The Russian poet Nikolai Gumilyov was so desperate to marry his teenage sweetheart Anna Akhmatova that when she kept refusing him, he attempted suicide...
“The Word That Causes Death’s Defeat:
Poems of Memory”
by Anna Akhmatova, translated, with essays and commentary by Nancy K. Anderson
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $30
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The Russian poet Nikolai Gumilyov was so desperate to marry his teenage sweetheart Anna Akhmatova that when she kept refusing him, he attempted suicide — three times. Eventually, after years of his persistence, she did marry him, even though she apparently loved someone else.
With her regal profile and smoldering sensuality, Akhmatova broke hearts, suffered unrequited love, survived a hellish period in Russian history, and, in the end, took it as her duty to be the voice of a suffering people.
American audiences know Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) mostly for her brief, intense lyric poems of love and loss. Her highly allusive longer poems, particularly the three-part “Poem Without a Hero,” can be more difficult. They require a knowledge of Russian people, places and events — not to mention the poet’s life — that few nonspecialists possess.
Then, there’s the problem of trying to re-create the music and layered meaning of the Russian poetry in English. Independent scholar Nancy K. Anderson has stepped in to help with a sensitive and illuminating book.
“The Word that Causes Death’s Defeat: Poems of Memory” centers on Anderson’s verse translation of Akhmatova’s “Poem Without a Hero” and two related poems: “Requiem,” written for the victims of Stalin’s reign of terror, and “The Way of All the Earth,” a poem entwining Akhmatova’s personal and historical past.
To make the poems more accessible, Anderson built around them. She opens with a succinct history of Akhmatova’s life and time — which spanned the Russian Revolution, the German invasion of World War II, widespread famine and the Stalinist purges. Then, following her translations of the poems, Anderson added critical essays, commentary and appendices with different versions of “Poem Without a Hero.”
Akhmatova had said she felt like a medium for “Poem” rather than its creator. It occupied her for more than two decades, continuing to grow, its final form always just beyond her grasp. It was, she said, “the summit of my creative path.” Anderson’s verse translation of “Poem” doesn’t precisely re-create its form but strives, by keeping the rhyme pattern and a “compatible” meter, to resurrect its music. (Most English translations have been in free verse.)
In her essays, Anderson bridges a century of time and half a world of distance to expose the atmosphere that fed a unique and powerful voice. Akhmatova was a friend of poets Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva and Boris Pasternak (who all died before her) and a mentor to Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky (who died in 1996, in exile in the U.S.). That congruence of poetic genius aligned in a time and place where there was no safety: a country under siege from without and within.
Akhmatova, whose estranged husband, Gumilyov, had been killed and whose son was in prison, at times had to hide her writing. What she wrote tacitly condemned the regime and expressed the anguish of people who had lost everything. The common theme that binds the three poems is the role of memory.
One of the defining images of Akhmatova’s oeuvre is the beginning of “Requiem” titled “Instead of a Foreward.” Written as a plain-spoken narrative, it describes the time Akhmatova spent standing outside prisons with crowds of others, trying to learn whether her son was alive or dead. Dated April 1, 1957, she wrote:
“In the terrible years of the Yeshov era, I spent seventeen months on prison lines in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Then a woman with blue lips who was standing behind me and who, of course, had never in her life heard my name before, awoke from the torpor normal to all of us and breathed a question in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
‘Can you describe this?’
And I said:
Then something like a smile slipped across what once had been her face.”
Sheila Farr is the arts critic for The Seattle Times; firstname.lastname@example.org