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18 Fragments: A Russian Poet

Like “At Work,” the sequence for “A Russian Poet” is part of a larger collection of vignettes shared between myself and the photographer Wes Kline. I have forgotten why I chose to read Akhmatova’s Selected Poems, though her line “It was a bad time for heart” hasn’t been easy to shake. As much as I go on finding myself in Akhmatova’s moments, there are depths to her work I will never reach. My lack of Russian language is a significant barrier. I remember reading Death of Ivan Ilyich as an undergraduate, being told then there are layers to Tolstoy’s novella that our English speaking hearts cannot penetrate. So be it. We can still have hope that translations might touch our hearts in a way that even the poet would be moved. The translations here are my own, though translation is not the best word. Perhaps assemblages? Re-shaping? Giving it a shot? If nothing more, I did have the benefit of a Russian speaker and translator who transcribed as literarily as possible the Russian originals for me, which gave me a reasonable starting point. For the period I was reading them, Akhmatova’s poems made hard days more bearable. And that’s enough reason to keep reading—to make hard days more bearable.

Anna Akhmatova. In Russian her name reads, А́нна Ахма́това. Russian is a language I can neither read nor speak, but I began reading a volume of Akhmatova’s poems in translation. I read them on the way to work each morning. It was a bad time for the heart, was the first line that made me stop.

Akhmatova, I have read, was a poet of gestures and passion.

I made friends with fishermen.
Under an overturned boat,
I often sat with them in hard rain
And heard about the sea, memorized
And secretly believed every word.

On a Tuesday morning and using a headlamp to read,

Black and lasting separation
I share equally with you.
Why are you crying? Give me your hand,
Promise to come again in dreams.
You and I are like mountains
Separated by grief. We will not meet
In this world. Only sometimes at midnight,
Send me greetings through the stars.

On a Friday,

Oh, having said the heart is made of stone,
I surely knew: It is from fire…
I will never understand, were you close to me
Or did you simply love me?

I have not attempted a close study of Akhmatova’s work or read various translations or criticism. I read she suffered and found beauty and gave us her concrete lines–her frozen towns, trees, snow, her candles.

How many city skylines
Could have drawn tears from my eyes.