Sundress: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Pui Ying Wong reads “Everything is Plundered” from Anno Domini by Anna Akhmatova.
I’m excited you picked a poem by Anna Akhmatova. I received a verse of hers in the mail from a Russian member of postcrossing (an online website which allows strangers to swap postcards globally) and was hoping to investigate her. I’d love to hear your take on Akhmatova’s contribution to the literary world. What attracted you to her?
Pui Ying Wong: Akhmatova wrote poetry throughout her life, from poems with romantic leanings in her youth to later poems of deep meditation on her life, inevitably tied to the tumultuous time in post 1917 Russia. Her influence was far reaching even outside of Russia and many regard her to be the voice of dissidence. Joseph Brodsky considered her a mentor. Her poems were widely read by the underground Misty Poets in China, not to mention readers in Europe and elsewhere.
But to me I’m drawn to the simplicity, the exactness of her poems that are also infused with great emotional power. Her subject matters are often grave and yet there is this “beautiful clarity” she aspired to. “Everything is plundered…” the poem is heartbreaking and affirming at once. She wrote this around 1921 when so much in Russia was in upheaval. I don’t know if the poem was written before or after the execution of her first husband Gumilev, who was also a poet. This poem still reaches across time and historical context to land squarely in our digital age. It’s unforgettable.
Sundress: Is the duality of the poem’s stark opening:
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
and it’s sudden positive response typical of Ackmatova’s work?
Pui Ying Wong: As in “Everything is Plundered”, Akhmatova’s poems often suggest a rich emotional energy. Economy of line, abrupt turn, associative short-circuits are some of the features in her poetry. Her images are not totally naturalistic but are infused with ingenuousness of feeling. A poetic temperament that’s by turns austere and tender, but never formulaic.
Sundress: Can you speak to Ackmatova’s dissidence in this poem?
Pui Ying Wong: When Akhmatova wrote this poem she had already lived through WWI and the Russian Revolution. She saw many friends leave Russia for Europe or America, her former husband was executed. In times of oppression and great distress, despair, fear and cynicism are all part of the understood human responses. In this poem, through describing the concurrence of the inner/outer events, the self’s emotion waited until the last stanza. It is mystical and true. If the goal of oppression is to crush the human spirit, the poem is like a searchlight in darkness.
Sundress: You mentioned that her husband was executed, and that as a society, they were oppressed—was it dangerous for Akhmatova to be writing the poems she was writing?
Pui Ying Wong: In her life time, through war, revolution, civil war, and a totalitarian regime, Akhmatova saw her work condemned, banned, and she herself narrowly escaped arrest. There’s no doubt that for decades after the revolution, life for many writers was precarious. Besides her former husband, her close friend, poet Osip Mandelstam, was arrested for his anti-Stalin writing and died later in the camps.
Akhmatova’s son Lev was imprisoned on numerous occasions by the Stalinist regime. In the preface of her poem Requiem, she wrote about the time when she waited at the prison queue to deliver food packages to him:
“One day somebody” identified” me. Beside me, in the queue, there was a woman with blue lips. She had, of course, never heard of me; but she suddenly came out of that trance so common to us all and whispered in my ear (everybody spoke in whispers there):’Can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘Yes, I can.’
And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face.”
Sundress: How has Anna Akhmatova influenced your own work?
Pui Ying Wong: In my own writing I try to strive for clarity, and pay attention to the emotional life in my poem.
More than poetic style, form and fashion, the luminosity and emotional power in Akhmatova’s poems have timeless appeal for me.
Sundress: Several of Akhmatova’s poems are available online to read. Are there any you’d recommend? Or perhaps another interview/review/article for us to follow up on?
Pui Ying Wong: In terms of recommendation I would say read “Requiem” and “Poem without a hero”, long considered her masterpieces. But since poems in different periods present another perspective to her poetic sensibility, and she wrote more than ten collections, try reading samples from these different collections. Another recommendation is to read different translators. They are not the same and they do affect your experience of the poems. Unfortunately I don’t have a specific one to recommend, and I crossed reference in my own reading.
It is also helpful to know something about the history and social context in which the poet works. Look up some on Russian history, and on Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, the close poet friends Akhmatova wrote in a poem called “There are four of us”.
What is essential to you as a writer or poet? What piece changed your life? Gave you hope, validated and voiced your fears, was there while you triumphed over them? What piece brings you joy? Made you laugh or grin like a fool? Who was it who made you sit back in wonder, inspiring you to be a stronger writer? We want to know. Send us a recording (or packet of short recordings) of you reading your Lyric Essential—a short story, a handful of poems, an excerpt or two—to SundressLyricEssentials AT gmail DOT com. Then we’ll talk.
Pui Ying Wong was born in Hong Kong. She is the author of a full length book of poetry Yellow Plum Season (New York Quarterly Books, 2010), two chapbooks: Mementos (Finishing Line Press, 2007), Sonnet for a New Country (Pudding House Press, 2008) and her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Southampton Review, Angle Poetry (U.K.), Crannog (Ireland), The Brooklyner, Gargoyle, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), among others. She is a book reviewer for Cervena Barva Press in Somverille. Pui Ying lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband, the poet Tim Suermondt.
Anna Akhmatova was the penname of Russian modernist poet Anna Andreyevna Gorenko. Born 1889, her work was censored by Stalinist authorities; additionally, war, revolution, and the totalitarian regime destroyed many of the primary sources of information about Akhmatova’s life, leaving few details. Requiem (1935-40), one of her best known pieces, is a series of short lyric poems about the Stalinist atrocities.