Blog Post

I Long Dared Not Speak

I've returned from Poland.  It will take me a while to process the amazing things I've seen, from the Baltic to the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.  For now, I thought I'd just rave a little bit more about Anna Akhmatova.

In my last blog post I emphasized the fragmentary, occulted, and compressed storylines in her early verse.  Indeed, a poem such as the fourth part of the sequence "Obman" (Deception) (1910) is almost montage-like.  It presents a series of images, actions, and exclamations that suggest a romance without in fact outright affirming its existence:

Ia napisala slova,
Chto dolgo skazat' ne smela.
Tupo bolit golova,
Stranno nemeet telo.

Smolk otdalennyi rozhok,
V serdtse vse te zhe zagadki,
Legkii osennii snezhok,
Leg na kroketnoi ploshchadke.

List'iam poslednim shurshat'!
Mysl'iam poslednim tomit'sia!
Ia ne khotela meshat'
Tomy, kto privyk veselit'sia.

Milym prostila gubam,
Ia ikh zhestokuiu shutku . . .
O, vy priedete k nam
Zaftra po pervoputku.

Svechi v gostinoi zazhgut,
Dnem ikh mertsanie nezhnee,
Tselyi buket prinesut
Roz iz orangerei.


I have written words
I long dared not speak.
My head aches dully,
My body's grown numb.

A far-off horn's fallen silent.
In my heart are the same riddles.
A light autumnal snow-dusting
Lies on the croquet pitch.

May the last leaves rustle!
May the last thoughts languish!
I didn't want to disturb
One who's accustomed to joy.

I've forgiven those sweet lips
Their cruel jesting . . .
O, you will come to us
Tomorrow across new snow.

They'll light candles in the drawing-room
(Their gleam's more tender by day).
They'll bring an entire bouquet
Of roses from the orangerie.

Even after multiple readings, I still find the detail of the "croquet pitch" surprising.  It obliquely (and aptly) compares the relationship between the speaker and her beloved to a game--which, just like croquet, has come to an end, now that the season has changed.  What is sadder, too, than a Russian croquet pitch in fall, recently deserted by fun-seekers and soon to vanish utterly beneath drifting deeps of white?

I've failed miserably in translating "po pervoputku" as "across new snow."  The Russian word pervoputok has a very particular meaning:  it refers to that moment late in the year when sufficient snow has finally fallen for people to start using sleighs. 

In other words, Akhmatova informs us that light-hearted sport--the lovers' initial courtship--might be over.  The speaker's beloved, moreover, seems to be guilty of having said something insufferable or despicable ("cruel jesting") that put an end to that period of innocent delight.  But so what?  He can come calling again anyway.  Snow, in stanza two a metaphor for interruption or cessation, is readily recast as something inviting in stanza four, a medium for smooth quick travel.  A simple act of mind (or rhetoric) can ease the way for his return.

The beloved will be greeted, too, with great cheer, not only by candles but by a "bouquet / Of roses from the orangerie."  Again, the specificity here is wonderful.  Outdoors / outwardly the weather might be inhospitable.  But indoors, in private, it is full of light, and one can offer a visitor an unseasonable treat -- roses in winter.  True, these are cut flowers, and they will soon die.  Akhmatova's speaker is acutely aware of the artificiality and the fragility of her gesture of renewed esteem.  But the gesture is also wonderful in its unnatural extravagance.

As is the poem itself.  A quixotic bouquet of beauty, in defiance of the world's forbidding killing chill.

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.