Anna Akhmatova

Summer Reading: The poetry of Anna Akhmatova
Thursday, June 28, 2007

Today I have so much to do

I must kill memory once and for all

I must turn soul to stone

I must learn to live again

Unless...Summer's ardent rustling

Is like a festival outside my window.

For a long time I've foreseen this

Brilliant day, deserted house.

These words are from Anna Akhmatova's poem "The Sentence," translated from the Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer. Akhmatova was a remarkable woman whose deeply felt poems chronicled Stalin's Terror, World War II, and what is called the Thaw in Russia after Stalin's death. She also explored her own local fame, her fall from grace, and her international renown shortly before her death.

With poems far tighter and more powerful than any history, Akhmatova brings readers in with color, emotion, and confession.

When it comes to Russia, all expatriates - from the most fearless investors to the most knowledgeable scholars - are humbled. Most acknowledge that this ancient country nearly 20 years after the fall of Communism is a steep learning curve. No expat self-help text is worthy of this messy epic.

For those moving here, it might be suggested that the appropriate preparation is a lifetime of study. For most of us, it's too late for that. The next best thing is delving into the poems and life of Akhmatova, a confessional, romantic, provocative poet who gave a voice to millions of Russians in the 20th century. Her poem "The Sentence," part of her moving "Requiem," was finally published in 1989, 100 years after her birth.

Akhmatova's own "sentence" was to see her son, lovers and friends nearly destroyed by the Soviet authorities for their "anti-Soviet" natures. Her first husband, Nikolay Grumilyov, was executed. Her son Lev was imprisoned, and even a poem praising Stalin did not win his release. Her friends Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Bulgakov died after being tormented by the authorities; she eulogized them in her poems. She watched horrified as her prodigy Joseph Brodsky was arrested for "parasitism." Akhmatova herself lived like a vagabond, hand-to-mouth, in disgrace with the party, for many years.

Yet there is triumph to Akhmatova's own tragic story. Elaine Feinstein's book, "Anna of All the Russias," offers up a thoughtful portrait. Feinstein makes it clear that Akhmatova is iconic, "not of dissidence and resistance alone but as a poet of womanly feeling in a brutal world." In an introduction to her poems, Brodsky wrote: "They will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that."

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