We call her Upstairs; she calls us Downstairs.
From our ground-floor apartment in Paris, my husband and I can look across the courtyard to her apartment on the top floor, with its large, curved windows.
“Downstairs,” she writes, “before drawing the curtain for the night, stepped out on the balcony, and saw your light on; which was good news.”
Each message from her is a treasure: “When next we meet, we’ll salute each other like two lamp-posts, lighting up at the same time. Have a lovely day without rain.”
She tells us often that we live in a village. She says that’s a lucky thing. She has a way of molding the mundane into harmony, of living in music.
“Look at me walk,” she says, and sets off singing to the rhythm of her walking stick. “Un, deux, trois. Un, deux, trois.”
She rhymes when she jokes, recites poems out of the blue, as if she had the lines flowing through her without cease.
One morning, when we run into her at the Saturday market, she tells us she’s been reading the phone book and that it made her cry. “All those names,” she says.
This is our neighbor, the poet Anne Atik.
Over the years, living in the same square, we’ve established a routine. She comes down; we go up. We have dinner; we listen to music. We all arrive with poems to read.
Even before we made this a ritual, Anne would share poems with us—never her own but ones she knew by heart or had copied in the more than thirty journals crammed with her reading notes.
There are poems which have become our favorites, which we read often. Roethke’s “The Waking,” Stevenson’s “Requiem.” There are lines we all wait for, and Anne waves her hand in the air and tells us, “Listen, listen, it’s coming.”
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
There are lines which make her cry each time.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Eventually, our evenings turn to stories of her husband, the painter Avigdor Arikha; of their good friend Samuel Beckett; of a life seeped in art. There is the sense, listening to Anne’s stories, that my husband and I arrived too late and missed something great.
Though we’ve never met Arikha (he died in 2010, before we moved to Paris), we’re acquainted with him through his etchings and paintings that cover every wall, his library of art, history, and ancient texts in the most surprising languages. Anne tells us that he wouldn’t say a word after waking up, to save himself for the almost sacred task of putting brush to canvas, “telling the truth as it came,” she says, “if it came.”
There is also, looming above her recollections, Arikha’s genius. Anne has always made room for it, sometimes at the expense of her own work.
“Even though I’m alone,” she says, “he’s actually here, telling me, Don’t do this, do that!”
Another story she loves to tell is of their good friend the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who reproached Anne one evening at a concert for not allowing him to photograph her. But Anne felt too dressed up. She told him, “I’m better in painting.”
Avigdor’s portraits of Anne are hard to decipher for their density of emotion. But her poems about painting, in her collection Offshore, reveal a world beyond the gaze of the artist and his model.
One more thing I mean to protest.
What the painter can’t avoid:
The left-out in what he tells.
What I was the hours I stood.
Like painting a pomegranate
And not the seeds with which it fills.
I’m reminded of Rembrandt’s painting of his longtime lover, Hendrickje Stoffels. Her expression is resigned—not naive but compassionate, as if she has seen the folly of the painter and forgiven it, as if she is saying with weary grace, It’s alright, I understand.
Anne Atik was born in Jerusalem in 1932. The sights and sounds of her hometown are always present in her writing and stories. She talks about the city’s particular smell of caper leaves, jasmine, and urine. She remembers the women at the communal ovens on Fridays, baking challah, gathering and dispersing like a ballet.
Her family left Jerusalem for New York when Anne was six years old. Unlike her brothers, who went to religious schools, she attended a secular school. Her father didn’t know what to do with her, or with her love of writing and music; she says he had never expected to be “hit over the head with such a daughter.”
The poet Horace Gregory, who was Anne’s teacher at Sarah Lawrence, submitted one of her poems for publication. One day, she found a check in the mail and a copy of the journal. When her first collection of poetry was published, her mother, who did not speak English well, kissed it.
Anne speaks of her younger self with gentle admonition, though it’s clear that she could have been no other way. One of her earliest memories is of being shown that letters came together to make up words. She knew at once that this was all she wanted to do in life.
“And look at how little I did with that,” she says, meaning her two published collections of poetry. The statement is never a complaint but reconciled melancholy. Testimony of a mother, a wife, and a support to Arikha’s consuming genius. She met Arikha in her early twenties, when she was in Paris on her way from New York to Israel, and has lived in France since. Arikha had moved to Paris some years before and wanted to stay on, to be close to Beckett, his “lighthouse.”
Anne has written of their friendship with Beckett in her memoir, How It Was, comprised in large part of the notes she took after evenings together. “After fifteen years of memorable conversations with Beckett, I realized that I could not depend on my memory. The unforgettable was becoming the irretrievable … I finally started taking notes … usually just after he’d left our house, or on returning from a restaurant.”
How It Was is one of the most loving portraits of an artist I have ever read, a record of Beckett’s kindness and extraordinary mind spilling over onto conversations and letters. There are scenes of chess with Anne’s younger daughter, Beckett’s discussions of rhyme endings in English and French, of vowels in Latin. In one conversation, he grieves the impossibility of replicating silence in fiction. Alongside this is Anne’s description of Beckett’s troubled silences.
Anne herself is inconspicuous in the memoir. Like the parenthetical line in her poem “The Model and Her Painter” (“years I eavesdropped on art history”), she listens from the margins, joins in the chanting of poems, and diligently notes Beckett’s views, rarely insisting on or sharing her own.
She writes about Beckett’s linguistic intuition, the way, when listening to translations of his work he didn’t understand, he followed the music of sentences with his tapping fingers. But absent from the book are the ways Anne herself dances with language, the lines she repeats for the pleasure of saying them, like prayers. When we were gathered around her kitchen table one evening, she asked my husband to read Anna Akhmatova’s “Muse” in Russian over and over again. Another time, we read aloud Heraclitus’s “You can’t step in the same river twice” in Greek. Just the sound of the words, Anne said, delivered the message of perpetual change— potamoisi toisin autoisi.
How It Was is as much a testimony to Anne’s gift of observation as it is to Beckett’s virtuosity. In one scene, the actress Billie Whitelaw recites Eh Joe at Anne’s home after Whitelaw and Beckett had practiced it in a café earlier that afternoon:
“We heard shingles in the sh sh sh’s, the swish of water, rocks, the pull of the tide, a rumble, Billie’s arms lifting and turning as though she were thrashing in the water, ourselves on the shore, overwhelmed.”
The memoir is set mostly in the backdrop of an orderly home. Anne’s two young daughters in the playroom, the table set, the courses waiting out—down to cheese and dessert—never getting in the way of conversation. There is little description of what they eat, night after night. Fish is mentioned because Beckett eats the bones, and a salad of purslane, when Beckett remarks that purslane is “a good English word.” The children come in and out of the room, sit down to play or converse. Arikha sketches them in frenzied concentration.
From our own dinners, I fill in Anne’s joyful outbursts and her wit (“In my next life I’ll be a comedian, and then you’ll all be sorry”); I picture the table set with the blue and white plates, the brass candlesticks. I know Anne’s way of serving dinner, without fuss, but with such hospitality that we always help ourselves to seconds and thirds. On Hanukkah, she prepared salmon with lemon and endives, cauliflower with turmeric, pureed butternut squash. Then, there was a salad with oranges and pomegranates.
“I wanted to make a feast,” she said, beaming, when we exclaimed at the sight of the table and the vibrant colors.
Another time, opening the door to a friend who’d arrived late, she said without the hint of a smile, “Good thing you came now and missed a lousy dinner!”
Offshore, her second collection of poetry, was written during the same period she recounts in How It Was. It reveals a parallel life to the one in the memoir—the poetry and mechanics of the mundane.
Vitamin pills. No lumps.
Shoes polished, in repair. Clothes back
from the sloppy cleaner’s.
A friend’s distress- some sympathy.
Mozart’s Requiem from a facing window.
Not the right moment.
No elation. No despair.
All this in order—tolerable—
Now how write a poem?
Often, Anne’s poetry is about the difficulty of writing—not just the struggle for truthful expression but simply the effort to write.
Quiet I want quiet in the house
and quiet. I am whelmed with sound.
One evening at dinner, while we sit listening to music, Anne says, “It’s so important to be silent. Because you realize you are made up of time.”
But in her poems, time is always pressing, as is the poet’s knowledge that life passes her by, brimming with poetry she will not have time to commit to paper.
I thought that it could wait till after dark.
Till after tea, till after they’d been done,
the duties I thought day
imposed on me.
… It seemed that such a sight …
would keep until I’d write it, in some peace
I could not yet afford.
Words in Hock, her first collection, is weighed with restless moments, inner storms that pass unnoticed save for the poems’ brief ruptures. They undo the world, send the mind off, then bring everything calmly back together.
no rest from the noise in my head
garrulous gravelling hours.
Trespassed the first commandment
images carved in the heart
fresh from Egypt I waken
from dream of coveted flesh.
Women dust away morning
as doves the air thicken.
One evening, Anne tells us, laughing, about the time she was sent an invitation to an opening of Arikha’s work “in the company of his widow.” She wrote back to the gallery confirming her attendance and signed it, “The Widow.”
When my husband and I first met Anne, we also knew her as the wife of Avigdor Arikha and the friend of Samuel Beckett. And, like many people who meet her, we were excited to hear her stories of those times. Gradually, we realized how fortunate we were to know her, just her, without any other reference.
Whenever we express admiration for her poems, Anne says, “I was alone when I wrote them. I had to be alone.” She tells me often that I must have a room of my own, to continue my writing. She says the only period she managed to write seriously was when she was lent a room by a friend. She tells me she should have given more thought to the passing of the days. But she never speaks of the past with resentment. It’s her pureness of fabric, unblemished by bitterness, that I most admire. And it is I, not Anne, who feels indignation that she didn’t have more space or attention for her work.
One afternoon, I write to her that I’m struggling with my work and she writes back, “I hope you succeed in your noble quest for the right words for the right meaning your soul is looking for and your fingers typing …”
Writing, for Anne, is responsibility. It is also devotion, like the full year she waited before she could write her poem “Drancy” after her visit to the camp. She fasted on the day she finally wrote it.
Between the margins of this page
the truth won’t fit.
Her poems admit the inadequacy of language in the face of suffering, with a reverence close to piety.
what sad what grey what time
what earth what heart what dark
words trampling boots bear down on the chest
eyes close like umbrellas useless in a storm
Faith looms large beneath her lines, slowly rising upwards and at times piercing the surface. Perhaps the effect is most astounding in “My Father’s Lesson,” about learning the motions to prayer.
I try to call …
for an all-proof match in a laser age
to strike me
to light me
so that I may
flicker like a candle.
to be able to ask, to sway,
at least on occasions.
Ready myself for prayer
silent as ice that readies itself
What unites all of her poems, from household rituals to prayer, is the paced music, repeating, wandering off, coming back altered.
Music stops Anne in her tracks. When she hears a melody she pauses midsentence, raises her hand in the air for us to listen. Sometimes, she phones to tell us about the rapture of musicians’ faces on television and asks whether we want to come up, just to see their expressions.
She says that Simon and Garfunkel are geniuses, just like Schubert, because you hear in their songs that they have faith. One exception, she says, is the line in “Homeward Bound,” “Where my love lies waiting silently for me.”
“Why ‘silently’?” she asks every time. “That word doesn’t fit. It’s too complacent.”
Her own poems, though quiet, are never complacent. They shine with inner light, a transformative force.
They are walking but no sundown will receive them.
Their feet are sore but fragrant need no water.
In a letter of encouragement for Anne’s work, Beckett wrote, “Poetry is there faint and clear all the way, breathing through them all. You must find a way of going on.”
When we are with Anne, we see the poetry through and through—in her mischievous smile, her small, firm hand resting on ours when she is moved, her voice choking when she recites poems. The poetry is there and is clear, not only in her work but in the cadences of her hospitality, her speech, her life recollected with beauty.
And in her poems, Anne exists as we know her. This integrity, the imperceptible threshold between her life and her art, is perhaps the truest mark of greatness—proof that she is made of music.
Aysegul Savas is a writer based in Paris. Her first novel, Walking on the Ceiling, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.