Born in 1889 in present day Ukraine, Anna Akhmatova was a prolific poet of her times and became a symbol of resistance during Stalin’s iron rule. Eventually however, she was forgotten, becoming a poet overshadowed by fellow male Russian writers instead. There has been a slow revival of interest in her poetry since the 1990s. Her works have been translated in English several times now and this review will look at the Vintage publication, Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated by D.M. Thomas.
Anna Akhmatova published her first collection, Evening, in 1912. Many of her earlier poems were well received and had quite a large female readership. They depicted the torturous realities of love from the excitement of clandestine visits to the heartbreak of a parting. One of her poems from Evening, shows her wit and is reminiscent of Wendy Cope’s light hearted love lyrics:
He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.
He hated children crying,
And raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.
…….and he had married me.
It is not only a humorous poem but also shows her concerns about wifely duties and even makes a jibe at the misconception of hysteria as uniquely female. Many of her poems express her anguish about fitting into roles of a mother and wife.
One way in which Akhmatova portrays the female point of view is through retellings of folklore, Biblical stories and literary anecdotes. She humanises Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Ophelia in her poems, Cleopatra and Reading Hamlet respectively. She also gives a humorous spin to the Cinderella tale when she ends a poem from her collection Rosary (1914) with Cinderella more worried about her shoe rather than the Prince’s love for her:
Where can I hide you?
And it’s a bitter thought
That my little white shoe
will be tried by everyone.
The two poems that are Biblical retellings are from her collection, Anno Domini (1922). Rachel gives voice to the Biblical character, Rachel, who was betrayed by both her father, Laban, and her suitor, Jacob. Her father denied her to be married to Jacob because the laws stated that the eldest should be married first. Thus, Jacob was married to Leah instead of Rachel. But, the ending shows how both Jacob and Rachel yearn for each other. It is telling that it ends with lines about Rachel’s regrets:
Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved
Me, and called me your black dove?
Lot’s Wife is also from the same collection and highlights the titular character’s point of view. Lot is a character mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Lot, his wife and daughter were fleeing the destruction of the sinful city, Sodom. They were not supposed to look back but Lot’s wife dared to do it. She was punished for her disobedience and turned into a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife is used as an example to teach a lesson about the consequences of disobeying God’s word. She has been usually portrayed in poems and literary works on similar lines. However, in her poem, Akhmatova hails the character instead of turning her into a trope or a moral lesson. She believes that Lot’s wife was brave to steal a glance of her home:
Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she will never be lost
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.
This subtle rebellion would indeed be relatable to Akhmatova as she experienced her country transforming into an authoritarian society and her home being ideologically destroyed. If it was Akhmatova who was forced to flee her home, she would indeed mimic Lot’s wife, wishing to glance back, see her beloved home one last time and preserve that image in her memory. In the subversive poem, Akhmatova succeeded in portraying Lot’s wife’s emotions when she glanced back rather than only reducing her to an idea of a disobedient wife. She showed the ‘why’ of her actions.
This is exactly why feminist retellings are important because they reveal an alternate viewpoint that challenges normative perspectives.
The Importance of Art
Another theme that runs through her poems is manifesting the importance of art and poetry as well as voicing the struggles of being an artist.
In Loneliness from her collection White Flock (1914), she writes about a persona (probably herself) sequestered in a high tower with commanding views of the scenes around her which helps her to be inspired to complete her poems.
Among high towers a high towers….
Here I can see the sun rise earlier
And see the glory of the day’s end….
And the Muse’s sunburnt hand
Divinely light and calm
Finished the unfinished page.
The poem questions how writers attain inspiration. In the poem above, Akhmatova affirms that staying cut off from the world and being lonely is a prerequisite for the Muse to appear. Paying a tribute to the Muse is another of her hallmarks. It is unique to see a female poet invoking a Muse, as in canonical British literature the standard has always been a male writer calling on a female, a Muse for inspiration. The dynamics change when Akhmatova indulges in it.
The power of her words is not lost on her as Anna often mentions the power of poetry to record the horrific and to remember. In an untitled poem from her collection, The Seventh Book, she says that she has been spared death to write about those gone by:
I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,
Not as a frozen willow over your memory,
But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.
What names are those!
Her most famous work, The Requiem, is prefaced by an incident of why she wrote the poem in the first place. The poem is about the hardship she and others like her faced standing for hours every day outside prison walls in Leningrad for news about their family members. Akhmatova spent about 17 months lining up every day to know about the fate of her son, Lev. One day, a lady recognised her and asked if she could describe all that was around her. And she did. She captured the state of her own torment as well as the country’s in this poem. The Requiem is a brave reminder about poetry’s power in calling out the wrongs of a nation, how poems can help a nation remember its fractured past and never forget; lest people repeat the same mistakes.
This is an important lesson from her poems that later on lashed out at Stalin’s rule. Her poems grieved for her nation and its people.
On her death anniversary (5th March), let us once again remember the powerful purpose of poetry.
Lest we forget.