Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966) lived through the worst years of the 20th century in one of the worst locations in which to be a poet unwilling to play the role of a trained parrot for the ruthless and murderous apes running the country. Born in Odessa, she grew up in the small town just outside of St. Petersburg where the Tsar's summer residence was located. At 16, her mother took her back to the Crimea where she received some education, along with a bit more schooling in Kiev. So she had little formal education, but her mother had regularly read Russian poetry to her from an early age. In 1910 she married the avant garde poet Nikolai Gumilev and began her exploration of poetry in earnest.
While this is not an unusual, and certainly not an ominous beginning of life for a woman in the early 20th century, the Russian Revolution was nearing with its fatal consequences for so many people. She honeymooned in Paris and returned again in 1911 because she had fallen in love with it. She spent a lot of time with Modigliani in Paris, who made many portraits of her (one of which is reproduced above) and possibly had an affair with her. Despite her connections to Paris, when she later had the opportunity to escape the Bolsheviks with friends who were emigrating to Paris, she chose to stay in Russia.
I am not one of those who left the land
to the mercy of its enemies.
Their flattery leaves me cold,
My songs are not for them to praise.
But I pity the exile's lot.
Like a felon, like a man half-dead,
dark is your path, wanderer;
wormwood infects your foreign bread.
But here, in the murk of conflagration,
where scarcely a friend is left to know,
we, the survivors, do not flinch
from anything, not from a single blow.
Surely the reckoning will be made
after the passing of this cloud.
We are the people without tears,
straighter than you...more proud...
This pride was not without its price. Gumilev had been executed the year before this poem was written. Her work was banned from 1925 until the brief thaw in 1940 which occurred, curiously enough, at the signing of the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. And then, when Hitler fell upon Stalin before Stalin could do so to Hitler, Stalin needed everybody behind him. For her it meant she could publish again. In 1946, after the external threat had passed, her work was banned again until Stalin finally died in 1953. But during the war her only son was arrested for the third time, thrown into the Gulag and used to blackmail Akhmatova into writing paeans to the Georgian dictator. I can't bring myself to type that crap, so one can barely imagine what it meant for her to write it. At least her son was not executed. She needed no blackmail to write about the fortitude of the inhabitants of Leningrad during the lengthy and murderous siege or the necessity of courage in face of the Nazi claws tearing at the Russian people's throat, but I won't quote those poems, either.
The KGB (and its predecessors) kept close track of Akhmatova; during the final ban two KGB officers followed her openly wherever she went. They confiscated the packages she sent to her son in the Gulag, bugged her apartment, went through her mail, etc. And during the decades of the bans she avoided starvation by translating various kinds of writings from many languages on the basis of previously prepared literal translations.
This cruel age has deflected me,
like a river from its course.
Strayed from its familiar shores,
my changeling life has flowed
into a sister channel.
How many spectacles I've missed:
the curtain rising without me,
and falling too. How many friends
I never had the chance to meet.
Here in the only city I can claim,
where I could sleepwalk and not lose my way,
how many foreign skylines I can dream,
not to be witnessed through my tears.
And how many verses I have failed to write!
Their secret chorus stalks me
close behind. One day, perhaps,
they'll strangle me.
I know beginnings, I know endings too,
and life-in-death, and something else
I'd rather not recall just now.
And a certain woman
has usurped my place
and bears my rightful name,
leaving a nickname for my use,
with which I've done the best I could.
The grave I go to will not be my own.
But if I could step outside myself
and contemplate the person that I am,
I should know at last what envy is.
According to Osip Mandelstam's widow, Nadezhda, who became Akhmatova's closest friend, what kept Akhmatova persevering in the face of hunger, penury, persecution and blackmail was her resolution that she had a mission - a mission to endure and to witness. She became this witness even though she had to burn her manuscripts and recreate them from memory. When she was composing one of her greatest poems, the lengthy Poem Without a Hero, which powerfully crystallizes much of the travails of the Russian people during her lifetime, she would recite it to friends so that they would memorize it; in case she would die, her witness would survive.
She began her career writing about poets and her difficult relationship with Gumilev. But circumstances overtook her, and she grew incredibly strong and incredibly hard. So many of the people she had known and loved had been executed or had died in prison, and they were always with her.
There Are Four Of Us
Herewith I solemnly renounce my hoard
of earthly goods, whatever counts as chattel.
The genius and guardian angel of this place
has changed to an old tree-stump in the water.
Earth takes us in awhile as transient guests;
we live by habit, which we must unlearn.
On paths of air I seem to overhear
two friends, two voices, talking in their turn.
Did I say two?...There by the eastern wall,
where criss-cross shoots of brambles trail,
- O look! - that fresh dark elderberry branch
is like a letter from Marina in the mail.
The four are Mandelstam, Pasternak, (Marina) Tsvetaeva and herself. All but she were long since dead.
Like most of Akhmatova's translations (she knew Italian well enough to willingly translate some of Leopardi's verse in the 60's), the work of translating Poems of Akhmatova was divided between the linguist Max Hayward and the poet Stanley Kunitz. It is a selection and does not include many of the most important poems. Poem Without a Hero is only excerpted. Both Hayward and Kunitz contribute introductions, the former on Akhmatova's life and times, the latter on the translation. In particular, Kunitz has not tried to reproduce the rhyme structure of Akhmatova's verse. However, this edition is bilingual, so one can see, if not hear, that structure as one reads the translation.