In Anna Akhmatova, Sappho’s individualistic female voice returns again. Born Anna Gorenko, in Odessa, on the Black Sea, she spent most of her life in St. Petersburg. In 1910 she married Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and leader of the Acmeist movement. He was shot as a counter-revolutionary in 1921. Remaining in St Petersburgh (renamed Leningrad) during the siege in the Second World War, and with her son, and her lover, Nikolai Punin, both sent to labour camps, she came to stand for the voice of an earlier Russia that had neither been silenced nor forgotten. Her great poem Requiem remembers the pain.
The just man followed God’s messenger,
vast and bright against the black hill,
but care spoke in the woman’s ear:
‘There is time, you can look back still,
at Sodom’s red towers where you were born,
the square where you sang, where you’d spin,
the high windows of that dark home,
where your childrens’ life came in.
She looked, and was transfixed by pain,
uncertain whether she could still see,
and her body turned to translucent salt,
her quick feet rooted there, like a tree.
A loss, but who still mourns the breath
of one woman, or laments one wife?
Though my heart never can forget,
how, for one look, she gave up her life.
(The reference is to Lot’s wife in the Bible, Genesis 19:26)
Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?
By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.
And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.
Celebrate our anniversary – can’t you see
tonight the snowy night of our first winter
comes back again in every road and tree -
that winter night of diamantine splendour.
Steam is pouring out of yellow stables,
the Moika river’s sinking under snow,
the moonlight’s misted as it is in fables,
and where we are heading – I don’t know.
There are icebergs on the Marsovo Pole.
The Lebyazh’ya’s crazed with crystal art.....
Whose soul can compare with my soul,
if joy and fear are in my heart? -
And if your voice, a marvellous bird’s,
quivers at my shoulder, in the night,
and the snow shines with a silver light,
warmed by a sudden ray, by your words?
(The Moika River, the Lebyazh’ya Canal, and the Marsovo Pole, or Field of Mars, an open square, are all in St. Petersburgh)
For Osip Mandelstam
And the town is frozen solid in a vice,
Trees, walls, snow, beneath a glass.
Over crystal, on slippery tracks of ice,
the painted sleighs and I, together, pass.
And over St Peter’s there are poplars, crows
there’s a pale green dome there that glows,
dim in the sun-shrouded dust.
The field of heroes lingers in my thought,
Kulikovo’s barbarian battleground.
The frozen poplars, like glasses for a toast,
clash now, more noisily, overhead.
As though it was our wedding, and the crowd
were drinking to our health and happiness.
But Fear and the Muse take turns to guard
the room where the exiled poet is banished,
and the night, marching at full pace,
of the coming dawn, has no knowledge.
(The field of Kulikovo was the scene of a famous battle against the Tartar Horde in 1378. Mandelstam was exiled for a time to Voronezh.)
‘What does a certain woman know
of the hour of her death?’ - Mandelstam
Tallest, suavest of us, why Memory,
forcing you to appear from the past, pass
down a train, swaying, to find me
clear profiled through the window-glass?
Angel or bird? How we debated!
The poet thought you like translucent straw.
Through dark lashes, your eyes, Georgian,
looking, with gentleness, on it all.
Shade, forgive. Blue skies, Flaubert,
Insomnia, late-blooming lilac flower,
bring you, and the magnificence of the year,
nineteen-thirteen, to mind, and your
unclouded temperate afternoon, memory
difficult for me now – Oh, shade!
There will be thunder then. Remember me.
Say ‘ She asked for storms.’ The entire
world will turn the colour of crimson stone,
and your heart, as then, will turn to fire.
That day, in Moscow, a true prophecy,
when for the last time I say goodbye,
soaring to the heavens that I longed to see,
leaving my shadow here in the sky.
Copyright © 2000 A. S. Kline, All Rights Reserved
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Last Modified 08/02/2000