In Which We Attempt To Revere Anna Akhmatova

The First Exchange

by JANE KENYON

As we remember Keats for the beauty and intensity of his shorter poems, especially the odes and sonnets, so we revere Akhmatova for her early lyrics – brief, perfectly made verses of passion and feeling. Images build emotional pressure:

And sweeter even than the singing of songs
is this dream, now becoming real:
the swaying of branches brushed aside
and the faint ringing of your spurs.

I love the sudden twists these poems take, often in the last line. In one poem the recollection of a literary party ends with the first frank exchange of glances between lovers. Another poems lists sweet-smelling things – mignonette, violets, apples – and ends, astonishingly, “…we have found out forever /that blood only smells of blood.” These poems celebrate the sensual life, and Akhmatova’s devoted attention to details of sense always serves feeling:

With the hissing of the snake the scythe cuts down
the stalks, one pressed hard against another.

The snake’s hissing is accurate to the sound of scythe mowing, and more than accurate: by using a snake for her auditory image, Akhmatova compares this rural place, where love has gone awry, to the lost Eden.

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Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko near Odessa in 1889. Soon her family moving to Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg, and there she began her education. Studying French, she learned to love Baudelaire and Verlaine. At the age of ten she became seriously ill, with a disease never diagnosed, and went dear for a brief time. As she recovered she wrote her first poems.

Money was not abundant in the Gorenko household, nor was tranquility. Akhmatova did not get on with her father, Andrei Gorenko, a naval engineer who lectured at the Naval Academy in St. Petersburg – also a notorious philanderer whose money went to his mistresses. (We know little of Akhmatova’s relationship with her mother.) Akhmatova’s brother Victor recalls an occasion when the young girl asked their father for money for a new coat. When he refused she threw off her clothes and became hysterical. (See. Akhmatova: Poems, Correspondence, Reminiscences, Iconography: Ardis.)

Andrei Gorenko deserted his family in 1905. A few years later, hearing that his daughter wrote verse, he asked her to choose a pen name. He wished to avoid the ignominy, as he put it, of “a decadent poetess” in the family.  She took her Tartar great-grandmother’s name.

When Akhmatova was still a schoolgirl she met Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and founder of Acmeism who became her mentor and her first hsband. Nadezhda Mandelstam has said that Akhmatova rarely spoke of her childhood: she seemed to consider her marriage to Gumilev the beginning of her life.

She was slow to accept his proposal. He sought her attention by repeated attempts at suicide until he finally married him in 1910. The bride’s family did not attend the ceremony. Having won her at last, Gumilev promptly left to spend six months in Africa. On his return, while still at the train station, he asked her if she had been writing. By reply she handed him the manuscript of Evening, her first book.

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Their son, Lev Gumilev, was born in 1912, the same year Anna published Evening. By 1917, when she was 28, she had brought out two more books, Rosary and White Flock. Despite the historical tumult of World War I and the Revolution, her poetry quickly became popular. But tumult was private as well as public: by 1918 her marriage had failed; Akhmatova divorced Gumilev and the same autumn married the Assyriologist V.K. Shileiko. This unhappy alliance – Shileiko burned his wife’s poems in the samovar – lasted for six years. Ordinary family life eluded Akhmatova, who went through many love affairs. Before her divorce from Shileiko, she lived in a menage a trois with Nikolai Punin and his wife; Punin later became her third husband. Motherhood was not easy. (“The lot of a mother is a bright torture: I was not worthy of it….”) For the most part, Gumilev’s mother raised her grandson Lev.

In the years following her early triumphs Akhmatova suffered many torments, as the Soviet regime hardened into tyranny. Gumilev was executive in 1921 for alleged anti-Bolshevik activity. Early in the twenties Soviet critics denounced Akhmatova’s work as anachronistic and useless to the Revolution. The Central Committee of the Communist Party forbade publication of her verse; from 1923 to 1940, none of her poetry appeared in print. The great poems of her maturity, Requiem and Song Without a Hero, exist in Russia today only by underground publication or samizdat.

During the Stalinist terror of the 1930s the poet’s son Lev and her husband Punin were imprisoned. Akhmatova’s fellow Acmeist and close friend Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp in 1938. (Punin died in another camp fifteen years later.) During the Second World War the Committee of the Communist Party of Leningrad evacuated Akhmatova to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. There she lived in a small, hot room, in ill health, with Osip Mandelstam’s widow Nadezhda.

In 1944 Akhmatova returned to Leningrad, to a still-higher wave of official antagonism. In a prominent literay magazine, Andrei Zhdanov denounced her as “a frantic little fine lady flitting between the boudoir and the chapel…half-nun, half-harlot.” The Union of Soviet Writers expelled her. A new book of poems, already in print, was seized and destroyed. For many years she supported herself only by working as a translator from Asiatic languages and from French, an activity she compared to “eating one’s own brain.”

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The final decade of her life was relatively tranquil. During the thaw that followed Stalin’s death, the government released Lev Gumilev from labor camp and reinstated Akhmatova in the Writer’s Union. She was permitted to publish and to travel. In Italy and England she received honors and saw old friends. She died in March 1966, and was buried at Komarovo, near Leningrad.

1984

There is a certain hour every day
so troubled and heavy…
I speak to melancholy in a loud voice
not bothering to open my sleepy eyes.
And it pulses like blood,
is warm like a sigh,
like happy love
is smart and nasty.

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Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
Some good-for-nothing — who knows why–
made up the tale that love exists on earth.

People believe it, maybe from laziness
or boredom, and live accordingly:
they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
and when they sing, they sing about love.

But the secret reveals itself to some,
and on them silence settles down…
I found this out by accident
and now it seems I’m sick all the time.

1917

translated by Jane Kenyon

“Those Dreadful Hammers” – Esben and the Witch (mp3)

“Dig Your Fingers In” – Esben and the Witch (mp3)

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