Edward W Batchelder

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A Summoning of Ghosts

The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova
Anna Akhmatova, trans. Judith Hemschemeyer
(Zephyr Press)

cover of Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova

In a tribute to Anna Akhmatova last March at Harvard, the Russian actress Alla Demidova gave a recitation from memory of Requiem, Akhmatova’s long poem for the victims of Stalin’s purges. With periodic snatches of Mozart’s Requiem played in the background, you could hear how Akhmatova’s lines followed the same pulsing rhythms, the same sad, swooping cadences as the music. It was a stupefying performance—less a recitation than an incantation or a summoning of ghosts.

Akhmatova dedicated the poem to the women she met during the seventeen months of her son’s imprisonment in Leningrad’s Kresty Prison, when she waited with hundreds of others outside the walls for some word of those on the inside. “And like a useless appendage, Leningrad/swung from its prisons,” Akhmatova wrote. The terrible emotions of those months, in which the women moved through cycles of terror, hope, and despair only to land finally in some nether world of numb endurance, are sketched out in the preface, as she describes how one day someone in line identified her as a poet:

Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me . . . woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered, “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.

Akhmatova’s career spanned possibly the most turbulent and difficult half-century in Russian history, from the glittering, fin de siècle era of the last of the Czars to her death at age seventy-six in the sixties. In between lay the Revolution, two world wars, repeated waves of censorship and repression, and the exile, execution, or imprisonment of virtually everyone close to her. Although Akhmatova had made her early fame as a love poet, she became increasingly dedicated to the mandate of that simple affirmation given outside the Kresty Prison—to describe what was experienced in those years. Yet suffering had always been, in a certain sense, Akhmatova’s natural element, and her earliest poems indicate a woman who gave herself again and again to it. Not out of weakness, certainly, nor masochism, nor any romantic notion of what constitutes the proper life of a poet. She gave herself to it because, as she wrote in her first book at the age of twenty-two:

We wanted piercing anguish
Instead of placid happiness

and if the poems tend to take as their subject the woman abandoned or mistreated by her lover, there is always a tension in them between the emotions described and the understated strength of the woman experiencing them. Lines like:

And his glances—like rays.
I merely shuddered: this one
Could tame me . . .
Let love be the gravestone
Lying on my life.

find their counterpoint in lines like these:

Ah—you thought I’d be the type
You could forget,
And that praying and sobbing, I’d throw myself
Under the hooves of a bay . . . .
Damned if I will. Neither by glance nor by groan
Will I touch your cursed soul.

Akhmatova’s use of the simple, unembellished idiom, the off-hand aside in the midst of passion, has the effect of snapping taut a line which seems to be slackening.

As Osip Mandelstam pointed out, Akhmatova’s primary influences were not the poets who preceded her but the novelists: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. It was Akhmatova’s gift to be able to lyricize their method, to encapsulate in brief, pungent sketches the psychological insight they had brought to their novels. Much of the tragic sense of her work derives from its biting honesty about what passes for love:

How unlike a caress,
the touch of those hands.
As one might stroke a cat or a bird

and what can, in fact, be achieved even in the best of situations:

There is a sacred boundary between those who are close,
and it cannot be crossed by passion or love—
Those who strive to reach it are mad, and those
Who reach it—stricken by grief . . .
Now you understand why my heart
Does not beat faster under your hand.

It’s this that gives the poems their strength, one that exempts them from the slightest traces of self-pity or desire for sympathy. Akhmatova possessed the sort of spiritual fatalism that not only endures difficulty but transforms it through acceptance. The men in the poems may be brutes, the women flirts, but beneath it all lies a different, far more profound motive.

Yet because her work was highly personal, more concerned with the individual than the collective experience, she came under fire in the years after the Revolution for what was perceived as her essentially bourgeois stance. Her first husband, from whom she had separated, was executed in 1921 for his alleged participation in an anti-government plot, and Akhmatova’s work was banned four years later.

It is one of the ironies of her life that she was condemned by the government for being overly self-concerned, while at the same time her voice was broadening and deepening as a result of the punishments they inflicted on her. If the early poems had taken as their subject the torments of love, then the poems of the thirties and later would take on the torments of history. Akhmatova became, in the words of a friend, “Anna of all Rus,” not so much the conscience of her country as its sentience, less the moralistic sermonizer than the scribe and record of what was felt.

In this way her lyrical method, with its reliance on the immediacy of her own emotion, served her well. The power of Akhmatova’s Requiem lies in its avoidance of any sort of epic narration. Instead, one is led through a series of chilling vignettes, some of which describe physical events:

Quietly flows the quiet Don,
Yellow moon slips into a home.
He slips in with cap askew,
He sees a shadow, yellow moon.
This woman is ill,
This woman is alone,
Husband in the grave, son in prison,
Say a prayer for me.

and some emotional ones, like Akhmatova’s self-reproaches for her earlier life:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life—
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison . . .

but each of the sections remains centered in direct experience.

Some appreciation of the difficulties of those years is possible when one learns that, because Akhmatova was terrified that her work would be used against her son in prison, Requiem was for years never committed to paper. She composed in her head, and then confided sections of the poem to different friends for memorization, periodically calling on them to recite to make sure their memories were in order.

Other poems of this period, in a technique learned from Pushkin, address her situation more elliptically. Akhmatova used the framework of legends and history to write about the tyranny she was experiencing in the present. In the “Imitation from the Armenian,” she addresses Stalin bitterly in the guise of the Shah:

I will appear in your dreams as a black ewe,
On withered, unsteady legs
I will approach you, begin to bleat, to howl:
“Padishah, have you supped daintily?
You hold the universe, like a bead,
You are cherished by Allah’s radiant will . . .
And was he tasty, my little son?
Did he please you, please your children?”

and in a poem addressed to Dante she refers to his love for his homeland that had exiled him:

. . . his ancient Florence . . .
                  —his beloved,
Perfidious, base, longed for.

Despite many opportunities, Akhmatova herself refused to leave Russia, and in fact wrote scornful poems about her friends who had. She embraced her country as deeply as she had embraced earlier tribulations, and her life become sort of a terrible experiment in how much can be taken away from a person without the total destruction of the spirit.

What remained, toward the end, were increasingly her memories. Poem without a Hero, which was begun during the siege of Leningrad in 1940 and not finished until 1962, is a sixty-page evocation of pre-revolutionary Russia. The Silver Age of Russian literature, when Symbolists, Futurists, and Acmeists (the loose group to which Akhmatova, her first husband, and Mandelstam belonged) all co-existed in the same literary cafes, is summoned up and re-examined through the thick glass of everything that had happened since. It’s a poem steeped in a certain amount of guilt—the guilt of the survivor, or perhaps the guilt of the ascetic looking back upon her reckless youth:

It’s the devil’s own work, rummaging through this chest . . .
But how does it come to pass
That I am totally guilty of everything?

The poem is a dense web of private recollections, allusions, brief descriptions, and quotations. She refused to simplify it (in fact, one section deals with the complaints of a hypothetical editor), and the fluidity with which she moves through the various scenes and time periods, intercutting them with references to literary works, becomes almost hallucinatory.

One has a vision of a woman in almost total isolation, encased in her memories and imbued with the imperative of recording them so that they might exist after her death. The task she had taken on in front of the Kresty Prison came to seem increasingly burdensome, and she writes about being tormented by memories, about how her life became a series of tragic anniversaries:

The “unforgettable dates” are approaching again,
And not one among them that is not damned.

Akhmatova was left like the sole survivor of a shipwreck, who washes ashore carrying with her the last mementos of a sunken and irretrievable culture. Her gifts were such that, with these few fragments left to her, she was able to conjure both the glories and the tragedies of that culture so fully.

There are a number of editions of Akhmatova in English, but until this collection, published by the small Zephyr Press in Massachusetts, there has never been one either so directly accessible or so comprehensive. The result of an almost Sisyphean seven years of research and production, the book contains every known poem of Akhmatova, including those which have surfaced only during the last few years of glasnost. It includes as well a thorough introduction by the editor, Roberta Reeder, rare photographs, several memoirs of Akhmatova, extensive notes to the poems, and the Russian originals on the facing pages.

More than anything, though, for those of us who don’t read Russian, the book’s center will be the translations by the poet Judith Hemschemeyer. Thankfully, Hemschemeyer has wisely decided to translate the poems without attempting to duplicate the full rhymes and regular meter of the original Russian, an insurmountable challenge to which virtually every other edition has fallen victim. Instead, she employs a wide range of subtler devices—assonance, off rhyme, and internal rhyme—to evoke the music of the originals.

Nonetheless, because Akhmatova was such a distinctive master of prosody, this decision has generated a certain amount of controversy. Joseph Brodsky, for instance, has come out against this translation, and yet it seems clear from the recitation of Requiem at the Akhmatova tribute that the full music of the original is unduplicatable. Russian is much richer in multi-syllabic words than English, and poets who have attempted to duplicate its distinctive rhythms have been forced to resort to archaic or complex language. When the added burden of regular, full rhymes is factored in, the freshness and directness of Akhmatova’s diction vanishes entirely under the weight. Compare Hemschemeyer’s translation of this quatrain about the stillness of the moment before inspiration:

         . . . one can hear the grass growing in the woods,
         How misfortune with a knapsack plods the earth . . .
         But now words are beginning to be heard
         And the signaling chimes of light rhymes—

with a translation by Walter Arndt (although the same point could be made with any of the rhymed and metered translations):

         You hear the forest come in grass new-grown,
         You hear the tread of satchel-toting evil.
         By now, however, words have come to drone,
         like signal bells the airy rhyming jingles,

Hemschemeyer exploits the off rhyme of “earth” and “heard,” as well as the internal rhyme with “words,” and of “chimes” with “rhymes.” Additional connections exist between “woods,” “plods,” and “words.” The result gives the effect of a regular rhythm and rhyme without having to contort the language.

The freedom of Hemschemeyer’s approach enables her to overcome many of the blind spots that have marred earlier translations. Part of what inspires any translator is a desire to put right the errors of others, and Hemschemeyer has cited as an example a poem Akhmatova wrote about her first husband:

         He loved three things in life:
         Evensong, white peacocks
         And old maps of America.
         He hated it when children cried,
         He hated tea with raspberry jam
         And woman’s hysterics.
         . . . and I was his wife.

In a translation by Stanley Kunitz, this reads:

         Three things enchanted him:
         white peacocks, evensong,
         and faded maps of America.
         He couldn’t stand bawling brats,
         or raspberry jam with his tea,
         or womanish hysteria.
         . . . And he was tied to me.

Kunitz’s translations are generally admirable, and among the loveliest for their musical quality, and yet in pursuit of the music and rhyme he has ended up distorting the entire focus of the poem. Akhmatova, in the last line, quite deliberately redirected the reader’s attention back to herself, to the grim improbability of her marriage to such a man. In Kunitz’s version, the focus remains on the man, with the result that the poet herself becomes a sort of attached baggage, the man’s “ball and chain,” to use the chauvinistic vernacular. Not that Kunitz himself meant to imply anything of the sort; it’s merely the type of shift, as Hemschemeyer points out, that a man might make without even noticing it. For a woman the difference is palpable.

Ironically, it’s by virtue of her recognition of the limits of translation that Hemschemeyer is able to render such lucid and immediately emotive versions of Akhmatova’s poems. Her translations seem to hang so close to the original that one might almost use them to learn Russian by; at the same time, they attain a music of their own.

© Edward W Batchelder
(from Poetry Flash)

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