Károly Ferenczy, The Woman Painter, 1903, oil on canvas, 53.5″ x 51″.
Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Secrets of the Trade,” translated by Jo Ann Clark with Zhenya Zafrin, appeared in our Winter 1996 issue. Akhmatova died in 1966; our columnist Anthony Madrid recently wrote about an epigram of hers.
It happens like this: a kind of lethargy, In my ears the sound of a clock chiming,Thunder fading in the distance.Trapped, unrecognizable voicesWail and cry out to me: the closing in
Of some mysterious circle.But from this abyss of whispers and bellsRises a single all-conquering sound,Despite the forest’s surroundingSilence—hear grass growing,Hear the wood troll walking with his sack.And listen! The sound of words,Rhymes signaling their arrival,And I begin to understand:Lines simply taken downAppear on pages white as snow.
I have no use for battlefield odes,And the charms of an intricate elegy.For me a poem must be impromptu—Not a matter of tradition.
If you only knew what kind of trashPoems shamelessly grow in:Like weeds under the fence, Like crabgrass, dandelions.
An angry shout, the smell of fresh tar,Mysterious mildew on the wall—And a poem begins sounding fervent, tender,Making us all joyful.
3. The Muse
How can I live with this burden—And yet she’s called The Muse.“She’s with you in a meadow … ,” they say.
They say, “Divine muttering!”She’ll seize you worse than a feverAnd then, for an entire year, nothing at all.
4. The Poet
You call this work, this breezy life:Overhearing somethingIn music, then passing it offHalf-seriously as your own.
Casting someone’s merry scherzoInto lines of some sortSwearing it’s your own poor heartThat aches in a bright meadow.
Then eavesdropping on the woods,On the seemingly mute pine,While everywhere fog standsLike a smoke screen.
I take right and leftWithout the least pang of guilt:A little from mischievous life,All from night’s silence.
5. The Reader
The poet can’t be too sadOr, worse still, too sly.For general understanding,The poet must be open wide.
The footlights in front of him,Bare and bright, deathly;The cold blaze of limelightBranding his face.
But every reader is a secret,A buried treasure, of sorts—Even the last to come,And remaining a lifelong mute.
There’s the one nature keeps from usWhenever she feels like it;There’s the one who weeps helplessly At the prearranged hour.
And there (darkness,shadows, chilly air)—And there—the unknown eyesThat speak to me till dawn.
About some things they rebuke me,About others they agree.And so it goes, like a silent confession,The flow of our warm exchange.
Life on earth is short,Our given sphere constricted,But the poet’s unknown friendIs constant and eternal.
6. The Last Poem
Bursting into the house like startled thunderThe first one comes, breathless, laughing,Fluttering at my throat and spinningTo the sound of its own applause.
Another is born in the silence of midnight,Stealing upon me from who knows where.It peers at me from an empty mirror, Mumbling something pitiless.
Then from nowhere come othersWhich seem not to notice I’m here.They trickle down the white pageLike spring water in a ravine.
And there’s one that roams secretly—No sound no color, no color no sound—It plays with light like a faceted stone.It grows, thrives, and won’t be taken alive.
One, drop by drop, sucked all my bloodAs young love did, that nasty girl.Then, without a word,Turned wholly speechless again.
And then came the worst fate of all.It left. In its wake it left the signsTo circumscribed infinity.And without it, I’m here with death.
7. An Epigram
Did Beatrice have Dantesque visions?Did Laura write Petrarchan sonnets:I’ve taught women to speak, O God—But how can I teach them silence?
Wrung-out insomnias,Pooled wax at the baseOf a guttering candle,The morning’s first soundOf a hundred white bells.Warm sills under Chernigov moons.Bees and clover, darkness and dust,Suffocating heat.
Many things want my voice to praise them,Many things rumble, seemingly speechless;Or they gnaw at rocks underground in the dark,Or they show up in a circle of smoke,But because I’ve not settled my score With wind, water, and fire,Sleepless nights can suddenly take meTo the very gates that leadTo the morning star.
—translated from the Russian by Jo Ann Clark, with Zhenya Zafrin
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