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  • 85.

    Not under foreign skies
    Nor under foreign wings protected -
    I shared all this with my own people
    There, where misfortune had abandoned us.


    During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
    spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
    Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
    On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
    her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
    her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
    characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
    (everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
    this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that
    something like a smile slid across what had previously
    been just a face.
    [The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]


    Mountains fall before this grief,
    A mighty river stops its flow,
    But prison doors stay firmly bolted
    Shutting off the convict burrows
    And an anguish close to death.
    Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
    Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this,
    We are everywhere the same, listening
    To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
    And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
    Waking early, as if for early mass,
    Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
    We'd meet - the dead, lifeless; the sun,
    Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
    But hope still sings forever in the distance.
    The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
    Followed by a total isolation,
    As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
    Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
    But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
    Where are you, my unwilling friends,
    Captives of my two satanic years?
    What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
    What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
    I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.
    [March 1940]


    It happened like this when only the dead
    Were smiling, glad of their release,
    That Leningrad hung around its prisons
    Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
    Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
    Short songs of farewell
    To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
    As they, in regiments, walked along -
    Stars of death stood over us
    As innocent Russia squirmed
    Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
    Of the black marias.


    You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
    As one does when a corpse is being removed.
    Children were crying in the darkened house.
    A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God. . .
    The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold
    On your brow - I will never forget this; I will gather

    To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy (1)
    Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
    [1935. Autumn. Moscow]


    Silent flows the river Don
    A yellow moon looks quietly on
    Swanking about, with cap askew
    It sees through the window a shadow of you
    Gravely ill, all alone
    The moon sees a woman lying at home
    Her son is in jail, her husband is dead
    Say a prayer for her instead.


    It isn't me, someone else is suffering. I couldn't.
    Not like this. Everything that has happened,
    Cover it with a black cloth,
    Then let the torches be removed. . .


    Giggling, poking fun, everyone's darling,
    The carefree sinner of Tsarskoye Selo (2)
    If only you could have foreseen
    What life would do with you -
    That you would stand, parcel in hand,
    Beneath the Crosses (3), three hundredth in
    Burning the new year's ice
    With your hot tears.
    Back and forth the prison poplar sways
    With not a sound - how many innocent
    Blameless lives are being taken away. . .


    For seventeen months I have been screaming,
    Calling you home.
    I've thrown myself at the feet of butchers
    For you, my son and my horror.
    Everything has become muddled forever -
    I can no longer distinguish
    Who is an animal, who a person, and how long
    The wait can be for an execution.
    There are now only dusty flowers,
    The chinking of the thurible,
    Tracks from somewhere into nowhere
    And, staring me in the face
    And threatening me with swift annihilation,
    An enormous star.


    Weeks fly lightly by. Even so,
    I cannot understand what has arisen,
    How, my son, into your prison
    White nights stare so brilliantly.
    Now once more they burn,
    Eyes that focus like a hawk,
    And, upon your cross, the talk
    Is again of death.
    [1939. Spring]


    The word landed with a stony thud
    Onto my still-beating breast.
    Nevermind, I was prepared,
    I will manage with the rest.

    I have a lot of work to do today;
    I need to slaughter memory,
    Turn my living soul to stone
    Then teach myself to live again. . .

    But how. The hot summer rustles
    Like a carnival outside my window;
    I have long had this premonition
    Of a bright day and a deserted house.
    [22 June 1939. Summer. Fontannyi Dom (4)]


    You will come anyway - so why not now?
    I wait for you; things have become too hard.
    I have turned out the lights and opened the door
    For you, so simple and so wonderful.
    Assume whatever shape you wish. Burst in
    Like a shell of noxious gas. Creep up on me
    Like a practised bandit with a heavy weapon.
    Poison me, if you want, with a typhoid exhalation,
    Or, with a simple tale prepared by you
    (And known by all to the point of nausea), take me
    Before the commander of the blue caps and let me
    The house administrator's terrified white face.
    I don't care anymore. The river Yenisey
    Swirls on. The Pole star blazes.
    The blue sparks of those much-loved eyes
    Close over and cover the final horror.
    [19 August 1939. Fontannyi Dom]


    Madness with its wings
    Has covered half my soul
    It feeds me fiery wine
    And lures me into the abyss.

    That's when I understood
    While listening to my alien delirium
    That I must hand the victory
    To it.

    However much I nag
    However much I beg
    It will not let me take
    One single thing away:

    Not my son's frightening eyes -
    A suffering set in stone,
    Or prison visiting hours
    Or days that end in storms

    Nor the sweet coolness of a hand
    The anxious shade of lime trees
    Nor the light distant sound
    Of final comforting words.
    [14 May 1940. Fontannyi Dom]


    Weep not for me, mother.
    I am alive in my grave.

    A choir of angels glorified the greatest hour,
    The heavens melted into flames.
    To his father he said, 'Why hast thou forsaken me!'
    But to his mother, 'Weep not for me. . .'
    [1940. Fontannyi Dom]

    Magdalena smote herself and wept,
    The favourite disciple turned to stone,
    But there, where the mother stood silent,
    Not one person dared to look.
    [1943. Tashkent]


    I have learned how faces fall,
    How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
    How suffering can etch cruel pages
    Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
    I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
    Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognise
    The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
    The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
    That's why I pray not for myself
    But all of you who stood there with me
    Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
    Under a towering, completely blind red wall.

    The hour has come to remember the dead.
    I see you, I hear you, I feel you:
    The one who resisted the long drag to the open window;
    The one who could no longer feel the kick of familiar
    soil beneath her feet;
    The one who, with a sudden flick of her head, replied,

    'I arrive here as if I've come home!'
    I'd like to name you all by name, but the list
    Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
    I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble
    I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
    I will never forget one single thing. Even in new
    Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
    Through which one hundred million people scream;
    That's how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
    On the eve of my remembrance day.
    If someone someday in this country
    Decides to raise a memorial to me,
    I give my consent to this festivity
    But only on this condition - do not build it
    By the sea where I was born,
    I have severed my last ties with the sea;
    Nor in the Tsar's Park by the hallowed stump
    Where an inconsolable shadow looks for me;
    Build it here where I stood for three hundred hours
    And no-one slid open the bolt.
    Listen, even in blissful death I fear
    That I will forget the Black Marias,
    Forget how hatefully the door slammed and an old woman
    Howled like a wounded beast.
    Let the thawing ice flow like tears
    From my immovable bronze eyelids
    And let the prison dove coo in the distance
    While ships sail quietly along the river.
    [March 1940. Fontannyi Dom]


    1 An elite guard which rose up in rebellion
    against Peter the Great in 1698. Most were either
    executed or exiled.
    2 The imperial summer residence outside St
    Petersburg where Ahmatova spent her early years.
    3 A prison complex in central Leningrad near the
    Finland Station, called The Crosses because of the
    shape of two of the buildings.
    4 The Leningrad house in which Ahmatova lived. read more »

  • 86.
    Paddle Your Own Canoe

    Voyager upon life's sea,
    To yourself be true,
    And where'er your lot may be
    Paddle your own canoe. read more »

  • 87.
    A Dream

    Once a dream did weave a shade
    O'er my angel-guarded bed,
    That an emmet lost its way read more »

  • 88.
    The Cloud

    I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
    From the seas and the streams;
    I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
    In their noonday dreams. read more »

  • 89.
    "I Said to Love"

    I said to Love,
    "It is not now as in old days
    When men adored thee and thy ways
       All else above; read more »

  • 90.
    An Oregon Message

    When we first moved here, pulled
    the trees in around us, curled
    our backs to the wind, no one read more »

  • 91.
    My Friend

    My friend, I am not what I seem. Seeming is but a garment I wear--a
    care-woven garment that protects me from thy questionings read more »

  • 92.
    What Fifty Said..

    When I was young my teachers were the old.
    I gave up fire for form till I was cold. read more »

  • 93.
    A Time to Talk

    When a friend calls to me from the road
    And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
    I don't stand still and look around
    On all the hills I haven't hoed, read more »

  • 94.
    A Winter Night

    When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
    Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r;
    When Phœbus gies a short-liv'd glow'r,
    Far south the lift, read more »

  • 95.
    True Love

    True love. Is it normal
    is it serious, is it practical?
    What does the world get from two people
    who exist in a world of their own? read more »

  • 96.
    Bridal Ballad

    The ring is on my hand,
    And the wreath is on my brow;
    Satin and jewels grand
    Are all at my command, read more »

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