The cellar of memory

Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) described Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) in 1945 as

 

immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features and an expression of immense sadness.

 

I never met her except in her poetry. When I first read her poems, I found that they were charged as like with intensely powerful electricity that gave a jolt, a shock, no less. I had only felt like once before when I was 12 years old and read Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Here were two writers with the capacity to go into that inchoate world outside of language itself, dive in, rummage about and surface with clarity and perspicacity, and in language structure the chaos and horror of tumultuous inner life into something beautiful, elegant and meaningful. And, in particular, Akhmatova spoke in a distinctive voice, one that was singular and easily recognizable not merely because of her poetic sensibility but because of her tone, her questioning, her horror at the world but also because of her spirit.

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Lawrence, I could only manage in small doses, in miniature vials as it were. With Akhmatova, I left her poetry to one side for 20 years but couldn’t resist going back to visit her works. She herself said of her poetry

 

            These poems have such hidden meanings

It’s like staring into an abyss.

And the abyss is enticing and beckoning,

And never will you discover the bottom of it,

And never will its hollow silence

Grow tired of speaking.

 

This is Akhmatova speaking of herself as a reader of her own poems, telling us that words continue to reveal something immense and surprising from the fathomless depths of the abyss, that impenetrably dark space of imagination, where the ghastly and bleak lurks.

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In another poem, she summarizes the duty of a Russian poet, but it is as much a manifesto for poets in general

 

            It would be so easy to abandon this life,

To burn down painlessly and unaware,

But it is not given to the Russian poet

To die a death so pure

 

A bullet more reliably throws open

Heaven’s boundaries to the soul in flight,

Or hoarse terror with a shaggy paw can,

As if from a sponge, squeeze out the heart’s life.

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There is often this dance, this flirtation, even a choreographed mime with death. Sometimes she approaches death through her aging, changing physical body. She says

 

            I am bitter and old. A net

Of wrinkles covers my yellow face.

My spine is curved and my hands shake.

But my executioner watches with a jolly look.

And he congratulates himself on his artistic work,

Scrutinizing on my withered skin

The marks of his blows. Lord, forgive me!

 

Akhmatova was a slim, beautiful and fashionable young woman in the early years of the 20thcentury. By the time she visited the UK in 1965 to receive her honorary doctorate at Oxford her friends whom she had not seen for many years found ‘a dignified, older, portly woman’. I suppose the poem showed that she was conscious of the physical decline, as was to be expected as I do in myself.

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Her life was a chronicle of tragedies and she said of it

 

            No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering.

I would not have been able to bear what happened,

Let them shroud it in black,

And let them carry off the lanterns…

Night.

 

This extraordinary composure, the ability to retain dignity in the face of the loss of freedom, and an emasculation of the will were achieved by detachment, a heroic detachment that both distances the self from injury as well as protecting the wellspring of her art. But, at what expense?

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In the poem, ‘To Death’, she wrote

 

            You will come in any case- so why not now?

I am waiting for you- I can’t stand much more.

I’ve put out the light and opened the door

For you, so simple and miraculous.

So come in any form you please,

Bust in as a gas shell

Or, like a gangster, steal in with a lead pipe,

Or poison me with typhoid fumes

 

She wrote this in 1939 but lived another 27 years, dying in 1966. The thread that binds her writing together is not necessarily death but perhaps loss and estrangement from her environment. She said ‘It is pure nonsense, that I like grieving’ which is another way of saying I am bereft and grieve but do not much like the feeling.

 

One of my favorite, of her poems, reads

 

            When someone dies

His portraits change.

The eyes gaze in a different way and the lips

Smile a different smile.

I noticed it when I returned

From a certain poet’s funeral.

And since then I’ve checked frequently,

And my conjecture has been confirmed.

 

Well, there we are.

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Photos by Femi Oyebode

 

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