Many of you are busy, taking full advantage of the vast amounts of free time newly at your disposal due to the Covid-19 quarantine. As we shelter in place, one of my friends cleaned out all of her closets. My brother painted his back bedroom he uses as a studio. The neighbors are organizing their garages. I, on the other hand, have had no such motivations. I have been reading several books and have taken our mini labradoodle on even more walks. In other words, life has not been too different, except I do miss my people. I hope you are all doing well, staying healthy, remaining hopeful and loving.
Yesterday, however, something made me turn to my old friend Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who suffered under and survived the Stalinist regime. Yesterday was Palm Sunday, a day both joyous and sobering. As we picture ourselves in the story, we cheer with the crowds while knowing the path leads to death. We feel the triumphant victory of Jesus’ humble entrance into Jerusalem, yet know he will be buried by the end of the week. I feel these conflicting emotions in Akhmatova’s poetic laments. They are only the more beautiful as she uses biblical images and biblically-rooted characters to relate both her grief and her hope.
Born in 1889, Akhmatova survived the Russian Revolution and married fellow poet Nikolai Gumilev with whom she had a son Lev. Nikolai was imprisoned and secretly executed by the Bolsheviks. Many years later, in 1935, their son was arrested as an enemy of the state and Akhmatova virtually lived outside of the prison walls in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) in hopes of catching a glimpse of him, bringing bread, fighting for his release. Although they were estranged at the time of his death, she had lost a husband to the Soviets. She could not lose a son.
It is as this grief-stricken mother she writes the “Requiem” over the next several years each section a part of a cycle of loss, lament and persistence. In this portion entitled “Crucifix” her lament is both human and holy, a grappling for justice when there seemed to be none. Her identification with the mother of the Christ in the hour of deep sorrow seems so honest.
This portion of the poem is beautiful because of its simplicity. In the original Akhmatova employs spare, clean language with an AB rhyme scheme. There is surely a good translation of this work, but I was not happy with the one I found online. I have produced an average translation mostly for the sense and understanding, not really capturing the style. As we approach nearer to Good Friday, I am thankful we have this poet’s perspective on grief. It reminds us that in Christ’s story no one is forgotten.
“Не рыдай Мене, Мати, во гробе зрящи…”
Хор ангелов великий час восславил,
И небеса расплавились в огне.
Отцу сказал: “Почто Меня оставил!”
А Матери: “О, не рыдай Мене…”
Магдалина билась и рыдала,
Ученик любимый каменел,
А туда, где молча Мать стояла,
Так никто взглянуть и не посмел
“Weep not for me, Mother, seeing me in the tomb….”
A choir of angels glorified the great hour,
and the heavens melted in fire.
To the Father he spoke: “Why have you forsaken me?”
But to his mother: “O, do not weep for Me…”
Mary Magdalene writhed and wept.
The beloved disciple turned to stone.
Yet, there, where the Mother stood silent
To cast a glance that way no one even dared.