Anna Akhmatova Tribute

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Robert Chandler


Anna Akhmatova, pseudonym of

Anna Gorenko (1889-1966)


Anna Andreyevna Gorenko's father was a maritime engineer. She was born near Odessa, but her family moved to Tsarskoye Selo, near St Petersburg, before she was one year old. She began publishing poetry in her late teens; since her father considered this unrespectable, she adopted her grandmother's Tatar surname - Akhmatova. In her last years she wrote this of her name:


Dense, impenetrable, Tatar,

 drawn from God knows when,

it clings to every disaster,

itself a doom without end.


In 1910 she married Nikolay Gumilyov, whom she had first met seven years earlier and who had encouraged her in her writing. She was a key member of Gumilyov's Guild of Poets and of the Acmeist movement into which it developed. Though Akhmatova always remained loyal both to Acmeism in general and to Gumilyov's memory, their marriage seems to have been unhappy from the beginning. Another important early relationship was with the Italian artist Amadeo Modigliani, then young and unknown, with whom Akhmatova spent time in Paris in 1910 and 1911. Modigliani made at least sixteen drawings of her, though few have survived."


    In 1918 Akhmatova and Gumilyov divorced. Akhmatova married the Assyriologist Vladimir Shileyko but separated from him after two years. During the 1920s and early 1930s she lived with the art critic Nikolay Punin; both Punin and Lev Gumilyov, Akhmatova's son by her first husband, were to serve several terms in the Gulag.


    Between 1912 and 1921 Akhmatova published five books, to much acclaim; most of the poems are love lyrics, delicate and concise. In 1921, however, Gumilyov was shot for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy and it became difficult, eventually impossible, for Akhmatova to publish her own work. She wrote little between 1922 and 1940 and during most of her life she supported herself through translation; the poet Anatoly Naiman remembers her translating every day until lunchtime. Although she translated a few poems by Victor Hugo, Leopardi and other European poets, she worked mostly with languages she did not know, using cribs; she appears to have valued her translations of Serb epics and Korean classical poetry, though most of this work was no more than a necessary routine. She also wrote perceptive, scholarly articles about Pushkin.


    Many of Akhmatova's friends emigrated after the Revolution, but Akhmatova made a conscious choice to share the destiny of her country. From the mid-1920S she embraced the role of witness to the tragedies of her age. She recalled later that by 1935 every time she went to see off a friend being sent into exile, she would find herself greeting countless other friends on the way to the railway station; there were always writers, scholars and artists leaving on the same train." As well as political epigrams, Akhmatova wrote two important long poems. The first, 'Requiem', is a response to the Great Terror of 1936-8. 'Poem without a Hero' (composed from 1940 to 1965) is longer and more cryptic; in it Akhmatova revisits her Bohemian past with mingled guilt, horror and pity. Neither poem was published in Russia until the late 1980s.


    During the Second World War Akhmatova - along with Shostakovich and other Leningrad artists - was evacuated to Tashkent. In late 1945 and early 1946 the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, then attached to the British Embassy, visited her in her apartment. He impressed her deeply, and he appears several times in her later poetry as a mysterious 'guest from the future'. Soon after this visit, Akhmatova and the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko were expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. This was simply a part of the general post-war crackdown, but Akhmatova firmly believed it was a punishment for her meetings with Berlin.


    Akhmatova's son Lev Gumilyov was rearrested in late 1949. Hoping to bring about his release, she wrote a poem in praise of Stalin. Her son, however, remained in the camps until 1956.


    During her last years Akhmatova was a mentor to Joseph Brodsky and other younger poets. She was allowed to travel to Sicily to receive the Taormina Prize, then to England to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Her last public appearance was at the Bolshoy Theatre in October I965, during a celebration of the 700th anniversary of the birth of Dante. There she read her poem about Dante's exile and quoted other poems about Dante by Gumilyov and Mandelstam, neither of whom had yet been republished in the Soviet Union. In her notes for this talk she wrote, 'When ill-wishers mockingly ask what Gumilyov, Mandelstam and Akhmatova have in common, I want to reply "Love for Dante".


    In November I965 Akhmatova suffered a heart attack, and she died in March I966. Her life during her last decades was recorded in detail by Lydia Chukovskaya in her Akhmatova Journals.


    Osip Mandelstam said that Akhmatova 'brought into the Russian lyric all the huge complexity and psychological richness of the nineteenth-century Russian novel' Boris Pasternak wrote, 'All her descriptions, whether of a remote spot in a forest or of the noisy street life of the metropolis, are sustained by an uncommon flair for details."! Akhmatova herself noted in 1961, 'I listened to the Dragonfly Waltz from Shostakovich's Ballet Suite. It is a miracle. It seems that it is being danced by grace itself. Is it possible to do with the word what he does with sound?'


    Akhmatova's poems are always graceful and the finest attain the intensity of prayers or spells. Almost all are in rhyme, though we have not always reproduced this. The second epilogue to 'Requiem' proved particularly difficult. All our attempts at reproducing its rhyming couplets seemed to compromise the dignified tone and almost architectural structure of the original.




The pillow’s just as hot                                                

when I turn it over.

And now a second candle

is guttering, and crows

Not a wink. . . And it's too late

even to think of sleep.

White, blindingly white —

a blind on a white window.                                                   

       Good morning!                                                         


                                               Robert Chandler  



                                 Song of a Last Encounter                                                   


I walked without dragging my feet

but felt heavy at heart and frightened;

and I pulled onto my left hand

the glove that belonged to the right one.


There seemed to be countless steps,

though I knew there were only three,                                         

and an autumn voice from the maples                                        

whispered, 'Die with me!                                                     


I have been undone by a fate

that is cheerless, flighty and cruel.'                                       

I replied, 'So have I, my dearest —                                          

let me die one death with you . .       


The song of a last encounter:

I glanced up at a dark wall:

from the bedroom indifferent candles

glowed yellow. . . And that was all.


                 (1911, Tsarskoye Selo)

                                               Robert Chandler


Careful, puss, there's an owl

embroidered on the chair.

Grey puss, don’t growl —

or Grandpapa will hear.

The candle's gone out;

there are mice on the stair.

I'm afraid of that owl.

Nanny, who put it there?



                                               Robert Chandler



We're all boozers and floozies here,

altogether a joyless crowd!

On the walls, the flowers and birds

yearn for clouds.


You sit puffing your black pipe;

smoke is rising, strange and dim.

This tight skirt makes me look

slimmer than slim.


The windows  boarded  up for good 

what's out there? Lightning? Snow?

Like those of a cautious cat

your eyes glow.


What is my heart longing for?

Am I waiting for Death's knell?

And the woman dancing now

is bound for Hell.



                                             Margo Shohl Rosen


We  had  thought we were beggars,

with nothing at all,

but as loss followed loss

and each day

became a day of memorial,

we began to make  songs

about  the Lord's generosity

and our bygone  wealth.


                               (1915, St Petersburg, Trinity Bridge)

                                                Robert Chandler






Grant me  years of sickness and fever;

make  me  sleepless for months at a time.

Take away my child and  my lover

and the mysterious gift of rhyme.

As the air grows ever more sultry,

this is the prayer I recite:

and may  the storm cloud over my country

be shot  through with rays of light.


        (11 May 1915, Day of the Holy Spirit, St Petersburg)

                                                  Robert Chandler



                                       from  “Epic Motifs”


I would  gaze anxiously, as if into a mirror,

at the grey canvas, and  with every week

my  likeness to my  new depiction grew

more strange and bitter . . .



                               Boris Dralyuk and Margo Shohl Rosen



                                    “The Muse”


             I feel my life hang by a hair

             as I wait at night for the Muse;

             youth, freedom,  fame melt  into air

             as my  guest appears  with her flute.


             She enters, tosses back her shawl;

             her half-closed eyes let nothing pass.

             'So it was  you who sang of Hell

             to Dante?' Yes,' she says, 'it was.'



                                                  Robert Chandler





In Memory  of Sergey Yesenin


There are such easy ways

to leave this life,

to burn to an end

without pain or thought,

but a Russian poet

has no such luck.

A bullet is more likely

to show his winged soul

the way to Heaven;

or else the shaggy paw

of voiceless terror will squeeze

the life out of his heart

as if it were a sponge.



                                                  Robert Chandler




             Here the loveliest of young women fight

             for the honour of marrying the hangmen;

             here the righteous are tortured at night

             and the resolute worn down by hunger.



                                                  Robert Chandler




                  -for Osip Mandelstam


      All the town's gripped in an icy fist.

      Trees and walls and snow are set in glass.

      I pick my timid way across the crystal.

      Unsteadily the painted sledges pass.

      Flocks of crows above St Peter's, wheeling.

      The dome amongst the poplars, green and pale in

      subdued and dusty winter sunlight, and

      echoes of ancient battles that come stealing

      out across the proud, victorious land.

      Suddenly, overhead, the poplars

      rattle, like glasses ringing in a toast,

      as if a thousand guests were raising tumblers

      to celebrate the marriage of their host.


      But in the exiled poet's hideaway

      the muse and terror fight their endless fight

      throughout the night.

      So dark a night will never see the day.



                                                  Peter Oram

Imitation  of the Armenian


I shall come to you in a dream,

a black ewe that can barely stand;

I'll stagger up to you and I'll bleat,

'Shah of Shahs, have you dined well?

You are protected by Allah's will,

the world is a bead in your hand . . .

And did my son's flesh taste sweet?

Did your children enjoy their lamb?



                                               Robert Chandler





                 I'm certainly not a Sibyl;

                 my life is clear as a stream.

                 I just don't feel like singing

                 to the rattle of prison keys.



                                               Robert Chandler                



Mayakovsky in  the Year 1913                                


Although I didn't know your days of glory                             

I was present at your tempestuous dawn                                   

and today I'll take a small step back in history                          

to remember, as I'm entitled to, times gone.

With every line, your words increased in power!                          

Unheard-of voices gathering in swarms!                              

Those were no idle hands that threw up such towering

and menacing new   forms!

Everything you touched suddenly seemed

somehow altered, different from before,

and whatever you destroyed, remained

that way, and in every syllable the roar

of judgement. Often dissatisfied, alone,

driven on by an impatient fate,

you knew how  fast the time was nearing when

you'd leap, excited, joyful, to the fight.

We could hear, as we listened to you read,

the reverberating thunder of the waters

and the   downpour squinted angrily as you slid

into your wild confrontations with the city.

Your name,  in those days unfamiliar, flashed

like streaks of lightning through the stuffy hall.

It's with us still today, remembered, cherished

throughout the land, a thundering battle call.



                                                   Peter Oram


        from “Requiem


                     Instead of a Preface


During the terrible years of the Yezhov Terror I spent seventeen months waiting in the queues outside the Leningrad prisons. Once someone happened to 'recognize' me. Then a  woman with pale blue lips who was standing behind me, and who  had never before even heard of me, awoke from the blank  numbness common  to all  of us and said in my ear (everyone there spoke in a whisper):

   'Can you describe this?'

   And I answered:


Then something resembling a smile slid over what had once

been her face.

                                                 (1 April 1957)


Second  Epilogue


Once more the hour of remembrance:

I can see you all, hear you all, sense you all:

one they could barely help to the window,

one who no longer treads this earth,

one who once tossed her beautiful head

and said, 'It's like coming back home.'


I'd wanted to call each one by name,

but the list's gone and there's nowhere to ask;


I've woven a broad shroud for them

out of thin words I heard from their lips.


I remember them always, everywhere;

even new sorrows won't  make me forget;


and if they gag my worn-out mouth

through which a hundred million people


scream, then may I be remembered too,

each anniversary of my death.


And if ever in this country of mine

they should decide to put up a statue


to me, then I will accept this honour

on one condition: that it be placed


neither where I was born, by the sea —

my last tie with the sea has been torn —


nor by the tree stump I love in that charmed park,

the haunt of a spirit I can't console,


but here, where I stood for three hundred hours

and they never drew back the bolts:


because I fear that, in the bliss of death,

I may forget the rumble of Black Marias,


                    from Three Poems"


The poet was right: once again —

lantern, side-street, drugstore,

A monument to our century's

first years, there he stands, as when,

waving goodbye to Pushkin House,

he drank a mortal weariness —

as if such peace

were more than he deserved.



                                                Robert Chandler



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