I called death down
I called death down on the heads of those I cherished.
One after the other, their deaths occured.
I cannot bear to think how many perished.
These graves were all predicted by my word.
As ravens circle above the place
Where they smell fresh-blooded limbs,
So my love, with triumphant face,
Inflicted its wild hymns.
Being with you is sweet beyond mention,
You’re as close as the heart I call my own.
Give me both hands, pay careful attention,
I beseech you: go away, and leave me alone.
Don’t let me know where you make your homes.
Oh, Muse, don’t call to him from above,
May he live, unmentioned in my poems,
Ignorant of all my love.
[translated from the Russian by Lyn Coffin]
In his introduction to the collection that this poem is taken from (Anna Akhmatova: Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 1983), Brodsky writes:
“Naturally enough, poems of this sort couldn’t be published, nor could they even be written down or retyped. They could only be memorized by the author and by some seven other people since she didn’t trust her own memory. From time to time, she’d meet a person privately and ask him or her to recite quietly this or that selection as a means of inventory. This precaution was far from being excessive: people would disappear forever for smaller things than a piece of paper with a few lines on it.”
It’s ironic, isn’t it? For centuries poets have been promising their beloveds immortality in verse. “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee”, Shakespeare writes, and the sentiment recurs again and again throughout the ages that follow. And yet here we are, in the Russian police state, and suddenly the act of naming has turned fatal, the poem guaranteeing not eternal fame but instant execution.
Akhmatova wrote this poem in 1921, the year her first husband, poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was executed by the Soviets. In the years to come, she would suffer much at the hands of the state – the arrest and death of her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, the arrest and death of her third husband, Nikolai Punin and the arrest of her and Nikolay’s son, Lev, whose incarceration would become the subject of her incredible ‘Requiem’.
Knowing the trials that lie ahead, this poem seems prophetic, but even without that context it is a heartbreaking poem. The exquisite violence of that image of love as a scavenger, conveying so perfectly the horror of something as tender as a love poem turned into an instrument of betrayal; the grief and guilt of the first stanza perfectly balancing the self-denial of the second. If there was ever any doubt about Akhmatova being one of the finest lyric poets of all time, today’s poem should put it to rest.
I could go on, but I’ll leave you with another quote from Brodsky, who says it so much better than I ever could:
“her verses are to survive whether published or not: because of the prosody, because they are charged with time in both [mundane and metaphysical] senses. They will survive because language is older than state and because prosody always survives history. In fact, it hardly needs history; all it needs is a poet, and Akhmatova was just that.”