Elsa Barker


Published: The Cry For Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest, ed. by Upton Sinclair, John C. Winston Co., 1915.
Transcribed: for marxists.org in January, 2002.

(Barker was an American poet and novelist. Catherine Breshkovsky, called "Little Mother" by the Russian peasants, was sentenced to a long term of exile in Siberia when seventy-seven years of age)

HOW narrow seems the round of ladies' lives
And ladies' duties in their smiling world,
The day this Titan woman, gray with years,
Goes out across the void to prove her soul!
Brief are the pains of motherhood that end
In motherhood's long joy; but she has borne
The age-long travail of a cause that lies
Still-born at last on History's cold lap.

And yet she rests not; yet she will not drink
The cup of peace held to her parching lips
By smug Dishonor's hand. Nay, forth she fares,
Old and alone, on exile's rocky road--
That well-worn road with snows incarnadined
By blood-drops from her feet long years agone.

Mother of power, my soul goes out to you
As a strong swimmer goes to meet the sea
Upon whose vastness he is like a leaf.
What are the ends and purposes of song,
Save as a bugle at the lips of Life
To sound reveille to a drowsing world
When some great deed is rising like the sun?
Where are those others whom your deeds inspired
To deeds and words that were themselves a deed?
Those who believe in death have gone with death
To the gray crags of immortality;
Those who believed in life have gone with life
To the red halls of spiritual death.

And you? But what is death or life to you?
Only a weapon in the hand of faith
To cleave a way for beings yet unborn
To a far freedom you will never share!
Freedom of body is an empty shell
Wherein men crawl whose souls are held with gyves;
For Freedom is a spirit and she dwells
As often in a jail as on the hills.
In all the world this day there is no soul
Freer than you, Breshkovsky, as you stand
Facing the future in your narrow cell.
For you are free of self and free of fear,
Those twin-born shades that lie in wait for man
When he steps out upon the wind-blown road
That leads to human greatness and to pain.
Take in your hand once more the pilgrim's staff--
Your delicate hand misshapen from the nights
In Kara's mines; bind on your unbent back
That long has borne the burdens of the race,
The exile's bundle, and upon your feet
Strap the worn sandals of a tireless faith.

You are too great for pity. After you
We send not sobs, but songs; and all our days
We shall walk bravelier knowing where you are.