by Anna Akhmatova
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
No, neither under an alien sky nor
Under the protection of alien wings—
I remained with my own people then,
Where my people, in their misfortune, were.
Instead of a Preface
During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repressions, I spent seventeen
months in Leningrad prison lines. One time, someone thought they
recognized me. Then a woman standing behind me, who of course had
never heard my name, stirred from her own, though common to all of
us, stupor and asked in my ear (there, all spoke in a whisper):
—Could you describe this?
And I said:
Then, something akin to a smile slipped across what once had been
April 1, 1957, Leningrad
Before such trials all mountains crumble,
A mighty river ceases to flow to the sea,
Yet a dungeon’s barred gates remain rigid,
Beyond which gape the prisoners’ cells
And the deathly isolation of loneliness.
For one living, a brisk wind freshly fans,
For someone else, a sunset’s sweet caress—
We know none of these, the same everywhere:
We only hear the stilled screech of the keys
And the thundering pacing of the guards.
Arising as though for an early Mass
We tramped the capital, reverting to wild,
To meet up, with the breathlessness of the dead,
The sun risen lower, the Neva more fogged-in,
With hope’s sirens singing, invisibly distant.
Sentence passed . . . The floodgates flung open;
She is now already cut off from all the rest,
As though with pain, life’s excised from the heart,
As though rudely knocked over on her back,
She walks on . . . Staggering . . . Entirely alone. . . .
Where are they now, my unwilling girlfriends
Of these past two gone-to-the-devil years?
What hallucination in the Siberian blizzard,
What apparition haunts their lunar disk?
To them I send regards, this last farewell.
This occurred when only a dead man
Would smile, taking pleasure in rest.
And like a useless appendage Leningrad
Swayed in the vicinity of its prisons.
When, bereft of mind from torture,
Marched divisions already condemned,
The short and sweet song of parting
And the trains’ railing whistles,
The stars of death hanging over us,
Writhing in pain, innocent Russia
Under the bloody soles of the boots,
Under the tires of the Black Marias.
They led you away before sunrise.
After you, as at a bearing out, I trudged,
In the dim chamber children whimpered,
And Mary’s candle was snuffed out.
Upon your lips was an icon’s iciness,
And death’s sweat was on your brow.
Don’t forget! I will, like the mutineers’
Wives under Kremlin’s crenels, weep.
[November] 1935, Moscow
The quiet Don is flowing quietly
And the yellow moon enters my house.
He enters wearing his hat askew and
Meets a shadow, the yellow moon.
This woman is not well,
This woman is all alone.
Husband in the grave, son jailed,
Please offer a prayer for me.
This isn’t me, someone else suffers.
I couldn’t survive that. And what happened,
May it be covered in coarse black cloth,
Let them carry away the streetlights . . .
Shall I show you then, my dearest mocker
And the dear beloved of all of your friends,
You, Tsarskoe Selo’s carefree sinner,
What will soon become of your life—
Three hundredth in line, care package in hand,
Under The Crosses prison wall you’ll stand
And with the heated waters of your tears
Dissolve the surface of Christmas-time ice.
How the prison poplar sways side to side
Without a sound—how many innocent lives
This very moment come there to an end. . . .
For seventeen months straight I scream,
Calling for you to come home, please,
Throwing myself at the executioner’s feet;
You are my son and also my nightmare.
Now, everything is confused for the ages.
Now I will never manage to untangle
Who is an animal and who a human being,
Nor how long I’ll wait till the death sentence
Is carried out. Only the dust-covered flowers,
And the ringing of the censer, and the tracks
Into some unknown realm of uncertainty.
Staring in my face, directly into my eyes,
It threatens me with an impending death,
That all-engulfing and engorged star.
The lighthearted weeks are flying by,
What’s happened, I’ll never understand.
How did the white nights, my dear son,
Peek through the window of your cell,
And now how again they glance
With their inflamed predator eyes
At your cross, set there on the high place,
And mutter about the end of your days.
And the stony logos lapsed
Upon my still-living breast.
No matter what, I was prepared,
I would survive with this some way.
I have so many things to do today.
I must slaughter memory to the end,
I need for my soul to turn to stone,
I must once again relearn to live.
But not that . . . Summer’s fevered rustle,
As though a holiday beyond my window.
So long ago I had a premonition of this,
A bright day, and a house grown empty.
[June 22] 1939, Fontanka House
You will come anyway—why not today?
I wait for you—with great difficulty.
I turned out the light and opened the door
For you, so simple and yet so mysterious.
You may take any disguise you like.
Barge in as a poison gas bombshell
Or like a criminal creep with a dumbbell.
Or infect me with a dose of typhus.
Or come, a fairy tale, invented by you
And so familiar it brings on nausea—
That I may see the top of a blue cap,
And the pale from fright apartment super.
All’s the same to me now. The Yenisei
Eddies and the North Star shines brightly.
Like a sky-blue spark in beloved eyes
The final horror takes me under its cover.
August 19, 1939, Fontanka House
Already madness with its wing
Has blanketed half of my soul
And feeds me on its fiery wine,
And tempts into its black valley.
I understood that I must yield
To him, must admit his victory,
Attending more carefully to my own,
As though to someone else’s, delirium.
It will not permit me neither to carry
Away with me nor to retain anything
(No matter how I try to persuade him,
No matter I pester with supplications):
No, not my son’s terrifying eyes—
Suffering that has become stone,
Not the day the thunder arrived,
Not the hour of the prison visit,
Not the dear to me coolness of hands,
Not the linden trees’ shadow trembling,
Not the remote and liberating sound—
The words of his final consolations.
May 4, 1940, Fontanka House
Do not weep for Me, Mother,
seeing as I am in the grave.
An angel’s choir glorified the blessed hour,
And the skies dissolved in the living flame.
He to His Father: “Why hast Thou forsaken Me!”
And to His Mother: “Do not weep for Me. . . .”
Mary Magdalene beat her breast and wept,
Her beloved disciple turned white as stone,
And there, where His Mother stood silent,
Not a soul dared to cast their glance.
1940, Fontanka House
I know now how the faces have fallen,
How from under lids peeks out terror,
How cuneiform’s coarse pages are
Incised by suffering upon their cheeks,
How curls from ashen and black turn
In a single moment completely silver,
And a smile withers on defeated lips,
And in dry laughter shudders fear.
So that now I pray not for myself alone
But for all of us, who stood there with me
In the intense cold and in July’s heat
Under that red and blinded wall.
Yet once again nears the funeral hour.
I see, I hear, I sense you are all here.
The one they barely led to the window,
One who, though born, doesn’t walk the earth,
One who, having shook her beautiful head,
Said: “I arrive here as though I am home.”
How I wish I could name them all,
But the list, confiscated, cannot be found.
For them I have sewn this broad shroud from
Words, though poor, yet borrowed from them.
I remember them always and everywhere,
Nor will I forget them in needs’ new hour.
And should they shut my tortured mouth
From which a hundred million people shout,
Then let them remember me as well
On the anniversary of my funeral.
And if they ever in this, our country,
Consider erecting to me a monument,
I give my whole-hearted consent,
But with one condition—do not
Put it by the sea where I was born;
My last connection with the sea is torn.
Not in Tsar’s Garden, by the famous stump,
Where an unrequited shade searches for me,
But here, where I stood three hundred hours
And where for me the gate opened never.
Because even in blessed death, I am afraid
I will forget the Black Maria’s thundering.
Forget how, the frozen door slamming shut,
An old woman like a wounded beast howled.
And may from under immobile bronze lids
A flood of tears run as a stream of snowmelt,
And a prisoner’s pigeon coo in the distance,
And on the Neva River ships glide quietly.
Approx. March 10, 1940, Fontanka House