“Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev”
Love, fear, jealousy, courage and death all have a major role in Adrienne Rich’s “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev.” Adrienne Rich takes us inside Shatayev’s head and depicts her joys and feeling of triumph along with her lingering undertones of jealousy. The use of the journals helps to relate the comradery and love within the team but also serves to paint a picture of an ungrateful Shatayev. Throughout this poem there are repeated declarations of love and friendship for the team members contrasted by subtle negligence of the husband’s feelings.
In the poem Shatayev seems to draw all her strength from the women of her climbing team. Rich writes in the sixth stanza, “After the long training the early sieges we are moving effortlessly in our love.” To characterize the terrorizing, freezing, and finally fatal trek up Lenin peak as effortless due to a “love” depicts a bond of a immeasurable magnitude. When the speaker talks of love or strength within the team, the word “I” is seldom used. The repeated use of “our” and “we” show an intense strength of love in there group. They are one, working together toward a common goal with their hardship only serving to tighten their unit.
A great courage is depicted in the character of the speaker. Her “yes,” as well as the group’s, work together to create a great feeling of strength by compensating for individual
weakness. This is reinforced in the second journal entry when she writes, “We know we have always been in danger down in our separateness and now up here together but till now we had not touched our strength.” Danger has always been there for them; separate or together; but it wasn’t until “now” that they truly found their safety in each other. Their common goal brings them together and helps their strengths to overlap and conquer their fears.
Along with this strength Shatayev also seem to carry a certain jealousy towards her husband. When Rich writes in the third stanza, “I feel you climbing towards me your . . . bootsoles leaving their geometric bite . . . as when I trailed you in the Caucasus Now I am further” Elvira shows her pride in the fact that she has moved on and has now surpassed her husband, her teacher. Although she doesn’t say her quest is more important than his it is implied when she says, “You climbed here for yourself we climbed here for ourselves.” When Shatayev’s husband climbed Lenin peak, it was not for glory or fame, it was for the sole purpose of putting his dead wife’s body to rest. She seems almost resentful that he made it back when she says in the fifth stanza, “when you have buried us told your story ours does not end.” He performed a completely selfless act, he risked his life to make sure her body and soul could rest. My assumptions that she is jealous and resentful of his past accomplishments may be presumptuous, but at the very least she is ungrateful.
Love seems to be one of the driving factors for Shatayev. Her love for the women of her team is intense, it drives deep and is easily felt by the reader. She has a bond that epitomizes the idea of sisterhood. The quote, “I have never loved like this I have never seen my own forces taken up and shared and given back” from the first journal entry portrays a love so immense and powerful that only Elvira and her “sisters” will ever know the true boundaries. The bond of love between the team mates is a repeated theme throughout the poem. In contrast the love between Shatayev and her husband is only seen as coming from him. It may be that her love is implied, or at that point in time the sisterly love was more important to her. It still leaves the questions in my head, why in her last living moments, did she not mention once the love she shared with her husband, and why th for themselves and his for himself. It is not said, but it is implied by Shatayev that he went on the voyage with the ulterior motive of gaining fame, a selfish goal. These implications show a jealousy that may have clouded Elvira’s once true love for her husband.
The descriptions of death intense and at times beautiful. Rich’s descriptions in the first stanza makes their deaths seem almost gentle. The picture given when Rich writes, “The cold felt cold until the wind grew colderthen the wind died down and we slept” makes their deaths seem like more of a release than a struggle. In the second stanza this is conflicted when Shatayev, “meets a NO of no degrees” the nemesis of her, “yes,” her will. This “NO” a strong rival attacking her “yes” opens the door for, “the black hole sucking the world in.” These are very powerful and violent descriptions of death. It seems that the loss of her “yes,” the embodiment of her journey and the love for her team is more damaging than the loss of her own life.
Beyond death there is a deep spirituality to this poem. In the second stanza she says, “If in
this sleep I speak it is in a voice no longer personal.” This could be interpreted many ways. It may be implying an afterlife. It seems to me that she is speaking a different type of eternity. It may be that this poem is her version of eternal life, her way of being remembered. The last diary passage where she poses the question, “what does it mean to survive'”points towards that hypothesis. She may have died on that mountain, but through this poem and because of her husband’s love and courage she will be remembered.
Her intention was to conquer the mountain. In the end the mountain was stronger than the team. The mountain took her in and made them part of it. It has, “taken the imprint of her soul” and she has, “become the white snow packed like asphalt in the wind.” The two rivals have come together. They now exist in a symbiotic relationship, giving each other strength. When she spoke of, “her frozen eyes unribboned through the storm” it creates a vision of the soul separating from the body shooting out from her fading eyes. It seems like she is fading out and feels death upon her. She is searching for any last chance to pull through. Her most desperate attempt before accepts her fate comes in the third stanza where she states, “we could have stitched the blueness together like a quilt,” noting the tiny blue patches of sky within the storm’s violent body.
This poem says a lot about the potential bond between women but more importantly the entirety of humanity. If a group of women can cast aside petty differences to become a unit what holds back the rest of society? This poem is more useful as an example for interpersonal relations than an epitaph for Elvira Shatayev. There is no reference to self when speaking of their goals or love. They are one “for better or worse.”
One of the most amazing points of this poem is Adrienne Rich’s gift for description. The words jump off the page and translate into vivid pictures. When she describes the death scene in the last stanza by writing, “A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies burning together in the snow” the reader can feel the cold snow burning their freezing bodies. The cable is not only the cable that keeps them together physically, but it is their love that will hold them together in their deaths.
The most amazing part of the piece is their undaunting will. She and her team mates are determined. When she says in the last stanza “We will not live to settle for less” she displays a chilling mix of determination and pride. That is one of the most powerful statements I have ever read. These women are willing to face death before they will concede. It was their dream, and they gave their lives for it. She resolves any doubts that she is not content as to where her life has taken her in the last line when she says, ” We will not live to settle for less We have dreamed of this all our lives.” Not only does she show that she is content with her end, she is happy with it and would have been displeased with any other choice than persisting or to die trying.