Expansive Poetics – (Anna Akhmatova – 4 – A Poem Without A Hero)

Anna Akhmatova – Photo by ©  Lev Poliakov

Allen continues his survey of the works of Anna Akhmatova

AG: And the later, even more complicated poem. “A Poem Without A Hero”, including herself, in other words, a poem in which even she is not the hero because the devastation is so total, and so devastating. I don’t think that’s been published in Russia yet (1981) but it’s published in English. And the “..Poem Without A Hero” is her summary of everything we’ve been studying, actually, of the Russian poets. It was begun in August in Leningrad under siege. There’s only one translation of it into English (by Carl Proffer) [editorial note – again. Allen is speaking in 1981] and I’ve seen it in this book (with) Akhmatova’s work, (published by Ardis House), and it’s also in a series of Studies in Modern Russian Literature, put out in Ann Arbor, where you have the complete poem with all the footnotes that tell it)

I don’t know quite what to do because it’s a big long thing. I don’t want to read it all aloud. but to summarize it –  I’d like to summarize the general idea of it. She goes back to an incident in the Stray Dog Cafe, years, or a little later, actually, (19).., maybe just before the Revolution. There was a great actress that she knew that was in love… no, Akhmatova was in love, with a twenty-year-old beautiful soldier, and the soldier was in love with an actress who used to act on the Stray Dog Cafe stage, and the actress was in love with Alexander Blok, the poet who was much older than she. And so, while Akhmatova was pining for this kid, and the kid was pining for the actress, and the actress was pining for Blok, the kid, the soldier (who was on leave) would follow (the actress) home, actually, and hide out outside of her apartment, and saw her going home with Blok, and so, committed suicide (or – and committed suicide!). So this was a shock, because he was a beautiful young poet boy that all the (other) poets around dug, but, at the same time, he was kind of weak, and a little crazy, to be committing suicide like that
But for her (Akhmatova), what it meant was the confusion of those times – the exaggerated emotions, and self-indulgencies, and irresponsibilities, and what you might call karmic entanglements, that never did get resolved. And she began to feel that out of the confusion of the literary movements of the time, and the bohemia and the intellectuals (the Futurists, Acmeists, Symbolists, Imaginists, Khlebnikov-ists, Social Realists) that their own confusion had created a situation which had caused this holocaust in Russia, so she began taking the blame (in a sense, institutionalizing the Zhdanov party-line, saying that they were, perhaps, an aristocratic elite who were irresponsible in their loves, and in their truths, and in their activities towards one another). And so the “Poem Without A Hero” is like a summing up of all the ghosts from Petersburg days. All the poets at one time or other come through in this poem like a kind of phantasmagoria. It’s like an hallucination, in which, suddenly.. taking after (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart’s “Don Juan” (Don Giovanni), where the statue comes to life. Suddenly, all the ghosts come to life and there’s a hallucinatory party that she sees in Leningrad during the siege of Leningrad and recollects and then writes about.
She has a little preface – Its appearance was preceded by several petty and insignificant facts, which I can’t resolve to call events. That night I wrote two sections of the first part (“1913”) and the “Dedication”. The beginning of January, almost unexpectedly,I wrote “Tails” and in Tashkent (in two sittings) (where she’d gone for refuge in the airplane) – “..wrote the “Epilogue”, which became the third part of the poem. I dedicate this poem to its first listeners, my friends and countrymen who perished in Leningrad during the siege”Then, let’s see, let’s see if I can get the hallucination –  “New Years Eve, the house on the Fontanka, instead of the one whom the author has been awaiting, the shades of the year, 1930, come to me as mummers. A white mirrored-ball, a lyrical digression. Guest from the future, a masquerade, a poet, a phantom. I’ve lit the cherished candles to make the evening shine and with you, who we have not come to meet,  I meet 1941, but Lord’s power be with us. In crystal drown the flame, in the wine burst like poison. There are bursts of harsh conversation, when all the deliriums are resurrected and the clock still has not struck. My anxiety knows no measure like shade on the threshold. I find myself guard of this final cozy refuge and I hear a protracted ring at the door, and I feel a clammy cold. I turn to stone, I freeze, I burn, and, as if recalling something, turning half-way round, I say in a soft voice,/ “You’ve made a mistake,/ Venice of the Doges, that’s near-by./ But today you will have to leave your masks in the hall,/ and your cloaks and gowns and staffs./ Today I’ve decided to cover you with glory,/ you New Year’s Eve madcaps./ Here’s one that’s like Faust, there’s one that’s like Don Juan,/ As dappertutto, as Jochanaan,/ the most modest as the northern Glan,/ Or a Dorian, the murderer And all are whispering to their Dianas/ Speeches learnt by heart” – (The names here are historical literary figures – a mask, for poets who are dead, or (were) persecuted, who she didn’t want to name, for fear the manuscript would be taken) – “..Speeches learnt by heart./ And someone with a timbrel brought a satyr-legged bacchante,/ and the walls moved apart for them./ Lights flared on, sirens wailed,/ and the ceiling bulged like a cupola of a church./ It’s not that I fear publicity,/ What are Hamlet‘s suspenders to me? /What’s the whirlwind of Salome’s dance to me? What are the footsteps of the Iron Mask to me?/  I myself am more iron than all of them./ And who’s turn is it to be frightened,/  to flinch, recoil, surrender, and pray/ forgiveness for an ancient sin?/ It’s all clear./ If not to me, to whom then? /Not for them was the supper prepared/ and it’s not for them to walk my path with me./ His tail he has hidden under the flaps of his frock./ How lame and elegant he is, the devil. However, I hope/ you didn’t dare to bring the King of Darkness here/. Whether it is a mask, or skull, or face,/ the expression of malicious pain/ is one that only Goya dared convey. /Everyone’s pet and mocker of all. /Next to him the vilest sinner/ is virtue personified./ If I’m to make merry, then let’s make merry./ But how could it happen/ that of all of them, only I am alive?/ Tomorrow morning will wake me up./ No one will condemn me/ and the blue outside my window/ will smile into my face./ But I’m terrified./ I’ll enter without removing my lacy shawl./ I’ll smile to everyone and be silent before the Valley of Jehoshaphat..” – (The Valley of Jehoshaphat is where the bones of the dead will be resurrected in the Last Judgment) – “before the Valley of Jehoshaphat, /I have no wish to meet myself again, myself as I once was, wearing a necklace of black agates. Are not the final deadlines near?/ I have forgotten your lessons/, rhetoriticians and false prophets,/ but you have not forgotten me. /As in the past, the future ripens,/ so, in he future, the past decays./ Terrible festival, lifeless foliage..” – (Well, I don’t know how clear any of that is. It’s totally clear to me.  The rest of the poem…)

Student (CC): (It’s difficult)

AG: Yeah, it’s difficult. It’s just, simply, that she’s recollecting (the ghosts are coming, or the phantoms of the past are coming, with all their sins and all their devils – and she, being the only one still alive).
And the end – the epilogue, or the end, might be trying to get through –

Student (CC): Yes.

AG: “The white night of June 24, 1942, Petersburg, the city is in ruins” -(so the grand Petersburg of her youth is now, in addition to the people, the city itself, is now completely in ruins) – “From the Harbor to Smolny, everything is flattened and visible, Here and there old fires are burning themselves out. Lindens are blooming and the nightingales are singing in the Sheremetev Gardens. One third-floor window, in front of which there is an injured maple, is broken out, and beyond it yawns black emptiness. Thus
” ‘Neath the roof of the house on Fontanka,/ Where the evening languor wandered/ With a lantern and ring of keys,/ I hallooed, with a distant echo,/ Disturbing, with my inappropriate laughter,/ The impenetrable sleep of things./ Where, witness of everything on earth at dusk and at dawn,/ The old maple looks still into the window/. And, foreseeing our parting,/ It extends its black and withered hand to me/ as if to help./ And, oh, what a star stared into my still-unabandoned house/and waited for the password./ It’s somewhere there near Tobruk./It’s somewhere here around the corner,/ You are not the first and not the last/ dark listener to bright nonsense./ What kind of revenge do you plan for me?/ You won’t drink it up. You’ll just take a sip/ of this grief from the very depths/. The news of our parting./ Don’t put your hands on my head./ Let time stop forever on the watch you gave to me./ Misfortune will not pass us by/, and the cuckoo will not cuckoo, [the cuckoo clock will not cuckoo]/ in our scorched forests,/ but, behind the barbed-wire,/ in the very heart of the dense taiga/ – I don’t know how many years it’s been -/ Turned into a handful of prison camp dust,/ Turned into a fairy-tale from a true and terrifying tale,/ My double goes to the interrogation,/ and then he goes back from the interrogation. /Two emissaries of the noiseless wench/ are fated to guard him,/ and even from here/ I can hear (isn’t that a miracle?)/ the sounds of my own voice./ I paid for you in cash./ For exactly ten years, I walked/ under the threat of a Nagant pistol” – (Stalin’s pistol) – “Neither to the left nor to the right did I look,/ and behind me,/ ill fame rustled./ And without becoming my grave/, you granite hellish beloved, you grew pale, moribund and quiet./ Our separation is transient./ I am inseparable from you. /My shadow is on your walls,/ my reflection in your canals,/ the sound of my footsteps echoes in the Hermitage halls,/ where my friend wandered with me, as on old Volkovo Field,/ where I can sob at will/ over the noiselessness of fraternal graves/. All that was said in the first part/ about love, betrayal and passion,/ free verse cast from its wings/, and my city stands, mended./Heavy are the gravestones on your sleeping eyes./ It seemed to me that you were chasing me..” – (I suppose that’s the kid she’s talking about now, the young soldier that she was in love with that committed suicide)  – “..It seemed to me that you were chasing me/, you who stayed there to perish in the gleam of spires and reflection of waters./ Your desired lovely heralds/ didn’t come. Only the series of your charmers – the white nights pass over you,/ but the happy words “at home” are not known to anyone now. /Everyone is looking in someone else’s window,/ some in Tashkentsome in New York./ The bitter air of exile/ is like poisoned wine./ All of you could have admired me/ when I was saved from the evil pursuit in the belly of the flying fish..” – [“the belly of the flying fish” is the aeroplane that took her out of Leningrad] – “..Soaring over the forests full of the foe,/ as she, possessed  by the devil, soared over the Brocken at night./ And already, directly in front of me,/ was the icy, frozen Kama/and someone who said “Quo vadis? but gave me no time to move my lips. before the mad Urals resounded with their tunnels and bridges..” – (they were fleeing to the other side of the Urals) – “And then the road opened up before me/ along which so many had gone away,/ along which they took away my son./ And long was the funeral path/ amidst the solemn and crystal silence of Siberia./ Seized by mortal terror had turned to dust/, and, knowing the time of vengeance,/ her dry eyes lowered, and wringing her hands, Russia/ went before me to the east.” – (so this is “the east” – finished in Tashkent, August 1942 – I guess finished as she left Leningrad)

Student (CC):  The notes at the end of that are also very..
AG: Yeah

Student (CC): … very good

AG: I’ll put this in the library after this class so that you can look it up and read it. The notes explain a lot of the references, who all the masked figures are, and what-not.

[Audio for the above may be heard here, beginning at approximately forty-three minutes in and concluding at fifty-eight minutes in]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *