Poem of the week: In the Evening by Anna Akhmatova

Translated by the late Richard McKane, this strikingly love-deprived love poem is a fine example of the author’s intense focus on personal experience

In the Evening

There was such inexpressible sorrow
in the music in the garden.
The dish of oysters on ice
smelt fresh and sharp of the sea.

He said to me ‘I am a true friend!’
He touched my dress.
There is no passion
in the touch of his hands.

This is how one strokes a cat or a bird,
this is how one looks at a shapely horsewoman.
There is only laughter in his eyes
under the light gold of his eyelashes.

The violins’ mourning voices
sing above the spreading smoke:
‘Give thanks to heaven:
you are alone with your love for the first time.’

Josef Brodsky, a close friend to Anna Akhmatova in her later years, extolled her reclamation for poetry of the territory of the 19th-century Russian novel. This seems to me exactly right about the early verse, and helps us imagine how fresh, perhaps even revolutionary, it would have seemed to her original readers.

Akhmatova was to evolve, over her long, embattled but intensely patriotic writing life, into a poet of witness. Richard McKane, who translated this week’s poem, wrote: “It is my belief that the Akhmatova poems of the 30s and 40s will become the texts of poetry under repression.” If there’s rather more unhappy competition to represent repression than this allows, it reminds us of the continually searing power of Akhmatova’s major, innovative works such as Requiem. Her strongest focus is nonetheless constant throughout her writing: personal experience, whatever the sociopolitical contexts.

An Acmeist from the beginning, Akhmatova avoids symbolism and excess in a poem that might easily succumb to both. Her small, astute observations of human behaviour and concrete, everyday details are neatly laced, in the original, by strain-free rhymes. Crisply metrical in Russian, poems such as In the Evening are merciless to translate into English. There are few metaphorical ambiguities in which to hide. The translator reproduces the rhyme scheme at his or her peril, and the skippy rhythms at risk of mortal humiliation. McKane’s choice of simple diction and a free-verse line retaining the stanzaic structure, is quietly astute.

In the Evening comes from Akhmatova’s second collection, Rosary (Chetki, 1914). While a popular success, it earned her some abusive literary criticism that later gave ammunition to Andrey Zhdanov, Stalin’s culture minister, who characterised her as “half nun and half whore”.

There’s little of the “nun” in the openly frustrated eroticism of In the Evening. Akhmatova was three years married to the poet Nikolai Gumilyov: the marriage didn’t last. He’s not necessarily the figure in the poem, though he distinctly reminds me of the husband imagined in another sardonic poem, He Loved Three Things Alone … In the aesthetic elegance of the garden setting, the male admirer of In the Evening seems the perfect expression of aesthetic refinement without warmth.

The initial emphasis on the violin music seems to lend the whole piece cinematic qualities. McKane picks up on the specifying word “such”, often sacrificed in other translations, and its colloquial force as an intensifier helps realise a voice – and a means of accepting the seeming exaggeration of “inexpressible sorrow”. The strings fade down but seem to continue, sotto voce.

The male speaker may not be lying when he describes himself as “a true friend”: the poem resists judgment. Still, there’s an implied dissonance between his claim and what the speaker desires – expressive “passion”. He is handsome (if that brief mention of the gold eyelashes is indicative) and appreciative of his companion’s beauty, but fatally amused by their roles in the romantic scenario.

I like the repetition of “touch” in the second stanza. Sometimes, even for the poetry translator, opportunity knocks and a limitation in the new language becomes a strength. The Russian words are related but distinct. The English tells us more forcibly that the lover would touch the woman’s body with no more passion than he would admiringly feel the fabric or tailoring of a dress.

The cat, the bird, and the “shapely horsewoman” in the next stanza, are all aestheticised objects, animal potency subdued in an appreciation that implies subjugation. They’re stroked now, not merely touched. The paradox is that the reader is pressed to share the same viewpoint. We see and stroke these creatures, too. And then, in the last clever “stroke” of stanza three, the aesthete himself becomes objectified.

In our imaginary film sequence, the strings fade up again. And what they “sing” is cruelly mocking, in this context. They are addressing other lovers, more passionate, less critical, luckier than the protagonist and her partner. No such consummation awaits our leading characters. The evening sours and saddens: this is a love-deprived love poem, with a possible hint of darkening political weather, too, in the image of “spreading smoke”. Again, the plain word-choice works best. The Russian verb, “to spread”, can also be translated as “to creep”. The less metaphorical choice evades personification or confusion with the (slightly) serpentine male character. Akhmatova’s poetry cannot always sound understated in English, but, as usual, McKane tactfully mutes the strings wherever possible. The original Russian can be compared here, alongside a different translator’s interpretation.

This version of In the Evening is from the Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated and edited by McKane. The selection was originally a slimmer volume, published by Penguin/OUP in 1969. Although aimed at the general reader, the edition McKane revised and expanded for Bloodaxe 20 years later (most recently reprinted in 2016) includes interesting textual notes, a thoughtful, glasnost-haunted introduction, and translations of some of the poet’s vivid short prose.

McKane died in December 2016. He was both a poet and an accomplished translator from a number of languages, pre-eminently Russian and Turkish. His premature death signifies a sad narrowing of literary horizons in the UK.


Carol Rumens

The GuardianTramp

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