Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova [Amedeo Modigliani]

from Olga Carlisle's Poets on Street Corners: portraits of fifteen Russian poetsAnna Akhmatova's "Requiem," translated/adapted by Robert Lowell (Atlantic Monthly, 1964):

The Requiem

Dedicated to the victims of the Stalinist repression in the late thirties, the Yezhovshchina, named after Yezhov, who was head of the secret police at the time. The streltsi were Peter the Great's musketeers whom he suspected of treason and had executed, with all sorts of refinements in cruelty, at the gates of the Kremlin in the presence of their families.

I wasn't under a new sky,
its birds were the old familiar birds.
They still spoke Russian. Misery
spoke familiar Russian words.


By Way of Introduction

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines at Leningrad. Once, someone somehow recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who had of course never heard of me, woke up from the stupor that enveloped us, and asked me, whispering in my ear (for we only spoke in whispers):
"Could you describe this?"
I said, "I can."
Then something like a smile glided over what was once her face.


Dedication

Grief turns the Neva to green glass,
soon the abiding hills are dust,
and yet the prison locks stand fast,
the convict, kicking in his lair,
breathes the consuming air.

For someone somewhere, a fresh wind;
for someone the low sun is a live coal,
but we know nothing. Blind and small,
we hear the keys clang through wards,
the sleepwalk of the guards.

Up, out, as if for early Mass —
when we prowled through wild Leningrad,
we were more breathless than the dead,
and lower than the sun. Low fog,
soon leveled out to fog.

We hoped! The verdict? . . . only tears,
each one cut off from everyone,
rudely cut off, tripped up, thrown down,
blood siphoned from the heart. Dead stone,
she walks still, sways . . . alone.

Oh two years' hell-black, line-up nights,
cry, cry, for your imprisoned friend,
clothe him from the Siberian wind,
shine in the haloed moon's snow eye . . .
I say good-bye, good-bye.


Introduction

Then only the hollow, smiling dead
dared to draw breath and sing;
by blocks and prisons, Leningrad
throbbed like a useless wing.

There convict regiments, miles long,
and mad with suffering,
heard engines hiss their marching song,
the cattle cars' wheel-ring.

The star of death stood over us;
Russia convulsed, as ominous
removal trucks and black
police boots broke her back.


1

They led you off at dawn. I followed,
as if I walked behind your bier.
In the dark rooms, the children bellowed,
wax melted in the icon's glare.

Cold the small icon's final kiss,
cold the lined forehead's greenish sweat —
like the wives of the Streltsis,
I'll howl beneath the Kremlin's gate.


2

The dragging Don flows slow, so slow,
the orange moon climbs through a window.

Its hat is slanted on its brow,
the yellow moon has met a shadow.

This woman is alone,
no one will give the dog a bone.

Her husband's killed, her son's in prison;
Kyrie eleison!


3

Myself! No, she is someone else,
I couldn't take it. Light
no lanterns in these death cells —
black cloths for windows . . . night!


4

Think back on Tsarskoe's play world, soon
outgrown, soon dated, show-off child —
the tree house built to reach the moon . . .
Oh what has happened to that child?

Number 300 in the queues
of women lugging food and news
for felons. . . . Will your scalding tear
burn an ice hole in the new year?

No sound. A prison poplar waves
over the deadly closeness, waves
of white leaves whiten in the wind —
what innocent lives have reached the end!


5

For one month, five months, seventeen,
I called you back. I screamed
at the foot of the executioner.
You are my son, my fear.

Thoughts rush in circles through my head;
I can't distinguish white from red,
who is a man, who a beast,
or when your firing squad will rest.

Here there are only musty flowers,
old clock hands tramping out the hours,
old incense drifting from a censer,
and somewhere, boot steps leading nowhere.

See, see, it pins us down from far;
now looking straight into my eye,
"Move quickly, be prepared to die,"
says the huge star.


6

These weeks are lightweight runners. Light
of foot, they skin the oblivious snow.
Son, tell me how the white-capped night
looks through your prison window.

"It watches with the owl's hard eye,
or chokes the air with its white snow.
It speaks to us of Calvary,
it speaks of death."


The Verdict

At last the silent judge spoke out,
and struck us with his stony word —
but never mind, I will make out,
I was prepared.

Stones, chores . . . I'll manage. Splitting rock
stops the split mind from looking back.
I can forget you now and then,
turn stone, and learn to live again —

or else? The woods hot rustle, boughs
bursting, a window flying open . . .
I had long had a premonition
of this clear day and empty house.


8 To Death

You will come anyway, so why not now?
I wait for you. Now truly miserable,
I've turned my lights off and unlocked the door.
You are so simple and so wonderful.

Come to me in whatever shape you will:
a poison-bomb shell, or the typhus mist —
housebreaker, coming from behind to kill,
lifting a clubbed revolver in your fist.

Come to me as your own invention, Fate,
familiar to the point of nausea here —
I want to see the top of the blue hat,
the cringing stupor of the janitor.

All's one now. In Siberia,
rivers are ice, the pole star shines from far,
and the blue rays of my beloved's eye
burn through the daily torture. Let me die.


9 Madness

Already madness — on my breast
are three black moles. I see a fox:
two ears, black muzzle. Let me rest,
this bed I lie on is a pine box.

So simple and so wonderful!
Careful to stress each syllable
the allegoric voices hiss,
I lie decoding images.

I've breathed in red wine from the air!
Now sickness gathers up its gains,
and kicks me as I kneel in prayer,
and nothing of my own remains —

no, not my son's shy smile of wonder
that turned the bars to lines of shadow,
the woods' hot rustle, summer thunder,
our whispers at the prison window —

no, not the roughhouse of the boys,
birch boughs filled with the new birds,
light noises changing to a voice,
the ache of the last words.


10 The Crucifixion

"Mother, do not cry for me as I lie in my grave . . ."


I

When angel choirs proclaimed his agony,
and fire destroyed the April sky,
Christ questioned, "Why have you forsaken me?"
and told his Mother not to cry.


II

Magdalen fought and hit the officer,
the loved disciple stood like stone —
all this, God, but your Mother weeps alone;
none dares or cares to look at her.


Epilogue


I

An Assyrian sculptor carved your spear
and skewered flanks. Oh, lioness —
I've seen their faces die like grass,
the lowered eyelid's tick of fear.

I've seen the sick-blond curls grown rough,
snow rot the brown, smiles disappear
from soft, obedient mouths, as fear
suppressed its dry, embarrassed cough.

I pray for you, companions, all
who stood in lines with heavy feet,
come winter's cold or summer heat,
under the red and blinding wall.


II

And now the requiem hour has come,
I see you, hear you, feel you. Some
marched to their deaths in cheering ranks,
others have faded into blanks.

Some, coming to Siberia, said,
"Why worry, this is home at last."
Some lived. I'd write their names in red
forever, but the list is lost.

I've made a sort of elegy
drawn from the scattered words they wpoke.
Braced for terror's second stroke,
now and always, I hear their cry.

Tomorrow's the memorial day,
a hundred million people pray
through my tired mouth and lethargy:
"Remember me, remember me."

Friends, if you want some monument
gravestone or cross to stand for me,
you have my blessing and consent,
but do not place it by the sea.

I was a sea-child, hardened by
the polar Baltic's grinding dark;
that tie is gone: I will not lie,
a Tsar's child in the Tsarist park.

Far from your ocean, Leningrad,
I leave my body where I stood
three hundred hours in lines with those
who watched unlifted prison windows.

Safe in death's arms, I lie awake,
and hear the mother's animal roar,
the black truck slamming on its brake,
the senseless hammering of the door.

Ah, the Bronze Horseman wipes his eye
and melts, a prison pigeon coos,
the ice goes out, the Neva goes
with its slow barges to the sea.


Robert Lowell [Gisèle Freund]

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