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Portrait of Akhmatova, by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin; image care of Wikimedia Commons.

If last week’s dose of pub-lit was a long and thoughtful rumination on the mythic breadth of history, then this week’s takes us on a chilling turn to Russia in the midst of a dark poetic winter. Few places, I think, have as unique an engagement with poetry (or literature in general) as Russia. While all nations have had their historic drifts between passions and themes, few can claim to have gone through a period of such rigid and destructive clamp-down as they.

The period I speak of is, of course, the time of the Soviet Union. While I seek to make no political judgements here, I do feel right in making creative ones – and I think our spotlighted poet tonight, one Anna Akhmatova, would feel justified in doing so as well.

Akhmatova is a fascinating sample of a poet. In her, you can see the true transformation of time – of the advent and change of style that only life can stir. Akhmatova was a modernist poet, known before the communist revolution largely for short lyric poems that entranced the nation, and made her one of the most popular poets of the age – a time many refer to as Russia’s “Silver Age.”

On the one hand, she befriended such other writers as Boris Pasternak. Yet she also lived through World War II, and the madness of a 900 day siege in the city of Leningrad. She married three times, divorcing twice, and losing the third to the horrors of a labor camp.

And that was what sadly came to define her life: horror. She watched as friends and family died, fled, or were executed – yet she remained. Her work was condemned by the government, but still she remained, choosing to remain as witness to the horrors around her. And her work changed with them. What was short and musical twisted into intricate and structured tragedies – like the piece we present tonight.

“Poem without a Hero” was originally dedicated to all those friends and countrymen that died at Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Though it was not published until after her death, Akhmatova began it in 1940, and proceeded to work on it for twenty years, considering it the major work of her life. Today, it is one of her longest and most well known works, and regarded as one of the finest poems of the twentieth century.

The translations, given below, were performed by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward.

~Chris Galford

Poem without a Hero

I have lit my treasured candles,
one by one, to hallow this night.
With you, who do not come,
I wait the birth of the year.
Dear God!
the flame has drowned in crystal,
and the wine, like poison, burns
Old malice bites the air,
old ravings rave again,
though the hour has not yet struck.

Dread. Bottomless dread…
I am that shadow on the threshold
defending my remnant peace.

Let the gossip roll!
What to me are Hamlet’s garters,
or the whirlwind of Salome’s dance,
or the tread of the Man in the Iron Mask?
I am more iron than they.

Prince Charming, prince of the mockers —
compared with him the foulest of sinners
is grace incarnate…

That woman I once was,
in a black agate necklace,
I do not wish to meet again
till the Day of Judgement.

Are the last days near, perhaps?
I have forgotten your lessons,
prattlers and false prophets,
but you haven’t forgotten me.
As the future ripens in the past,
so the past rots in the future —
a terrible festival of dead leaves.

All the mirrors on the wall
show a man not yet appeared
who could not enter this white hall.
He is no better and no worse,
but he is free of Lethe’s curse:
his warm hand makes a human pledge.
Strayed from the future, can it be
that he will really come to me,
turning left from the bridge?

From childhood I have been afraid
of mummers. It always seemed
an extra shadow
without face or name
had slipped among them…

you are as old as the Mamre oak,
ancient interrogator of the moon,
whose feigned groans cannot take us in.
You write laws of iron.

Creature of special tastes,
you do not wait for gout and fame
to elevate you
to a luxurious jubilee chair,
but bear your triumph
over the flowering heather,
over wildernesses.
And you are guilty of nothing: neither of this,
that, nor anything..

what have poets, in any case, to do with sin?
They must dance before the Ark of the Covenant
or die! But what am I trying to say?

In the black sky no star is seen,
somewhere in ambush lurks the Angel of Death,
but the spices tongues of the masqueraders
are loose and shameless
A shout:
“Make way for the hero!”
Ah yes. Displacing the tall one,
he will step forth now without fail
and sing to us about holy vengeance…

There is no death, each of us knows —
it’s banal to say.
I’ll leave it to others to explain.

Is this the visitor from the wrong side
of the mirror? Or the shape
that suddenly flitted past my window?
Is it the new moon playing tricks,
or is someone really standing there again
between the stove and the cupboard?

This means that gravestones are fragile
and granite is softer than wax.
Absurd, absurd, absurd! From such absurdity
I shall soon turn gray
or change into another person.
why do you beckon me with your hand?
For one moment of peace
I would give the peace of the tomb.

~Anna Akhmatova