Epilogue (from Requiem) by Anna Akhmatova

Poet: | Nationality: | Filmmaker:

This film is an artifact from a performance called Black Over Red, “a multi art-form choral work combining live music, dance and video on a grand scale with a cast of 25.” It was staged in 2001, a co-production of the Latvian Radio Choir and the Scottish dance/theatre troupe Cryptic, directed by Cathie Boyd, who uploaded the video. The composer was Anthea Haddow.

Epilogue (from Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem)

1

I know now how the faces have fallen,
How from under lids gazes 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 only
But for us all, who stood there with me
In the intense cold and in July’s heat
Under that red and blinded wall.

*

The eternal flame, a memorial for the spilled blood of the innocent that burns throughout the middle, third minute in the bottom of the trinity of images that form this film, accompanied by the spine-tingling bass hum of the choir and the mournful vatic tones of Akhmatova’s own slowed down, staggering, ponderous reading, do honor in their faithfulness to her poem as a whole. The black (& white) documentary images of the upper third corner, while tonally appropriate, may be misleading to anyone who has no context for this, perhaps Anna Akhmatova’s best known single poem, through which she has become identified with the fate of all Russia. As she says in the prologue:

I remained with my own people then,
Where my people, in their misfortune, were.

Unlike the source images here, referencing the destruction visited upon Russia by the German Wehrmacht during WWII and, more specifically, some of the worst of it wrought upon Akhmatova’s adopted hometown, St. Petersburg during the 900-day siege in which a million people perished, most starving to death, the context of the poem is the auto-cannibalistic predation by Stalin and his henchmen upon his own people during the various purges of the late 30s. The red wall is that of the Crosses Prison, referred to earlier (in part 4,) outside which the women (mothers, wives, sisters) of the mostly male political prisoners day after day awaited news of the condemned. Again from the preface: “During the terrifying years of the Yezhov repression, I spent seventeen months in Leningrad prison lines.” And from part 4:

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.

The images of Orthodox churches and icons quite appropriately suggest the unifying theme of the poem as a whole which, in calendaric and apostolic fashion, consists of 12 parts and in which Akhmatova and her prisoner son are transformed into the universal mother and child so that what is symbolically enacted here is the Passion Play.

The concluding images of St. Petersburg are again faithful to the crux of the poem in that they represent a particularly Russian self-identification of the Poet with her People, Akhmatova as Russia’s conscience and Muse, a Mother Russia so to speak, an ethical, nurturing balance for the Fatherland that requires sacrifice. As she wrote in one of her most famous miniatures, contemporaneous with Requiem:

In Memoriam

And you, my close friends till Judgment Day!
I have been saved as though to mourn you,
To not be stilled as a weeping willow above
your graves but to cry aloud your names
For the whole world to hear. Enter the Saints;
All fall to your knees!–the light breaks through,
In smooth rows stream the citizens of Leningrad,
Living with the dead. For God there are no dead.

August 1942
Dyurmen’

*

NOTES

Other translations and musical settings of Akhmatova’s Requiem:

There’s an extensive literature comparing the available translations; here’s a summary by Wendy Rosslyn (via Google Books). See also the paper by George L. Kline. Lastly, I’m curious but have yet to track down Robert Lowell’s version that appeared in Atlantic Monthly 214 (1964) pp. 62-65.

Akhmatova may be heard reciting the Requiem in its entirety here [mp3] and may be seen reciting “Muse” in a YouTube snippet from a feature film. A complete collection of Akhmatova audio files in Russian are also on the web. Finally, here are five more of my own translations of Akhmatova miniatures.

7 Comments

  1. Reply
    Carol Peters 29 October, 2013
  2. Reply
    cigalealex 29 October, 2013

    Thank you, Carol. Yes, I have the Carlisle book, and thank you very much for this digital version. I used to defend if not like Lowell’s various “Imitations”. The more I’m at it, the more I dislike the freedoms (inventions) he takes (they seem to bring too much attention to themselves and so disrupt, be out of character with and different from the very personal voice and subdued tone of the originals).

  3. Reply
    Carol Peters 30 October, 2013

    Alex, When I first read Lowell’s Imitations I was so outraged I wrote an outraged essay about them, in particular a Montale, as I recall, but a decade later, after reading scads about translation (Benjamin in particular) & translating a great deal myself, I’ve softened & come to love them for their participation in the ongoing life of the originals, for their place in the world’s “great poem.”

  4. Reply
    cigalealex 1 December, 2013

    Sorry for the interruption Carol: November was filled with deadlines so that our talk now seems like months ago. It is not even the inventions that bother me precisely (I allow myself, but only if absolutely necessary, one or at most two of these per poem, and call them “one degree of freedom” or two degrees of freedom,”) though I still think they attract too much attention to themselves, don’t quite feel organic to the poems, and so violate the unity not of the original by of the target language poem. They just seem to me to inject too much of himself and so be “out of step” tonally. So, there it goes again…. Trust you are well and would love to hear from you on some occasion, re: translation and the process of the work. A

  5. Reply
    Carol Peters 1 December, 2013

    Hey Alex. My big project right now is a 630-page novel from Spanish to English. Much more freedom here. Don’t want to make the novel any less South American than it is, yet I want the reader to be consumed by the story’s strangeness, not by language strangeness. A very different experience from translating lyric.

  6. Reply
    cigalealex 1 December, 2013

    Ouch! I may be taking on the same numbers but reversed next year, a 360-page novel, and even that prospect seems quite daunting to me (would be my first novel; have only done poetry, short stories, and book-length technical projects before). I truly appreciate what you say about honoring the strangeness of the original and not smoothing out too much, neither the syntax nor diction (though some is, I think, inevitable, since as readers we are always doing some interpreting). BTW. if you’d be interested in looking into the possibility of giving http://www.asymptotejournal.com/ a pre-publication exclusive, I’d be glad to put you in touch with the editor-in-chief and/or section editor.

  7. Reply
    cigalealex 2 December, 2013

    P.S. Four more of my translations of Akhmatova’s miniatures (including the last one self-published at the end of this blog post) have now been published in Cutthroat 15 (see pg. 80 in http://www.cutthroatmag.com/LasteditCT15.pdf) and some dozen others are under close consideration at Tiferet Journal.

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