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.
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.