Anna Akhmatova (1889-1967) grew up in a small town near Saint Petersburg and, despite being firmly bourgeois, stayed in Russia her whole life, through the revolution and the many travails that followed, outliving a husband shot for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ and a son persecuted for his politics. Much of her poetry has been translated into wonderful English poems by the Cornish poet and novelist, D.M.Thomas. This is one:


There are white churches there, and the crackle of icicles,
The cornflower eyes of my son are blossoming there.
Diamond nights above the ancient town, and yellower
Than lime-blossom honey is the moon’s sickle.
From plains beyond the river dry snow-storms fly in,
And the people, like the angels in the fields, rejoice.
They have tidied th ebest room, lit in the icon case
The tiny lamps. On an oak table the Book is lying.
There stern memory, so ungiving now,
Threw open her doors to me, with a low bow;
But I did not enter, and I slammed the fearful door;
And the town rang with the news of the child that was born.

from Russian Poets, Alfred K. Knopf, transl D.M. Thomas

The Bezhetsk (a small town some 200 miles north of Moscow) of the first four lines of the poem is, in its colourful picture-book imagery, redolent of the world of childhood: white churches, blue eyes, yellow sickle moons. Yet there is a tinge of uncanniness in it, something slightly off colour  – honey after all is a brownish-yellow, and cornflowers a fading blue. This is the taint of the adult consciousness of death – this world of childhood can not be returned to. The ‘sickle’ might be significant too, not only as a cutter down of things, but as a symbol of the new order the town lives under.  In some ways Akhmatova is like Palladas, a remnant of a world that has been swept away, a relic of ‘the old dispensaton’, in this case of pre-revolutionary, bourgeois Russia.
And yet much of the poem is in the present tense, implying that this Bezhetsk in some sense still exists, that housewives still do light icons, leave Bibles on oak tables and rejoice, even in the atheist Soviet Union; perhaps it is just the poet who is excluded from that world, possibly through a choice of her own. The most oblique lines in the poem seem to be about the memory of an event in the poet’s consciousness in the past, some kind of point of no return, a rejection of faith, perhaps, or of happiness:

stern memory, so ungiving now,

Threw open her doors to me, with a low bow;

But I did not enter, and I slammed the fearful door;

Jesus figures, right at the end of the poem, as the focal point of the townsfolk’s faith and joy in the world around them. While His being born suggests Christmas as the time of year, it is curious how different seasons, or memories of different seasons, are mingled in the poem: the icicles and snow-storms of winter and the blossoms of spring. In the line ‘the cornflower eyes of my son are blossoming’ there is a touch of the Adonis figure, the youth who died so the earth could be renewed. Pre-figuring the birth of Jesus at the end. The townsfolk’s faith is also a faith in the perpetual renewal of life, but this seems to be a cycle that the poet is locked out of. In the modern world, death is final, and often in vain.

There’s more in the poem than a yearning for an idyllic past, the ‘snows of yesteryear’, so to speak. There is also yearning for a bygone Russia and, ambiguously, an homage to its Christian faith, and a there is  lament for the loss of the poet’s son – and all this tainted by the knowledge of the impossibility of return.


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