Thursday, April 9, 2009

Evening - Anna Akhmatova


In the garden there were snatches of music
Wordless, melancholy.
The sharp fresh odors of the sea
Rose from oysters on cracked ice.

He said to me,
“I am faithful friend,”
And touched my dress:
Unlike an embrace
The touch of that hand.

So one pets a cat or a bird
So one looks
at well-built circus riders.
And in his tranquil eyes there was laughter
Under lashes of light gold.

And behind the drifting smoke
The voices of nostalgic violins sang
“Give thanks, thanks to the Gods—
For the first time
You are alone
with your love.”

--- Anna Akhmatova, translated by Lenore Mayhew

Anna Akhmatova's Evening

Forgive me if this sounds like Charles Dickens, but in the best of times and worst of times we unintentionally capture minutiae and store it in the deepest confines of ourselves. So deep, in fact, that it takes just a sliver and we're transported back to that tragic or terrific period in our lives. It could be the song playing on the radio when the phone call reached you delivering the news that your parents died in a car crash. Before, you paid no attention to the song; it was a song, nothing more. Now, you'll avoid it at all costs. If you're listening to the radio in your car and it comes on you turn the station immediately. If you're in a bookstore, browsing the magazines, and the song comes on you run toward the exits. One line of lyrics and your day is ruined. One string of notes is enough to dismantle you, returning you to that moment and undermining years of rebuilding yourself from the rubble of grief.

These slivers of the past that reemerge in our present are not all bad. You're taking your dog for a walk. He pulls you frantically from one scent to the next, until he finds a pine cone to nibble on. Just then, a butterfly lands upon his wet nose; he stops, the butterfly stops, even time seems to stop. It's a frozen moment. An older woman walking past on the sidewalk smiles at you as she says, “Well isn't that precious.” And suddenly you're back in your grandmother's house and she's serving you a fresh cookie, the kind that's round and blanketed with powdered sugar. You like to call them “golf balls.” As you eat them the powdered sugar accumulates on your cheeks and behind you your grandmother says to herself, “Look at him, he's precious.” You love that word, precious; hearing it makes you proud and rejuvenates you. There is no happiness greater than this. In life, we take the bad with the good; if we live long enough there will be plenty of both, and plenty of seemingly harmless things, which, because of the people we've known and experiences we've had, trigger quick trips to opposing ends of humanity.

One of her early poems, Evening is representative of Anna Akhmatova's highly personal writing about love. Later in life, after seeing her writing banned and many of her loved ones executed by the Soviet regime, Akhmatova's poetry took on Stalin's state of terror, challenging the politics that took so much from her. Knowing the pain she would experience as her life progressed, I find this poem to be my favorite of Akhmatova's. Her innocence is on display in a vulnerable, public manner. She's relentless in her ability to capture the reality of the situation, a trait that will serve her well later in life as her poetry tackles serious topics. The seeds of her future as a writer exist within this poem. Another quality of Akhmatova's that I admire is her devotion to depicting the senses. I know that in reading an Anna Akhmatova poem I'll hear and smell, I'll see and feel, and sometimes I'll even taste. This attention to the senses is critical to creating a piece of writing that invokes the slivers of life, good and bad, discussed at the onset of this essay. For these qualities, and countless others, Akhmatova's a poet to be studied in depth.

Evening is a pristine recollection of the inception of love. In this poem Akhmatova documents the exact moment when she felt love, when she knew this man was, for her, perfect. I'm overcome by how sharp and real her sensory recollections are in this poem. Unlike some poems about the origins of love, nothing is sugarcoated. The music arrives in “snatches” and is “wordless, melancholy.” It smells like the sea with the overpowering scent of “oysters on cracked ice.” These are not details that foreshadow romance. Even when he makes contact with her, touching her dress, it's “Unlike an embrace / The touch of that hand.” Akhmatova goes a step further, comparing his touch to one petting “a cat or a bird.” It's bizarre, and yet something is building within the poem.

The crisp details indicate that they are written so firmly in her memory for a reason. As the poem turns toward its haymaker of an ending, we learn why she has carried this minutiae. “In his tranquil eyes there was laughter / Under lashes of light gold.” We identify the slivers that just might set her off, years later, with joy as she eats a cannoli at a cafe or dances a waltz. Earlier in the poem the music was plain and sad, but now the “nostalgic violins” speak to Akhmatova, singing “Give thanks, thanks to the Gods— / For the first time / You are alone / with your love.” This is stunning. I admire how Akhmatova enjambs each of these final lines, breaking them so that suspense builds until we're tingling with her, returning to the precipice of love, retrieving the exact moment of our own initial love. It represents the culmination of a very quick turn in the poem, a quickness that amplifies the impact these final lines have, while also replicating how quickly love comes upon us when we're unexperienced and naive. I've read this poem many times and each time I feel like first two thirds of the poem are waiting in line, but the final third is swishing down the water slide that you waited in line for.

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