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Lions Roar : May 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2006 120 ANNA AKHMATOVA was one of Russia’s greatest poets. She was born Anna Go- renko in 1889 in Odessa. Her family was unhappy with her choice of profession, so at twenty-one years of age, she took the Tatar name of her maternal grandmother, who was a descendent of Genghis Khan and a fiercely independent woman. Her husband, the poet Nikolei Gumiliev, was assassinated four years after the Bolshevik revolution. Her son and second husband were arrested by Stalin’s police in 1930. Her husband died in the Gulag; “Requi- em,” a cycle of poems, was Akhmatova’s response to her son’s seventeen months of imprisonment. These poems were not published in the Soviet Union until two years before her death in 1965. I was introduced to Akhmatova’s po- etry in 1967, and the fearless simplicity of her words was part of my inspiration to become an oral poet, a storyteller. I have chosen the prose introduction and two of the thirteen poems of the cycle. “Requi- em” bore witness to a terrible historical period and gave voice to the voiceless. It has endured, I feel, because of Akhmato- va’s capacity to express raw suffering be- yond hope and fear, and in her willing- ness to write these poems for the benefit of others. Within the beauty of her lan- About a Poem: Laura Simms on “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova guage and the shifting meter of line and verse, an underlying sense of inner vic- tory over the unbearable consequences of terror and war can be felt. Her opening prose directs us to the context, the story, the ground of the poems that are to follow, so they can be heard with complicit understanding. I feel as if her choice of images—the face- less woman with blue lips, the unadorned request, the almost smile appearing on “what had once been her face”—bring alive the agony of the situation, in his- tory and in that moment. The profound willingness of the author to take on the task of bearing witness imprints the co- existent experience of horror and love in the opened heart of the reader. REQUIEM INSTEAD OF A PREFACE In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone “rec- ognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who of course, had never heard me called by name be- fore, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?” And I answered, “Yes, I can.” Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face. April 1, 1957 Leningrad 7. THE SENTENCE The word, like a heavy stone, Fell on my still living breast. I was ready. I didn’t moan. I will try to do my best, Ihavemuchtodoonmyown: To forget this endless pain, Force this soul to be stone, Force this flesh to live again. Just if not—the rustle of summer feasts behind my window sill... Long before I’ve seen in slumber... This clear day and empty cell. 12. EPILOGUE I 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 with me In bitter cold, or in the July heat, Under that red blind prison wall. ♦ From The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, edited by Roberta Reeder and published by Zeph- yr Press. Translation © Judith Hemschemeyer. LAURA SIMMS is a storyteller and author of The Robe of Love. PHOTOBYVAAP