Kira Nerys learned about poetry as she learned everything else - disjointedly, haphazardly, in the snatches of peace between gunfire and sabotage missions. Formal education had been scarce and limited in the refugee camp (though she had been taught Cardassian, as they all were, by a sallow woman who seemed to consider herself to be doing them a great mercy in teaching them the language which might help them successfully navigate their new role as subordinate subjects of the Cardassian Empire), and, in any case, all chance for that had ended when she was twelve. There were no schools in the resistance.
It was Lupaza who insisted that Nerys grow up learning more than how to lie convincingly and shoot to kill. She drew her down beside the fire at night and recited the old poems for her, teaching her to repeat them back, where to place her stresses in order to emphasize the ebbing rhythms of the lines. Nerys could not tell whether she was hungrier for the sound of the words, or for the warmth of Lupaza’s approval, her open smile when Nerys recited a verse correctly. In moments of stillness, Nerys would whisper the poems to herself, savoring the knowledge that her voice shaping the syllables was an echo of that of generations of Bajorans before her, who had spoken these words at feasts, in temples, in the intimacy of their own homes. She thought: this is something they cannot take from us. The poems felt pure, untainted, like a rope holding her to the reality of freedom, the knowledge that this land once had been their own, and would be again.
And, too, she was a respectful girl, whatever anyone would tell her later about her hot head and tendency towards insubordination. She listened to her elders. When Lupaza drew her close and said, “Remember this, it matters,” Nerys heard her. And Nerys remembered. Nerys remembered everything.
When the occupation was over, and Nerys had leisure, and well-lit rooms, and Starfleet databases of several galaxies’ worth of literature at her disposal, she looked for the poems that Lupaza had once taught her. They weren’t easy to find, or identify; often the names Lupaza had told her for them were not the same as whatever some archivist had decided to file them under. Sometimes, when she did find them, they at first seemed unrecognizable, verses transposed from where she had thought them to be, half the words in a line different. For a moment, she felt tears start in her eyes - the words didn’t belong here, uniform and regular on the screen. They weren’t alive like this; they had none of the urgency and vitality of Lupaza’s voice, hoarse with smoke and shouting. It was just like the Federation, she thought with fury, this sterile summing up and filing away of every part of a culture, as if it could be checked off on a list - preserved Bajoran cultural heritage. The Federation might not destroy their temples, but they might put tags on each part of them and then take them away to an airless museum.
But then she exhaled, and rolled her shoulders, and tried to unclench her jaw. She knew this poem, even if some of the words were different, and the line breaks seemed to make it fit into a meter different from the one in which Lupaza had always recited it. As these long poems always did, it started at the outside edges of its story and spiraled in, beginning with a description of the wall which ringed the ancient city and then circling in to the tale of the man who had designed the wall, family, his upbringing, the path by which his fate had led him. His story linked into that of a guard stationed on the wall, who risked her life to defend her city. The guard’s lover was a glassblower, whose work was so artful that it came to the attention of a Vedek, who commissioned a chalice so light it would seem to be one with the water contained with it. And on and and on the story circled, until as all poems did, it ended at the center of everything, with the orb in which all these events had been foreseen, and the Prophets who had brought them into being. Nerys felt gratitude pour into her. The poem read differently, on the screen in her quiet, private quarters, but it was the same poem. Its essence had not been lost.
And she could remember it still. She could work on her recitation, figure out the shape of the meter, read what someone other than Lupaza had to say about it. And she could tell it to someone else, one day, someone who would listen as intently as with as much wonder as she once had. It was alive, and it would not be forgotten.