Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, is the book I read. How many translations of Anna Akhmatova are there now? She seems eminently translatable, with poems that would be interesting even if not poetic in plain prose. Her life is interesting, her subject matter is interesting.
The Kunitz translation has all of sixty pages of English poetry. The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, a 1990 translation, has seven hundred pages, just of the poems, not the apparatus. So what do I know.
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.
Are they ever. This poem is only from 1919. The next forty years gave her many opportunities to update this poem. The narrative push of this collection is irresistible – this must be true of any chronological collection – as I move, with dread, to the next age, always worse than the previous, until Akhmatova finally outlasts everyone.
I have enough treasures from the past
to last me longer than I need, or want.
You know as well as I… malevolent memory
won’t let go of half of them:
a modest church, with its gold cupola
slightly askew; a harsh chorus
of crows; the whistle of a train;
a birch tree haggard in a field
as if it had just been sprung from jail… (from “March Elegy,” 1960, first ellipses in original)
Not that Akhmatova’s pre-war poetry is so cheery, but it shares the sense of freedom and possibility with her amazing cohort of peers:
We’re all drunkards here, and harlots:
how wretched we are together. (1913)
But it is a meaningful Bohemian wretchedness, full of emotion and art:
His eyes are so serene
one could be lost in them forever.
I know I must take care
not to return his look.
But the talk is what I remember
from that smoky Sunday noon,
in the poet’s high gray house
by the sea-gates of the Neva. (from “To Alexander Blok”)
A number of the poems give a sense of eavesdropping on the talk of the poets, maybe a little too intimately, as in the many poems about Akhmatova’s husband, Nikolai Gumilev:
Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn’t stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
… And he was tied to me. (1911, ellipses in original)
If only this had been the tumultuous life of Akhmatova. No vigils in front of prisons, or sieges of her city.
Put it all to the torch! And the king named one by one
the towers, the gates, the temples – this marvel of the world;
then brightened, as the thought leaped into words:
“Only be sure the Poet’s House is spared.” (from “Alexander in Thebes,” 1961)
Please recommend favorite translations of Anna Akhmatova.