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Transom:
You’ve translated three Akhmatova poems, all of which are dedicated to Olga Glebova-Sudeikina. Why did you choose to focus on these particular poems?

Livshin & Janco:
The Russian government is seeking to silence LGBTQA voices and actively rewriting its country’s history. At this time, we feel it’s crucial to recall that some of Russia’s most gifted authors wrote about their own same-sex relationships. These poems by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) are dedicated to her lover, the actress, dancer and puppet-maker Olga Glebova-Sudeikina (1885-1945). Akhmatova spent a year living with both Glebova-Sudeikina and the Futurist composer Arthur Luriť, in what many biographers believe to be a romantic relationship with both. Most readers do not know about this relationship or its importance for Akhmatova’s work. Focusing on Akhmatova’s poetry dedicated to Glebova-Sudeikina makes it possible to appreciate its significance.

It’s important to note that in her work, Akhmatova does not identify as a lesbian or make any specific claims about her sexual identity. In keeping with her esthetics, she hints, rather than describe. However, looking at these three poems as a set, it is not hard to notice that Akhmatova openly dedicates them to her female lover, who was a well-known figure in the Russian avant-garde. Akhmatova also continued to write about her love for decades, after Glebova-Sudeikina had emigrated from Russia and they lost contact. 

Transom:
How does the unnamed male figure haunting the borders of these poems fit into the biographical framework you’ve erected here?

Livshin & Janco:
Context is needed to understand the personalities and complicated web of relationships that appear in these works. For Akhmatova, the suicide of one of Glebova-Sudeikina’s partners, Vsevolod Knyazev, was especially important. Many people blamed Glebova-Sudeikina for the death, and the suicide greatly affected both her and her husband at the time, Sergey Sudeikin, who was also involved with Knyazev. Knyazev’s death and Glebova-Sudeikina’ reaction reappear in each of the poems below.

Transom:
How did you come to terms with bringing formal Russian poems, such as these, into English as free verse poems? Did you conceive of that decision as a sacrifice, as an opportunity, or something else?

Livshin & Janco:
Yes, Akhmatova’s work is strongly musical: The first of the three poems we translated consists of end-stressed couplets (AA, BB, CC, etc.), while the second one comprises two sonorous cinquains, each of which sports three end-stressed lines in a row. In these poems about Glebova-Sudeikina, musicality works synergetically with the gravity of the statements Akhmatova makes. Prosody sculpts the themes of loss and longing into hard, elegant forms, suggestive of St. Petersburg’s austere sophistication, its black, ornate cast-iron metal grills, the gradual rhythm of its imperial buildings. St. Petersburg is the city where Akhmatova became a serious writer.  And if you listen to how Akhmatova reads her work (recordings are available online here and here), her seriousness and the rhythmic yet unhurried quality of her voice are really quite amazing.

But re-shaping Akhmatova’s poetry into the English patterns of rhyme and rhythm is a deceptively straightforward task. It would require matching her with an Anglo-American, modernist strain of richly metrical poetry, poetry that does not smack of limericks or Dr. Seuss’ work. Verse that wouldn’t sound excessively rhymey, archaic, hurdy-gurdy. Of course, in Anglo-American modernism, we do have long reverberations of rhymed lines, but they tend to sound ironic or tragicomic because of that legacy of limericks and nursery rhymes. Think of how T.S. Eliot uses such prosody in “The Waste Land”: “O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter / And on her daughter / They wash their feet in soda water.” Akhmatova writes about some very serious and tragic matters in her work. So contemporary American readers would perceive lots and lots of rhymed lines together with her topic as a funny disconnect between form and meaning.

We chose free verse, but with a number of slant rhymes, and some alliterations and consonances. Our hope is that free verse lets one immerse oneself in the statements Akhmatova makes and the gravity of her emotions, while the echoes of her poetic music suggest something of the original’s rhythmic yearning and darkness.

Transom:
In Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation of “Memory’s Voice” (which she entitles “The Voice of Memory”), the poem takes place “In the hour when the sunset lingers in the sky,” but your translation happens “in the light of late dawn.” Is the timing clear in the original Russian, and do you think of the timing as a significant aspect of this poem?

Livshin & Janco:
Akhmatova’s diction often seems simple, but it’s richly suggestive. She knew and appreciated French poetry. She inherits Verlaine’s idea of poetry as symphony, in which different instruments play very distinct notes, and each instrument presents a slightly different interpretation of the same theme as it comes forward to dominate the orchestra.  (A different version of this idea that was quite popular is the poetic phrase as a chord, composed of multiple notes, complicated).

So to the timing in “Memory’s Voice”: In the first couplet, the Russian word for the time of day, “заря,” is used with rich ambiguity.  This word usually means “sunrise.” If you add the modifier “evening” (“вечерняя”), it can mean “sunset,” which is presumably why Hemschemeyer chose to translate it as such. And yet Akhmatova doesn’t use the word “evening,” she uses its variant, “late,” making the phrase non-idiomatic, poetically bent to serve a purpose. A symphony of two words. What is going on? The speaker is speaking to a woman who is staring dully, perhaps morosely, at the wall, asking her what she sees. That woman is someone the speaker cares about deeply and wants to be well. The time can, in fact, be a late sunrise – if this is winter, in the northerly city of St. Petersburg, where the day is short in December or January. The sunrise might be dull and vague, not unlike the look in the woman’s eyes; a cold sunrise with little light, yet it is still a slight bit of light for a new beginning, perhaps hope for a start of a love relationship with the speaker. In the Russian poetic tradition, “заря” also often connotes a powerful emotional release symbolized by the rising of the sun. One famous example of how this word is used is its positioning as the last word of the poem, repeated twice and capped off by an exclamation mark, in a poem by Afanasy Fet, where suggests the culmination of an erotic act.

And if the two women are together at sunrise, there is also the probability of an all-night vigil. Emotional or sensual intimacy. They stayed up and find themselves together at sunbreak. In the last couplet, though, the possibility of hope is killed, the image becomes sunset-like – and the end of sunset, end of hope. The interlocutor tells the speaker that she only sees the fading of the light. The man that she is probably mourning is gone. Her personality, her memories, are flattened by his death, the sun has faded.

One could argue that the solution Hemschemeyer comes up with (“sunset”) is more or less literal, and it is underscored – verified? – by the last couplet. But poets do not necessarily work with a linear sense of time. A poetic image unfolds its layers of meaning as a theme develops. This is especially the case here, as the notion of sunrise-hope / sunset-finality bounces between several different speakers, with two distinct perspectives.  

Transom:
We learned recently that the color yellow represents jealousy in Russian culture, much like in English one can be “green” with envy. Should we read the daffodil at the end of the Second Dedication to “A Poem Without a Hero” as suggesting not just mourning, but also jealousy?

Livshin & Janco:
With apologies to Akhmatova and to you, we confess there is no daffodil in the original. So no yellow either. The original flower, “snowdrop,” of the Galanthus genus, is not particularly familiar to an American reader. And the “snow” in it seems to suggest remainders of winter. On the other hand, in Russia it is known as the first flower to jut up happily as the snow melts; its etymology just shouts that spring is already there while snow is still melting: “подснежник” – “under-snow-flower.” This is certainly the flower for the beginning of spring. We feel that “daffodil” connotes the beginning of spring – these are some of the first flowers to appear in March in our country.

Yet yellow does also have very sad symbolic meanings in Russian culture. Jealousy is one of several. Parting is a well-known meaning (you can see how jealousy would fit into this puzzle); so are madness and illness. You can imagine, then, why giving yellow flowers is a Russian cultural taboo. (One of the famous flower-giving gaucheries is Bulgakov’s Margarita’s gift of yellow flowers to Master when they meet her for the first time; Margarita is married and unhappy then, and women do not typically give flowers to men, anyway). 

But why not give a daffodil to a woman whom one loved and who died? A woman whom one still hopes to find on the other side after one passes away? To us, such a flower might help one feel deep amity and loss both, a spring-like delicate beginning and the knowledge of that parting might, nonetheless, be final: The daffodil is planted in a fresh grave. We hope that this flower might suggest an Akhmatovian symphony of meanings.