Monday 7 December 2009

Another Anna

I’m continuing to read Robert Conquest’s engrossing The Great Terror, an exhaustive account of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. It’s full of all sorts of tragic detail, about the death of hope and, in relation to the arts, what he calls the ‘holocaust of the spirit.’ I’ve long admired Anna Akhmatova, arguably the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, and that is really a singular accolade in a nation of great poets. She gave a voice to silence, if I can put it like that, to a time of silence. I can’t explain in words how much Requiem moves me. Just cast your eye over the words.


Not under foreign skies protection
Or saving wings of alien birth –
I was then there – with whole my nation –
There, where my nation, alas! was.



In the awful days of the Yezhovschina I passed seventeen months in the outer waiting line of the prison visitors in Leningrad. Once, somebody ‘identified’ me there. Then a woman, standing behind me in the line, which, of course, never heard my name, waked up from the torpor, typical for us all there, and asked me, whispering into my ear (all spoke only in a whisper there):
“And can you describe this?”
And I answered:
“Yes, I can.”
Then the weak similarity of a smile glided over that, what had once been her face.

April 1, 1957; Leningrad


The high crags decline before this woe,
The great river does not flow ahead,
But they’re strong – the locks of a jail, stone,
And behind them – the cells, dark and low,
And the deadly pine is spread.
For some one, somewhere, a fresh wind blows,
For some one, somewhere, wakes up a dawn –
We don’t know, we’re the same here always,
We just hear the key’s squalls, morose,
And the sentry’s heavy step alone;
Got up early, as for Mass by Easter,
Walked the empty capital along
To create the half-dead peoples’ throng.
The sun downed, the Neva got mister,
But our hope sang afar its song.
There’s a sentence… In a trice tears flow…
Now separated, cut from us,
As if they’d pulled out her heart and thrown
Or pushed down her on a street stone –
But she goes… Reels… Alone at once.
Where are now friends unwilling those,
Those friends of my two years, brute?
What they see in the Siberian snows,
In a circle of the moon, exposed?
To them I send my farewell salute.


In this time, just a dead could half-manage
A weak smile – with the peaceful state glad.
And, like some heavy, needless appendage,
Mid its prisons swung gray Leningrad.
And, when mad from the tortures’ succession,
Marched the army of those, who’d been doomed,
Sang the engines the last separation
With their whistles through smoking gloom,
And the deathly stars hanged our heads over
And our Russia writhed under the boots –
With the blood of the guiltless full-covered –
And the wheels on Black Maries’ black routes.


You were taken away at dawn’s mildness.
I convoyed you, as my dead-born child,
Children cried in the room’s half-grey darkness,
And the lamp by the icon lost light.
On your lips dwells the icon kiss’s cold
On your brow – the cold sweet … Don’t forget!
Like a wife of the rebel of old
On the Red Square, I’ll wail without end.


The quiet Don bears quiet flood,
The crescent enters in a hut.

He enters with a cap on head,
He sees a woman like a shade.

This woman’s absolutely ill,
This woman’s absolutely single.

Her man is dead, son – in a jail,
Oh, pray for me – a poor female!


No, ‘tis not I, ‘tis someone’s in a suffer –
I was ne’er able to endure such pain.
Let all, that was, be with a black cloth muffled,
And let the lanterns be got out ... and reign
just Night.


You should have seen, girl with some mocking manner,
Of all your friends the most beloved pet,
The whole Tsar Village’s a sinner, gayest ever –
What should be later to your years sent.
How, with a parcel, by The Crosses, here,
You stand in line with the ‘Three Hundredth’ brand
And, with your hot from bitterness a tear,
Burn through the ice of the New Year, dread.
The prison’s poplar’s bowing with its brow,
No sound’s heard – But how many, there,
The guiltless ones are loosing their lives now…


I’ve cried for seventeen long months,
I’ve called you for your home,
I fell at hangmen’ feet – not once,
My womb and hell you’re from.
All has been mixed up for all times,
And now I can’t define
Who is a beast or man, at last,
And when they’ll kill my son.
There’re left just flowers under dust,
The censer’s squall, the traces, cast
Into the empty mar…
And looks strait into my red eyes
And threads with death, that’s coming fast,
The immense blazing star.


The light weeks fly faster here,
What has happened I don’t know,
How, into your prison, stone,
Did white nights look, my son, dear?
How do they stare at you, else,
With their hot eye of a falcon,
Speak of the high cross, you hang on,
Of the slow coming death?



The word, like a heavy stone,
Fell on my still living breast.
I was ready. I didn’t moan.
I will try to do my best.

I have much to do my own:
To forget this endless pain,
Force this soul to be stone,
Force this flesh to live again.

Just if not … The rustle of summer
Feasts behind my window sell.
Long before I’ve seen in slumber
This clear day and empty cell.



You’ll come in any case – why not right now, therefore?
I wait for you – my strain is highest.
I have doused the light and left opened the door
For you, so simple and so wondrous.
Please, just take any sight, which you prefer to have:
Thrust in – in the gun shells’ disguises,
Or crawl in with a knife, as an experienced knave,
Or poison me with smoking typhus,
Or quote the fairy tale, grown in the mind of yours
And known to each man to sickness,
In which I’d see, at last, the blue of the hats’ tops,
And the house-manager, ‘still fearless’.
It’s all the same to me. The cold Yenisei lies
In the dense mist, the Northern Star – in brightness,
And a blue shine of the beloved eyes
Is covered by the last fear-darkness.


Already madness, with its wing,
Covers a half of my heart, restless,
Gives me the flaming wine to drink
And draws into the vale of blackness.

I understand that just to it
My victory has to be given,
Hearing the ravings of my fit,
Now fitting to the stranger’s living.

And nothing of my own past
It’ll let me take with self from here
(No matter in what pleas I thrust
Or how often they appear):

Not awful eyes of my dear son –
The endless suffering and patience –
Not that black day when thunder gunned,
Not that jail’s hour of visitation,

Not that sweet coolness of his hands,
Not that lime’s shade in agitation,
Not that light sound from distant lands –
Words of the final consolations.


Don’t weep for me, Mother,
seeing me in a grave.


The angels’ choir sang fame for the great hour,
And skies were melted in the fire’s rave.
He said to God, “Why did you left me, Father?”
And to his Mother, “Don’t weep o’er my grave…”


Magdalena writhed and sobbed in torments,
The best pupil turned into a stone,
But none dared – even for a moment –
To sight Mother, silent and alone.



I’ve known how, at once, shrink back the faces,
How fear peeps up from under the eyelids,
How suffering creates the scriptural pages
On the pale cheeks its cruel reigning midst,
How the shining raven or fair ringlet
At once is covered by the silver dust,
And a smile slackens on the lips, obedient,
And deathly fear in the dry snicker rustles.
And not just for myself I pray to Lord,
But for them all, who stood in that line, hardest,
In a summer heat and in a winter cold,
Under the wall, so red and so sightless.


Again a memorial hour is near,
I can now see you and feel you and hear:

And her, who’d been led to the air in a fit,
And her – who no more touches earth with her feet.

And her – having tossed with her beautiful head –
She says, “I come here as to my homestead.”

I wish all of them with their names to be called;
But how can I do that? I have not the roll.

The wide common cover I’ve wov’n for their lot –
>From many a word, that from them I have caught.

Those words I’ll remember as long as I live,
I’d not forget them in a new awe or grief.

And if will be stopped my long-suffering mouth –
Through which always shout our people’s a mass –

Let them pray for me, like for them I had prayed,
Before my remembrance day, quiet and sad.

And if once, whenever in my native land,
They’d think of the raising up my monument,

I give my permission for such good a feast,
But with one condition – they have to place it

Not near the sea, where I once have been born –
All my warm connections with it had been torn,

Not in the tsar’s garden near that tree-stump, blessed,
Where I am looked for by the doleful shade,

But here, where three hundred long hours I stood for
And where was not opened for me the hard door.

Since e’en in the blessed death, I shouldn’t forget
The deafening roar of Black Maries’ black band,

I shouldn’t forget how flapped that hateful door,
And wailed the old woman, like beast, it before.

And let from the bronze and unmoving eyelids,
Like some melting snow flow down the tears,

And let a jail dove coo in somewhat afar
And let the mute ships sail along the Neva.


  1. A great and wonderful poet that I need to read more of!

  2. Я люблю поэзию Анны Ахматовой) и на её родном языке они звучат особенно красиво...
    Приятно, что та Ana интересуешься русской поэзией и историей =)
    Желаю удачи!

  3. Yes is incredible, Rehan.

    Да, я, очень. Спасибо, Lana. :-)

  4. So Ana, at first I applauded you for your taste and good judgment, for, to be specific, your classical and self-confident decision to let Anna Akhmatova simply speak, or declaim, for herself in your post, rather than trying to compete with your own thoughts. How well done, how well-judged, I thought to myself. How poised.

    But as I read, I had the sense of you and Anna intertwined, of Ana communing with Anna, I became convinced that I was reading an Anna infused with Ana and could feel you silently translating Anna and offering her to me.

    So, just to be clear, is this your translation? It has many merits and some very beautiful moments. Before I return to give it the close reading it deserves, and perhaps also offer a comment (which wil be decorously brief), I wanted to confirm that my intuition is correct and that this very spiritual and beautiful translation of Akhmatova is in fact yours . . . Chris

  5. Alas, Chris, no; my Russian is far too elementary. But thank you for your very kind words.

  6. So I add integrity to the taste, good judgment and poise displayed in your Akhmatova post.

    I mentioned in my comment on your Dawkins post that I accidentally wandered into your September 2009 posts, where I stumbled across the Incubus Sukkubus [sic?] post and videos. There was something unsettling and strangely stirring, I must admit, about the second song, particularly, and its lyrics, but I was also struck by the similarity between the dark Weltanshauung of the song and the 1913 incident in which the young officer Vsevolod Kniazev killed himself because he had lost the competition for the affections of Akhmatova's best friend Olga Glebova to Alexandr Blok. I suspect there's plenty of material in the elective affinity within you, conscious or not, of these two cultural phenomena to amply supply the content for a blog post and probably a novel . . . but there's also the angelic and pellucidly insightful Ana, who I would fervently hope gets properly expressed / dramatised in any blog post / novel that addresses such dark material . . .

    Point of procedure: now that I'm venturing into your past posts the only way I can tell if and when you've replied is to return every couple of days to the post itself, and it's getting a bit complicated. Is there a way I can be notified when you make a comment? Any advice greatly appreciated . . . Chris

  7. Chris, half devil, half child; that's me. :-)

    I'm hopeless when in comes to the technical side of things but I think I may be able to add your email - if you want to give it - ,which I think will keep you updated when new comments are posted.

  8. Hi Ana--of course--it's

    I've looked around and I can see that I can "join" your blog along with 300 others, so despite my dislike of crowds I'll do that too, which may accomplish the goal of being alerted to your posts and comments . . . hopefully

    I'll also Friend you on Goodreads, where I initially came across your review of THE KAISER'S HOLOCAUST . . . so that should take care of being alerted to your posts, comments and reviews

    You put yourself right in the middle of the daimonic tradition of Russian literature from Pushkin and Lermontov to Blok and Nabokov . . . unless, that is, you're evolving from being a devil towards becoming a child in order to inherit the kingdom of GOD--having read a dozen of your posts I'm sure you're capable of successfully surmounting any challenge in heaven or on earth . . . ;)

  9. Chris, I've added your email to the comments notification box, so hopefully that will work. I'm so glad you've joined my tribe, but you will never vanish into the crowd.

    One of my heroes, incidentally, is Lucifer from Milton's Paradise Lost. Ah, yes - The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven. :-)

    PS, do you know Gogol's Ukrainian stories, of hauntings, demons and devils? I really love those.

  10. Thank you Ana--the cyber tide has now brought in two waves of Anagrams.

    I'll respond in reverse order: Yes, I've read all of Gogol's short stories, which I admire, and I adore DEAD SOULS, although I must say that I haven't read it since 1983. Have you read Nabokov's lecture on Gogol? Many writers and their works rise maimed beyond recognition from the Procrustean bed of a Nabokov lecture, but Nabokov had a deep affinity for and understanding of Gogol and it's well worth reading. It may be in that lecture that he discourses on the "chort" which I seem to recall is a small Russian devil, not unlike an imp, perhaps. Gogol, like Akhmatova, teetered on the knife edge of the daimonic and the angelic, and unfortunately his lurch towards the angelic destroyed him as an artist, while the same intention and energy powered Akhmatova to artistic transcendence (for example, Akhmatova disapproved of the conduct of Glebova in the affair of her admirer's suicide and this position is part of the inner moral poise and greatness of "Poem without a Hero"). Speaking of chorts and imps, I suppose you've read Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse" . . . I've stood reverently at his grave in Baltimore, the city in whose gutter he died with a few cents in his pocket. The gravestone was paid for with money raised by French school children.

    I admire your taste in heroes, and even more, I am again taken aback and admiring of your precocious insight, and / or your superior education--but since you richly deserve your education and actively participated in it, ultimately the two factors are inextricable. My 17th century English lit prof was a Milton specialist, so I too spent a great deal of time on PARADISE LOST. But I feel positively superficial in your company, as I was personally electrified by the following passage, a few hundred lines down from your favourite lines:

    Darkened so, yet shone
    Above them all the archangel: but his face
    Deep scars of thunder had intrenched, and care
    Sat on his faded cheek, but under brows
    Of dauntless courage, and considerate pride
    Waiting revenge: cruel his eye, but cast
    Signs of remorse and passion to behold
    The fellows of his crime, the followers rather
    (Far other once beheld in bliss) condemned
    For ever now to have their lot in pain,
    Millions of spirits for his fault amerced
    Of Heaven, and from eternal splendors flung
    For his revolt, yet faithful how they stood,
    Their glory withered. As when Heaven’s fire
    Hath scathed the forest oaks, or mountain pines,
    With singed top their stately growth though bare
    Stands on the blasted heath. He now prepared
    To speak; whereat their doubled ranks they bend
    From wing to wing, and half enclose him round
    With all his peers: attention held them mute.
    Thrice he assayed, and thrice in spite of scorn,
    Tears such as angels weep, burst forth: at last
    Words interwove with sighs found out their way.
    Oh Myriads of immortal spirits, Oh powers
    Matchless, but with the Almighty, and that strife
    Was not inglorious, though the event was dire,
    As this place testifies, and this dire change
    Hateful to utter: but what power of mind
    Foreseeing or presaging, from the depth
    Of knowledge past or present, could have feared,
    How such united force of gods, how such
    As stood like these, could ever know repulse?
    For who can yet believe, though after loss,
    That all these puissant Legions, whose exile
    Hath emptied Heaven, shall fail to re-ascend
    Self-raised, and repossess their native seat?

    Here is my confession, never having taken seriously the lines you love, I always thought the Romantics were simply being provocative by saying that Milton secretly identified with Satan / Lucifer, and just put it down to the fact that he does have the best lines.

    (I don't know how many words are allowed in the Comment section, so rather than go through the bother of losing what I've written, I'll just Post this much now, and then continue in a second Comment . . . Hasta pronto--Chris

  11. The reason you've made me feel superficial, even trivial, in my response to PARADISE LOST is because your favourite lines are the most economical and precise summary possible of Eastern wisdom that I can think of, outside the mystical tradition, in major English literature, certainly that early. Obviously it resonates with Lovelace's "Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage, etc." but in its completeness and brevity it achieves the perfection of the truth of sunyata: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." I wasn't a careful enough reader at your age to notice this, or to respond as you have responded.

    Having lived many decades now since studying PARADISE LOST, I could not agree with you more, and I'm deeply impressed that you have already located this unconscious cultural synchronicity with the Dharma and the Dao in Milton's Lucifer.

    Based on what I've read of your blogs and reviews, I am very aware of the possibility that, despite the fact that Lucifer is your hero and you admire these lines, my claim that they connect with Eastern wisdom may be producing in you a dawning assumption that I may be, after all, an unreliable mystical nut. So I won't say much more unless you indicate that this is of any interest, except to say that the basic concept that Lucifer espouses, as it blossoms fully in the context of its native Eastern tradition, is that what we perceive as external reality is simply our own inner being which mirrored in our consciousness, and that the world of our inner being is reified in the world around us and mirrored back to us. Again, I imagine your brows furrowing as words like "solipsist" cross your highly cultivated, acutely critical (and not particularly forgiving?) mind, and I'm also painfully conscious that this is a "Comment" not a "Post". So to attempt to forge a link between your favourite lines by Lucifer and your very evident love for literature--while economising on humble "Comment" space--I'll simply post this link to a review of a wonderful book on Dante by Erich Auerbach, where Auerbach masterfully explains the matter using a Western source, one of my favourites, Heraclitus:

    I'll sign off now, with best wishes, by observing that the logo of our wine company is the Miltonian symbol of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, with the Road to Eden running between them . . .

  12. Chris, Nabakov, no; Poe, yes. There is nothing superficial about you and you must not be reluctant to reveal yourself, or your philosophical interests, in any way. I do have an interest in Eastern mysticism, partially drawn from a reading of Schopenhauer’s Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.

    Thank you for the link to the Dante review (also for the explanation about your wine company logo!)

  13. That was an excellent line about the rock and the limpet, thank you Ana . . .

    I will await the moment when you have had the time to look into the Auerbach book on Dante, either directly or via the review, before I continue further to sketch out the mystical vision of the relationship between consciousness and external reality . . .

    Your reference to Die Welt etc. motivated me to take down my old Dover edition of Volume One, and I amused myself by re-reading some of my jejune underlinings and comments, but I won't bore you with them. The CUP has released a new translation which I've just ordered, and will report back on it in a month or so . . . I was looking for that great line about the world as a scum-covered orb but I think that must be the beginning of Volume II . . . so many of the books we've discussed happen to be at the farm rather than among my books here in town, for some reason

    But I can see that your mind is far from Schopenhauer and Eastern ideas, and that instead you are focused these days on very contemporary and pragmatic issues--I quite enjoyed the fierce verve of your piece on Merkel . . . she's not worthy of your steel, of course . . .

    In any case, unlike Andrew Marvell's more urgent project there is both world enough and time to await the proper moment to discuss mysticism . . .

  14. Chris, I'd love to know what you had to say about Schopenhauer!

    You are quite right: my mind is more heavily focused on politics and contemporary history just at the present, particularly with regard to the EU. However I still have an eye on higher things and more eternal truths. I'm off to Egypt at the end of next week, so I've been ploughing through a lot of ancient history and mythology, along with some more recent literature, from Manning and Durrell to Mahfouz