Friday, September 5, 2014

For Osip Mandelstam

Anna Akhmatova

And the town is frozen solid in a vice,
Trees, walls, snow, beneath a glass.
Over crystal, on slippery tracks of ice,
the painted sleighs and I, together, pass.
And over St Peter’s there are poplars, crows
there’s a pale green dome there that glows,
dim in the sun-shrouded dust.
The field of heroes lingers in my thought,
Kulikovo’s barbarian battleground.
The frozen poplars, like glasses for a toast,
clash now, more noisily, overhead.

As though it was our wedding, and the crowd
were drinking to our health and happiness.
But Fear and the Muse take turns to guard
the room where the exiled poet is banished,
and the night, marching at full pace,
of the coming dawn, has no knowledge.

I do not have enough Russian to know if the opening "and" belongs to the poet or the translator, though I am struck how many of her poems – in my collection anyway – begin with the conjunction; perhaps each poem is intended as a continuation of the previous acts of poetry, the way a diary or a journal resumes where it left off the day before; in which case, the "and" is a matter of style, and must be forgiven, despite it being a most clumsy and unwieldy way to start a poem. 

Akhmatova (Ахматова
) – or Anna Andreyevna Gurenko before she took the nom de plume – was a far, far better poet than this translation would suggest; it suffers, as in truth does every translation ever made from rhyme to rhyme, from the insistence on retaining rhyme where languages do not match. She would have been a far, far better poet than this poem, even if it had been well-translated, but as I have made clear throughout this book, my choices are not always about quality. 

Akhmatova, with her husband Nikolai Gumilev, the Jewish writer Osip Mandelstam, plus Sergey Gorodetsky, formed "The Guild of Poets" in the second decade of the 20th century, developing what became known as the Acmeist school, a reaction against Symbolism and a Russianisation of the European Imagist movement. 

Gumilev was arrested in 1921, accused of collaboration in a monarchist conspiracy – unusually for executed or destroyed Soviet poets, the plea in his case was almost certainly guilty. 

Gorodetsky joined the Bolsheviks, denounced whoever needed to be denounced for personal survival, and did indeed survive, till 1967. 

Mandelstam's story is told, briefly, in my piece about "Poem No 395" elsewhere in this collection, but you can guess that fate, I'm sure, when I tell you it was Mandelstam who wrote that "Poetry is respected only in this country. People are killed for it. There is no place where more people are killed for it." The illustration above is his prison mug-shot, probably the last photo of him in existence, probably at the transit-camp near Vladivostok where he died. For a full account of his life and work, his wife Nadezhda wrote two of the most extraordinary volumes in the history of the memoir, "Hope Against Hope" and "Hope Abandoned" (click here). Mandelstam was amongst those for whom Gorodetsky took his thirty roubles. 

How Akhmatova survived is less clear, since she refused to collaborate with the authorities, and yet remained permitted to write and publish. Lovers of Modigliani will know the twenty and more portraits that he painted of her, several nude, during their love-affair in Paris, but ultimately it is with Mandelstam that she remains identified, as fellow-poet, briefly lovers, finally the saviour by memory of many of his poems.

The portrait of her at the top of this page is by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

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