Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems (Penguin, 1988)
[originally posted 1Feb2000]
One often wonders, when one hears everyone and their brothers spouting superlatives about a poet from a historically repressive country, whether the superlatives are based on the poet’s actual work, or whether they’re in some way based on the poet’s admirable– but irrelevant– ability to perform within a culture that is repressive to the poet’s art. In some cases, the superlatives are justified, for example Vladimir Holan’s stunning book-length poem A Night with Hamlet, written while Holan was officially a non-person in Hungary in the sixties.
Akhmatova has been called “the greatest Russian woman poet ever, and perhaps the greatest woman poet ever.” I can’t help but think those lauding on these kinds of laurels are looking more at her life than her work. There are certainly flashes of great brilliance here, but to put Akhmatova’s work up against that of, say, Elizabeth Bishop, Deborah Allbery, or even the underrated Dorianne Laux would quickly reveal many of its flaws.
This is not to say that Akhmatova’s poetry is completely without merit, and one must be forced to consider the viability of the work of any translator who would consider “He, was it, through the packed hall/Sent you (or was it a dream?)” to be the best way to translate anything, much less poetry. And thus, perhaps, the original is far more eloquent than what we receive here. That taken into account, there is still the problem to contend with that much of Akhmatova’s work is, for obvious reasons, overtly political, and makes no attempt to convey its message artistically; worse yet, a good deal of that work is imagist, impressionist. The end result is something that’s thick, sludgy, and impossible to read.
However, every once in a while a good line will shine through, and occasionally we find ourselves staring at a poem that seems to exist well outside the boundaries of this particular collection:
And the town is frozen solid, leaded with ice.
Trees, walls, snow, seem to be under glass.
Cautiously I tread on crystals.
The painted sleighs can’t seem to get a grip.
And over the statue of Peter-in-Voronezh
Are crows, and poplars, and a pale-green dome
Washed-out and muddy in the sun-motes.
The mighty slopes of the field of Kulikovo
Tremble still with the slaughter of barbarians.
And all at once the poplars, like lifted chalices,
Enmesh more boisterously overhead
Like thousands of wedding-guests feasting
And drinking toasts to our happiness.
And in the room of the banished poet
Fear and the Muse take turns at the watch,
And the night comes
When there will be no sunrise.
Unfortunately, there’s too little of this and too much of the rest. Giving the benefit of the doubt where the translation is concerned, I can still only manage ** ½.