Even in translations, her poems can seem such perfect instances of lyric utterance–the anchoring “I,” the impress, profound, suffocating at times, of public on private life, the oblique swerves of desire, the mystery of occasion and the satisfaction of sufficiency, the feeling of encountering a splinter of experience in the whole of a poem, or else a fragment of a poem and a whole experience, the taut self-awareness that does not crash into neurotic morbidity, the slyness, almost humor, that deflects without evading–all of that is so consistently present that it becomes difficult to say what is distinct and different about the poems. Why is there consistent freshness page after page in any collection of translations (I know best the Kunitz, the McKane, the Hemschemeyer), even as the poems seem to be setting to work on the same–not project (that academic work for a writer’s vocation seems to substitute the demands of tenure for the demands of the creative imagination) but urge? What is distinct about the urge that drives the poems and the poems that respond to it?
The answer, I’ll hazard, lies in Akhmatova’s relationship to ends. One view of ethics, the view that motivates the notion that ethics depends on narrative, but also a view that takes seriously the possibility of a unity of the will, of a self-consciousness that regards actions under the auspices of a reason and goal that surpasses the motion, that can not be fulfilled like the appetite, but that are infinite, fulfilled continually over the course of a life–that view of ethics takes seriously that freedom, and ethically redeemable freedom, lies in the orientation of a self to ends self-consciously established by a self, a self that lives for a good (or many goods) that is beyond oneself, that cares for something that requires a life’s development, reflection, and nurture.
But Akhmatova’s poetry has none of that; it can have none of that; her ends, we feel in poem after poem, have been dealt her; she is, and she knows herself to be and records herself as being, at the mercy of history. In an entire body of lyrics, stretching back to Sappho, and so perhaps a defining characteristic of lyric poetry of all sorts, the self is under siege. Distinguishing differences in lyric poets and poems might involve asking the origin of the siege and how it is met; lyric as defensive weapon.
For Akhmatova, the self has been compromised of its freedom in respect of its capacity to set its own ends, even though it is capable of desire, even though it can yearn, and rationally assess, and judge, and self-consciously exert itself. The ends of a life, the ends of a relationship, but not the ends of a poem, and so the lyric form offers a peculiar saving grace.
What is more, Akhmatova’s poetry repeatedly (if not always) affirms the freedom of a self in the limited space remaining: if not to set its own ends, then to self-consciously set herself towards, judge, and know, the ends that have been set for her.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that results in poems whose great strength is often most noticeable as they end. We would like and think for all great lyric poets to end well, but we know from experience that they do not. Donne is a notorious case. Dickinson too has been thought to have endings that are less forceful than the memorable opening lines. In the case of Akhmatova though, I find myself recalling the ends rather than the beginnings of her poems; they represent the final stance, the mustering of self, towards the ends that are beyond the poem and beyond her control.
Take “The Last Toast,” here in the translation by Judith Hemschemeyer:
I drink to the ruined house,
To the evil of my life,
To our shared loneliness
And I drink to you–
To the lie of lips that betrayed me,
To the deadly coldness of the eyes,
To the fact that the world is cruel and depraved,
To the fact that God did not save.
In a variation of translation, Kunitz has the last line: “that in fact god has not saved us.” But in either case, the poem drives to that, and to the thought that she toasts that. The poem, though, that I will quote to hopefully explain my point, was written in 1944. In the Kunitz translation, it is titled after the opening line: “This cruel age has deflected me.” It is the third in the series “Northern Elegies,” published in the 1960s.
This cruel age has deflected me,
like a river from its course.
Strayed from its familiar shores,
my changeling life has flowed
into a sister channel.
How many spectacles I’ve missed:
the curtain rising without me,
and falling too. How many friends
I never had the chance to meet.
Here in the only city I can claim,
where I could sleepwalk and not lose my way,
how many foreign skylines I can dream,
not to be witnessed through my tears.
And how many verses I have failed to write!
Their secret chorus stalks me
close behind. One day, perhaps,
they’ll strangle me.
I know beginnings, I know endings too,
and life-in-death, and something else
I’d rather not recall just now.
And a certain woman
has usurped my place
and bears my rightful name,
leaving a nickname for my use,
with which I’ve done the best I could.
The grave I go to will not be my own.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But if I could step outside myself
and contemplate the person that I am
I should know at last what envy is.
Kunitz does not, I should mention, indicate the absence of a line with asterisks or any other marks in the translation. They are in the original, though, and they feel crucial–something missing, but also two endings to the poem. “The grave I go to will not be my own” fairly astonishing already, but then the proud return–not foolish pride, but pride at the self that she is, however it may have been deflected or rechanelled from another course; the thought that she still has strength to envy, and that strength is the final end of the poem–and in a sense of all of her poems. There is no “stronger” (in quotation marks because I can think of no sense, no particular use of the word, specialist or general, that would not bear inserting here) I know.