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Poems with a Heroine


by Anna Akhmatova, selected and translated by Lyn Coffin, introduction by Joseph Brodsky
Norton, 100 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Akhmatova’s Petersburg

by Sharon Leiter
University of Pennsylvania Press, 215 pp., $20.00

Anna Akhmatova had been in her youth one of the “Acmeist” poets, along with her husband Gumilev and Mandelstam. Acmeism was essentially a reaction against the symbolist movement in Russian poetry, a movement that tended, as such things do in Russia, to extremes, in this case extremes of uplift, mysticism, apocalypse. Acmeism by contrast was concerned with poetry as architecture, and poems as objects of weight and mass-produced as if in a workshop (the poets’ guild or workshop was one of the group’s other names for itself). The most important early influence on Akhmatova was her discovery of the poems of Innokenti Annensky, an expert translator and scholar of ancient Greek, who had written—they were published posthumously—a volume of verses called The Cypress Box. Her early poems are precise evocations of places, moments, loves, deceptive intensities of being, carved out with reticence and a kind of inner dignity.

It is significant that the Russian symbolist poets, notably Blok and Bryusov, hailed the revolution of 1917 in their whole consciousness. They were fascinated by the idea of such a thing. Their attitude was not unlike that of Yeats in “The Second Coming” and “Lapis Lazuli,” joyfully greeting the end of order and the coming of the “rough beast” in a spirit of “gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Terror was merely an exciting and poetical idea to them, as the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem was for Yeats. The Acmeists’ reaction was very different: they recognized facts and truths when they saw them. Pasternak in Dr. Zhivago refers to Blok’s line, “we children of Russia’s terrible years,” and he remarks dryly that those years really had been terrible for those who had been killed, bereaved, or imprisoned. The symbolic status of revolution was not the same thing as what actually occurred, and the Acmeists were only interested in what actually occurred.

Because of this common sense, as one has to call it, Akhmatova, like Mandelstam, can write about virtually anything. It is hard to think of any poetry in English, and certainly of none written in the last century, that has the range of hers, and the amazing power to rise to an occasion. Mandelstam said that great poetry was often a response to total disaster, and it is true that we may think of Milton, blind and at the mercy of his political enemies, setting out to write Paradise Lost. True in some heroic ages perhaps, but not much in our own, when poets in their sufferings have been more apt to lose themselves, like Pound muttering in his Cantos, or to say with Yeats: “I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent.” With her husband shot and her son imprisoned, Akhmatova wrote her poem Requiem between 1935 and 1940, telling of her experiences in the Yezhov terror. They were common experiences, as she emphasizes in the simple sentences of prose that preface the poem, describing how one day a woman in the great queue that stood permanently outside the prison recognized her and said in a whisper, ” ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘I can.’ “

She could. Rare indeed for a poet to rise like that to such a challenge. But the whole poem has about it the dignity of utter simplicity, without false modesty or any attempt at the common touch. She describes her experiences as if they happened to her only, like words in a gospel, the equivalent in art of what she called the severe and shapely spirit of Russian orthodoxy. In this spirit she concludes by saying that if her countrymen ever want to make a monument to her she would consent if they put it outside the prison gates where she had stood, and where the news she longed for never came through the door.

And may the melting snow drop like tears
From my motionless bronze eyelids,

And the prison pigeons coo above me
And the ships sail slowly down the Neva.

That is D.M. Thomas’s translation, from a rendering of Requiem and Poem Without a Hero published in 1976. In her new version from a selection of Akhmatova’s poems, Lyn Coffin attempts, and not without success, the flowing meter of the original.

Let from the lids of bronze, un- moving eyes
Snow melt and stream like the tears each human cries,

And let in the distance the prison pigeons coo,
While along the Neva, ships pass quietly through.

That has the movement but not the weight, or the calm simplicity. Thomas is better at giving an idea of that. As usual the problem is insoluble, but never mind: Coffin’s is a good try that deserves as much credit as the cautious versions, or more. In her long poem sequences Akhmatova uses meters of great robustness and subtlety in the Russian which when transposed into English can often sound all too like Shelley or Poe at their most ebullient. The strong accents and stresses of Russian have a variety and flexibility that iron out a regular beat that would otherwise dominate the more docile English syllables. The meter of Poem Without a Hero, for example, has an extraordinarily commanding and stately rhythm, reminiscent of the Dies Irae, which could be Englished with its rhyme scheme as follows (the section refers to the ponderous march of the twentieth century, “the real not the calendar one,” advancing on Petersburg like the stone effigy of the commander in Don Juan):

Thus up every street there came drumming, So past every porch it was com- ing, The shape finding its way in the gloom.
Gusts tore the placards off the pal- ings, Smoke spun a dance over the railings, And the lilac flowers smelt of the tomb.

It was the metrical movement, percussive and minatory, that first started itself in Akhmatova’s head, so she tells us, before any words came. In the Russian it sounds measured and relaxed, as calm as the stride of a great cat. The experts would say that the Akhmatovan line here consists of two anapests with an amphibrach, or two with an iamb, a combination so rare as to be virtually extinct, and certainly never found before on this scale. Annensky would no doubt have appreciated it, but it seems unlikely that akhmatova herself would or could have worked it out theoretically.

The most complex and enigmatic of her works, Poem Without a Hero (Poema bez geroia), combines the personal and the historical somewhat in the manner of The Waste Land, but a great deal more dramatically. It is a poem of expiation, both for the personal sins she felt she and her contemporaries in St. Petersburg were guilty of, and for the national sorrows and horrors in part expunged by the great struggle for liberation against the Germans. It is certainly an arcane poem—Akhmatova called it “a Chinese box with a triple base,” but its personal and literary allusions do not disturb its majestic liturgical flow. Even more than The Waste Land it is a poem that seems to call for explanations and yet does not really need them. It is essentially a voice poem, in the tradition that Pushkin stylized in the figure of the “Improvisatore” in “Egyptian Nights,” who denies any idea of how complex verse can suddenly come into his head, rhymed and in regular feet, so that it can be instantly declaimed. Like many Russian masterpieces, especially by Pushkin, of whom Akhmatova was a profound student and critic, her Poema has the form of an open secret, at once spontaneous and enigmatic.

I hear certain absurd interpretations of Poem Without a Hero,” she writes in the foreword. “And I have been advised to make it clearer. This I decline to do. It contains no third, seventh or twentyninth thoughts. I shall neither explain nor change anything. What is written is written.” And not in her voice alone, or that of her muse. She wrote the poem at intervals over twenty years, committing it entirely to memory because she feared to write it down, and it ends with a dedication to “its first audience,” the fellow citizens who died in Leningrad during the siege. “Their voices I hear, and I remember them when I read my poem aloud, and for me this secret chorus has become a permanent justification of the work.”

This combination of unashamed individuality with a public voice is characteristic of the best Russian poetry since Pushkin, who drew a sharp distinction between himself as an ordinary, idle, and fashionable man about town, gambling with friends and running after women, and himself as the vehicle for an unknown and inexplicable inspiration, a voice that might speak with the accents of private friendship or of public authority. Akhmatova had something of the same dual persona: the dandy of Petersburg society, the arrogant beauty involved in bohemian intrigues at poets’ cafes like the Stray Dog, and at the same time the grave poetic voice of conscience and religious awe, the voice of Russia’s severe and disciplined spirit, silenced for a while by the anarchic envy and clamor of revolution, but speaking out in the fine series of poems dedicated to London at war (unprinted and unheard of, of course, while Soviet Russia was the ally of Nazi Germany), and in the sonorous poem “Courage,” a summons not to the Soviets but to her fellow Russians, which actually appeared in Pravda a few months after the German invasion.

She was a Russian Orthodox believer and a Russian patriot. Her poetry flowed from both kinds of faith, and as the opening lines of Requiem pronounce, she was deeply proud, too, of having remained in Russia while so many others of her class and kind had fled into emigration. The four lines are very simple, but their tone sets a notorious problem for the translator:

No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time, that place.

This attempt by Stanley Kunitz Americanizes the translation, and makes one realize how deep and subtle is the difference between “great simple verses” in the American tradition and in the Russian. The difference was even more marked when Robert Lowell reconstituted the lines in his own fashion.

I wasn’t under a new sky,
its birds were the old familiar birds.
They still spoke Russian. Misery
spoke familiar Russian words.

Those are wholly American words, and an American tone. Lyn Coffin is the best at getting some equivalent of the original’s weight and gravitas.

No, it wasn’t under a foreign heaven,
It wasn’t under the wing of a for- eign power,—
I was there among my countrymen,
I was where my people, unfor- tunately, were.

Unfortunately” could have been an unfortunate word, but its complex English connotations in fact just provide the right note, stopping just this side of the ironic. “Unhappily” would have verged on the portentous.

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