#138. THE INFAMOUS SCAFFOLD OF MISFORTUNE. Trying to describe the tone, the voice of the poetry of Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky spoke of her “note of controlled terror.” He called her “the keening muse.” John Bayley said her work was “grim, spare and laconic.” These are all good, but omit the wonderful plain-spoken beauty of the poems, her inescapable grip on the reader’s consent. From the beginning she was a superb and wily technician: stanza, metaphor, movement, dramatic situation are all done with ease and speed, so that the severity of the emotion never falls into melodrama. Brodsky speaks of her lines having a “falling intonation toward the end, as if nothing special had happened.” Akhmatova speaks, quietly; she has something to tell us. The poems are a sustained feat of eye contact.
She is also a supreme example of what every visual artist knows: background affects the value of foreground colors. Born into privilege in what Clive James called “the last gasp of the czarist era,” her early poems were just short of a succes de scandale. In her youth she cut a swath, her extraordinary beauty having roughly the effect on the average male Russian poet that Zuleika Dobson had on Oxford undergraduates. Her entire life, which moved frequently among some of the best writers and artists of the day—she was painted by Modigliani, loved by Mandelstam, pursued by Pasternak—was punctuated by affairs, leading to the official conclusion that both she and her poems were no better than they ought to have been. In other and calmer circumstances, she might have become rather like our cliché notion of, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay, crashing around from one romantic backfire to another.
Then Russia, always a passionate presence in her work but now specifically the Russia of the World Wars and the Bolshevik revolutions, happened to her and her poetry, and became the intimate background of everything she wrote. Her first husband, the poet Nikolay Gumilev, was arrested and executed on trumpery charges. This put her own work, already frowned at, and her life under permanent shadow and surveillance. Her only son, Lev, was twice imprisoned; her poet-friend Mandelstam was sent to the Gulag and never returned. She was refused publication. The Petersburg of Akhamatova’s brilliant early life fell to the terrors and disasters of the time and the gaze of her poetry widened to include them. Her poems, which had been successful seductions, became so many acts of witness. The most famous story about Akhmatova comes from her journals, describing one of her visits to bring Lev a package in prison: “One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there): 'Can you describe this?' And I said: 'I can.' Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.” Behind all those poems, Russia looms like a black devouring disorder; add it to the personal intensity of her work and we would expect it to lead to an intolerable hysteria.
It does not. We read Akhamatova with a kind of calm, the chastened sadness of the great tragedies. This is what happened, this is how it happened; she is moving in part because she is so simply convincing. She is considered the first and great female voice in Russian literature, and perhaps the constraints placed on women added to her sense of helplessness, the helplessness no doubt experienced by everyone who suffered in those days. And those days uncovered, beautifully, the steel in Akhamatova’s soul that helped her survive, and that made her poetry one of the great and completed acts of artistic success of the twentieth century. Thinking of Oxford: she was granted an honorary degree by the university, which she accepted in the Sheldonian Theatre in 1965, some months before her death. The figure she must have cut amongst those privileged students who were talking revolution in the sixties is an image worth considering.
Much has been made of the difficulty of getting Akhmatova across in English—the traditional forms, the rhymes, the stylistic restraint. Joseph Brodsky’s essay “Translating Akhmatova” (available online) states the case. But here again the lure has been irresistible, and she has been tackled by Stanley Kunitz, Jane Kenyon, D. M. Thomas, Lyn Coffin and any number of others. I would suggest reading A Stranger to Heaven and Earth, a selection from the translation by Judith Hemschemeyer, a lovely pocket edition (Shambhala, 1989); and from there you can move onto the Complete Poems from Zephyr Press. Perhaps only in traversing the full corpus of Akhmatova’s work can you hear the range of her voice: the base of her religious faith, her openness to the seasons and landscape, her patriotism untouched by vulgar chauvinism. These are not common virtues in twenty-first century American verse, and deserve to be heard. And Hemschemeyer’s translation is lucid, vivid and restrained; as John Bayley wrote, “the sense and the message strike with all the weight of the original.” The complete edition has notes, a biography, a sheaf of portraits and photos, and reprints Isaiah Berlin’s wonderful account of their meeting—everything you could ask for.