over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I will never deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
Anna Akhmatova, 1922-24
Translated by Stanley Kunitz, with Max Hayward
One of my favorite Russian poets, translated by one of my favorite North American ones. Born in Odessa in 1899, Anna Akhmatova spent most of her life in St. Petersburg, but died in a sanatarium in the Moscow suburbs in 1966.
Akhmatova was part of the generation that included Boris Pasternak, Mariana Tsvetaeva, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin. The distinctive lyrical tradition she belonged to, which traces its roots back to Pushkin--another St. Petersburg poet--was carried into the late 20th century by her protege, Joseph Brodsky.
This poem comes a collection that was originally published by Little, Brown in 1973 and is now available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The 1914 portrait of Akhmatova by Nathan Altman (1889-1970) is in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg; the photo of Akhmatova is undated but appears to be from about 1910.
- Poems of Akhmatova, translated by Stanley Kunitz
- Joseph Brodsky reviews the Kunitz translations
- Akhmatova's poem in Russian
- "The Snakes of September" by Stanley Kunitz