Beautiful things that keep cropping up in Akhmatova: roses, night, the sea.
Beautiful things that keep cropping up in Akhmatova: roses, night, the sea.
I’ve recently started reading The Lesbian Body by Monique Wittig. I’m not currently far enough into it to have a proper opinion, except to say that the edition I’m reading has been translated by a man and I can’t help but wonder if that’s kind of missing the point. The introduction reassures me (jokingly?) that he ‘has abandoned any male chauvinism long enough to translate this book’ – and yet. How, I find myself asking, might a female translator approach this most female of books? What might be different? what might her own perspective and reality lend to it? Instead these words, which seek to break away from male language, male culture, the male body, all the rest, make their way to me in English through the filter of a man.
It’s difficult to voice this these reservations because if I didn’t know the translator’s gender I would perhaps not be troubled by it; I wouldn’t be able to tell, I don’t think, whether it had been given to me by a woman or a man. Mostly, however, I struggle with it because I feel so conscious of the way these thoughts might make me come across as one of those women, those lesbians, one embittered and ‘man-hating’. It’s not that I think it’s productive to distance myself from such stereotypes, for I would hate to think of trying to set myself against other women and throw them under the bus, as it were, in such a way. It helps no-one, I think; and I know that there’s no point trying to make myself likable or my words palatable to the sorts of people who would use these accusations. Yet I fear that my words won’t be considered seriously if they can be so quickly dismissed.
Another thing that struck me in My Half-Century was the way that Akhmatova and her circle valued oral recitation of poetry. She speaks, for example, of Mandelstam reading his verse to her and of her committing it to memory, and then is able to reproduce it in her writing decades later.
In a chapter on Modigliani, which can be found here, she describes the days she passed with him in the jardin du Luxembourg:
‘We in two voices recited from Verlaine, whom we knew well by heart, and we rejoiced that we both remembered the same work of his. […] Most of all we used to talk about poetry. We both knew a great many French verses: by Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire. […] He never read Dante to me, possibly because at that time I didn’t yet know Italian.
I was surprised and then amused at the ease with which she says all this. I think of all the poetry I read and for all the passages and fragments that stay with me or that I copy out, there are very few that I could recite beginning to end from memory the way that she often speaks of. If I do know any Russian verse this way, it’s usually coincidental – that I learnt them as songs first, for example – rather than because of an active effort on my part.
Hearing Akhmatova talk of poetry this way, most of all, makes me want to do better. We could all listen to Dante if we wanted to, after all, and we could all learn Italian. It’s not beyond us to sit down and learn Mandelstam or Verlaine – but it’s certainly something to be worked at, something that takes time. Perhaps because of this we’re used to thinking of the learning of poetry as a chore, as something serious or for schoolchildren (for the poems I can recite best, I’m ashamed to say, are The Lion and Albert and Matilda Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death), rather than something enjoyable that might bring us closer together with others. But – for me at least – I think putting that time in, the effort on top of everything else (and with exams so close I do have plenty else that I should be doing!), would be worth it.
There are two things in particular about Tsvetaeva’s verse that make her my favourite. The first is her honesty, which is something that captured my imagination from the very beginning; my introduction to her was Над городом, отвергнутым Петром, where I think it really does make itself felt, and then Подруга (of course..!). I think I appreciate this honesty so much because I personally find it so difficult – with myself, with friends, with everyone. I am impressed and humbled by the way she manages to do it – for she makes it look so easy – and with what eloquence. Honesty always feels like a weakness, to me, and I know it shouldn’t be; I say things and I’m instantly regretful, always afraid I’ve said too much, that no one ‘wants to know’. But when I read Tsvetaeva I can let myself believe that there might be strength in honesty and in vulnerability; that to be truthful with ourselves and with others can enrich our inner and exterior lives.
But anyway. The second thing, which I had thoughts about today, is the scale, the sense of grandeur, the drama she’s able to evoke without being histrionic (though this is a word I feel rather hesitant to use because it seems so often reserved for criticising the work of women; I don’t want to come across as saying ‘she’s not like those silly writers…’). In My Half-Century, which I’ve just finished and which I absolutely loved, Akhmatova briefly writes of their only meeting in the summer of 1941 (oh, to have been a fly on that wall!). Of it, she says:
It is frightening to think how Marina would have described these meetings herself, if she had remained alive and I had died on August 31, 1941. It would have been “a sweet-smelling legend” as our forefathers put it. Perhaps it would have been the lamentation of a twenty-five-year-old love, which turned out to be in vain, but in any case, it would have been magnificent .
I wish I could have read her account of things, of course. In the notes at the back of the book the editor, Ronald Meyer, says of this: ‘Akhmatova refers to Tsvetaeva’s highly developed sense for the dramatic and the ability to transform seemingly everyday events into Poetry.’ That’s it exactly! As much as I adore the poems of Лебединый стан, for example, which speak so powerfully about and bear witness to something much bigger than the individual, I like it just as much when, as he says, the ordinary is made something so grand, our daily lives and relationships. Compare these two poems, for example (translated by Robin Kemball), one about the tsarevich Alexei and one heralding the birth of Tsvetaeva’s own daughter, Irina:
4 апреля 1917
За Отрока — за Голубя — за Сына,
За царевича младого Алексия
Помолись, церковная Россия!
Очи ангельские вытри,
Вспомяни, как пал на плиты
Голубь углицкий — Димитрий.
Ласковая ты, Россия, матерь!
Ах, ужели у тебя не хватит
На него — любовной благодати?
Грех отцовский не карай на сыне.
Сохрани, крестьянская Россия,
Царскосельского ягнёнка — Алексия!
4 April 1917
Pray for the Son – the Dove – the Adolescent,
For the young Tsarevich, for the young Alexis –
Russia, pray, who the true faith confessest!
Wipe those angel eyes now, ponder deeply
Him that fell upon the stones – think meetly
On the dove of Uglich, on Dimitri.
Gentle mother, Russia, kind, caressing!
Is thy heart so hard as not to grace him
With thy loving-kindness, with thy blessing?
Visit not upon the son the father’s trespass.
Russia of the country folk – be his protectress:
Spare the lamb of Tsarskoye Selo, Alexis!
And the second:
8 сентября 1918
Под рокот гражданских бурь,
В лихую годину,
Даю тебе имя — мир,
В наследье — лазурь.
Отыйди, отыйди, Враг!
Наследницу вечных благ
8 September 1918
To clamour of civil strife,
in times that are evil,
I give you a name that’s – peace,
an heirloom – blue skies,
Get thee hence, Satan! – So
preserve, O Redeemer,
from whom all blessings flow,
the infant Irina!
The way that she speaks about her own daughter and the tsarevich (who means so much for Russia symbolically, represents so much of a ‘bigger picture’) is exactly the same to me; the same language, the same invocations and petitions. Why, after all, should we not be talking about our own sons and daughters with the same language? Tsvetaeva’s petitions for divine protection are not somehow less urgent or symbolic because they are for her own daughter ‘rather than’ something ‘bigger’ (if anything I think this would intensify her invocations because they are made more personal); all children, I think, are equal and must be looked upon equally – this goes without saying.
After only saying the other day how rare it is for me to cry at books, I found myself in tears when I first read this second; partly because I knew what Tsvetaeva did not at the time of writing – that Irina’s life would be cut so short, that all she asks for in the poem is not granted – but partly also just because it’s so beautiful. The language, the religious language, is so strong; nothing is held back, and that too is a kind of honesty in its way.
Below the cut, here are some other favourites that ‘do’ the dramatic so well:
Some nice descriptions of Akhmatova quoted in the introduction to My Half Century that I’d like to remember:
The first quoted from Ненаписанная книга. Листки из дневника А. А. Ахматовой, L. A. Mandrykina (translated for the introduction by Ronald Meyer) –
Among the poetesses who read their poetry at the Tower, Anna Akhmatova stands out most vividly in my memory. She was captivating both as a woman and as a poet.
Lithe, tall, svelte, her head wrapped in a floral shawl. The aquiline nose, her dark hair with the short bangs in front and held in place in back with a large Spanish comb. The small, slender mouth that seldom laughed. Dark, stern eyes. It was impossible not to notice her. You couldn’t walk past her without admiring her. The young people went crazy when Akhmatova appeared on stage at literary readings. She was a good and skillful reader, who was fully aware of her feminine charm, and she possessed the regal self-assurance of an artist who knew her worth.
And two from Lidia Ginzburg, this quoted in Nadezdha Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned:
[Akhmatova] is gifted with an absolutely natural and to a large extent convincing majesty. She holds herself like a queen in exile at some bourgeois spa.
and this from 1927 (quoted from Lidia Chukovskaya, Записки об Анне Ахматовой, trans. Ronald Meyer):
Akhmatova clearly has taken on the responsibility for an era, for the memory of those who have died and for the reputations of the living. Those who are not inclined will naturally find this irritating – it’s a matter of historical taste. Akhmatova sits very quietly and looks at us with a puzzled haze. This is not because she doesn’t understand out culture, but rather because she doesn’t need it. It’s not even worth discussing whether our culture needs her, since she’s a part of it.
How I wish I could have met her! – but I wouldn’t be worthy. Some people from the past feel ‘closer’ to us today than others – that they lived or wrote more recently, touch upon things that are still relevant to us now, have well-documented lives or were known by people still living. To me she is one of those; especially since I’ve been reading this, as I’ve got to know her ‘own’ voice (as opposed to her poetic voice), which is so strong and distinct I could have heard it on the radio or read it in an article this morning. It’s difficult to think that she has been gone fifty years.
It’s Easter and with this unexpected time on my hands I’ve been reading a collection of Akhmatova’s selected prose, My Half Century. In a diary entry from February 1966, she writes of Yevtushenko, ‘Why does nobody see that this is simply very bad Mayakovsky?’
I laughed aloud, then felt rather guilty about it. Not only because of his death so recently – which left me shocked as well as saddened, somehow, for I had somehow never conceived of his death – but because he has long been of a kind of sentimental value for me. When I think of my favourite poets and writers, he never comes to mind right away, but I owe a lot to him. He was the first Russian writer that I read actually in his original, as opposed to in translation – a bilingual anthology aged seventeen, the only Russian-language book in the library. With no other choice but him, it was a coincidence that we were brought together and perhaps I might not have ever discovered him otherwise.
Since that time I’ve read much more Russian poetry – the past few months, especially, it’s been just about all I’ve wanted to get my hands on – and I wonder if I were to read him now whether I too would think him just ‘very bad Mayakovsky’. Yet I can’t dismiss things that were once important to me just because I ‘knew less’. It was he who showed me that the structure of Russian could be beautiful – its form, I suppose, as well as its content. I have always struggled with Russian grammar (though, revisiting it recently, I realised I’ve finally outgrown the Schaum’s I’ve dragged out every Easter since age fifteen – so I must have made some progress, at least!) and before I read him I only saw the genders and declensions and all the rest as things that ‘get in the way’ – an imposition, a restriction, something rigid and immovable to be obeyed.
It was Yevtushenko that made me look at these rules in a completely new and more positive way. I wish I had a copy so that I could quote him, and because I haven’t read much of him since – but what about Закличание, for example, which begs to be recited? What struck me most as I read him was his playfulness with sound, what he was able to evoke by using declensions to create rhymes. My favourite poetry is that with rhyme and rhythm and a strict metre, poetry that’s musical in its way when you read it aloud – and this is one way you can do this in Russian that in English we lack. We have a book in English, or books, and that’s all. But how many forms can книга take? Or девочка, or город, or мост or anything else? At least English nouns have a singular and a plural, but our adjectives are more limited still; we have sad and that’s it, but what else can печальный take on? Far from being a hindrance as I had previously seen it, grammar becomes a help and grants you greater freedoms.
I don’t want to get caught up in worrying about whether we ‘should’ follow the ‘rules’, but Yevtushenko showed me a way of operating within them to enrich poetry rather than restrict it; to create new sounds that fit well together, that are satisfying to recite, that sit well in your mouth. I am no better at grammar now than I was at seventeen – it still doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s beginning to seem like I’ll never understand verbs of motion – but I can appreciate it now in a way I couldn’t before him. If I must study it and if I must suffer (!), it becomes less arduous knowing that I might find beauty in it, also.
Идём — свободные, немодные,
Душой и телом — благородные.
Сбылися древние пророчества:
Где вы — Величества? Высочества?
Мать с дочерью идём — две странницы.
Чернь чёрная навстречу чванится.
Быть может — вздох от нас останется,
А может — Бог на нас оглянется…
Пусть будет — как Ему захочется:
Мы не Величества, Высочества.
Так, скромные, богоугодные,
Душой и телом — благородные,
Дорожкою простонародною —
Так, доченька, к себе на родину:
В страну Мечты и Одиночества —
Где мы — Величества, Высочества.
The path of plain folk, of simplicity,
we tread, God-fearing, with humility –
outmoded garb, we guard our liberty,
in mind and body – pure nobility.
Thus spake the prophets, of proud dynasties:
Where are ye – Majesties? and Highnesses?
So, mother, daughter – two lone wanderers.
The churlish mob surge, chiding, on at us.
Maybe – some breath will yet remain of us,
And maybe – God look back again on us…
His will be done, the Lord of Righteousness:
we are no Majesties, no Highnesses.
Let us, God-fearing, with humility,
In mind and body – pure nobility,
turn homeward, daughter – tread submissively
the path of plain folk, of simplicity:
Back to the land of Dreams and Loneliness –
where we – are Majesties, and Highnesses.”
Marina Tsvetaeva (trans. Robin Kemball)