Site icon Margaret Coombs

A Poem from Plantain by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Jane Kenyon. The Twenty-first.

First I want to say that the poem is a perfect expression of the literature I discovered with a thrill as a young woman. It speaks in a clear, clean  voice. Its theme is passion and disappointed love. This voice still speaks to me, though I am decades past “young.” It’s a poem of the heart.
I love the first line, which reads like a diary in which date, day, and time are paramount. What’s missing is the month. “Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.” I imagine a young woman peering out a window and finding a familiar landmark to focus on, the darkness of a city before electricity. She is alone, either physically or emotionally, or else her attention would not be focused out like that. The tone is wistful, nostalgic.
Surprise. “Some good-for-nothing…made up the tale that love exists on earth.” The existence of love is a hoax, a falsehood perpetuated for no reason. The reader can wonder–who would do this? In truth, where did this promise of love come from? From myth and wonder tales, perhaps. From Bible stories, romantic novels, from women, observing behaviors in the neighborhood. We call it love, but it is not real, though people shape their lives around it, caught up in the hope of it (“wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting”). 
But “the secret reveals itself” to some. To the disillusioned, like the woman in the room, looking out. “…and on them silence settles down.” Without hope, they cannot participate in the fantasy and are left out of everything that once held pleasure and interest.
…and now it seems I’m sick all the time.” Could this just be the suffering one feels when love is lost? A sickness of the heart, a loss of appetite, a loss of energy? Or does the year noted suggest a different interpretation? After all, most people who lose in love do not then assume that there has never been love in the world, ever. On the other hand, it’s unusual for a love poem not to address the lover at all. The poem is absent of anger and the regret is directed toward “some good-for-nothing,” some vague mythical source, not a specific individual
In 1917, Russia was engaged in World War I, with heavy loss of life. It was also the year of the Russian Revolution. Perhaps the “capitol in darkness” refers to the national government’s move to Moscow in November. I don’t know enough about where and when the poem was written to write with any authority about this or about Akhmatova’s political sensibilities at the time of the revolution. I am aware that many young members of the intelligentsia supported change at the time, though sooner or later each realized the tragic consequences of dictatorship.  
This poem speaks as clearly today as it did when it was written, but the closer one looks at it the more mystery it reveals. I can imagine the writer being sickened by the knowledge of war’s mass death and violence. I can imagine Akhmatova sickened by the fierce enmities that led to the Russian Civil War in 1918. I can also imagine her reveling in the illusions of love for a last exquisite moment, sensing the brutality of her country’s uncertain future. 

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