Letter to Amanda


No yesli by otkuda-to vzglyanula.
Ya na svoyu tyepyeryeshnyuyu zhizn’,
Uznala by ya zavist’ nakonyets…

Having read your book, Amanda, I turned back
To read and read again one marvellous scene
In which those friends, miraculously alive
From the disasters of death’s almanac,
Recall their memories of the years between,
Meeting at last in nineteen sixty-five;

Little Straw and the Sorceress from Kiev
In old age, in a London kitchen, where
They stand for ever in history now, not just
Two old biddies gossiping by a stove
Which some might take them for, nor just a pair
Of ghosts in their reanimated dust,

But phoenix and fire-bird issuing from their embers,
Two queens magnificent in exile, greeting
Each in the other’s ruin her pride of state;
Two goddesses, whose rites no man remembers,
By night, between their broken altars meeting …
Such images of time and loss and fate

I sought, Amanda, but it will not do:
These were real women of our century
Who shared with others their epoch’s common plight.
War, exile, revolution they lived through
As others did, and yet it seems to me,
Each was a sorceress in her own right.

One that great poet who, when others broke,
Ignored what Stalin’s Terror had decreed,
Chose the free mind, though death was in that choice,
Became a sybil through whom a dumb world spoke,
Stones found a tongue, wind or a roadside weed
And tyranny’s victims an articulate voice,

The subject of your book, Akhmatova.
The other that Georgian princess, Salomea
Whom, when recalling what their world had been
In Peter’s granite town on the Neva,
The poet, evoking that fatal, final year,
Called “Beauty of the year nineteen thirteen”.

That poem you translated, Amanda, I
Have ventured to render once again in rhyme:
Its Indian summer of Petropolis,
Late sunset red in an imperial sky,
The gaiety and the beauty of that time
Already tottering to the abyss.

Yet it goes cheerfully — no dying fall —
The voices young, no overtone of tears,
Streets glitter and the carriages glide and pass:
Always more elegant, statelier than all
And rosier, from the pit of the dead years
Your wavering limpid profile behind glass

Why does my greedy memory call you back?
Were you bird or angel? — we bickered on that theme—
What time a poet nicknamed you Little Straw
And, softly radiant, shining through those black
Lashes, your Daryalian eyes would beam
Calmly appraising everything you saw.

But then, Amanda, as though a sob broke through,
The whole tone changes: Enter Death and War!
O Shade! Forgive me, but this marvellous weather,
Reading Flaubert, and my insomnia too,
And the late lilac, and yourself the star
Of nineteen thirteen — well, all this together,

Your day, so nonchalant and so serene.
They bring it back … but not now, not for me;
Such memories will not do … O Shade! … O Shade!
There the voice breaks; you see now what I mean:
A shaft of sudden sunlight on the sea,
That laughter in the kitchen, unafraid

After such years of terror, Leningrad
Her city demolished, the Nine Hundred Days,
The waiting in Tashkent for the world’s end,
That winter in nineteen forty when, half mad,
She foresaw all and wrote that poem in praise
Of her lost world and Salomea her friend.

Hugging the last resources of despair,
Destitute, often starving, there she sat
Silenced, abused and threatened, old and frail,
And dauntless. Sitting in her broken chair
I see her summon up light and joy. And that
Is why your rounding off this Winter’s Tale

Delights me so. The agony of the past
Resolved, once more in other shapes appear
Demeter and Persephone. They meet
This time in earth’s great parable, recast
As Anna Andreyevna and Salomea,
The fruitful soil and the new burgeoning wheat.

What would they talk of, those emblems of the age?
That is your last surprise: the stove was there,
Though not a thing to suit the poet’s book:
“Chop fine and marinate; add a pinch of sage”,
They were women and friends; laughter was in the air:
“Salomea Nikolayevna, where did you learn to cook?”

“In exile, my dear, one must learn something new.
I was not Solominka, no one’s Muse any more;
So studied the art women have always known.
Like them I have learned to compromise; but you,
It was not in your nature, you withdraw
But do not yield, nor fear to stand alone.”

Forgive me, Amanda, if I have made too free
With your enchanting book. In any case
Let me just add, as I put by my pen,
That, thinking of those two, it seems to me
That in old age great women inherit a grace,
An afterglow not granted the fates of men.

Listen! Those laughing voices by the stove,
The Sorceress from Kiev, the Angel-Bird;
It is gossip of women and ordinary mirth.
Yet listen! Other voices around, above
Laugh with them and beneath them all a third
Warm, ageless chuckle from the mothering Earth.

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