My 2013 post about Anna Akhmatova continues to be one of the most popular on my blog even though it’s just a few short lines about her masterpiece of a poem Requiem. I wonder if it’s because we’re looking for people who shine lights in the darkness? Americans as much as Russians visit that page. Or looking for the women who came before us, the ones who persevered, who left us something of themselves, when so many didn’t have that chance.
I didn’t know much about her when I posted it, just that she was persecuted for her poetry under Stalin. Wikipedia says Lydia Chukovskaya described how Akhmatova “would write out her poem for a visitor on a scrap of paper to be read in a moment, then burnt in her stove.” This one line provoked an image in my mind of the paper flaring into fire, curling up over the words, and diminishing into ash; and it provoked feelings, of admiration for her cleverness, the bittersweet pain of imagining her burning her own words and the fierce courage it must have taken to write them and rewrite them for her trusted visitors. I still don’t know much about her, but I want to know more.
This poem got me through some tough times before, and it’s still a little lantern of one black woman’s rage and survival:
Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can’t
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can’t do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
I’ve had this poem stuck in my head for a few days now.
It has echoes of childhood for me–this is nose and the mouth and the eye–but the topic is anything but. It gives us all of the particulars, but never the whole; our understanding has to supply, maybe immediately or not until the end, what the whole is. That’s very much what poetry is to me: a naming of parts that adds up to something unstated, supplied by the reader.
Naming of Parts
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.
Watching 20 Seconds of Joy, about BASE jumper Karina Hollekim, I understood more than I thought I would that urge to jump off cliffs, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes not, in an effort to feel or not feel the terror of living.
I wrote that and I thought, Did I mean the terror of dying? But no, I mean the terror of living. I mean those last two lines of the Mary Oliver poem that I love, The Summer Day, which I am going to totally spoil for you if you haven’t read it yet (go read it—the last lines were like that first plunge of a roller coaster for me: equal parts instinctual terror and excitement. My chest still clenches like I’m having an asthma attack when I read it, but not as scary because I can still breathe.):
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
The terror of living is that it will end in dying and I won’t have done anything worthwhile with my one wild and precious life. That so much of life passes in a boring haze of work, or worse, being wished away, faster to 5 pm, faster to the weekend. That I haven’t been kind enough to my mother, haven’t had enough sex with my husband, haven’t finished writing this book yet…
Actually, there’s just one poem on my hit list right now. There are poems I don’t like and poems that don’t do anything for me when I read them, but I hate As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden. I hate it because it starts out by making me love it. It starts out like a love poem, or maybe a nursery rhyme like The Cow Jumped Over the Moon:
“I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.
Then it turns a corner into bleak, and it’s the betrayal of love, or the impermanence of it:
“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
I don’t mind the bleakness, a bleak poem can be a hard kind of comfort when everything around you feels hopeless or insubstantial. No, it’s the line about Jill on her back that makes me cringe every time. I can’t read it as anything but sexualized and pejorative and reducing Jill, standing in for woman, as Jack stands in for man, to sex–and not the freely given kind, but the kind that is bought and treated like a dirty commodity.
So, what poems do you hate?
Reading poetry in translation is a weird exercise; there are so many more levels or people between you and the text. This is the first part of this poem, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer as it appears in The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. You can read the full poem translated differently by Yevgeny Bonver on Poetry Lover or elsewhere on the web, translator uncredited (which is why I’m not linking. How could you not credit the translator??) or other versions translated by the same author but with different words (different versions from different years? Like I said, poetry in translation is weird.)
from the beginning of Requiem
by Anna Akhmatova
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings–
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
INSTEAD OF A PREFACE
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent
seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.
Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with
bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had
never heard me called by name before, 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.
I read poetry in the morning or before bed, one poem after another that I don’t understand or that doesn’t resonate with me, until I find one that makes me stop.
BY DENISE LEVERTOV
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
I who don’t know the
the line. They
(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,
and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
most of all.