Blog Post

Hello Goodbye Hello

Here at the University of Washington, our over-long academic year is finally ending, and I am eager to be gone.  Quick as I can, I'll be at a spa near Poznań in Poland, first stop on a East European vacation.  I thought I'd post a poem about departures:  Anna Akhmatova's "Pesnia poslednei vstrechi" (Song of the Last Meeting).

Here's the lyric, as it appeared in Akhmatova's first book, Vecher (Evening) (1911):

Tak bespomoshchno grud' kholodela,
No shagi moi byli legkii.
Ia na pravuiu ruku nadela
Perchatku s levoi ruki.

Pokazolos', chto mnogo stupenei
A ia znala -- ikh tol'ko tri!
Mezhdu klenov shepot osenii
Poprosil:  "So mnoi umri!

Ia obmanut moiei unyloi,
Peremenchivoi, zloi sud'boi."
Ia otvetila:  "Miloi, miloi!
I ia tozhe, Umru s toboi . . ."

Eto pesnia poslednei vstrechi.
Ia vzglianula na temnyi dom.
Tol'ko v spal'ne goreli svechi
Ravnodushno-zheltyim ognem.

* * *

So helplessly my breast grew cold,
But my steps were light.
I put a left-hand glove
On my right.

It seemed there were many steps,
But I knew there were only three!
Among the maples an autumnal whisper
Begged:  "Die with me!

I'm betrayed by my dismal,
Alterable, evil fate."
I answered:  "Darling, darling!
I too, I will die with you . . ."

This is the song of the last meeting.
I looked at the dark house.
No light but bedroom candles,
An indifferent yellow flame.

What makes this poem remarkable is its severely compressed narrative.  A woman precipitously leaves a house at night, and she feels both free and afraid.  A disembodied voice, perhaps belonging to nature or to Autumn itself, calls to her and asks her to die, maybe kill herself.  She looks back at the house and sees that only the bedroom is illuminated.  What are we to make of this string of events?

Small details in this story carry a great deal of weight.  The glove put on the wrong hand, for instance, hints at her confusion, as well as conveying a sense that things are not right, are out of order.  The candlelight at the end is called "indifferent," similar to, one assumes, the man from whom the speaker has flung herself.  "Bedroom," of course, suggests that the underlying trouble is marital, or sexual.

Then there are details that perplex instead of clarify.  Why "maples" as opposed to any other kind of tree?  Is it because maples are deciduous?  Are we supposed to imagine bare-branched trees, denuded of leaves?  Why is this a "last meeting"?  Does "meeting" refer to what happened between the woman and someone in the house, or to an impending tryst between her and the enigmatic whisperer in the woods?

Akhmatova's first readers recognized in "Pesnia poslednei vstrechi" a powerful new voice in Russian poetry, a writer with taut tight control of language who was also capable of combining elusive mystery and realist precision.  "Pesnia poslednei vstrechi" might have presented itself as a gesture of farewell, but paradoxically it served the opposite purpose, to help launch her career.

Near the top of my summer reading list is Alla Marchenko's Akhmatova:  Zhizn' (Akhmatova:  A Life), which was short listed for the Russian "Big Book" prize in 2009 (the second-most lucrative literary award in the world, after the Nobel).  As far as I know, Marchenko's book hasn't been translated into English yet, and copies are still scarce in the USA.  After I track one down, though, I'll surely have much more to say here about Akhmatova's amazing verse.  Until then -- or at least until I return from Poland -- Do widzenia!

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English

Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.