book’s title, The Ninety-Third Name of God, comes from the meditations of her yoga teacher, based on the Muslim “Ninety-nine names of God.” “No. 93 is ‘Ya Noor,’ or ‘the light,’” she says, declaiming in the titular poem: “And if the light were related to the light of stars (which it must be), as well as to the light of the sun, then what of me would not be star-cloud, star-stream?”
Meanwhile she continues to write, working steadily on another collection. “The poem was the wood and the way out of the wood.”