Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Turn My Soul to Stone": Akhmatova's "Requiem"

Near the end of her life, twentieth-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova reflected on the extent to which
her poetry constructs a relationship to the past that is both personal and political:
“I never stopped writing poems.  In them is my link with time, with the new life of my people.  When wrote them, I believed in the resounding rhythms reflected in the heroic history of my country.  I am happy that I lived in these years and saw events which cannot be equaled.”   
This claim is somewhat surprising, given that Anna Akhmatova not only lived through the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but also survived the massive famines that accompanied World War I and World War II in the Soviet Union. 

She endured the violent upheavals of Soviet collectivization and the consequences of Stalin’s rise to power, including the arrest and execution of her first husband, the arrest and imprisonment of her second husband (who died in a forced labor camp in Siberia in 1946), and the repeated arrest and imprisonment of her only son. 

Throughout her lifetime, many of her friends and colleagues opted to live in exile in Europe.  Akhmatova, however, refused to do so.  As she wrote in 1961,

No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.

Нет, и не под чуждым небосводом,
И не под защитой чуждых крыл,—
Я была тогда с моим народом,
Там, где мой народ, к несчастью, был.

Akhmatova’s decision to remain in the Soviet Union was by no means an easy one.  In 1914, critic Boris Eikhenbaum characterized her as “half-nun, half-harlot,” a slur that was later picked up by the Soviet authorities in order to discredit her work.  

 In the 1920’s, Akhmatova’s poetry was dismissed by Leon Trotsky as “irrelevant” to the emerging intellectual and artistic climate of the Soviet Union, and in 1925, the publication of her work was (unofficially) banned by the Communist Party.  In 1946, she was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, on the grounds that her writing was “harmful” to Soviet youth. 

Akhmatova’s poem cycle “Requiem” is a collection of 15 poems composed between 1935-1941.  In particular, “Requiem” represents a period known in Russian history as “The Yezhovshchina,” or “Yezhov Terror,” named after Nikolai Yezhov, the chief of the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) from 1936-1940.  During this period, the persecution, arrest, imprisonment, exile and/or execution of alleged opponents of Stalinism reached record proportions—rough estimates suggest that nearly 1.5 million people were victims of Yezhov’s “purges.” 

Akhmatova knew that the poems of “Requiem” were too politically dangerous to commit to paper: instead, they were memorized by friends and circulated orally or in secret through a practice known as samizdat, in which documents were reproduced by hand and passed from reader to reader.  “Requiem” was first published in Munich in 1963.

In “Requiem,” Akhmatova seeks to construct the past—both her own personal past and the history of her country—even as she testifies to the terrifying, present-day realities that have  engulfed her world.  Many of the poems of “Requiem” deal with the issue of time and with the way in which discrepancies between memory, expectation and reality can shape (or hinder) the poet’s ability to make sense of the events she is witnessing.

In the fourth poem of the cycle, for example, the speaker claims, “You should have been shown, you mocker … /What would happen in your life--.” Similarly, the seventh poem of the cycle, entitled “The Sentence,” insists:

Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone
I must learn to live again—

У меня сегодня много дела:
Надо память до конца убить,
Надо, чтоб душа окаменела,
Надо снова научиться жить,—

The poems of “Requiem” repeatedly testify to Akhmatova’s sense of moral responsibility as a poet.  Akhmatova believes that her artistic talent compels her to both remember and represent the past—and to insist that others do the same.  In “Epilogue II,” she writes:

I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.

О них вспоминаю всегда и везде,
О них не забуду и в новой беде,
И если зажмут мой измученный рот,
Которым кричит стомильонный народ,
Пусть так же оне поминают меня
В канун моего погребального дня

Ultimately, Akhmatova’s poetic construction of the past in “Requiem” is shaped by an underlying paradox: exhausted and gagged by historical and political events, she nevertheless recognizes—and embraces—her role as a voice for millions who have been silenced. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."