By Caitlin E. Krause
See her work in WTP Vol. IV #10
The entire volume of Anna Akhmatova’s work — translations, pictures, personal letters, poems, notes — is staggering. There’s so much to touch upon, and react to, in her life and writing. Reading her is an exercise in mindfulness, what in my view, involves an empathy that art, poetry, and literature can facilitate. When searching for messages of endurance and hope, I look to Akhmatova’s history, experiences, and poetry as life lessons in courage.
Translator Judith Hemschemeyer was so captivated by Akhmatova’s poetry translations that she felt compelled to study and master Russian, so that she could read the original versions with the native cadence and sounds that Akhmatova intended. I, too, now feel this draw — to (again) learn Russian, to be able to read Akhmatova’s words on an intimate, direct level.
While I’m miles away from Russian fluency, Hemschemeyer’s expanded translation allows us to experience the beauty and wisdom of Akhmatova’s craft. The focus on just a few selected poems and recognizing the real-life events that shaped their development makes clear that Akhmatova persevered and wrote from her heart during many periods of great political challenge and personal loss.
Akhmatova survived a combination of turmoil and constant change. Her parents separated when she was a young girl, soon after which World War I and the Russian Revolution began. She had already witnessed and enjoyed freedom in her youth, and then she saw the Communist regime take power and torture, starve, and punish her people, all before she reached the age of thirty. She never fled her homeland, but stayed to bear witness and speak the truth in her writing.
Her friends and family were jailed, and she experienced political and personal hardships that would fuel her poetry for her entire writing career. Akhmatova’s work, often banned and censored, inspired many Russians to persevere in cruel conditions, and she served as a strong voice for those who would otherwise be weakened by the government.
Her poetry transcends a political agenda, and even oppression itself. The poems she writes focus on love, betrayal, loss, remorse, rejection, identity, and nature. She uses many themes to convey her innermost thoughts, and she never censors her creativity, which is remarkable given her oppressive situation. By refusing to bow down to intimidation, she is her own authority, both in her writing and her life.
There are many poems that demonstrate Akhmatova’s uncompromising and inquisitive nature, as well as her intense passion about her relationships (with her lovers, poetry, muse, etc.). She never shields herself from expressing her exquisite emotions for readers to see, feel, and empathize with on the page.
Many of Akhmatova’s poems published when she was in her early twenties are in first person, addressing the “you” of a lover. They convey a purity of detail and feeling, without any self-consciousness. One, written in Kyiv a year after her marriage to Nikolay Gumilyov, is especially striking:
The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
The grass is yellower.
A few early snowflakes blow in the wind,
The narrow canals have stopped flowing —
The water is chilling.
Nothing will ever happen here —
The willow spreads its transparent fan
Against the empty sky.
Perhaps I should not have become
The heart’s memory of the sun grows faint.
What’s this? Darkness?
It could be!… One night brings winter’s first
In the poem, the speaker seems desperate to escape her situation, yet she is also quite aware of its grim actuality — she does not delude herself into believing reality is otherwise, and she doesn’t rely on dreams. She is observing natural details around her, painting a picture of a world drained of color and light. Through repetition, as well as the juxtaposition of longer lines with shorter ones, Akhmatova emphasizes the speaker’s confusion and sense of doom, and underscores the sadness of entrapment in a failed relationship.
After having a son in 1912, Akhmatova and Gumilyov separated in 1917, the same year that Lenin seized power. In 1919, the civil war began, and individuals who opposed the new Soviet regime were punished as part of the Red Terror. In August of 1921, two tragic events deeply affected Akhmatova: the Symbolist poet Alexander Blok died, and Gumilyov was executed for allegedly conspiring against the Soviets in power. Her fourth book of poems, Plantain, was published in the same year, and contains many pieces written in the days after suffering such personal losses.
On August 27, two days after Gumilyov’s death, Akhmatova wrote the following lines:
Terror, fingering things in the dark,
Leads the moonbeam to an ax.
Behind the wall there’s an ominous knock —
What’s there, a ghost, a thief, rats?
In the sweltering kitchen, water drips,
Counting the rickety floorboards.
Someone with a glossy black beard
Flashes by the attic window —
And becomes still. How cunning he is and evil,
He hid the matches and blew out the candle.
How much better would be the gleam of the barrels
Of rifles leveled at my breast.
Better, in the grassy square,
To be flattened on the raw wood scaffold
And, amid cries of joy and moans,
Pour out my life’s blood there.
I press the smooth cross to my heart:
God, restore peace to my soul.
The odor of decay, sickeningly sweet,
rises from the clammy sheets.
There is no playful cadence, and no artful device to conceal the shock of death. The speaker clearly wishes to switch places with the departed, not to be left behind with the decaying remains. She is angry at the regime and its abuse of power, which she describes as evil and cunning, exacting punishment and taking pleasure in the pain of others. She seeks solace in religion, asking God to deliver peace to her soul. The language is clear and direct, while it maintains a focus on objects to set a scene and avoid sentimentality.
The poem is more concrete than abstract — yet the images and symbols are powerful enough to contain the raw emotion. The ax, candle, rifles, scaffold, and cross, among others, each bear a weight that resonates far beyond the poem’s simple language, allowing the reader to do the work of feeling emotion in reflection and response.
Other poems written in August of 1921 convey feelings of great grief and anger. Reacting to the deaths of those close to her, Akhmatova writes: “Oh, life without tomorrow’s day!/ I detect treason in every word,/ And the star of waning love/ Rises for me.// To vanish like that, imperceptibly,/ Almost aware of this encounter./ But again it’s night. And once more,/ To kiss those shoulders in moist languor.” Her phrasing is natural, and demonstrates that she has internalized these deaths, asking herself why she deserves to live while others perish. In addition, this excerpt clearly shows that she abhors betrayal above all else, for it’s a form of lying and deceit, which challenges her belief in the sovereignty of truth above all else.
In a 1928 poem “To the Artist,” published as part of a collection in Reed, Akhmatova seems to be looking back on the loss of many friends, trying to reach the “you” in the poem across a span of many years spent in persecution. The artist she addresses could be herself, or her own muse, which is under constant threat (now under Stalin’s strict rule, which restricted her work from publication until the ban was lifted in 1940). She refers to her own drive to write in the first stanza, and the poem progresses in a dream state of timeless, torturous searching for fulfillment.
Your work keeps haunting me,
Your God-given task:
The gold of forever autumnal lindens
And the blue of water created today.
Imagine, a delicate drowsiness
Is leading me into your gardens,
Where, startled at each turn of the path,
I search feverishly for traces of you.
To cool my accursed heat
Shall I walk beneath that vault transformed,
Transfigured by your hand into sky?..
There I’ll be blissful forever,
And, closing my burning eyes,
There I’ll recover the gift of tears.
While the “dream state” might imply a peaceful quality, the poem is anything but serene. Here, the speaker is living a hell on earth, because she cannot find the “you” she desires. She is burning in her quest, unable to pause to mourn and cry. This longing and state of intense searching is palpably painful, especially since the images of purgatory are contrasted against visions of natural paradise — the water, trees, garden and sky forming some alternate Eden. The “transfigured” could refer to the power of art to transcend the pain of reality, or death as a gateway between the ephemeral physical state and the universal of the more all-encompassing.
While her poems often reflect her own sadness and sense of loss, Akhmatova recognized and represented the beauty in life. Hemschemeyer writes that Akhmatova “began writing and publishing poems based on the conviction that life on earth is a gift.” She felt an intense duty to convey truth in all she wrote, essential to which was the optimism that rested in her core — the conviction that life is beautiful, love is vital, and hope is necessary to sustain life in the harshest conditions. This is why, by addressing and acknowledging the darkness and oppression present in her life, she is a model of literary mindfulness, and a courageous model of endurance.
Originally published on www.mindwise.pro
That’s a great piece, well developed. I’m going to start making an effort to read more poetry and this sort of insight really helps.
Thank you, Rupert. It’s sustaining.
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