Tuesday Poem: Anna Akhmatova - Requiem

 It's #WomenInTranslation month and I've been re-reading the poetry of Anna Akhmatova - one of the greatest voices of poetry under totalitarianism that has ever lived. Under Stalin, her husband had been killed, her lover and her son imprisoned.  Her poem Requiem is a record of living under terror, boldly naming the head of the KGB. If it had fallen into the wrong hands, it would have meant that she also would have lost her life. She didn't write it down, but committed it to memory. Then, to prevent the record being lost, she asked her friends to memorise it too.  You can read more about the poem's journey here.  

This is at the beginning of Requiem, describing a moment while she is standing outside the prison in Leningrad waiting to see her son.


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.

[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]

Akhmatova was married twice - both times to Russian poets - but neither marriage lasted very long. Her first husband was executed for anti-bolshevik sentiments. Akhmatova was very beautiful and had many affairs, most notably with Modigliani who almost lost his sanity over her, and with Boris Pasternok and Alexander Blok. She finally settled down with art critic Nikolay Punin, who was also imprisoned by Stalin. Her son by her first husband was only released from prison in 1943 to serve in the Russian army, but re-arrested in 1949 and ordered to serve another 10 years hard labour. 

  Akhmatova by Modigliani

Akhmatova set out to record the suffering of the Russian people with the same passion as her earlier poetry recorded her personal emotions. She was banned from the Union of Writers for her opposition to Stalin, which meant that she was denied publication. Her most important poems would not be published until after her death. After a lifetime of trauma Akhmatova was nominated for the Nobel Prize and, in 1965, allowed to travel to Europe again.  She died in 1966.

Why is This Age Worse?

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?
In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

Translated by Stanley Kunitz (with Max Hayward)


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