The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

by Anna Akhmatova, Roberta Reeder, Judith Hemschemeyer,
1604 pages,
ISBN: 0939010135

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The Soul Of Russia
by Al Purdy

A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN she was not, on the evidence I It nearly a hundred photographs tit these two books. She was majestic instead, her Dose imperial Roman, unsmiling, for every camera. She possessed immense natural dignity. Men fell in love with her continually. She married three times. Even in old age, her face and cariage were triking and received homage. Indeed, she expected homage, almost demanded it according to some who knew her well; and accepted it without Surprise. The Grande Dame, yet rather pitiful tit old age -11thot1_(,h he rejected pit,, fiercely. Anna Akhmatova. Born in 1889 of a well-to-do family, she was told by her father when she began to write poetry that lie did not want his name (Gorenko) associated with "that trade." She changed hers to Akhmatova, the Tatar name of a maternal ancestor, and made the new name famous. Prior to the First World War, in St. Petersburg (which became Leningrad After the Revolution), Akhmatova sometimes read her poems at a bohemian cabaret, The Stray Dog. So did Alexander Blok, reverenced by a flood of admirers, and "the cloud in trousers," Vladimir Mayakovsky. In 1903 she met a young poet, Nicolay Gumilyov, and married him in 1910. Gumilyov and his group of poets, which included Akhmatova, rejected the current craze of Symbolism; instead they founded a group called "The Acmeists," which stood for a poetry of real experience and tangible objects. Between 1905 and 1908 Gumilyov attempted suicide several times. At one point he Was found lying unconscious in the Bois de Boulogne, presumably in Paris. In 1906, Akhmatova tells of her own suicide attempt in a letter to her brother-in-law. "To die is easy," she said. "Did Andrey tell you how I attempted to ham, myself in Evpatoriya and the nail pulled Out of the plaster wall I Mama cried and I was ashamed -- it was awful." Over the 10-year period between 1912 and 1922, which included the First World War and the Russian Revolution, Akhmatova published five books of poetry. These were mostly love poems, and were very popular with Young people at the time. She claimed, of course, that the poems did not reflect her own life (most poets do claim that), and were not autobiographical -- which is true, in a sense. But one learns much about the woman from these poems: her romantic yearning for the perfect human relationship, her work growing in intensity and depth of feeling, and expanding in its subject matter. In 1922 Mayakovsky denounced Akhmatova`s poetry publicly, although she was as non-political as it was possible to be after the Revolution. Mayakovsky`s mistress of that time said later that lie read Akhmatova constantly, every day, But the Communist regime, growing ever more puritanical and repressive, Could not abide Akhmatova`s love poems: at least that seems to be one possible reason for her disfavour. Also: some of her friends were actually engaged in "alarums and excursions" of counter-revolution. After 1925 she was not allowed to publish in the Soviet Union. Zdanov, one of Stalin`s obedient minions, called her "half min and half harlot." A critic, one Pertzov, said of her, "We cannot sympathize with a woman who did not know when to die." I find this quite incredible! And horrible! These two enormous books amount to a complete galaxy of Akhmatova`s poems, and much else besides. There`s a fulllength biography by Roberta Reeder, the editor; several memoirs by people who knew her well; a chronology; mid many, many photographs. The translator, Judith Hemschemeyer, learned Russian for the task, and devoted several years to it, receiving encomiums for her work. I have previously read several other books related to Akhmatova: Nadezhda Mandelstam`s memoir, Hope Against Hope; Olga Ivinskaya`s reminiscences (she was Pasternak`s friend); and, more important, Olga Carlisle`s anthology of Russian poets, Poets on Streetcorners (1968). There are many of Akhmatova`s poems in Streetcorners, translated by various hands, including Stanley Kunitz, Adrienne Rich, Rose Styron, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell. Lowell "adapted" Akhmatova`s "Requiem," written after her son Lev`s last arrest and imprisonment in Leningrad. This long 11-part poem is regarded by many, including myself, as Akluriatova`s best. "Requiem" was first published, long after its composition, in Munich, Germany, tit 1963. Lowell included his adaptation of the poem tit his Imitations. It begins tit prose, with Akhmatova waiting, along with many other relatives and friends of the prisoners, in "the prison lines at Leningrad." Another woman, apparently recognizing the poet, whis pered in her ear, "Could you describe this?" Akhmatova answered, "Yes, I can.". Lowell used quatrains, off-rhymes, and rough metrics in his adaptation; Hemschemeyer free verse in her translations. Using the latter method, I think it`s much more difficult to make a poem memorable and meaningful. As a study in comparative translation then, here are the last five verses of Akhmatova`s "Requiem" as adapted by each writer (spaces between stanzas omitted). Lowell: Friends, if you want some monument gravestone or cross to stand for me you have in, my blessing and consent, but do not place it by the sea. I was a sea-child, hardened by the polar Baltics grinding dark; that tie is gone: I will not lie, a Tsar`s child in the Tsarist park. Far from your ocean, Leningrad, I leave my body where I stood three hundred hours in lines with those who watched unlifted prison windows. Safe in deaths arms, I lie awake, and hear the mother`s animal roar, the black truck slamming on its brake, the senseless hammering of the door. Ah, the Bronze Horseman wipes his eye and melts, a prison pigeon coos, the ice goes out, the Neva goes with its slow barges to the sea. (that is not the poetry of a "Grande Dame") And Hemschemeyer: And if ever in this country They decide to erect a monument to me, I consent to that honor Under these conditions: that it stand Neither by the sea, where I was born MN last tie with the sea is broken, Nor in the Tsar`s garden near the cherished pine stump, Where an inconsolable shade looks- for me, But here, where I stood three hundred hours, And where they never unbolted the doors for me. This, lest in blissful death I forget the rumbling of the Black Marias, Forget how that detested door slammed shut And an old woman howled like a wounded animal. And may the melting snow stream like tears From my motionless lips of bronze, And a prison dove coo in the distance, And the ships of the Neva sail calmly on. Lowell called his version of "Requiem" an "imitation," a free adaptation of Akhmatova; Hemschemeyer`s is probably truer to the original, but nevertheless is still only an approximation. After Stalin died in 1953, Akhmatova`s verse was again published in the Soviet Union; and a reverence for her began. Most of her friends were long dead, from imprisonment in Siberia, as victims of execution, or simply old age; but a new generation loved her poems. Joseph Brodsky, before he emigrated to the United States, was one of her proteges. Some critics have called her the greatest woman poet since Sappho; but it is impossible to judge Sappho`s work accurately since so little of it remains. In ,my case, Akhmatova left behind a legend as well as her poems when she died in 1966, a woman who, in the minds of some admirers, is emblematic of the soul of Russia. And the "Requiem" suite (Lowell`s version) is indelible in my own memory. In a country where most of the citizens were prisoners, incarcerated or not, Akhmatova was a free woman and lived her life as one. I admire her immensely. During her lifetime she rarely had very Much money. When her poems were banned she translated foreign literature for small remuneration. Her friends -- Pasternak among them -- helped her; she helped them. It may be thought that her life was tragic. Perhaps, but it was also a triumph: Yes, I can

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