As an English speaker attempting to reflect the fullness and timbre of a mighty Russian woman writing poetry, I am regrettably
lacking for the task. To properly read Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, the best groundwork might be doctoral-level awareness of the events and atmosphere of her times.
Absent that, I am left with a cup of hot tea, some bright light through the sun porch window, Cheryl Crow’s
Globe Sessions, and the hope of illumination. How can a contemporary reader, one who enjoys poetry and wants to explore a selection of luxurious verse from a grand poet, possibly attempt an understanding of that work as it relates to Akhmatova‘s world? The answer is to simply fall in, allowing the words to swirl and fashion images that will have unmistakable power, if not complete resonance.
Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems, translated by D.M. Thomas, suggests some marvels of the artist’s path without presenting the full poet or her abundance of language. At 160 pages, Selected Poems are only a fragment of Akhmatova’s creation. The reality of translation weakens the force of the Russian as it is changed into practicable English. Any English reader of a Russian writer is at a slight disadvantage from the start in this respect, as the two languages are largely incongruous. Knowing this, and appreciating nonetheless the effort of D.M. Thomas’ translation, the reader of Selected Poems may glimpse the essence of Akhmatova’s style. And that is a wonderful thing. As Anna Akhmatova’s life saw the transition of the lush St. Petersburg into cold, utilitarian Leningrad, so the poetry of the Russian Grande dame transforms from the dynamic imagery of her early form into tighter, more rhythmic verse in her maturity.
Akhmatova’s early poems are markedly sensuous, bringing the opulence of emotion to the page without extraneous sentiment. From 1911, while she was married to her first husband, Nikolai Gumilev, but abandoned by him:
Gumilev and Akhmatova were among a small group of poets who coined the term
acmeism to refer to their efforts to reject the flowery symbolism that characterized much of 19th-century poetry. The acmeist movement began in 1910, about the time Akhmatova’s first volume, Evening, was published, and the year she married Gumilev. The acmeists were among the first modern Russian poets, using the language to paint vivid, crisp word portraits rather than relying upon highly symbolic reference to lead the enlightened reader toward understanding. Akhmatova’s poems speak to everyone. She blazes into the early twentieth century writing modern emotive poetry. Many of the early selections touch on questions that are always near any romantic relationship. Her images of longing and intimacy in her early pieces are clear and close without veering into explicitness.
This, from 1913:
I haven’t locked the door,
Nor lit the candles,
You don’t know, don’t care,
That tired I haven’t the strength
To decide to go to bed.
Seeing the fields fade in
The sunset murk of pine-needles,
And to know all is lost,
That life is a cursed hell:
I’ve got drunk
On your voice in the doorway.
I was sure you’d come back.
Acmeism indeed! One highlight of the second section, from Rosary (1914), is "By the Seashore," the demonstration of a young woman longing for her lover to return from sea:
My feather was brushing the top of the carriage
And I was looking into his eyes.
There was a pining in my heart
I could not recognize.
The evening was windless, chained
Solidly under a cloudbank,
As if someone had drawn the Bois de Boulogne
In an old album in black indian ink.
A mingled smell of lilac and benzine,
A peaceful watchfulness.
His hand touched my knees
A second time almost without trembling.
Autumn changed to rainy winter,
"By the Seashore" is resplendent with emotion, though never on the cheap. Akhmatova writes as one who has waited and waited, which she did for almost twenty years, later in the century, as her son was caught up in the Stalinist Terror.
Wind blew into the white room
Through open windows. Ivy on the garden
Wall. Strange dogs came to the yard
And howled under my window all night.
It was a bad time for the heart.
The final section includes two of Akhmatova’s masterpieces, "Requiem" and "Poem Without a Hero." "Requiem" was composed during the years of her son’s imprisonment by Stalin. It takes the form of several laments…
…interspersed with bits of darkly ironic Christian symbolism:
Someone should have shown you---little jester,
Little teaser, blue-veined charm-
Er, laughing-eyed, lionized, sylvan-princessly
Sinner---to what point you would come:
How, the three hundredth in a queue,
You’d stand at the prison gate
And with your hot tears
Burn through the New-Year ice.
How many lives are ending there! Yet it’s
Mute, even the prison-poplar’s
Tongue’s in its cheek as it’s swaying.
Revered and loved by men, adored by other women, and feared by the Stalinist regime, Akhmatova endures upon Russian and Western literature. The flaw of Selected Poems is only that it is such an incomplete portrait of a woman who was fascinated by life and fascinating in turn. Akhmatova was a loyal friend and mother, and she created verse that sparklingly tells of her life, its trials and joys, and hints at her complexities without spilling them all over the page. Any poet can begin to learn cohesive style and pure, flawless expression from reading and studying the Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova.
Magdalina beat her breast and wept, while
The loved disciple seemed hammered out of stone.
But, for the Mother, where she stood in silence,---
No one as much as dared to look that way.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Beth Thomas, 2007