Michael Henson, Essay on Akhmatova

Michael Henson is the author of four books of poetry and four of fiction. He serves as co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the annual publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.

orange line

The Poem Is a Comfort in Affliction and an Antidote to Despair

“The Last Toast” by Anna Akhmatova may be the bleakest poem ever written. It’s a short, nine-line demitasse of a poem, a little, bitter shot of verbal espresso.

I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together,
and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that betrayed us,
to death-cold pitiless eyes
and to the hard realities
that the world is brutal and coarse,
that God in fact has not saved us.

My guess is that the language of Akhmatova’s Russian original is even stronger, but in this translation by Stanley Kunitz, the poem is studded with a series of powerfully charged words: ruined, dolor, loneliness, lying, betrayed, death-cold, pitiless, hard, brutal, coarse. They populate this poem so densely that it seems that the other words of the poem are mere place-holders, that they are there just to create a frame for the harsh, dolorous words that are the bones of the poem.

“The Last Toast” takes the form, at first, of a rant against a faithless lover:

I drink to our ruined house,
to the dolor of my life,
to our loneliness together . . .

But it grows even darker and more globally hopeless as it proceeds:

and to you I raise my glass,
to lying lips that betrayed us,
to death-cold pitiless eyes
and to the hard realities
that the world is brutal and coarse . . .

Then, as if a coarse and brutal world were not enough, she presents us the startling final line:

that God in fact has not saved us.

I suppose one could read this poem as strictly personal and hear the voice as that of a jilted lover or bitter ex. “You have treated me shabbily,” the poet seems to say, “and the experience has darkened my entire view of life. Even God seems not to care.”

Such a reading might hold up perfectly well.

But Akhmatova reminds me here of William Blake and some of his not-so-innocent Songs of Innocence. For there is a shift from personal to global that starts in line five with those lying lips that betrayed us. These lips betray not just the poet, but us. If this poem were simply the poem of a jilted lover or a bitter ex, why would the line end in the plural? She could simply mean that the lover has betrayed what they had as a couple. But I believe that a more monumental betrayal is at work. This becomes more obvious when we consider those death-cold, pitiless eyes that emerge in the next line. These eyes could be the eyes of the guilty lover, but in my mind’s eye, they call up the image of a couple of Stalin’s henchmen sent around to make an arrest.

By the final line, the house of the poem is no longer a literal house left behind by a faithless lover; it has metaphorically transformed, at one level, into a nation ruled by thugs with dead-cod eyes and, at another level, into an entire world: ruined, brutal, and coarse, abandoned by the God of Christian theology who was born and died to save us but has managed to do no such thing.
Swiftly, subtly, within a few short lines, the poem has moved from a breakup note to a multilayered howl of protest against the brutality of the state and the cruel indifference of the universe.

*

My habit has always been to write when and where I can. On the bus, at the bus stop, in parks, at lunch, while I’m on hold, while I’m pretending to pay attention during a boring meeting, sometimes even at my desk. In this case, I am writing as I stand at a counter at an Aikido dojo as I wait for a friend to finish trimming plants before we have a meeting. I suppose I could be helping, but instead I have pulled this essay out of my hip pocket to tinker with it while I wait. Her son is also there, and I suppose he could be helping too, but he asks instead, “What are you writing?” He is a bright, sensitive fifteen-year-old. My friend has tried to protect him, but he has seen more than a boy should have to see. And when I tell him, “An essay on poetry,” he says, “I only read poetry when I’m depressed.”

I understand this perfectly.

*

Sometimes, like my friend’s son, we come to the poem with our pain. We are sore of heart, perplexed, in a muddle of grief and regret. We are like Dante, lost in a forest of unacceptable options.

In such times, we often look to our friendships, our mentors, our therapists, our clergy, our loved ones. We do not go to them for answers. In fact, if our friends, mentors, therapists, clergy, or loved ones start hitting us with advice and solutions, we will often turn away. If we want knowledge from them at all, it is knowledge of their experience (to borrow a phrase from the Twelve-Step world), their strength, their hope. We do not want their advice. We do not want to be cheered up or encouraged. We want their attentive ear. We want to hear them tell us we are still human—that no matter how we have failed, our failures have not made us monsters. These friends, mentors, etc., by acknowledging the bleakness of our situation, may even help us see ourselves as human.

This is what we want from the poem as well. We can trust the poem to tell us certain truths. We want to feel that, no matter how lonely we feel, we are not alone. Ordinary words, like the words of these sentences, can tell us these same things. But they only rarely tell us these things at the level of the poem because they have not the power of the poem to reach the places within us that a poem can reach.

Anna Akhmatova had plenty of reasons in her life to feel depressed. She came of age as a poet in a time of war, revolution, terror, famine, and betrayal. Her first husband, suspected of conspiracy, was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921. Their son was later arrested several times and spent years in prisons and labor camps. Friends and lovers were arrested, imprisoned, or killed. Others were driven to exile or suicide. After some initial success and recognition, the official poets of her day denounced her. For much of her career, she was denied publication and had to rely on samizdat distribution of her work.

Still, she persisted. Under crushingly difficult conditions, she produced a large body of work, some of which has been lost, but a great deal of which has survived and is available in English translation. She survived to earn honors and recognition, internationally and in her beloved Russia.

All of us face difficulties in life, and anyone who puts pen to paper faces difficulties—not only in the writing and in writing true but in being heard. For a poet like Anna Akhmatova, however, the difficulties in life and in art are beyond what most of us can imagine. Poetry was her salvation; it was what she called her “cup of consolation.” And yet poetry, because she wrote true, put her at risk of the Stalinist machine. “Fear and the Muse,” she said in one poem, “stood watch in turns.”

Anna Akhmatova’s poetry can be read, I believe, as a lifelong attempt to find comfort and meaning in a world gone coarse, brutal, and bereft of any apparent salvation. Her work is at once elegiac and exasperated. “I want to name the names of all that host,” she writes in “Requiem,” her extended elegy for the victims of the Gulag.

But they snatched up the list and now it’s lost.

Since she cannot name the names of the numberless lost, she has to find another way. And so,

I’ve woven them a garment that’s prepared
out of poor words, those I overheard . . .

Her mission is to create a garment of words, poor words, that can give back to the lost, at least within the bounds of the poem, some belated sense of wholeness and sanity. The words might be “poor” (her work is noted for its simplicity), but they do not deny; they face squarely what has happened. And so, memory is key to her project:

Because even in blissful death I fear
to lose the clangor of the Black Marias and
to lose the banging of that odious gate
and the old crone howling like a wounded beast.

She does not dare forget these horrific memories from the gates of prison because she might also forget the gifts of the Muse.

And from my motionless bronze-lidded sockets
may the melting snow, like tear-drops, slowly trickle

and a prison dove coo somewhere over and over,
as the ships sail softly down the Neva.

*

I think that even the bleakest poem, properly understood, is an antidote to despair.

How does that happen?

Anna Akhmatova almost certainly had moments in her life when she was close to utter despair. Several of her friends, as I said earlier, committed suicide. Though she was never arrested, she suffered greatly from the arrests of others. Her son, whose arrests and imprisonment were a great distress to her, blamed her for not doing enough to get him released.
Despair must have hovered closely.

Here, I believe, is how she escaped despair:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now, she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said, “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

—Leningrad, 1 April 1957

“Can you describe this?” the woman asks the poet.

The poet answers, “I can.”

And the woman smiles, just a frozen flicker of a smile, which is all she can afford to give.

Why does the woman smile?

We cannot know for certain, but I think the answer lies in the power of the poem to tell the truths that break down barriers. Repression, and the lies that are at the core of repression, the big lies of the dictator, the petty lies of the abuser, have the power to isolate, confuse, and demoralize. Just look at the power of lies in our own politics.

To consider this in another dimension, part of the pain of spiritual crisis is the intense isolation it brings. The true darkness of the dark night of the soul is that we enter the darkness alone.

But the poem, if it is a true poem and not a falsification cast into verse, has the power to clarify, to bring the truth to ground, to undermine the lies that keep us divided.

The woman at the prison gate does not ask favors of the poet; she does not ask for cheerful words, for encouragement, for inspiration, not even for consolation. Anyone can tell a truth that is convenient or conventional. For that woman waiting in front of that prison, perhaps it is a comfort just to know her story can be told, nothing more than that. Perhaps it helps her to know she is not the only one. Perhaps it lifts, for just a moment, her despair.

 


 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s