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Gilbert: Cultural Revolution

During this school year, many students will have the opportunity to shadow adults at their work for a day. When Anita Stern was in elementary school in 1963, her class took part in a job-shadowing day. Anita told her teacher that when she grew up, she wanted to be a poet. But no one knew a nearby poet she could shadow. And so, she told me, she wrote a letter to Robert Frost. Only she was a few months too late; he had died in January of that year.

Now sixty-one years old and a resident of Issaquah, Washington, she’s published two books of poetry that have received the Pablo Neruda Prize and the Backwaters Press Prize as well as other honors.

In the 1980s, she earned her Master of Fine Arts at Brown University. It was there that she met her future husband, Xiaoge Feng, who was studying engineering. They’d gotten to know each other because they both loved the music of the Balkans. Later they came to think of the Balkans as the middle ground where they met, halfway between her home in the US and his in Beijing.

Xiaoge told Anita about his life, including how, when he’d been a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, he and his classmates were sent to the Manchurian countryside to be re-educated and do hard labor. Their job, in short, was to blow up a mountain, and move it. The boys slept in a canvas tent, squeezed together for warmth; temperatures dropped to forty below zero. Many of them died: some were killed, some died of disease, some took their own lives, some simply gave up.

On a tent pole someone had stuck a piece of paper with just four lines of poetry. Xiaoge heard in a confidential whisper that they were written by some American poet. It was dangerous to possess such literature – contraband, counterrevolutionary writing. But, he said, those four lines gave him the hope and the will to hold on, to survive. Those four lines had literally kept him alive.

Xiaoge wondered if Anita knew who wrote the lines; she was, after all, studying poetry. He told her that they mentioned two roads and the fact that the poet had taken the one that was less traveled, and that had made all the difference to him.

That, Anita told me, was when they fell in love.

The poem was Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

I asked Anita Feng if I might write her story down and share it with others, including some of Frost’s descendants whom I know. Of course, she said, “because it doesn’t belong to me. It belonged originally to Robert Frost.” Then she added that sharing the story with Frost’s family would, in a way, take her back to that childish letter she’d written to Frost fifty-one years ago; it would be an opportunity, in effect, for her to write again, and this time, to have the message received.