Akhmatova: grief, revolution, icebergs

I

I found out how faces wilt
How beneath eyelids fear looks out
how suffering cheeks become stiff pages of cuneiform
How black hair
Is suddenly made ashen.
And how, on submissive lips, smiles wither
and fright trembles in a small dry laugh.
And I do not pray for myself only
But for all who stood with me
In the fierce cold and in July’s white heat,
Under the red unseeing wall.
(–Requiem, Epilogue)

She waits for news of her son in prison. So many wait with her.

I love Akhmatova (1889-1966), know there is so much that can’t be translated. Langauge, of course. But meaning also, because of this very specific kind of writing which means probably that me, here, now–I can never read most of the meanings she intended.

Objects, events and characters have been omitted. We feel their existences [though ‘we’ don’t always, because this is not our context] but can’t find them on the page. The images that are there, however, have a strange aptness to this missing context … Acmeism. The explanation we like best is that the Acmeist poem is supposed to be like the tip of an iceberg. Only one-tenth of its mass juts out of the water, but the submerged nine-tenths is also present.
— Lenore Mayhew and William McNaughton, 24

But that’s all right.

I also love this quote from Korney Chukovsky:

It looks as if all of Russia has divided into the Akhmatovas and the Mayakovskys. There is a gap of thousands of years between these people. And they hate one another.

Akhmatova and Mayakovsky are as hostile to each other as the times that made them. Akhmatova is an assiduous inheritor of the most valuable pre-revolutionary treasure of Russian literary culture. She has many ancestors: Pushkin, Boratynsky, and Annensky among them. She has that elegance of spirit and the charm that one acquires through centuries of cultural tradition. … Akhmatova has kept the old Russia, the motherland, “our soil.” He, like a true bard of the revolution, is an internationalist, a citizen of the world, who treats with indifference the “snowy monster,” the motherland…He is in the street, at a mass meeting, in a crowd, he is himself a crowd…

And then, like me, despite being a diehard for the revolution’s hope if not its outcome:

I can say of myself only that … to my surprise, I love both of them … (15-16)

She was from St Petersburg with its shifting names, the heart of the Russian revolution, the siege of Leningrad:

excerpt from ‘To My City’:

And when you did not become my tomb,
You, granite-like, satanic, kind,
You turned pale, became dead and silent,
Our separation is a lie:
I can never be separated from you,
My shadow is on your walls,
My image is in your canals,
The sound of my steps is in the rooms of the Hermitage,
Where I walked with my friend,
And in the old Volkovo Field
Where I could weep freely
Above the silent communal graves.
And what has been noted in the first part
Of love, of passion, of betrayal,
Free verse has thrown down from her wings,
My city stands ‘sewed up’…
The grave-stones weigh heavily
Over your unsleeping eyes.
But it seems as if you follow me,
You who stayed to die
In brightness of steeples
in brightness of water.
–finished in Tashkent, August 18, 1942

From ‘Secrets of the Trade’

X

So much waits,
To use my voice;
A certain wordless rattle
An underground rock in the dark
And something
That fights its way out
Through smoke.
My account’s not settled
With fire
With wind, with water…
So that in light sleep
Suddenly, gates open up
And I go out
Toward the Morning Star.
–1942

The final poem of this lovely collection:

A land not native
That stays in the mind
like a native land
And in the sea, a water not salty
And caressingly cold.

The sand underneath
whiter than chalk
And an inebriate air,
And the rosy body of the pine
Naked in the sunset.

And in this last light
on waves of ether
I can’t tell if the day ends
Or the world, or if it is only,
In me again,
the mystery of mysteries.
(1964)

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