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The Passion of Anna | The Nation

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The Passion of Anna

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In closing, let us turn to the million-dollar question: Akhmatova's relationship to history. History made its grand entrance in Akhmatova's work as early as 1922, in her fifth book, Anno Domini MCMXXI. The first poem, "Petrograd, 1919," transposes the familiar Akhmatova fairy-tale landscape onto the topos of the Russian Civil War: "And locked in this savage capital,/We have forgotten forever/The lakes, the steppes, the towns,/And the dawn of the great motherland./Day and night in the bloody circle/A brutal languor overcomes us."

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Elif Batuman
Elif Batuman is a doctoral candidate in literature at Stanford University. She is also a contributor to the literary...

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For prose scholar Viktor Shklovsky, who lived by the
code of style and studied its depths, an unhappy love affair can be as
much a personal tragedy as a plot device for more writing.

A "bloody circle" has been drawn around Petrograd, and the citizens are captive, spellbound: They have forgotten everything outside. As Gumilyov and his giraffe expanded the world beyond the fog and rain, so does Akhmatova expand the world beyond the bloody circle. In "MCMXXI," she writes of "new constellations" appearing in the skies: "How near the miraculous draws/To the dirty tumbledown huts."

The difficulty of separating, let alone hierarchizing, the densely intertwined themes of love and history in Akhmatova's work was perhaps best expressed by the poet and critic Anatoly Naiman:

Akhmatova believed that history made no distinction between a personal and a public event. The separation of lovers, while intensely private, is--on a wider level--part of history. From such a separation--the separation of Dido and Aeneas--Rome itself was created.

Indeed, Anno Domini MCMXXI is really "about" the same underlying sense of wrongness as Evening--the left glove on the right hand--but this time we are on the level of the city, rather than of the individual house. "A monstrous rumor roams the city," writes Akhmatova, "Stealing into houses, like a thief": The rumor turns out to be related to Bluebeard, with his secret bloody room, a variation on the theme of "Red Terror."

Akhmatova's "historically" themed poems are not a body of work separate from her love poems. As Lydia Chukovskaya wrote in 1940, Akhmatova's poetry is saturated by "awareness of oneself and one's fate within Russian culture, within the history of mankind and Russia: Pushkin, Dante, Shakespeare, Petersburg, Russia, the war"; her gift is an inability to write about love "without showing the reader, with absolute precision, the exact moment on the map of history." As poetry is, for the Acmeists, "merely" a subset of language, the poet is a subset of the world, a citizen in the world. The life of the poet--including, as lives do, love--is a subset of history.

Perhaps Akhmatova's name really was a "misfortune," a Fury that pursued her, despite her efforts to hide from it. The statuesque beauty of her person and her verses was so often admired that she finally became a statue: "Akhmatova." In "Requiem" she grants permission for a monument to be built in her honor someday, on the condition that it stand not by the Black Sea or in Tsarskoye Selo but outside the Leningrad prison: "Here, where I stood for three hundred hours,/And where they never unbolted the doors for me." Like Don Giovanni, she got her wish. She is now frozen in memory as, to use two of Tsvetaeva's famous phrases, "Anna of all the Russias" and "a poet without history."

But in fact a web of history stretched above, below and all around Akhmatova. You don't necessarily perceive it in "Requiem," with its heavyhanded religious symbolism. But it's there in "Northern Elegies," in the reconstruction of "Dostoevsky's Russia": "The moon,/Almost a quarter hidden by the bell tower.... And magnificent coffins: 'Shumilov Senior.'" You sense it in the juxtaposition of Dostoyevsky's Petersburg with Akhmatova's Petrograd: "The country shivers, and the convict from Omsk/Understood everything, and made the sign of the cross over it all." And it's in "Poem Without a Hero," Akhmatova's masterpiece, whose narrator greets the New Year of 1941 at a masked ball, with a "Guest from the Future," representing Isaiah Berlin, and an unnamed poet, "contemporary with the Mamre oak." Surely, this is how we should remember Akhmatova: not as a statue of Mary outside the Leningrad prison but in living dialogue with the Guest from the Future, the convict from Omsk and the Mamre oak. "The box has a triple bottom," Akhmatova wrote, and it was true of her poetry as well as her life.

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