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This review is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

THE PROPER TRIBUTE OF TIME Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, translated by Richard McKane, (Bloodaxe) £7.95

In a typically trenchant journal entry of 1839 the Marquis Astolphe de Custine, walking through 'this capital without roots either in history or in the soil' and distressed by having seen 'no place more penetrated with the instability of human things', registered a prophecy to the effect that 'the continuance of Petersburg will depend either upon a political system or upon the tenacity of an individual'. After a century and a half, and translation into Leningrad by the former, it seems very much a fulfilment of the latter that the city's destiny should be inseparable from that of the perenially self-transforming Akhmatova. Not since Pushkin or 'the age of Pushkin' (obliquely equated with her own epoch in essays written by Akhmatova during the period of silence imposed on her by the authorities) has the distinctive Russian ability to create emblematic figures of redemption out of culturally volatile conditions generated quite so poignant an equation. With early fame as 'the Muse of Tsarskoe Selo' rendering her Odessa origins as a Gorenko irrelevant, Akhmatova's subsequent obduracy in the face of broken relationships, harassment and sorrow identified her unmistakably with a city which, in spite of the shallow foundations emphasized by Custine, had proved strong against all disasters visited upon it from without. Though the poems for the most part stemmed from privacies not easily appropriated - however much they might provoke speculation and inquiry - Akhmatova was installed in her audience's affections as the symbolic conscience of a nation, and an image of continuity and survival against a background of disruption and loss.

There seem to be as many versions of Akhmatova as there were people who knew her well, so that a peculiarly composite picture of her emerges from the evidence. For Mandelstam she was a contemporary Cassandra, a voice of warnings unheeded; and a similarly grave attribution attaches to the 1916 sequence of Tsvetayeva's that sees her as an iconic figure of Lamentation. In a pen-and-ink drawing made by Modigliani in Paris in 1911 - a treasured possession she always prominently displayed, irrespective of the chaotic domestic circumstances in which she found herself - a regal image of grandeur combines with the suggestion of frailty and passivity. And, notoriously, in a judgement its originator subsequently regretted deeply when it was used against her, Akhmatova epitomized a hybrid combination of mutually exclusive impulses, 'half harlot, half nun'. But beside any number of explicit and potentially damaging images, two exceptionally subtle characterizations of what Akhmatova represented recommend themselves as especially important. The first occurs at the end of Mandelstam's 'Morning of Acmeism' essay of 1913, where in an apparently programmatic spirit he generates terrific force from the proposition 'A=A'. Effectively demolishing the neo-Platonic pretensions of his Symbolist predecessors with an Aristotelian cudgel that will brook no contradiction, Mandelstam emphasizes the inseparability of the letter and the spirit by gesturing towards, and conferring a kind of absolute priority upon, the poetess whose adopted name had been partially embedded in the very name of the Acmeist movement. A comparable instance, more than fifty years on from the optimistic age of manifestos and in the last year of Akhmatova's life, is provided by her protégé Joseph Brodsky's 'A Prophecy' of 1965, a 'condition of Russia' statement of the kind recurrently encountered across two centuries. Brodsky, silenced like Akhmatova (and a graduate of the labour camp in Archangel), reminds such few readers as he can expect to acquire that:

Our alphabet's first sound is but the lengthening of a sigh
And thus may be affirmed for future time.

Occurring in close proximity to Brodsky's hope that any son or daughter granted him will be an Andrey or an Anna, this invites interpretation in the direction of 'an age ago' as referring, non-controversially, to two of Tolstoy's best-loved characters, both of whom live and die on the very verge of disaster. But even without the evidence of another 1965 poem ('To A.A.A.'), it is clear that Brodsky is tactfully suppressing any direct allusion to Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova which would implicate her, in old age, in his own youthful 'crimes' of recidivism. 'A Prophecy', complete with a title to suit Mandelstam's Cassandra, pays a quiet tribute to the pre-Revolutionary critics who situated Akhmatova's non-narrative lyrics in line of descent from the great nineteenth century novelists, thereby ironically turning a weapon against those who, having failed to silence her without having ever chosen to listen to her, are pointlessly replicating a past they supposedly repudiate. Above all of which 'A Prophecy' celebrates her astonishing powers of survival, since Akhmatova is the one figure still living who can make past, present and future seem a genuine continuum rather than an empty communique on the subject of progress.

The issue of whether 'A=A' even across the barriers of language and alphabet is given new life, appropriately enough in the year that marks the centenary of her birth, by Richard McKane's revision and enormous expansion upon his rather colourless Selected Poems, published by OUP and Penguin in 1969, three years after Akhmatova's death. This new volume is, as he stresses in the introduction, 'almost a complete Later Poems' and, as such, especially welcome given the necessarily disparate state in which much of Akhmatova's later work was obliged to emerge. The 'Fragments from a Tragedy or a Dream within a Dream', for example, are all that survive from an intended triptych of the 1940s, most of the manuscript of which Akhmatova burnt, only to return to the material to revise it in her last years. Like the poem which McKane calls 'The Big Confession' (almost as if loath to concede Akhmatova's obvious wish that her poetry should be considered analogous to Goethe's 'fragments of a great confession'), these remnants of a much longer work that Nadezhda Mandelstam, for one, could remember well have never before appeared in a volume of selections. McKane sensibly situates them alongside one of the very few complete versions of all seven of the fine 'Northern Elegies', with the long poems that lead into the extraordinary Poem without a hero adjacent to them. The Poem itself is here contextualized by Akhmatova's own, sometimes equally enigmatic notes upon what is probably her greatest single work, and by the libretto of a ballet deriving out of it. There are in addition fifteen closely printed pages of translator's notes covering manifold aspects of the oeuvre as a whole, without which Akhmatova's elusive (and highly allusive) voice can hardly hope to have an impact comparable with that generated by the original poems. Generally speaking, not unlike Akhmatova herself, McKane becomes the more riveting the closer his selection approaches its appointed end.

Even with these virtues to applaud, however, it is difficult to feel anything like so positive about his versions of the intimate lyrics for the most part composed before the Revolution, a group of which were translated into English as long ago as 1927. Like Verlaine's Romances sans paroles, perhaps the principal foreign influence upon them, these poems combine scruple and nuance in such a way as to haunt the very compromises they make inevitable. McKane, apparently content to disregard the efforts of Lyn Coffin (reviewed in PNR 40) seems tone deaf to the formal values which contribute so much to these intimate utterances. Working in a mode very similar to that of Innokenty Annensky's The Cypress Chest, published posthumously in 1909 and thereafter a lifelong point of reference for her, Akhmatova magnetizes dynamic and refractory raw material by imposing upon it the discipline of strict quatrains. Eye-catchingly presented with an unfamiliar Petrov-Vodkin oil portrait of 1922 - a welcome 'realist' counterpoint to the innumerable reproductions of the rather skeletal Modigliani line-drawing - this otherwise very enterprising attempt to give us all we need of Akhmatova cannot in the case of the early poems quite convey the Acmeist conviction that A is equal to A ad infinitum.

This review is taken from PN Review 72, Volume 16 Number 4, March - April 1990.

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