Anna Akhmatova – 1889-1966.
“In the fearful years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months in prison queues in Leningrad. One day somebody ‘identified’ me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but suddenly she came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers here): ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’ And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.” (April 1957 Leningrad)
Akhmatova lived the Russian Revolution of 1917, two World Wars, and Stalin. Her first husband was shot. Her lover and son were both arrested and put in camps. She was followed by the secret police and forbidden to write. In 1945 her Collected Poems, ready for publication, were not published. After Stalin’s death, her work finally came out in Russian again, and she was allowed to visit the West in 1965, the year before she died.
The translation here is by novelist and poet DM Thomas, and is published in the UK by Penguin Books.
There I learned how faces fall apart,
How fear looks out from under the eyelids,
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by suffering on people’s cheeks.
There I learned how silver can inherit
The black, the ash-blond, overnight,
The smiles that faded from the poor in spirit,
Terror’s dry coughing sound.
And I pray not only for myself,
But also for all those who stood there
In bitter cold, or in the July heat,
Under that red blind prison wall.