I initially started to read Akhmatova’s poetry in August to celebrate the month of women in translation, but a house move and my preference to dip in and out of poetry collections rather than to commit to reading a large selection in one go mean that I have only just ‘finished’ (rather than the selected poems I got my collection from the library and ended up with the complete collection which I would never feasibly finish before it was due back). I had never come across Akhmatova before, but in my quest to discover more international classic women writers her name came up and I read her first three poetry collections: Evening; Rosary and White Flock.
Akhmatova’s poems deal mostly with love, that of the marital and extra-marital variety, but also with beauty, aging, loss and as time goes on war and politics. One of my favourite poems was ‘He Loved’:
“He loved three things in life:
Evensong, white peacocks
And old maps of America.
He hated it when children cried,
He hated tea with raspberry jam
And women’s hysterics.
… And I was his wife.”
For me these lines really stood out in their textual simplicity yet their ability to say so much about a relationship in that final line. I think the poems are partly autobiographical, yet I chose not to find out anything about the author until I had finished reading the poems (if anyone else is interested, I found The Poetry Foundation to have a good overview of Akhmatova’s life and works).
My other favourite lines were from ‘Imitation of I.F. Annensky’:
“Faces appear, are washed away,
Dear today and tomorrow far off.
Why did I once turn down
The corner of this page?”
What I loved about Akhmatova’s poetry were the contrasts and juxtapositions which made her images really stand out. I didn’t always identify with her subject matter – there were a lot of poems about longing for lovers or the end of an affair – but her language is beautiful and often striking and she manages to express her thoughts so concisely which is, I think, what sets good poetry above other forms of writing.
As the collection went on, her subject matter turned to more worldly affairs – understandably, as she was writing through the first world war in her collection White Flock. The poems remain personal, but the events unfolding around the poet are referred to more and more frequently.
I think my task would have been easier had I chosen a more manageable sized volume of poetry as in the selected poems, but I found myself enjoying discovering for myself some of the many gems in the complete collection. I do find poetry a lot harder to review than fiction, I supose because the way I read it is so different and spans a longer period of time, but this collection reminded me how powerful poetry can be and I vow to read more in the future.