REMEMBERING ANNA AKHMATOVA



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REMEMBERING ANNA AKHMATOVA 

Volkov. It is a rather fragile thing-the human memory. You talk with people and you see how events of the relatively recent past dissolve, their outlines becoming more and more fluid. I would like in this conversation with you to attempt to rescue certain details connected with Anna Akhmatova from oblivion.
Brodsky. With pleasure, if they haven't drowned in it irretrievably. I just know that I am incapable of answering all the questions. Everything that has to do with Akhmatova is a part of my life, and talking about life is like a cat trying to catch its own tail. It's unbearably difficult. I'll say one thing: every meeting with Akhmatova was an exceptional experience for me. When you physically sense that you are dealing with someone better than you. Much better. With someone who by her intonation alone transforms you. And Akhmatova transformed you into Homo sapiens with just the tone of her voice or the turn of her head. Nothing like it ever happened to me before or, I think, after. Perhaps because I was young then. Stages of development do not repeat themselves. In conversation with her, or simply drinking tea or vodka with her, you became a Christian, a human being in the Christian sense of that word, faster than by reading the appropriate texts or attending church. The poet's role in society largely comes down to just this.
Volkov. We started out speaking about memory. Looking back, do you divide your life into periods?
Brodsky. I don't think so.
Volkov. Haven't you ever said to yourself: that happens to me once every three or maybe five years, or such and such a season is propitious for me?
Brodsky. You know, I don't remember that ever happening to me. I've lost track. I can't say precisely whether something happened, say, in 1979 or in 1969. All that is so long ago, right? Life changes into a kind of Nevsky Prospect. Everything recedes so quickly in its perspective and is lost-forever.
Volkov. My point is that in her lifetime, Akhmatova lent tremendous significance to cyclicity, to the recurrence of specific dates. In particular, I remember, she considered August a sinister month.
Brodsky. Akhmatova was in much better shape than I when it came to memory. The quality of her memory was stunning. No matter what you asked her about, she could always cite the year, month, and date without any special effort. She remembered who had died or been born when, and indeed, specific dates were very important to her. Personally, I've never lent any particular significance to such matters. I remember a few times substantial troubles began for me in late January, but that was pure coincidence. The difference in this attitude toward details and dates evidently comes down to one's education-or self-education. As far as I remember myself, I was always trying to shake off a given reality as quickly as possible rather than trying to hold onto anything. As a result, this tendency became an instinct, whose victim are the circumstances not only of your own life but also of others'--even a life dear to you. Naturally, this was dictated by my instinct for self-preservation, but everything has its price, self- preservation included. I never did learn to remember from Akhmatova- if indeed you can learn that.
Volkov. When and under what circumstances did you meet Akhmatova?
Brodsky. If I'm not mistaken, it was in 1961. That is, I had turned twenty- one. Yevgeny Rein took me to see her at her dacha. What is most interesting is that I don't remember those first few meetings very clearly. Somehow, I just didn't realize whom I was dealing with, especially since Akhmatova had praised a few of my poems, and praise did not interest me particularly. So, I had been at her dacha three or four times with Rein and Nayman, and then one fine day, coming back from Akhmatova's in a jam-packed commuter train, I suddenly realized-you know, suddenly, it's like a curtain falling- whom, or rather what, I was dealing with. I remembered a phrase of hers, or a turn of her head, and suddenly all the pieces fell into place. After that it wasn't so much that I went to see Akhmatova often but that we saw each other fairly regularly. I even rented a dacha in Komarovo one winter. Then she and I saw each other literally every day. It was scarcely a matter of literature but of a purely human and-I dare say-mutual attachment.
By the way, there was once this remarkable scene. We were sitting on her verandah, where all our conversations took place, as well as breakfast, supper, and everything else, just as it should, and suddenly Akhmatova said, "Really, Joseph, I don't understand what's going on. You couldn't possibly like my poems." Naturally, I rose up and began protesting vociferously to the contrary, but to a certain extent, as I look back on it, she was right. That is, those first few times I went to see her, I really wasn't very interested in her poetry. I hadn't even read much of it. In the final analysis, I was an ordinary young Soviet man. "The Gray-Eyed King" was definitely not my cup of tea, like the "glove off her left hand." None of those things seemed like such great poetic achievements to me. That's what I thought until I came across her other, later poems.
Volkov. Which Russian poets did you revere at the time?
Brodsky. Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam.
Volkov. You say that you were an "ordinary young Soviet man" at that time, but Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam were anything but the standard fare during those years. When did you read Mandelsram for the first time?
Brodsky. In 1960 or 1961, one of the happiest periods of my life. I was knocking around without work, after a season in the field on a geological expedition. They'd given me a job in the Crystallography Department at Leningrad University. The Institute of the Earth's Crust. Actually, I did fairly decent work there building vacuum chambers for them and other things, all just like I was supposed to. With my own hands. It was interesting work. Overall, though, it bore a somewhat comic nature. The working day at the university began at nine. I would arrive by ten, because the library opened at ten. I registered at the library the day after I started the job, and since I was registered as staff and not a student, I had more privileged access to books. I checked out tons of them. In particular, I took out Mandelstarn's “Stone” (because I'd heard a rumor about a book by that title) and Tristia. Well, naturally, this just knocked me out. "The Lutheran" and "Petersburg Stanzas" made an especially strong impression on me at that time, and several poems lodged firmly in my mind.
There is something absolutely stunning about your first reading of a great poet. You find not only simply interesting content but above all linguistic inevitability, which is probably what it means to be a great poet. After that, you're speaking a different language. After “Stone” and Tristia, nothing of Mandelstam's came into my hands for two or three years. Even after meeting Akhmatova. The KGB bosses suspected her of corrupting youth, giving them poems by forbidden classics, but there was absolutely nothing like that going on. It never even occurred to me, for example, to ask her for Mandelstam's poetry. When I subsequently read poems by Mandelstam that were new to me, that happened via circuitous routes. Shady figures, total strangers-young women or ladies as a rule-would suddenly pull out of their purses God knows what. it was pleasant and interesting to give these poems to someone else to read if I knew he was unfamiliar with them. I would retype the poems, duplicating them.
Volkov. Shouldn't all those "young women and ladies" have been admirers of Akhmatova principally?
Brodsky. It's entirely possible that they were, but they evidently assumed that I was already well acquainted with Akhmatova's works, which absolutely wasn't the case, because I knew only a rather narrow selection of her poems-twenty, or about that many.
Volkov. I'm interested in talking a little about the Leningrad subculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Did you get together and read poems-
Mandelstam's-to each other?
Brodsky. No, there was absolutely none of that. I remember, we used to ask each other, "Have you read this? And this?" From time to time we would get together at sorneone's place, but then we only read our own poems. That began when I was twenty-two or twenty-three.
Volkov. Whose place did you gather at?
Brodsky. All kinds of people's. At first we didn't even really gather. You would simply show your poems to someone whose opinion you respected or else whose support or approval you cared about. Then a rather harsh discussion would begin. Not that he would start taking your poems apart.
Not at all. He would simply set your poem aside and make a face, and if you had it in you, you would ask him what was wrong. Then he would say, "Well now look, this really won't do." My main teacher was Rein, a man whose opinion I value to this day. To my mind, he possesses absolute pitch.
There were four of us: Rein, Nayman, Bobyshev, and me. Akhmatova used to call us the "magic choir."
Volkov. "Magic choir." Is that an allusion to something?
Brodsky. No, I think it's of her own devising. You see, Akhmatova felt
that Russian poetry was undergoing a renaissance. Actually, she was not far from the truth. I may be overreaching myself, but I think that it was we, this "magic choir," who gave the impetus for what is happening in Russian poetry today.
When you read new poems regularly, as I do, you see to a significant extent (I don't know, perhaps I'm overreaching again) this imitation ofour group. It's not that I've harbored any patriotic or nostalgic ideas about our group, but these devices, this diction, first appeared among us, in our circle. Akhmatova believed that a kind of second Silver Age was under way. I always regarded this pronouncement of hers with a certain suspicion, but you know, it may well be that I was wrong, and for one simple reason:
Akhmatova dealt with a much broader circle of poets, or people, with an interest in poetry. We weren't the only ones visiting her in Leningrad. And young people brought her their poems in Moscow as well as Leningrad. This was an extremely diverse (not to say ill-assorted) public.
Volkov. Now, looking back, could you say that the four of you formed a certain literary group, a school? Brodsky. Looking back, certainly. That's what occurred to me not long ago after reading Lev Loseff' s poetry. Indeed, at one time in Leningrad a group arose that in many respects was similar to Pushkin's Pleiad. That is, there were approximately the same number of figures: an acknowledged
leader, an acknowledged idler, and an acknowledged wit. Each of us re peated a certain role. Rein was Pushkin. Delvig, I think, that was probably Bobyshev. Nayman, with his caustic wit, was Vyazemsky. I, with my melancholy, evidently took the part of Baratynsky. Like any parallel, this one shouldn't be made too much of, though.
Volkov. Indeed, here we do have a curious similarity of temperaments.
With the exception of Rein, perhaps. We don't have to talk about comparing their talents, but even simply the stamp of character and temperament.
Brodsky. Nonsense. You just don't know Rein!
Volkov. I'm not talking about Rein's poetry, of course, but take his articles and reportages.
Brodsky. The man is making a living! I can imagine what Pushkin would have done under Soviet power! It's dreadful even to contemplate!
Volkov. One thing I can say for certain: they wouldn't have let him into the archives so he couldn't have written his History of the Pugachev Rebellion or History of Peter the Great.
Brodsky. Something odd is going on with Petersburg in general. It's not pure mysticism but it's getting very dose. In the early part of the century the situation was similar; a kind of group arose. Of course, it was somewhat more spread out over time, but still: Blok, Mandelstam ... Really, you don't know which of them has more rights to the Pushkin role. Mandelstarn was not really a leader. That role belonged more to Gumilyov, with his Poets' Guild. They actually used to call themselves the Poets' Guild! To our credit, we did not rise to such heights.

Volkov. What did Akhmatova tell you about the first Silver Age?
Brodsky. You know, as someone with a deficient education and upbringing, I wasn't very interested in all that, all those authors and circumstances. With the exception of Mandelstam and subsequently Akhmatova. Blok, for example, I don't like, now passively, but before, actively.
Volkov. Why?
Brodsky. For his bad taste. In my opinion, this is an extremely banal man and poet in many of his manifestations. A man capable of writing: "Under the embankment, in a ravine filled with grass/She lies and watches, so life like/A colored scarf thrown. over her braids! Beautiful and young." Well, really! "Beautiful and young!"
Volkov. Behind this stands Nekrasov and an entire stratum of Russian poetic culture. Then, too, there was the cinema, which Blok loved.
Brodsky. Well, yes, Nekrasov, the cinema. Still, the twentieth century had already begun, and to say that a woman, especially a dead woman, was "beautiful and young" ... I understand that this is an era, that this is a poetic device, nonetheless, it makes me flinch every time. After all, Pushkin doesn't say "beautiful and young." Mandelstam doesn't have anything like it either. Take note, by the way, that the "Baratynsky" current runs strong in Mandelstam. Like Baratynsky, he's an extremely functional poet. Pushkin had his own Pushkinian clichés. For example, "on the wild shore." You know where the "wild shore" came from? This, by the way, is Akhmatova’s observation, and a very interesting one. The "wild shore" came from French poetry: this is rivage and sauvage, a standard rhyme. Or say, Pushkin's passing rhyme, radost'(joy) and mladost'(youth). You find it in Baratynsky, too, but in Baratynsky, when he's talking about joy, then it's a very concrete emotional experience. For him, youth is a very specific age, whereas in Pushkin this rhyme simply plays the same part as a stroke in a painting. Baratynsky is the more economical poet. He wrote less, too, and because he wrote less, he paid more attention to what he put down on paper. Like Mandelstam.
Volkov. Baratynsky wasn't a professional man of letters in Pushkin's understanding of the term. He could afford to live on his estate and not publish for years at a stretch.
Brodsky. Well, had circumstances been different…. But the larger reading public, which, in those days, wasn't all that large…
Volkov. That's how it seems to us now. Proportionately, the public was fairly large. In 1823, fifteen hundred people bought the literary miscellany Pole Star in the space of three weeks, and it cost twelve rubles a copy, a huge sum in those days.
Brodsky. The poet's audience is always at best one percent of the entire population. No more than that.
Volkov. The early Baratynsky was just as popular with the contemporary Russian reader as the most famous names in our day.
Brodsky. Not for long. I would like to quote a remarkable letter from Baratynsky to Pushkin: "1 think that here in Russia a poet can hope for great success only with his first immature attempts. All the young people are on his side, finding in him nearly their own feelings, nearly their own thoughts, cloaked in brilliant colors. The poet goes on to write with greater circumspection and more profound thought, and then he bores the officers, and the brigadiers can't reconcile themselves to him because, after all, his poems aren't prose."
Volkov. Baratynsky was disenchanted and wounded by his loss of popularity. His Twilight is a very bitter, bilious book.
Brodsky. That's not bile and bitterness. It's sobriety.
Volkov. Sobriety, which came after bitter disappointment.
Brodsky. Oh well, for a poet, disappointment is a pretty valuable thing. If disappointment doesn't kill him, it makes him a truly outstanding poet. In fact, the fewer illusions you have, the more seriously you treat words.
Volkov. To my taste, Bararynsky's Twilight is the finest book in Russian poetry. I especially love "Autumn."
Brodsky. "The Goblet" is really much better in Twilight. And if we're talking about Baratynsky now, 1 would say that the best poem in Russian poetry is "Desolation." Everything about "Desolation" is brilliant: the poetics, the syntax, the perception of the world. The diction is utterly incredible. In the end, where Baratynsky says about his father: "Long ago the rumor of him fell still around me, / His distant grave received his ashes./My memory has not preserved his face ... " It's all so precise, isn't it? "But here yet lives." And suddenly this stunning adjective: "his accessible spirit." And Baratynsky goes on: "Here, friend of dreaming and of nature, I will sense him full well." This is Baratynsky about his father. "He roils inside me with inspiration, He commands me praise the forests, valleys, waters." And you listen further, such stunning diction: "He firmly prophesies the country/ Where 1 shall inherit a spring without end,! Where there's no decay/Where in the sweet shadow of unfading oaks, Among creeks running ever full." What stunning sobriety about the other world! "1 meet a shade most dear to me." In my opinion, this is a great line. Better than Pushkin. This is my old idea. That world, the meeting with one's father-well, who has ever spoken of this like that? The religious consciousness doesn't allow for a meeting with your papa.
Volkov. What about Hamlet?
Brodsky. Okay, Shakespeare. Okay, the Greek classics. Okay, Virgil. But not the Russian tradition. For the Russian tradition this way of thinking is utterly unique, as Pushkin noted about Bararynsky, remember? "He among us is unique, for he thinks. He would be unique anywhere, for he thinks in his own way, correctly and independently, all the while feeling strongly and deeply."
Volkov. Did Akhmatova ever discuss Baratynsky?
Brodsky. No, we never got around to him. And the blame for this falls not so much on Akhmatova as on everyone around her, because during the Soviet period literary life passed to a great degree under the banner of Pushkin studies. Pushkin studies were the only flourishing branch of literary scholarship. True, this situation is gradually starting to change now.
Volkov. The absence in Akhmatova's conversations of another poet-Tyutchev-also seems odd to me.
 Brodsky. I recall a conversation about Tyutchev in connection with the publication of a small volume of his poems with a foreword by Berkovsky. Oh well, for all my positive feelings toward him, Tyutchev is not all that remarkable a poet. You and I have touched on this topic already, I think. We keep saying, Tyutchev, Tyutchev, but in fact you can only come up with ten or twelve really good poems by him (which is, of course, a lot). For the rest, no sovereign ever had a more loyal author. I've already spoken about this. Remember, Vyazemsky talked about the "overcoat poets"? Tyutchev was very much an "overcoat."
Volkov. What did Akhmatova have to say about the acmeists and symbolism?
Brodsky. Akhmatova liked to repeat, "No matter what you say, symbolism was the last great movement in Russian literature." And not only Russian, I think. This was truly the case. It had a certain integrity and scale, a certain breadth to its contribution to culture. In my opinion, it was truly a movement.
Volkov. Didn't Akhmatova distinguish acmeism as a special trend in Russian poetry? In their day the acrneists set themselves in quite distinct contrast to symbolism.
Brodsky. Quite true. But you know, by the 1960s, none of that was left. Not in conversations or behavior, to say nothing of stances. By then it was impossible to resurrect the pathos of that contrast, that polemic. All that had already ceased to exist long before. In addition, Akhmatova was fairly reserved and modest.
Volkov. Why did Akhmatova speak about Mikhail Kuzmin as a bad person? What about him was so distasteful to her?
Brodsky. Nothing of the kind! That's a lie, a myth. She looked favorably on Kuzmin and his poetry. I know this because I was of a much worse opinion of Kuzmin's poetry than Akhmatova was-because I didn't know him very well-and I spoke out in that spirit. Of course, Kuzmin has poetic dregs aplenty. Akhmatova greeted these attacks of mine quite coldly. If Akhmatova did have any problems with Kuzmin's poetry, they had to do with her Poem Without a Hero, a work she greatly treasured. Naturally, there were those who pointed out the similarity between Akhmatova's rhythm in Poem Without a Hero and the rhythm that Kuzmin used for the first time in his little book The Trout Breaks the Ice, and those people said that Kuzrnin's rhythm was much more avant-garde.
Volkov. But didn't the Akhmatova rhythm in fact take its origins from Kuzrnin's Trout?
Brodsky. You know, it's hard to say that with complete certainty. In any case, the music of the Akhmatova rhythm is absolutely independent. It possesses a unique centrifugal energy. That music is utterly enchanting, whereas Kuzmin's rhythm in Trout is pretty well rationalized.
Volkov. Memoirs that began to come in from the Russian emigres-by Georgy Ivanov and Sergei Makovsky-could have affected Akhmatova's attitude toward Kuzmin. They inflated Kuzrnin's role as Akhmatova's teacher, which annoyed her tremendously.
Brodsky. Georgy Ivanov's memoirs absolutely enraged her because so very much of it was fabricated. That really infuriated Akhmatova.
Volkov. I also remember her indignation at Makovsky's Parnassus of the Silver Age. She said approximately the following: Makovsky was a rich gentleman who wouldn't let Mandelstam and Gumilyov across his threshold, as they say. He considered them callow youths, tramps, and himself a great poet and connoisseur.
Brodsky. Right, a patron. That I remember.
Volkov. Akhmatova used to say that they attempted to depict her as a lady dilettante whom Kuzmin and Gumilyov, through their joint efforts, made over into a poet.
Brodsky. That, of course, is stark raving mad. What Akhmatova could not stand was this attempt to lock her up in the 1910s and 1920s. All those conversations about how she had stopped writing, how in the 1930s Akhmatova was silent-all that enraged her no end. It's understandable. I, for example, when I later read and reread Akhmatova, I was much more interested in those later poems of hers. In my opinion, they are more important than her early lyrics.
Volkov. Did Akhmatova ever discuss Kuzrnin's homosexuality?
Brodsky. Not specifically. In Russia even the intellectual milieu was still quite puritanical. I don't remember any conversations with her on the level of gossip.
Volkov. It seems to me that at times Akhmatova was far from averse to gossip. She indulged in it with great relish.
Brodsky. Of course, of course. You know, this is the fault of my memory. I remember that in conversations with Akhmatova-no matter whom they were about-there was always a large measure of irony present. An earned irony on her part, a snobbish irony on ours.
Volkov. Wasn't there some irony in Akhmatova's attitude toward Pasternak?
Brodsky. There was, yes. Irony and, in many instances, moral condemnation, if you like. Akhmatova greatly disapproved of Pasternak's ambitions.
She disapproved of his desire, his thirst for the Nobel. Akhmatova condemned Pasternak rather harshly. As a poet of that scale deserves, actually.
Volkov. Akhmatova loved reading her own poems out loud-not from the stage but to the people close to her. Did she ever ask you your impression?
Brodsky. Yes, she did read them, and she did show me what she had written. And she was always extremely interested in our opinion. We would sit there and suggest corrections: Nayman, Rein, Bobyshev, and me. We would say what specifically, in our opinion, didn't work. Not often, but it did happen.
Volkov. Would Akhmatova agree?
Brodsky. Certainly. She was quite attentive to our ideas.
Volkov. Could you point out some concrete instance?
Brodsky. I remember a correction Rein made in Akhmatova's "Ode to Tsarskoye Selo," where she had a line about drinking "tsarist vodka" [aqua regia]. Rein told her: ''Anna Andreyevna, you're wrong. Tsarist vodka is an oxide." I don't remember anymore of what. Basically it's a chemical formula, and for Rein, who was an engineer by education, this was perfectly obvious. Akhmatova had something else in mind with her tsarist vodka, so she corrected it to say, "drinking vodka 'til late in the night." And I remember even more important corrections.
Volkov. Poem Without a Hero - she must have read that to you as well.
Brodsky. Yes, numerous times. Especially new bits. She was always asking whether something fit or not. She was constantly writing and rewriting it. I remember reading Poem Without a Hero in its initial version and being powerfully impressed. Subsequently, when it grew so much larger, it began to seem unwieldy to me.
Volkov. I got the impression that Akhmatova worried a great deal about Poem Without a Hero, about how others would see this work.
Brodsky. Perhaps, but in fact you write primarily and specifically for yourself. Akhmatova was interested in how people would react to it, how well they would understand it, but this whole process of writing and rewriting had more to do with her than with outside reactions. First of all, in this instance Akhmatova was in the thrall of the rhythm itself I remember her teaching me. She would say, "Joseph, if you want to write a long poem, first of all you have to come up with your rhythm. That's how the English do it." The English really do this up in grand style. Almost every poet invents his own rhythm. Byron, Spenser, and so on.
Akhmatova used to say, "What killed Blok in his Retribution? The long poem itself may well be marvelous, but the rhythm isn't his, and this borrowed rhythm engenders an echo that shouldn't be there. It overshadows everything." This principle makes extremely good sense. On the other hand, of course, Akhmatova ended up in the thrall of her own invention. The fact is that a poet doesn't write poetry every day, and when he can't write poetry, living, as Akhmatova herself said, becomes "extremely uncomfortable." It's perfectly natural that Akhmatova kept going back to her own rhythm. Or rather, that this rhythm kept coming back to her. Like a dream-s-or like breathing. And then all this adding and inserting and so on began.
Secondly, correcting, constructing, and compiling can gradually turn into a goal in itself. It's an occupation that can bewitch you. Gradually a situation arose in which we-the closest of the Poem's readers-and Akhmatova herself ended up more or less on a par. That is, we were no longer in any position to judge whether some new bit was in its right place in Poem or not. You find yourself so dependent on this music that you lose track of the proportion of the whole. You forfeit your ability to relate to the whole critically. Were Akhmatova alive today, I think she would still be writing Poem Without a Hero.
Volkov. Don't you think that something paradoxical happened with Poem Without a Hero? Might it not actually have been intended for herself?
To the outside reader, her theme and allusions are fairly enigmatic.

Brodsky. Well, it's all easily enough deciphered!
Volkov. Still, Poem requires a certain preparation for the reader, more so than any other Russian verse epic.
Brodsky. There is a tendency in Russian poetry-dictated by the country's dimensions, the size of its population, and so on-to believe that the poet is working for a broad audience. To one degree or another, we have all been gripped at one time by the thought, "I have a huge audience." On the other hand, though, in his heart of hearts, any more or less serious poet knows that he is not working for his audience, that he is writing because language is dictating to him. He is doing this-for the sake of the music of the language, for the sake of these words and suffixes.
So that in the case of Poem Without a Hero, I don't see any contradiction. Naturally, Akhmatova was interested in learning her listeners' reaction, but if what had most interested her in the world had really been the accessibility of Poem Without a Hero, she wouldn't have added all these little bits.
Volkov. The real paradox is that Poem Without a Hero turned into a symbol of the Silver Age and the era before the First World War. Strangely enough, we now look on this era through the prism of the decoded Poem Without a Hero.
Brodsky. By the way, do you know Pasternak's comment on Poem Without a Hero? He used to say that it was like a Russian folk dance, when the circle moves in, closes up, and steps back, opening. Akhmatova was very fond of this statement of Pasternak's.
Volkov. For years, Akhmatova thought about doing a ballet libretto based on the Poem Without a Hero. Unfortunately, she only left fragments.
Brodsky. Akhmatova wrote a play as well, by all accounts a terrific piece, which she evidently burned. Once in my presence she reminisced about the beginning of the first scene: the stage is empty except for a conference table covered with a red cloth. A servant comes in, or I don't know now who, and hangs a portrait of Stalin.
Volkov. This is an almost surrealistic image.
Brodsky. There's plenty of that in her poetry, especially the late poetry, and this sense of the surreal often came through even in daily life. I remember at the dacha in Komarovo, she had a china cabinet. There was a lull in our conversation, and since I had nothing else to praise in the place, I said, "What a marvelous cupboard," and Akhmatova replied, "What cupboard! It's a coffin upended on its ass." Her sense of humor was characterized by just such flights of the absurd.
Volkov. Tsvetaeva used to call Akhmatova a "lady." It seems to me that you, with your experience-the factory, the morgue job, the geological expeditions-were more the exception in her milieu. Your life in the homeland was not quite the norm for a Russian poet: both prison and the farm work.
Brodsky. Not at all, I lived like everyone else. For all its defects, in the class sense, Russian society is still the most democratic.
Volkov. A Russian poet ordinarily proves more democratic in his poems than in real life. In one of her early poems, Akhmatova says of herself: "On my knees in the garden/ I am weeding goose foot." Lydia Ginzburg recalled how much later she realized that Akhmatova didn't even know what goose-foot looked like.
Brodsky. That's very far from the truth. The Russian writer never really detaches himself from the people. There's really all kinds of riffraff in a literary milieu, but if we're talking about Akhmatova, what do you do with her experience of the 1930s and much later: "Like the three hundredth in the queue with a parcel will you stand at the Crosses?" And what about all those people who used to visit her? These were by no means poets necessarily, and it was by no means engineers who collected her poems, or scientists. Or dentists. And anyway, who are the people? Typists, nurses, all those old ladies-what other kinds of people do you need? No, this is a fictitious category. The writer is himself the people. Take Tsvetaeva: her poverty, her trips lugging her own bags during the Civil War ... No. No matter where you point, no poet in our beloved homeland has ever been able to break away from the common people.
Volkov. In the final years of her life, Akhmatova became more accessible.
Brodsky. Yes, people came to see her almost daily, both in Leningrad and in Komarovo. That isn't even including what all went on in Moscow, where they had a name for this great babel-an akhmatovka.
Volkov. Describe this akhmatovka in more detail.
Brodsky. It would happen mostly when Akhmatova stayed in Moscow,
with the Ardov family. First of all, it involved a constant stream of people, and in the evening, the table where the tsar and tsarevich, the king and prince, sat. Ardov himself, for all his defects, was an extremely witty man. His entire family was like that, both his wife Nina and his boys Boris and Mikhail. And their friends, all Moscow boys from good families. As a rule, they were journalists working for remarkable enterprises like the Novosti press agency. These were well-dressed, hardened, cynical people. And very cheerful. Amazingly witty, in my estimation. I've never met wittier people in my life. I don't remember laughing more than I did then, at the Ardov table. That is again one of my fondest memories. Often it seemed that witty repartee comprised the sole content of these people's lives. I don't think they were ever overwhelmed by sadness, but perhaps I'm being unfair. In any event, they adored Akhmatova. Other people came to see her, too: Koma Ivanov, and the brilliant Simon Markish, editors, theater critics, engineers, translators, critics, widows-you could never name them all. At seven or eight in the evening, the bottles appeared on the table.
Volkov. Akhmatova liked to drink.
Brodsky. Yes, about two hundred grams of vodka a night. She didn't drink wine for the same simple reason I don't especially: grape resins narrow the blood vessels, whereas vodka expands them and improves the blood's circulation. Akhmatova had a bad heart. By then she'd already suffered two heart attacks. Later she had a third.
She was a terrific drinker. If anyone knew how to drink, it was Akhmatova and Auden. I remember a winter I spent in Komarovo. Every evening she would tell either me or someone else off over a bottle of vodka. Of course, there were people around her who couldn't bear this. Lydia Chukovskaya, for example. At the first signs of her appearance, the vodka was tucked away, and a particular expression reigned on our faces. The evening passed in extremely proper and intellectual fashion. After the non-drinker's departure, we would pull the vodka out again from under the table. As a rule, the bottle was kept on the floor beside the radiator, and Akhmatova would utter a more or less unvarying sentence: "It was getting warm."
I remember our endless discussions on the subject of the bottles, which seemed bottomless. At times in our conversations there would be these tortuous lulls: there you were sitting in front of a great person and you didn't know what to say. You realized you were wasting her time, so you asked a question just to fill in that lull. I remember very distinctly asking her something about Sologub, what year did such and such an event occur. Akhmatova had already brought a shot of vodka to her lips. Hearing my question, she swallowed and replied: ''August 17, 1922." Or something like that. And then she drank down the rest.
Volkov. When people poured for Akhmatova, they asked her how much, and Akhmatova would put out her hand, as if to say, enough, and in as-much as this gesture, like everything she did, was slow and majestic, the glass managed to get filled to the brim. Many of the variety of people who came to see Akhmatova, following Russian custom, probably came not so much for poetic counsel as for more mundane advice.
Brodsky. I remember one such episode, very typical. It happened one
winter when I was sitting with Akhmatova at Komarovo. We were drinking and talking when a certain poet showed up with this marvelous lady- like locution: "Oh, my hair is not done yet!" Akhmatova whisked her away to this storeroom she had there, and I could hear this sobbing. This poet had obviously not come to read her poetry. Half an hour passed, and Akhmatova and the lady reappeared from behind the screen. When the lady was a good ways away, I asked, "Anna Andreyevna, what's the matter?" Akhmatova said, "The usual situation, Joseph. Me administering first aid."
Ladies especially brought Akhmatova their woes. She would console them, calm them down. She would give them practical advice. I don't know what. The simple fact that these people were prepared to layout all their problems to her was sufficient therapy for them.
Volkov. I wanted to ask you about one thing in particular. I've never seen a photograph of you and Akhmatova together.
Brodsky. That's right, there is no such photo. It's funny. Only yesterday
I was talking about this with a friend of mine, the wife of a rather remarkable poet. I said to her, "Give me your photograph," and she replied, "I don't have one. In this marriage, I'm the one taking the pictures."
Volkov. In the book about Akhmatova by Amanda Haight there is a picture reproduced of you and Nayman deep in thought. You have a short- wave radio in your lap.
Brodsky. We're probably listening to the BBC. I don't remember who took that. It was either Rein (because both of them came to see me in Norenskaya), or else I put the camera on a timer. On the same page is a portrait of Akhmatova that's my work. I shot her several times. The photograph there of Akhmatova's desk at Kornarovo -that's mine, too.
Volkov. When did you live in Komarovo?
Brodsky. I think it was the fall and winter of 1962 to 1963. I rented the dacha of the deceased academician Berg, whom my father had once studied with.
Volkov. Is there a Komarovo mystique? Or is the place in and of itself not that remarkable and only became famous thanks to Akhmatova?
Brodsky. There was very simply a writers' house in Komarovo. Viktor Zhirmunsky, whom we saw rather often, lived there. Next to Akhmatova settled a rather sweet man who was, in my opinion, a fine translator, primarily from oriental languages, the poet Alexander Gitovich. Lots of people came to visit, and great dinners were organized in the summer of Akhmatova's dacha, in her "booth." Khanna Gorenko, a marvelous woman who lived with Akhmatova as a rule during the summer periods, helped with the household. For many years she was considered the straw widow, if you like, of Akhmatova's brother, who lived and died here, in the United States. Once, Akhmatova showed me the man's photograph: broad shoulders, a bow tie-a senator, right?-and she said, ''A good-looking"-then a pause-''American.'' He bore an incredible resemblance to Akhmatova. The same gray hair, the same nose and brow. By the way, Lev Gumilyov, her son, also looks more like his mother than his father.
Volkov. How did Akhmatova's brother ever wind up in America?
Brodsky. He was a sailor, a midshipman from the last pre-revolutionary
batch. At the end of the Civil War, he and Khanna, to whom he was married then, found themselves in the Far East. His surname, like Akhmatova's maiden name, was Gorenko. He was a kind of Joseph Conrad, but without literary ambitions. When he left Khanna, he spent quite a long time traveling through China and Japan-which he later called "undesirable places." He sailed there in the merchant marine, and when he got to the States after the war, he became a security guard. Akhmatova's first news of him came through none other than Shostakovich, because it so happened that Gorenko was hired to guard Shostakovich during his visit to the States. That was how Akhmatova learned that her brother was alive. Before that I don't think there had been any contact between them at all. You can imagine what might come of such contacts.
Only toward the end of her life, when times again became more or less vegetarian, could Akhmatova think again about correspondence, if only extremely irregularly. Gorenko sent Khanna and Akhmatova a few things-shawls and dresses, which Khanna took great pride in. When
Akhmatova was unwell and she had her third heart attack, they sent him a telegram. But what could he do? Go to her? He was married to an American and living in Brooklyn. When Khanna returned to Russia from the Far East, she did, it seems to me, time-hard time. But maybe not. You know, it's a sin not to remember that. We were very fond of and well disposed toward each other. I dedicated some poems to her. But that's what happens to the memory. Or maybe it's not so much the memory as the piling up of events.
Volkov. What did Akhmatova tell you about her father?
Brodsky. Andrei Antonovich Gorenko was a naval officer and taught mathematics at the Naval College. By the way, he knew Dostoevsky. No one knew that, but in 1964, two volumes of memoirs about Dostoevsky came out, and in them were printed the memoirs of the daughter of Anna Filosofova about how Gorenko and Dostoevsky helped her solve the math problem about the hare and the tortoise. I was living in the village then. I read these memoirs and putting two and two together figured out that this was Akhmatova's father, so I wrote to her about it. She was extremely grateful. Later, when we saw each other, after my release, she said something like, "See, Joseph, before there was just the family legend about Dostoevsky, that my mother's sister, who studied
at the Smolny Institute, read Diary of a Writer and then turned up at Dostoevsky's door! She went right up the stairs and rang the bell. The cook opened the door. Out Smolny girl says, 'I would like to see the gentleman of the house.' The cook replied, 'I'll go call him,' and went away. My aunt stood in the dark vestibule and saw a light gradually coming toward her. A gentleman holding a candle appeared wearing a dressing gown and an extremely sullen expression. Either he had been woken up from a nap or else interrupted in his righteous labors. In a rather curt voice he said, 'What do you want?' Where- upon she turned on her heels and rushed out headlong."
And, as I remember, Akhmatova would add, "To this day this was Out sole family legend about our acquaintance with Dostoevsky. Now I tell everyone that my mother was jealous because of my father's attachment to the same lady Dostoevsky wooed."
Volkov. There's a shade of self-parody in this commentary of hers because creating legends was well within her nature. Or am I wrong?
Brodsky. To the contrary, she liked to strip things bare, although there are legends and legends. Not all of them displeased her. Still, Akhmatova did not like making things more obscure than they already were.
Volkov. One legend-which I now think she had a hand in creating-Akhmatova protested against her whole life.
Brodsky. Yes, the legend of her romance with Blok. Akhmatova used to say that this reflected "popular hopes." According to her it never was, and Akhmatova is someone whose every word I believe unquestioningly.
Volkov. This was probably a "literary" romance, as they say. On her part, in any case. Just reread the poems she addressed to Blok. Late in life, Akhmatova had ambivalent feelings toward Blok. In Poem Without a Hero she describes him as someone "with a dead heart and a dead gaze." In one of her poems from the 1960s she calls Blok "the era's tragic tenor." If you think about it, this is by no means a compliment.
Brodsky. But in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the Evangelist is the tenor. The role of the Evangelist is the tenor's role.
Volkov. That never occurred to me.
Brodsky. This poem was written right during the period when I was bringing her Bach records.
Volkov. In Akhmatova's poetry, especially the later poetry, music is often mentioned: Bach, Vivaldi, Chopin. It always seemed to me that Akhmatova had a fine feeling for music, but I've heard from people who knew her well, although probably not terribly well disposed toward her, that Akhmatova herself didn't understand a thing about music but only listened closely to the opinions of people around her. They used to say more or less that Akhmatova's statements on Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich were the words of Punin, and on Bach and Vivaldi of Brodsky.
Brodsky. Well, "that's ridiculous. That is untrammeled and unfounded
stupidity. It's just that when Akhmatova and I met, she had neither a record player nor records at her dacha, and only because no one had done anything about it. They never got around to it.
Volkov. Akhmatova made an insightful comment about the music of Shostakovich's Eleventh Symphony. You hear sometimes disparaging comments about the Eleventh Symphony, but Akhmatova said that in it "the songs fly across a terrible black sky like angels, like birds, like white clouds." At the same time, she did not perceive the charms of the "Jewish" vocal cycle by Shostakovich. There she heard only the words, which are awkward from a poetic standpoint.
Brodsky. Well, she was a poet. Above all, she noticed the verse.
Volkov. Shostakovich presented a lofty musical "portrait" of Akhmatova
in his vocal cycle, Six Poems by Marina Tsvetaeva. Did she ever discuss Shostakovich with you?
Brodsky. She may have mentioned him a few times. She and I often spoke about Stravinsky and listened to the Soviet pirate record of his Symphony of Psalms. I remember one of Akhmatova's comments about Stravinsky. This was in 1962, during Stravinsky's visit to the Soviet Union. At that moment I was in Moscow, and from my taxi, en route to seeing Akhmatova, I saw Stravinsky, his wife Vera, and Robert Craft. They were coming out of the Metropole Hotel and getting into a car. I knew that the night before the Stravinskys had been planning a visit to Akhmatova. When I arrived, I said, "Anna Andreyevna, guess who I just saw on the street-Stravinsky!" And I started describing him: short, hunched, a big hat. Basically, I said, all that's left of Stravinsky was his nose. "Yes," added Akhmatova, "and his genius."
Volkov. I had the opportunity to be convinced that Akhmatova's opinions about music were weighty and specific: about Vivaldi, and Bach, and Purcell.
Brodsky. I was constantly bringing her Purcell. She and I also spoke a lot about Mozart.
Volkov. Despite her Pushkin bias, she even held to the progressive view that Salieri had nothing to do with Mozart's death.
Brodsky. Well, of course, what doubt could there be? By the way, did you know she adored Koussevitzky? I heard that conductor's name for the first time from her.
Volkov. The Symphony of Psalms was commissioned by Koussevitzky.
Did you discuss this Stravinsky composition with Akhmatova?
Brodsky. During that period, we were discussing the idea of setting the Psalms-the whole Bible really-in verse. We got the idea that it would be good to put all those Biblical stories into verse accessible to the broad reader. We used to discuss whether or not it was worth doing and, if so,
then just how to go about it. And who could do it best, so that it came out as well as with Pasternak.
Volkov. Akhmatova considered Pasternak's a success?
Brodsky. We liked it, both of us did.
Volkov. By the way, in connection with the idea of transposing the Bible, what do you think of the engravings Favorsky did for the Book of Ruth?
Brodsky. They're very fine. Favorsky is really a great artist. I've admired him for a long time. The last time I looked at Favorsky's engravings, though, was many years ago. Favorsky belongs more to the sphere of reminiscence than to my visual reality.
Volkov. Don't you think that Favorsky and Akhmatova are similar artists? And that there is some kind oflink between his engravings and, say, Akhmatova's Biblical poems?
Brodsky. Yes, there is a certain similarity in the devices, but only insofar as you can liken the fine arts and belles lettres at all-which really ought not be done. There's a definite point of similarity-not so much with Akhmatova as with literature in general. I would say that Favorsky is basically a literary artist, in the sense that the conventions he resorted to are fairly literary.
Volkov. And Akhmatova's Biblical poems are graphic.
Brodsky. Everything Akhmatova writes is graphic. Just as everything Favorsky depicts is didactic.
Volkov. For me, the "Biblical" Akhmatova is more didactic than the "Biblical" Pasternak.
Brodsky. I'm very fond of Pasternak's poems from Doctor Zhivago.
They're remarkable poems, especially "Christmas Star." I think of them often. At one time I considered writing a poem every Christmas, and as a rule, when Christmas draws near, all this comes to mind once again.
Volkov. Akhmatova's poems are being set to music more and more often.
One of the most outstanding compositions of this sort is Requiem by the English composer John Tavener. It was performed in London and later at a festival in Edinburgh.
Brodsky. Yes, I heard about that. You see, a poet is the last person to rejoice at his poems being set to music, since he himself is primarily concerned with linguistic meaning, and as a rule the reader does not master that all at once. Even when the poem is printed, there is no guarantee.
When music is added on to the verse, then from the poetic standpoint, there is an additional obscuring. So that, on the one hand, if you're a trendy guy, it's flattering that a composer has written music to your poems, but if you are truly concerned with the public's reaction to your text-and this is where your art begins and what it comes down to in the end-then there's absolutely no cause for celebration here. Even if you're dealing with the best composer in the world. Generally speaking, music removes poetry to a completely different dimension.
Volkov. Of course, contact with music diminishes poetry in a certain sense, but that new dimension you're talking about is what lends this interaction special interest. Take Requiem again. This is a notable text, but fairly straightforward. The music can deepen this straightforwardness and maybe even unexpectedly illuminate some new stratum in the verse.
Brodsky. No, the text of Requiem is anything but straightforward.
Volkov. Sure, there are two levels here: real biography-Akhmatova and the fate of her arrested son; and the symbolic-Mary and her son Jesus.
Brodsky. For me the main thing in Requiem is the theme of splitting, the theme of the author's inability to have an adequate reaction. Akhmatova describes in Requiem all the horrors of Stalin's "great terror," but at the same time she is constantly talking about how close she is to madness. Do you remember? 

Already madness dips its wing
And casts a shade across my heart,
And pours for me a fiery wine
Luring me to the valley dark.

I realize that to this madness
The victory I must yield,
Listening closely to my own
Delirium, however strange. 

This second stanza may be the best in all of Requiem. Those last two lines pronounce the greatest truth. Akhmatova is describing the state of the poet who is looking at everything that is happening to her as if she were standing off to one side. For the poet, the writing of this is no less an event than the event she is describing. Hence her reproaches to herself, especially when it's a matter of the imprisonment of a son, or whatever the misfortune might be. You start cursing yourself horribly: what kind of monster are you if you can be seeing this whole horror and nightmare as if it had nothing to do with you? Arrest, death (in Requiem people are constantly on the brink of death)-these kinds of situations really exclude any possibility of an adequate reaction. When someone is weeping, that is the weeper's private affair. When someone writing weeps, when he is suffering, he actually gains something from the fact that he's suffering. The writer can suffer his grief in a genuine way, but the description of this grief is not genuine tears or gray hair. It is only an approximation of a genuine reaction, and the awareness of this detachment creates a truly insane situation. Requiem is constantly balancing on the brink of insanity, which is introduced not by the catastrophe itself, not by the loss of a son, but by this moral schizophrenia, this splitting-not of consciousness but of conscience. The splitting into sufferer and writer.
Akhmatova's Requiem unfolds like a true drama, like a true chorus of voices. We're constantly hearing different voices-first a simple woman, then suddenly a poet, then before us is Mary. This is all done as it should be, in accordance with the laws of the requiem genre, but in fact Akhmatova was not trying to create a folk tragedy. Requiem is after all the poet's autobiography. The rationality of the creative process assumes a certain rationality of emotion, a hardened heart. That is what drives the author mad.
Volkov. In this sense, though, isn't Requiem really mirroring a real situation? As I understand it, Akhmatova did feel a certain indifference toward her son's fate, didn't she?
Brodsky. No, there was never any real indifference on her part. Indifference-if the word is applicable here at all-came with her art. Akhmatova was tormented and suffered incredibly over her son's fate, but when the poet Anna Akhmatova started writing ... When you write and try to do it as well as you can ... That is when you submit to the demands of the muse, the language, the demands of literature. It is a greater truth than the truth of experience. You are striving to create a tragic effect in one fashion or another, with one line or another, and inadvertently you sin against the ordinary truth, against your own pain.

Volkov. Lev Gumilyov, Akhrnatova's son, reproached her several times for not doing enough for him-either in childhood or in his prison camp years. I was talking with an old Latvian painter who was in a camp with Lev Gumilyov. When I mentioned Akhmatova, his face turned to stone, and he said, "She sent the very smallest packages." It was like hearing the reproachful voice of Lev Gumilyov himself.
Brodsky. Lev did blame her, and he said something to her that tormented Akhmatova greatly. I think it may have been the cause of her heart attack, one of the causes in any event. This isn't an exact quotation, but the sense of Gumilyov's words was this: "For you it would have been even better if I'd died in the camp." He meant "for you as a poet."
Even if an old friend had said it, my first thought would have been, "What a pig you are really." But this was her son saying it! Lev Gumilyov spent eighteen years locked up, and those years apparently maimed him. He decided that because he had endured so much, he could do anything, that from then on everything would be forgiven.
In the case of Lev Gumilyov, all kinds of psychological elements are layered in here as well. Above all, in the absence of his father, he was the man of the family, and although she was both a mother and a poet and Akhmatova, nonetheless, she was a woman. Therefore he thought he could tell her anything he felt like. All of this is the poor man's Freud, of course, but that's apparently how he manifested his masculinity. I gave this quite a lot of thought at one time-and Akhmatova would be the first to condemn me for getting mixed up in this-but her son did not end up occupying the high ground here. With this sentence about its being "better for her," he showed that he had let the camps cripple him, that ultimately the system had got what it was after.
Volkov. I think that attempts to set Requiem to music are going to continue.
Brodsky. Music, I fear, can lend this text only the aspect of melodrama.
Requiem's drama is not in the horrible events it describes but in what these events transform your individual consciousness into, your notion of yourself. The tragedy of Requiem is not the perishing of millions but the impossibility of the survivor coming to terms with this perishing. We're used to the idea that art somehow reacts to events in real life, but reaction is out of the question-not just to Hiroshima but to more minor occurrences as well. Occasionally you can create some kind of an artistic formulation that expresses your state of shock in the face of the horrors of reality, but this is a fortunate coincidence-in particular for the author's reputation. Take Guernica.
Volkov. In 1910, in Paris, the young Anna Akhmatova met Amedeo Modigliani. She was just starting out as a poet, and he was already a mature artist. From Akhmatova's memoirs about their romance, however, it's obvious that she understood the significance of what Modigliani was doing only with hindsight.
Brodsky. That's how it should be in love. It's much better, much more natural than the reverse. Akhmatova's memoirs of Modigliani don't mention art. These are simply the personal relations of two people.
Volkov. There is a drawing of Akhmatova by Modigliani (from 1911, probably). According to her, there were sixteen of these drawings. Akhmatova's memoirs are not entirely clear about the fate of the drawings: "They were destroyed in the Tsarskoye Selo house in the first years of the revolution." Did Akhmatova speak of this in more detail?
Brodsky. She did. Red Guards were quartered in the house, and they
smoked up Modigliani's drawings. They made hand-rolled cigarettes out
of them.
Volkov. In Akhmatova's description of this episode, you sense a certain
evasiveness. Did she understand the value of these drawings? Might she
herself have thrown them to the winds?
Brodsky. What would be the point? I'm sure she always had enough paper at home. She was writing poetry after all. Evidently this happened in her absence, though. *
Volkov. Do you think Akhmatova's relationship with Modigliani was
important for her?
Brodsky. As a happy memory, no question. After she gave me her notes
about Modigliani to read, Akhmatova asked, "Joseph, what do you think
of all this?" I said, "Well, it's Romeo and Juliet performed by the royalty." Which amused her no end.
Modigliani, by the way, was not the only one courting Akhmatova during her sojourn in Paris. None other than the famous pilot Bleriot ... Do you
know that story? I don't remember anymore where the three of them were
eating there in Paris: Nikolai Gumilyov, Akhmatova, and Bleriot, Akhmatova used to tell the story. "That day I'd bought myself new shoes, and they were a little tight. So I slipped them off under the table. After dinner, 

        A number of previously unknown drawings by Modigliani, depicting Akhmatova, some of them in the nude. turned up at the 1993 exhibition in Venice. entitled "The Unknown Modigliani: Drawings from the Collection of Paul Alexandre"-S.V. 

Gumilyov and I went home. I took off my shoes-and found a note with
Blerior's address in one shoe."
Volkov. Which means he kept his head!
Brodsky. A Frenchman, a pilot!
Volkov. Don't you think foreign men occupied a rather large place in
Akhmatova's life: Modigliani, Jozef Czapski, Isaiah Berlin? For a Russian poet, that is rather unusual.
Brodsky. What foreigners! Sir Isaiah Berlin was born in Riga (which, by
the way, has given the world many remarkable people). Czapski was a Pole, a Slav. What kind of foreigner was he to a Russian poet! Anyway, her relationship with Czapski could only be surreptitious. After all, as far as I know, he was engaged in counterespionage for General Anders. What could they talk about at all, especially in those sultry times! In Tashkent, I think, they had a horde dogging their every step. Most of Akhmatova's conversations with Sir Isaiah, as I understand it, came down to who, what, where, and how. She was attempting-twenty years after the fact-to find out about Boris Anrep, Arthur Lourié, Sudeikina, and other friends of her youth. All those who had wound up in the West. He was the first person to come from there in nearly twenty years-and six of those twenty had been taken up by the Second World War.
Volkov. Sir Isaiah published his reminiscences of his meetings with Akhmatova between 1943 and 1946,  (Tin Văn sẽ post bản văn này. NQT) and these encounters turn up in many of Akhmatova's poems. If you compare the two versions, you get the impression that they are talking about two different events. In Akhmatova's treatment, their meeting was one of the causes of the Cold War. And on a purely emotional plane, judge for yourself: "He shall not be a husband dear to me, / But the two of us will make the Twentieth Century blush." You
won't find anything like that in Sir Isaiah.
Brodsky. I don't think Akhmatova was that far off the mark in her assessment of the consequences of her meeting with Sir Isaiah in 1945. In any case, she came closer than many think. As for Berlin's memoirs, they are extremely eloquent, but you can't write in English splashing your emotions out all over the table. Although, of course, you're right that he did not lend such global significance to his meeting with Akhmatova.
Volkov. In his memoirs, Berlin insists that he was never a spy, as Stalin
accused him, but his reports from the British Embassy in Moscow-and
previously from the British Embassy in Washington-correspond full well
to Soviet notions of espionage activity.
Brodsky. Soviet, but not Akhmatova's. As a diplomat in the service of the British empire, Berlin was dealing with people whose official activities were not subject to caprice, whereas the conduct of Stalin was sometimes dictated by totally extraneous considerations.
Volkov. That outburst of rage with which Stalin greeted the news of Akhmatova's meeting with Berlin now seems totally irrational. According to Akhmatova, he cursed her in the foulest language possible. The impression you get is that she had struck a very personal chord in him. It makes it seem like Stalin was jealous over Akhmatova!
Brodsky. Why not? But not so much of Berlin as Randolph Churchill, I
think, Winston's son and a journalist who accompanied Berlin on that trip. It's very possible that Stalin felt that Randolph ought to meet with him and only him, that he, Stalin, was Russia's main show.
Volkov. This whole story reminds me very much of the novels of Dumas père in which empires crack over an incautious glance cast by a queen. Or a dropped glove.
Brodsky. Quite true, and that's just as it should be. After all, what was
Russia in 1945? A classical empire; and really, the "poet and tsar" situation is an imperial situation.
Volkov. Akhmatova described the chain of events as follows. She had a
meeting with Berlin, which lasted until morning, much to Stalin's fury.
Stalin took his revenge against her with a special resolution of the Communist Party Central Committee, which, Akhmatova firmly believed, was written by Stalin himself (as Lydia Chukovskaya comments, "There's a most august mustache poking out from behind every paragraph"). This resolution, when it was published in 1946, shocked Western intellectuals, who prior to this had gazed quite equably upon the Soviet Union. The atmosphere was spoiled-and for a long time to come. The Cold War had begun. Do you agree with this interpretation of events?
Brodsky. It's very close. Of course, I don't think the Cold War broke out
only over Akhmatova's meeting with Berlin, but that the persecution of
Akhmaatova and Zoshchenko poisoned the atmosphere, of that I have no
doubts whatsoever.
Volkov. Do you like Akhmatova's cycle, "Sweerbriar in Blossom," dedicated to Berlin?
Brodsky. Those are great poems. They have that in them, too, Romeo and Juliet as played by royalty. Although, of course, it's much more Dido and Aeneas than it is Romeo and Juliet. This cycle has no equal in Russian poetry for its tragic quality. Maybe Tyutchev's "Denisieva" cycle. But in "Sweet Briar" you're hearing something new in all its monstrosity: the voice of history.
Volkov. There is a curious story about how Akhmatova learned of the
1946 resolution against her and Zoshchenko. That day she hadn't read the papers, but she met Zoshchenko on the street and he asked her, "What are we going to do now, Anna Andreyevna?" Akhmatova, not understanding what Zoshchenko meant specifically but assuming he was posing a metaphysical question, replied, "Endure." At which they parted. It's a small town, Petersburg.
Brodsky. She was very fond of Zoshchenko. She told quite a few stories
about him. In his final years he couldn't eat; he was afraid they were going to poison him. Akhmatova felt Zoshchenko was losing his mind. She explained Zoshchenko's death as the result of his own heedlessness. A meeting had been arranged for them both with a group of English students who had come to Leningrad. One of the students asked an extremely awkward question about how Akhmatova and Zoshchenko felt about the 1946 resolution. Akhmatova rose and replied curdy that she agreed with the resolution, but Zoshchenko started explaining: ''At first I didn't understand the resolution, then I agreed with it in some parts and in some not." As a result, Akhmatova was given the chance to exist by her literary labors- through translations and so forth, whereas Zoshchenko had everything taken away from him, once and for all.
Volkov. Akhmatova liked to repeat that she was prepared for the 1946
resolution if only because it was not the first Parry resolution to affect her: the first was in 1935. She also used to say that Stalin had taken offense at her poem "Slander" without noticing the date-I921. He took it as a personal affront.
Brodsky. I think that Mandelstam also disappointed him seriously with
his ode. Say what you like, but I repeat and insist that his poem about
Stalin is brilliant. This ode to Stalin may be the most stunning poem Mandelstam ever wrote. I think that Stalin suddenly understood what it was all about. Stalin realized that Mandelstam wasn't his namesake but he, Stalin, was Mandelstam's [in Russian, Osip=Iosif=Joseph].
Volkov. He realized who was whose contemporary.
Brodsky. Yes, I think it was this that suddenly hit Stalin-and served as
the reason for Mandelstam's death. Evidently Stalin felt that someone had come too close to him.
Volkov. Is Akhmatova's quatrain "No more shall I cry for my own" dedicated to you?
Brodsky. I don't know. People say it is, but I never asked.
Volkov. The epigraph to Akhmatova's poem "The Last Rose" is your line addressed to Akhmatova: "You will write about us on a slant." Do you remember the story of the appearance of "The Last Rose"?
Brodsky. Akhmatova was very fond of roses. Every time I came to see her, I would buy flowers-almost always roses.
Volkov. How did you find out that Akhmatova had chosen your line for
an epigraph?
Brodsky. I don't remember.
Volkov. You don't remember?!
Brodsky. Good Lord, I don't remember! In that sense I really am to a serious extent not a professional. Well, of course, when you find out about something like that it's very nice. But that's all. That line-"You will write about us on a slant"-is taken from a poem I wrote for Akhmatova on her birthday. (There were two poems, both really rather hopeless, in my opinion. At least today.) The only thing I remember about this poem is that I wrapped it up rather hastily. Nayman and I, we were on our way from Leningrad to see Akhmatova in Komarovo, and we had to race to the station to make our train. I remember the rush. I don't understand why things like that get remembered.
Volkov. What did Akhmatova say when she read your poem?
Brodsky. I don't remember. I thin~ she liked that phrase. The beginning
of the poem is feeble-well, maybe not feeble but there's too much unnecessary expressionism there. But the ending is good. More or less genuine metaphysics.
Volkov. Akhmatova told me that for the first journal publication of "The
Last Rose" she was asked whether Ivan Bunin was the author of the epi-
graph, inasmuch as it was signed with the initials "LB." [LB. were Brodsky's Russian initials as well: losif Brodsky]. Akhmatova wouldn't say, but by 1965, when this poem appeared in her collection The Flight of Time, the conjectures about Bunin's authorship were moot. The epigraph was gone.
Brodsky. Oh well, no hard feelings, as they say.
Volkov. Did you and Akhmatova discuss Nikolai Gumilyov's execution?
Brodsky. No, we never talked about it especially.
Volkov. What about Gumilyov in general?
Brodsky. We talked about him as a poet. I remember our last conversation about Gumilyov had to do with the fact that someone had brought Akhmatova poems supposedly written by him in his cell. We tried to guess whether the poems were genuine or not.
Volkov. Akhmatova said that the material against Gumilyov was fabricated, that he had never participated in any anti-Bolshevik plot. She counted Gumilyov one of the greatest Russian poets of the twentieth century. Do you agree with her?
Brodsky. I don't like Gumilyov and never did. When Akhmatova and I
discussed him, I wouldn't express my honest opinion-exclusively so as
not to disappoint her. Her sentiment with regard to Gumilyov could be defined by one word: love. I didn't try to hide the fact that from my point of view Gumilyov's poetry was no big deal, though I remember a rather long conversation with Akhmatova about Gumilyov's microcosm, which at the moment of his arrest and execution was beginning to stabilize and become his own mythology. It's perfectly obvious that if anyone was killed at the wrong time it was Gumilyov. I said something to that effect to Akhmatova.
After Akhmatova's death, I read the four volumes Gumilyov put out in
the United States, but my opinion did not change. I remember, during that period I stopped in to see Zhirmunsky. I told him, "Here, Viktor Maximovich, I was given some books you might find interesting: the author's complete collected works." I didn't name the author and went on. "I don't find him very interesting, but they may be of some use to you in some academic research. So, I would be perfectly happy to give you these books." Zhirmunsky said, "Who is it?" I replied, "You know, I feel awkward, but it's four volumes of Gumilyov." To which Zhirmunsky replied, "Hello! I said back in 1914 that Gumilyov was a mediocre poet!"
Volkov. When people talk about Gumilyov, they sometimes forget that he was among the very few Russian poets whose destiny was decided directly by Lenin.
Brodsky. You know, regardless of how a usurper deals with a poet- nobly or ignobly-it doesn't change my attitude toward him in the least. A person who ruined so many lives…. What can you say? Even if he had saved Gumilyov from execution…
Volkov. . .. or let the ailing Blok go to Finland, as Gorky asked him to.
Brodsky. That still wouldn't have changed anything. There is no saving
grace for that gentleman, unfortunately.
Volkov. Gumilyov had been involved in the so-called Petro grad Military Organization affair. The investigation was handled by Yakov Agranov, later a close friend of Mayakovsky and the Briks. Lili Brik recalled that after Mayakovsky's death, Akhmatova would come to the Briks for dinner. I remember how surprised I was to hear that, because Akhmatova always spoke rather brusquely about the Briks. She used to say that in the late 1920s, when art in Russia was "abolished," as she put it, the authorities left only the Briks' salon, "where they had billiards, cards, and secret policemen."
Brodsky. That sounds right. Akhmatova was profoundly negative about the Briks. There was definite unanimity between us on that score. But
Akhmatova was always saying that it often makes sense to deal with obvious scoundrels, professional informers in particular, especially if you need to convey something "on high," to the authorities, because a professional informer will repeat everything he's been told precisely. He won't distort anything. You can't count on that in the case of someone who is simply fearful or neurasthenic.
Volkov. Did you and Akhmatova discuss Boris Pilnyak, to whom her poem "All this you alone divine" is dedicated?
Brodsky. We had a rather brief conversation in connection with my meeting someone in Moscow who turned out to be Pilnyak's son: a handsome, oriental-looking man. I remember I was somewhat peeved by the fact that Akhmatova harbored such great sympathy for Pilnyak. In those days I was a spiteful boy, you know. We were all asserting our tastes then at the expense of our predecessors. In the West I reread Pilnyak and found no grounds for altering my opinion of him. The only author about whom my opinion changed for the better here is Zamyatin. His shorter pieces, not we.
Volkov. Zamyatin was also a brilliant essayist.
Brodsky. Yes, I came to appreciate that here, too.
Volkov. Why did Akhmatova respond so devastatingly to Zabolotsky's
later poetry?
Brodsky. That's not true. Akhmatova used to say, "Zabolotsky doesn't
like me, nonetheless ... " And so on.
Volkov. Akhmatova suspected that Zabolotsky was an inveterate misogynist, and as became clear, she was right. According to memoirs, Zabolotsky expressed himself in this vein: "Art has no room for broads."
Brodsky. All those quotes aren't worth squat. When someone hasn't been
allowed to express himself fully during his lifetime, we, his descendants, inevitably seize upon snatches that don't amount to anything. Zabolotsky
might say one thing today and tomorrow, another. Fate stuck Zabolotsky
into a certain image, a certain frame, but he was bigger than that frame.
Volkov. What was the relationship between Akhmatova and Pasternak?
Brodsky. Extremely close, extremely friendly. By the way, Pasternak twice proposed marriage to Akhmatova.
Volkov. And what did Akhmatova have to say about that?
Brodsky. Well, first of all, that this was an offer made while his wife was still living. Moreover ... Pasternak was shorter than Akhmatova. And younger. So that nothing ever came of that song and dance. I don't think Akhmatova ever took the emotional aspect of her relationship with Pasternak seriously. She knew, of course, that Pasternak's wife, Zinaida, hated her with a vengeance. Akhmatova was very fond of Pasternak, although, as I've already said, she was extremely prejudiced against his desire to nab the Nobel. Nor did she approve of his relationship with Olga Ivinskaya. I dare say you've read Ivinskaya's memoirs.
Volkov. In her notes, Chukovskaya tells a noteworthy story. Akhmatova
met with Pasternak in 1956. He had just written fifteen new poems for a
collection that was being prepared for publication at Goslit. He explained to Akhmatova regarding the collection: "I told Goslit that I needed parallel money." To which Akhmatova replied, "What happiness for Russian culture, Boris Leonidovich, that you need parallel money!" As you understand, he was speaking about money for Ivinskaya.
Brodsky. I must say that they were all fatally unlucky in their personal
lives. Akhmatova was unlucky with husbands-fatally. Tsvetaeva was unlucky-fatally. Pasternak with his wives and lovers-incredibly so. The
only person who was lucky with his wife was Mandelstam, but with the
other women in his life he was once again fatally unlucky.
Volkov. In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandelstam writes about the "fantastic inheritance" left by Akhmatova and about the strife around that inheritance. Her son Lev Gumilyov laid claims to it and so did the Punin family, with whom she had lived.
Brodsky. Well, I don't know what in Nadezhda Mandelstam's lights was a "fantastic inheritance." A few things remained, pictures. There simply were no possessions as such. Akhmatova was not one of those people who has possessions. The main thing that remained was her literary archive, which the Pun ins sold, earning huge sums in the process.
Volkov. Do you believe that the truth was on Lev Gumilyov's side in the fight over the Akhmatova archive?
Brodsky. Of course. The Punins are one of the foulest phenomena I've
ever had occasion to observe.
Volkov. Why did Akhmatova wind up so closely linked with them?
Brodsky. She lived with them when Punin himself was still alive. Later,
when Punin was arrested and perished, Akhmatova felt that if it wasn't her fault, then she had at least brought this disaster down on him: "This disaster I brought down on dear ones,/And they have perished, one by one." Akhmatova felt obligated to look after Punin's daughter Irina, and, as a consequence, Punin's granddaughter, Anya, who, strangely enough,
looked a little like Akhmatova in profile-the old Akhmatova, not the
young one.
All those years, Lev Gumilyov was in camps. When he was released, they expected him to be rehabilitated quickly and then he and Akhmatova could be together. In the meantime, though, she was still living with the Punins. Irina Punina had an interest in this, inasmuch as she existed to a significant extent off Akhmatova's earnings.
I understand why Akhmatova did this. She was basing herself on ordinary practical considerations. After rehabilitation, they might give Gumilyov a big apartment, but in absence of rehabilitation-what could the two of them together count on? And Irina Punina egged her on: "Stop it, Akuma, wait until they rehabilitate Lev." (She called her Akuma. It seems Punin brought this word back from Japan; it means "witch.") In general, Akhmatova listened to Irina. She told her son that for now it was better they not move in together. Better they should wait until they were given separate housing. At this, Lev Gumilyov was beside himself and he flew into a rage. In my opinion, he's a remarkable person, but with this major fault, which I've already mentioned. He feels that after prison camp he can do almost anything. In the last years before Akhmatova's death, they didn't see each other. The Punins, who trembled for their prosperity, made systematic attempts to sow strife between them. They were extremely successful.
Akhmatova took the fallout between herself and her son very hard.
When she was lying in the hospital after her third heart attack, Gumilyov
went to see her in Moscow. But the Punins sent Anya to see him, and she conveyed what were purportedly Akhmatova's words (which in fact had never been uttered), words to the effect that "now that I'm in the hospital with my third heart attack, he comes crawling to me on his belly." After which Lev never went to see Akhmatova in the hospital.
When Akhmatova got out of the hospital, she moved in with the Ardovs,
lived there two weeks or so, I think, went to Domodedovo, and died there. Nayman, who was with her at the time, conveyed to me her final words: "Really, I feel very bad." She said this when they had started injecting her with camphor. It's a sin to say it, but I have a bad heart and I recognize those words. Those are the words. that come out when YOut heart is failing.
Volkov. What was the fate of the Akhmatova archive?
Brodsky. The entire archive fell into the Pun ins' clutches. Moreover, I'm
partially to blame for that, I and Nadezhda Mandelstam. After Akhmatova's funeral, we returned to Leningrad. I remember a conversation in Akhmatova's apartment on Lenin Street. I said to Nadezhda Yakovlevna, "Do you remember what happened to Pasternak's archive when he died? And with Sologub's archive?"
Volkov. What did happen with those archives?
Brodsky. They were immediately seized by the authorities, and no one
ever saw them again. Nadezhda Yakovlevna replied, "I understand you,
Joseph. I'll get it." After which she went into the room where the council
of war was being held, at which, besides her, were the Pun ins, Koma Ivanov, and Arseny Tarkovsky. I don't remember who else. And right then and there the Punins realized that Akhmatova's archive had to be taken in hand immediately, before it was too late. The Punins sold this archive in three places: in Moscow to the Central State Literary Archives and in Leningrad to the Pushkin House and the Public Library, getting fancy prices for them. Naturally, the archive should not have been broken up into three parts, but they did this.
As you know, he sued the Punins but eventually lost, although the sale
of the archive by the Punins was, in my opinion, illegal. They could not
have done this without the support of the state, given a living heir. Legally, they could not have circumvented Lev Gumilyov. Those who acquired the archive ought to have asked certain questions. Evidently this sale was sanctioned from on high. The Punins did not have any peculiar motivations in this instance. The only thing that interested them was the money. That's what had always interested them. The Punins were paid not so much for the archive itself, I think, as for the temporary restrictions on its use. Now the archive is sealed for seventy-five years, I believe. The authorities knew that Lev Gumilyov would not impose a prohibition on the use of the archive. He himself would have been interested in sorting through it. The Pun ins couldn't have cared less, though, and for this they were rewarded in commensurate fashion.
Volkov. As had happened with Pasternak, Akhmatova’s funeral too
turned into a political event.
Brodsky. The Punins took no interest in Akhmatova's funeral. They
handed me her death certificate and said, "Joseph, find a cemetery." In the end, I did find a plot-in Komarovo. I must say I had my fill in connection with this. The Leningrad authorities protested, offering a plot in one of the municipal cemeteries, and the authorities in the resort district, under whose jurisdiction Komarovo falls, were also decisively opposed. No one wanted to give their permission, and everyone dug in their heels. Endless negotiators began. Zoya Tomashevskaya helped me enormously. She knew people who could be helpful in this matter-architects and so forth.
Akhmatova's body was already in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. They
had already started the funeral while I was waiting at the Komarovo cemetery, not knowing whether they would bury her there or not. I find it hard even to think about this.
As soon as we heard that permission had been granted and the gravediggers had been given their bottle apiece, we jumped into the car and raced to Leningrad. We caught the tail end of the service. There were police cordons all around, and in the cathedral Lev Gumilyov rushed about pulling the film out of the cameras of people taking pictures. Later Akhmatova was taken to the Writers Union for a civil funeral, and from there to Komarovo.
I have heard talk about how Komarovo is Finnish land, not Russian, but in the first place, I don't think Russia is ever going to give Komarovo back to Finland, and secondly, Akhmatova walked on this very ground. The funeral-and all the events that followed-were in every respect a gloomy story. It's a sin to dispute God's will, but I don't think that's what led to Akhmatova's death; it was simply an oversight.
Volkov. On whose part?
Brodsky. On the part of the people who knew and loved her. In Moscow,
after the hospital, she was moved into a cramped room. It was stuffY and right next to the kitchen. Then, the sudden transfer to Domodedovo. And imagine, after her third heart attack, spring collapses on you.
To put it bluntly, Akhmatova was homeless and-I'll use her own ex-
pression-shepherd-less. Her close friends called her the "hobo queen" and truly, especially when she rose to meet you in the middle of someone's apartment, there was something of the vagabond, a sovereign without shelter, in her face. She changed her place of residence about four times a year: Moscow, Leningrad, Komarovo, back to Leningrad, back to Moscow, and so on. The vacuum created by her nonexistent family was filled by friends and acquaintances, who worried about her and took care of her as best they could. She was extremely undemanding, and more than once when I visited her, especially at the Punins', I found her hungry, although she was constantly paying them back for everything.
This existence was not comfortable. Nonetheless, it was happy in the
sense that everyone loved her so much and she loved so many people. In
some spontaneous way a field always rose up around her to which crud had no access. Belonging to this field, to this circle, determined for many years afterward the character, conduct, and attitude toward life of many-almost everyone-who inhabited it. Each one of us bears, as a light tanning of the soul, the extraordinary generosity that came from her, this heart, mind, and moral force.
We did not go to her for praise, or literary recognition, or any kind of approval for our work. Not all of us, anyway. We went to see her because she set our souls in motion, because in her presence you seemed to move on from the emotional and spiritual-s-oh, I don't know what you call it- level you were on. You rejected the language you spoke every day for the language she used. Of course, we discussed literature, and we gossiped, and we ran out for vodka, listened to Mozart, and mocked the government. Looking back, though, what I hear and see is not this; in my consciousness surfaces one line from that same "Sweetbriar in Blossom": "You do not know you've been forgiven." This line tears itself away from rather than bursting out of the context because it is uttered by the voice of the soul, for the forgiver is always greater than the offense and whoever inflicts it. This line, seemingly addressed to one person, is in fact addressed to the entire world. It is the soul's response to existence.
It is this, and not the ways of verse-making, that we learned from her.
"Joseph, you and I know all the rhymes in the Russian language," she used to say. On the other hand, verse-making is also a breaking away from context. Those of us who knew her, I think, were tremendously lucky-more so, I think, than if we had known Pasternak, say. No matter what, she taught us how to forgive. Actually, I probably ought to be careful with my pronoun, "we." Although I remember that when Arseny Tarkovsky began his graveside speech with the words "With Akhmatova's departure, an end has come ... " everything inside me resisted: nothing was over, nothing could or can be over as long as we exist. Whether we're the "magic choir" or not. Not because we remember her poems or write our own but because she became a part of us, a part of our souls, if you like. I would also add that, without believing overmuch in the existence of the other world and eternal life, nonetheless, I often find myself gripped by the feeling that she
is observing us from somewhere outside, watching over us from some-
where, just as she did in life. Not so much watching as safeguarding. 

Fall 1981-Winter 1986 

Volkov: “Conversations with Joseph Brodsky”

“Remembering Anna Akhmatova”

*****


Dương Thu Hương


Vào Nam tôi mới hiểu rằng, chế độ ngoài Bắc là chế độ man rợ vì nó chọc mù mắt con người, bịt lỗ tai con người. Trong khi đó ở miền Nam người ta có thể nghe bất cứ thứ đài nào, Pháp, Anh, Mỹ..., nếu người ta muốn. Ðó mới là chế độ của nền văn minh. Và thật chua chát khi nền văn minh đã thua chế độ man rợ. Ðó là sự hàm hồ và lầm lẫn của lịch sử. Ðó là bài học đắt giá và nhầm lẫn lớn nhất mà dân tộc Việt Nam phạm phải.
9.6.2007
Nhận xét như thế, thì chẳng hiểu 1 tí gì về chính cái miền đất đã sản sinh ra DTH.
Anna Akhmatova rành hơn DTH, khi nhận xét về chế độ Liên Xô:
Bạn phải sống ở đó, hàng ngày nghe cái loa ở đầu ngõ ra rả.. thì mới hiểu được CS nghĩa là gì.
Cái gì làm 1 DTH khác 1 AA. Hay tổng quát hơn, giữa 1 người dân Nga bình thường với 1 người Bắc, cũng bình thường?
Niềm tin tôn giáo, nếu chúng ta nghe Brodsky nói về bà chị của ông:
… In conversation with her, or simply drinking tea or vodka with her, you became a Christian, a human being in the Christian sense of that word, faster than by reading the appropriate texts or attending church. The poet's role in society largely comes down to just this.
Volkov: "Trò chuyện với Brodsky"
Cái chết của Bắc Kít, là do chẳng có 1 niềm tin nào cả, cho tới khi bập vô CS!
Khi Sến gọi Phạm Đoan Trang, 1 thi sĩ, có thể có 1 hoài vọng trong đó:
Bắc Kỳ chưa có 1 thứ thơ ca, thi sĩ, theo kiểu 1 Anna Akhmatova, như Brodsky nhìn. Đây là nỗi đau của Bắc Kít, theo Gấu.
Chương “Tưởng nhớ Anna Akhmatova”, "Remembering Anna Akhmatova", trong “Trò chuyện với Brodsky”, cho thấy, dân chúng Nga đã được sửa soạn như thế nào, để đọc… thơ!
Gấu sẽ post toàn bộ chương này, cùng những nhận xét của Roberta Reeder về bài trường thi “The Way of All Earth (1940), trong lần tưởng niệm TTT năm nay.
***
With Hitler's shadow over Europe, Akhmatova also wrote a haunting long poem called “The Way of All Earth” (1940). It is a meditation on death in the midst of the turmoil and chaos of war. The heroine tells her own tale. She is a woman from Kitezh, a medieval city allegedly saved by prayer from the Tatar invasion:
"Some say it [the city] was lifted up to the heavens and its reflection seen on a lake into which the enemy rushed to their death, others that like other legendary cities, it sank deep into the lake where its towers can be seen on days when the water is specially clear. Akmatova said the poet Klyuev had called her "Kitezhanka," or "woman from Kitezh." The image of Kitezh had played an increasingly important role in Klyuev's own works, representing an ancient, "genuine" Rus, which, as Klyuev wished to believe, would rise once again in all its dazzling beauty. Possibly the memory of Klyuev, who died in a Stalinist camp, was a stimulus for Akhmatova's work on "The Way of All Earth". Akhmatova herself describes how the poem came to her:
In the first half of March 1940 on the margins of my manuscripts, dis-connected lines began to appear to me out of nowhere. The meaning of these lines seemed very dark to me at that time and, if you wish, even strange. For a rather long time they did not promise to turn into anything whole and seemed to be ordinary meandering lines, until they beat their way through and reached that refinery from which they emerged as you see them now.
“The Way of All Earth” is a combination of personal biography and allusions to Russian history and culture. The epigraph immediately conjures up mankind's last journey-the journey to death: "Sitting in the sled, setting out on the way of all earth." However, this epigraph not only reflects the poet's own awareness of imminent death but by its allusions elevates this awareness to a universal level. The line is taken from a medieval Russian work, “The Instruction of Vladimir Monomakh for His Children”. Early in the thirteenth century the ruler of the land of Rus, Vladimir Monomakh, left behind his worldly wisdom to his children, as he was about to go "the way of all the earth," to his death. He sits "on the sled," for it was part of Russian tradition to convey the body to the cemetery in a sleigh.
The wisdom incorporated in the “Instruction” became part of the heritage of the Russian people. But the epigraph also recalls the biblical phrase, I Kings, 2:1-2: "Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying, I go the way of all the earth; be thou strong therefore, and show thyself a man." In this poem, perhaps Akhmatova is taking on the role of teacher-the older, wiser person handing down her wisdom to future generations.
The apocalyptic atmosphere of the time is emphasized by Akhmatova in a second epigraph, which derives from Revelation 10:6, the actual prophecy of the coming Apocalypse: "And [the angel] sware by him that liveth ... that there should be time no longer." Akhmatova sees the intimations of impending doom and debacle from the period before World War I-the Russian defeat at Tsushima, the Dreyfus Affair, and the Boer War-as stages in an approaching end, when after the Day of Judgment there will be no more time, and life will be eternal.
The poem itself is a lament for Old Europe, of which "only a scrap remains." The heroine has been summoned home across a land filled with soldiers, trenches, bayonets-a world, as in the tales of Hoffmann, where reality turns into the grotesque:
Right in the face of bullets,
Thrusting the years aside,
Through Januarys and Julys,
I will somehow get there . . .
No one will notice my wound,
Nor hear my cry,
Me, the woman of Kitezh,
They have summoned home.
(II, p. 375)
What the heroine recalls of Kitezh is not a fairy-tale landscape with palaces and formal gardens, but simple things-an apple orchard, the groan of an old barrel organ, the sights and sounds of everyday life. But they are elusive, she cannot
ouch them. She cannot go home again. To reach her childhood home, she must first go by way of a crucified capital, Petersburg, the center of pre-Revolutionary
Russia, and if she does succeed in returning, she will find the house deserted, "And in a dark heap/A man with his throat cut sleeps." Here she will not find refuge in the past. Although she has reached the threshold of fame, a voice warns
her:
"You will come back here
You will come back more than once,
And again you will strike
Against unyielding diamond.
You had better pass by,
You had better go back,
Defamed, praised,
To the paternal garden."
(II, p. 379)
The "paternal garden" is not the little house in Tsarskoye Selo where the poet once lived, but heaven itself, where God the Father resides. There is only one way to "get beyond the ancient crossroad," and that is through death. Like Vladimir Monomakh, the poet says, "I will take my place calmly/In a light sled"; she is ready to be laid to rest in' her last dwelling place.
I waited for the great winter
A long time,
Like a white ascetic rite
I take it on.
And I will take my place calmly
In a light sled…
I will return to you before nightfall,
People of Kitezh.
There is one way to get beyond.
(II, p, 383)
The ancient crossroad…
Now no one accompanies
This woman of Kitezh,
Neither brother nor neighbor,
Nor the first bridegroom-
Only a branch of pine,
A sunny rhyme
Dropped by a beggar
And picked up by me . . .
In my last dwelling place
Lay me to rest.
(II, p. 383)

This poem is not about escape from life, but "expresses faith in the most profound sense of the word. Strength here stems from the recognition that the poet has come from God and will one day return to Him, and that she must make her way through time to the place where there will be none."!

Roberta Reeder: "Anna Akhmatova, Poet and Prophet"
Thiếu Khanh, Hồ Việt Nguyễn and 8 others












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