Today’s poem is by Anna Akmatova, possibly the greatest Russian poet of the Twentieth Century. Certainly, she’s way up there. It was written upon the death of her friend Mikhail Bulgakov.
Bulgakov is best remembered for The Master and Margarita, a wonderful comic-sad retelling of the Faust legend (sort of) in Stalinist Russia. I recommend the book to you all, it’s not hard to read and it has a bowtie-wearing cat who’s a sure shot with a pistol. The Master and Margarita was finished shortly before Bulgakov’s death in 1940 but not published until 1966. Before then it was circulated by samizdat, i.e., hand-typed copies that were passed among friends in the literary underground. Imagine loving a novel enough to type out a copy of it! Possession of them was a crime.
So, given that Akmatova’s life (remember?) was every bit as hard as Bulgachev’s, her quiet mastery, her refusal to give in to hysteria, exaggeration, accusation, and rant is all the more impressive.
In Memory of Mikhail Bulgakov
by Anna Akhmatova
Translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward
This, not graveyard roses, is my gift;
And I won't burn sticks of incense:
You died as unflinchingly as you lived,
With magnificent defiance.
Drank wine, and joked -- were still the wittiest,
Choked on the stifling air.
[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]
So. She doesn’t offer graveyard roses to her dead friend, but this poem. He was aloof and defiant in the face of persecution. (Pretty much all worthwhile artists were persecuted under Stalin.) She praises his human virtues. She mentions “stultifying walls,” by which she means the system that kept him silent. I’m not sure who the “terrifying stranger” is... his genius, maybe? His death? But now he’s dead and nobody dares to mourn him publicly, for fear of attracting the attention of the government. Nobody, that is, but Anna. They’d already killed her husband and imprisoned her son. (Which is why she’s “half crazed,” “sick with grief” and “smoldering on a slow fire,” incidentally.) What more could they do to her?
It seems strange to her that this man couldn’t have outlived her. He seemed so much stronger than she. He hid his pain so well.
Frankly, I find that extremely moving. So I’ll only add that, while it’s dangerous to comment on wordplay in a translation, I should comment on that last line. You understood, of course, that the pain referred to both his illness and the government’s persecution. Not also the use of the word “mortal.” It means both fatal, as in “mortally wounded,” and also “human.” All mortals are subject to pain. His pain is not superior in kind to that of non-genius-writers. He simply, as an individual, stood up to it particularly well.