Reading: To Death by Anna Akhmatova

Today I read fragment number 8 from the cycle ‘Prologue’, called ‘To death’ by one of the most famous Russian poets of the twentieth century, Anna Akmatova (1889-1966) in a translation by A.S. Kline . Translations of a lot of other Akhmatova poetry is also available on his website.

To Death
You’ll come regardless – why not today?
I await you – life is very hard.
I’ve killed the lights, cleared the way
For you, so simple, such a marvel.
Take on any shape you wish,
Burst in like a poisoned shell,
Sidle in like a slick bandit,
Or a typhus germ from hell.
Or a fairy-tale you’ve invented,
Always sickeningly familiar –
Where I see policemen’s heads,
And a concierge white with fear.
It’s all one now. The Yenisey swirling,
While the Pole star’s alight.
And in final terror closing
Blessed eyes, blue and bright.

Akhmatova had experienced hardships: Her husband Nikolai Gumilev was shot in 1921 as a counter-revolutionary; her son and lover were sent to the labor camps. But I want to focus on the one poem here, foregoing even the semblance of academic pretension. The imagery is very precise, nothing is by coincidence here (most people think that is the criterium for good poetry). At first, she is almost delighted that she can clear the way for death, because her life is very hard. She has already killed the lights, darkness won’t surprise her entirely.

Still, the various shapes death can take on are fill her with horror. A germ from hell, a sickeningly familiar fairy tale. The policemen’s heads are perhaps the ones who took away all the men in her life. The concierge lets them enter the house. The river Yenisey and the Pole star are all the same to her (Мне все равно теперь) and the dying eyes who are, despite of their final terror, still blue and bright. I sense a familiarity with Plath here but let’s not get into that. I want to listen to these words and spin nothing else around it. I want to hear the last two lines in Russian.

И синий блеск возлюбленных очей
Последний ужас затмевает.

Another translation says “And the blue glint in a beloved eye / Goes dark against the final dread.” The Russian is darker than our English rendition, with the last word the dark затмевает.

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