Secrets of the Trade


From the Archive

Károly Ferenczy, The Woman Painter, oil on canvas, 53.5 in x 51 in, 1903.

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

                   1. Inspiration

It happens like this: a kind of lethargy,
In my ears the sound of a clock chiming,
Thunder fading in the distance.
Trapped, unrecognizable voices
Wail and cry out to me: the closing in

Of some mysterious circle.
But from this abyss of whispers and bells
Rises a single all-conquering sound,
Despite the forest’s surrounding
Silence—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 down
Appear 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 trash
Poems 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 fever
And then, for an entire year, nothing at all.

                   4. The Poet

You call this work, this breezy life:
Overhearing something
In music, then passing it off
Half-seriously as your own.

Casting someone’s merry scherzo
Into lines of some sort
Swearing it’s your own poor heart
That aches in a bright meadow.

Then eavesdropping on the woods,
On the seemingly mute pine,
While everywhere fog stands
Like a smoke screen.

I take right and left
Without the least pang of guilt:
A little from mischievous life,
All from night’s silence.

                   5. The Reader

The poet can’t be too sad
Or, 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 limelight
Branding 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 us
Whenever 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 eyes
That 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 friend
Is constant and eternal.

                   6. The Last Poem

Bursting into the house like startled thunder
The first one comes, breathless, laughing,
Fluttering at my throat and spinning
To 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 others
Which seem not to notice I’m here.
They trickle down the white page
Like 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 blood
As 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 signs
To 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?

                   8. Poems

Wrung-out insomnias,
Pooled wax at the base
Of a guttering candle,
The morning’s first sound
Of 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 me
To the very gates that lead
To the morning star.

—translated from the Russian by Jo Ann Clark, with Zhenya Zafrin