Wednesday, 8 February 2012

ANNA AKHMATOVA Selected Poems 1909-1963 (1985)

Penguin Classics, 2006

 Cover Painting by N. ALTMAN


I drink to our demolished house,
To all this wickedness,
To you, our loneliness together,
I raise my glass–––

And to the dead-cold eyes,
The lie that has betrayed us,
The coarse, brutal world, the fact
That God has not saved us.



If all who have begged help
From me in this world,
All the holy innocents,
Broken wives, and cripples,
The imprisoned, the suicidal ––
If they had sent me one kopeck
I should have become ‘richer
than all Egypt’…
But they did not send me kopecks,
Instead they shared with me their strength,
And so nothing in the world
is stronger than I,
And I can bear anything, even this.


Translated by DM THOMAS

See the end of this post to read two 
of The Last Toast 

The Collection:  Lover, wife, artist's model (for the painter Amedeo Modigliani and others), mother, victim and, above all, genius –– these are just some of the terms that might be used to describe the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

Many of Akhmatova's poems –– a good and varied selection of which are included in DM Thomas's outstanding translations of her work –– read like personal questions to God, asking him to explain why he couldn’t be bothered to save her and her suffering country from the cruelties inflicted on it first by the Bolsheviks and then by 'Iron Joe' Stalin and his henchmen.  It's also evident to anyone who reads her work that she never expected God or anyone else to save Russia, that she’d long since resigned herself to loss –– of loved ones, of her home and motherland, of any sense of identity or personal autonomy –– as being part of the natural order of things.

It's this sense of resignation, of bravely and unflinchingly accepting what are unavoidable if exceedingly painful truths, which makes Akhmatova's work so compelling and ultimately so powerful.  Her work is beautiful not because it relies on beautiful language to describe beautiful things but because she never ceased to lay her own soul bare in it for all the world to see.  'Who can refuse to live his own life?' she's alleged to have once asked a friend who tried to offer her sympathy when Stalin sent her son back to the gulag.  She had no use for sympathy.  She had a vision to pursue and she pursued it, in the face of purges, war and privation, alone and undaunted for nearly sixty incredibly difficult years.

I get the same feeling from reading an eight line Akhmatova poem like The Last Toast that I get from listening to the music of her contemporary and admirer, the alternately vilified and ‘rehabilitated’ composer Dmitri Shostakovich.  I’m reminded of this each time I listen to one of Shostakovich’s late String Quartets, which to my untrained ear seem to be coming from the same lonely and embattled place that gave birth to so much of Akhmatova’s most heartrending poetry.  These were brave people who chose to stay and bear witness to the horrors of Soviet tyranny, artists who refused to flee to safety in the West as so many of their countrymen (eg. Prokofiev, Bunin, Nabokov and Stravinsky) did before and after them.  They somehow found a way to keep making their highly personal statements about loss and suffering while living –– perhaps ‘existing’ would be the better word for it –– within a system that was ruthlessly opposed to all forms of individual expression.  Akhmatova's poetry, as DM Thomas suggests in his introduction, helped to give 'dignity and meaning' to what must surely rate as one of the harshest and most terrifying periods in all of human history.

The Poet: 'Anna Akhmatova' was actually born Anna Gorenko at Bolshoy Fontan, near the Ukrainian city of Odessa, in 1889.  The family moved to the town of Tsarkoye-Selo, outside what was then the city of St Petersburg, when she was eleven months old.  The town was to retain a central position in her memories and become a recurring symbol in her work for the remainder of her life.

Akhmatova began writing poetry as a child, publishing her first verses as a teenager, none of which are now known to survive.  She deliberately chose to publish under the pseudonym 'Akhmatova,' the surname of her Tatar grandmother, because her nobleman father didn't want his respectable name tarnished by having it associated with anything as disreputable as poetry.

Akhmatova soon established herself as one of the most exciting of the new young Russian poets, giving readings that attracted the attention of her competitors, including her future husband the 'Acmeist' Nikolai Gumilev and his friends Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky.  Her marriage to Gumilev was not a happy one –– she allegedly told friends that she was never sure she loved him –– and they divorced in 1918 after producing a son named Lev, who was born in 1912.  Gumilev was arrested in 1921, accused of engaging in 'counter-revolutionary activities' and executed by the Bolsheviks shortly afterwards.

Akhmatova's life was severely affected by her marriage to Gumilev.  The 1920s were the era of 'guilt by association' and after her husband's arrest her activities were closely monitored by the authorities, who banned her from publishing or giving any public readings of her poetry until 1940.  (It was rumoured that Stalin personally ordered this ban because he felt jealous of a standing ovation the poet had received after giving an especially moving reading of her work in Leningrad.)  Her son Lev was arrested, released and re-arrested by the regime several times, serving lengthy sentences in prisons and labour camps until he was finally freed for good during the 1956 amnesty that followed Stalin's death.  Her third husband, Nikolai Punin, wasn't so fortunate.  He died in a Siberian gulag in 1953, his case apparently forgotten by everyone but his wife.

Because she was banned from publishing and giving readings of her work, and was afraid to write it down lest it should find its way into the hands of the Cheka (forerunner of the KGB), Akhmatova and her friends adopted the practice of committing her unpublished poems to memory to ensure they'd survive and never be forgotten.  They were often recited, quietly, among themselves at private parties and other informal gatherings –– a way of being 'heard' and 'read' that allowed her to deceive a regime determined to crush her spirit without actually going to the trouble of arresting and murdering her as it had done with Gumilev and her close friend Osip Mandelstam. 

Despite the ban on her work, Akhmatova was still one of the most popular and beloved poets in Russia, important enough for Stalin to have her evacuated (along with Shostakovich) from St Petersburg, now renamed Leningrad, to the distant eastern province of Tashkent during the long destructive siege of that city by the Nazis.  She returned to a devastated Leningrad in 1944 and remained there, except for yearly visits to her dacha in Komarovo and a single state-approved trip to the West to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, until her death in 1966.  Her reputation had been partially restored by this time and much of her work –– although not her two acknowledged masterpieces Requiem and Poem Without A Hero –– gradually began to be re-published again, helping to establish her reputation, both in the USSR and abroad, as one of the greatest and most important poets of the twentieth century.

Click HERE to read more translated poetry by ANNA AKHMATOVA at Anna of All the Russias, a biography of the poet written by ELAINE FEINSTEIN, was published by Vintage/Random House in 2007.  You can also click HERE to learn more about the poet's journals, edited by her friend LYDIA CHUKOVSKAYA, which were published by Northwestern University Press in 2002.

In August 2015 US singer/songwriter IRIS DEMENT released an album titled The Trackless Woods which consists of eighteen English translations of ANNA AKHMATOVA poems performed by DEMENT to her own minimalist guitar/piano accompaniment.  Click HERE to read more about the album and listen to (brief) samples of it.  (Her version of The Last Toast is Track 17.)


PACZE MOJ left the following Comment on this post on 09 February 2012:  

I don't know Russian, but I looked up a Polish translation of The Last Toast and it's quite different.

I drink for the smashed house,
And my bad life,
For our loneliness together,
And for you I drink,
For the lies of your corruptible lips,
For the ice of dead eyes,
For this cruel, mean world,
And God's perfect coldness.

I wonder which one's closer to the original. I don't know any Akhmatova beyond that. The painting on the cover of the Penguin edition has a "composure in the face of suffering and death" feel to it. The face is dark and pained but the clothes and position of the body is elegant.

Thanks for bringing her to my attention.

Here's another version of The Last Toast translated by JUDITH HEMSCHEMEYER, which appears in the poet's mammoth Complete Poems, originally published by the Zephyr Press in 1997 and reprinted in 2006.

I drink to the ruined house,
To the evil of my life,
To our shared loneliness
And I drink to you ---
To the lie of lips that betrayed me,
To the dead coldness of the eyes,
To the fact that the world is cruel and depraved, 

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