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Epilogue (from Requiem) by Anna Akhmatova

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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.

“Falling ill…” by Anna Akhmatova

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A 1922 poem by Akhmatova turned into an art song by Russian-Israeli composer Zlata Razdolina, who is also the singer and videographer. According to her website, “Most of her repertoire of more than six hundred romances and songs is composed of the famous Russian classical poets, A. Akhmatova, N.Gumilyov, O. Mandelstam, M. Tsvetayeva, A. Blok, I. Severyanin, S.Yesenin and others.”

The English translation used for the subtitles is by Judith Hemschemeyer.