Petrograd*, I preferred to call it;
your face stood out from amongst the others,
a gardenia among chrysanthemums.
“Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen…”**
I thought, my dream-time mixed with poetry.
In such stark surroundings you caught my fancy
and I was, I must say, pleasantly surprised
to find you were the girl destined for me.
We met, second round, in a room with French windows.
I mouthed the ancient verities.
The light fell pleasantly on your face.
I remembered, not, Akhmatova.***
Later, third time paying for all, you smiled; on the settee
I had not thought such innocence still existed in the world.
All my restitution had not prepared me
for a face to face encounter with what could never
be mine anymore, in all its purity.
Reader, I married her
in a hall with the ‘abomination’ kept covered.
That year the temple festival was not held, it seems.
No caparisoned elephant walked the road.
My mother had quit the world.
A lost wedding ring was re-found in the hall.
Miracle after miracle and salt.
Everything surreal whirled around
as in a kaleidoscope.
I took you like Rebecca into my tent for comfort.
You wore a sari of such taste it was clearly pleb against patrician.
I could not even see its class then.
The door that you ope none can close
or close ope, I intoned
And: Husbandman/housbonda, be not bitter; was also laughingly spoke.
We smiled and went to the jeweller’s
got us two simple plain gold rings
with our names on each other’s,
giggling, put them on
our slim ring fingers;
like truant children breaking the waves…
but in the night I tried to murder love with my lust
My poetry was bloody, though on the sheet nothing bled
O happy years, when it was the twin cities
or your place and mine – your place or mine? – and work, children, life;
all suddenly gone for ever one fine week,
the day the music died (forever?) in me.
I should have remembered Akhmatova.
For the time came when outside prison gate
she stood and pleaded with the unyielding one, Stalin
for the release of her son,
no husband by her side,
only the tired women of Russia
whose faces bled wrinkles, who found no refuge
and then-abouts she wrote her longest, greatest poem****
I sweat in exile and unending heat
My slight effort, this, my lot, all I offer
You, and my ode, Anna; this is indeed now bitter
bitter like bitter gourd
bitter like beer
waiting for the sun
in a vale filled with our tears
knowing no fear
spending the years
laughing at despair
Gamely, we battle on
despite knowing the truth:
I fail you daily.
You die daily
I crucify you daily
for the sake of women, sex, romance, love, poetry.
Your smile remains intact, but
brighter, ever, even than the sun
Anna Akhmatova and her son
Anna, my love, and our son and daughters
God grant your hearts’ desires
There is no peace in my Leningrad*****
for me, wicked;
mighty restless oceanic waves that never cease, stirring mire –
no gardenias in the spring,
only the memories and the rings –
if ever lost, always refound! a miracle still! –
still shining and helping us
to carry on, as if by the oracle’ decree.
I write this ode your greatness to sing
with a pen worthy of nothing
except the long road to fame’s empty pickings
Yet, I write, on, like that Palestinian poet******
Anna, no one can match your glory
Forgive me that I will never be worthy.
** from the Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.
***Anna Akhmatova, Russian poetess during Stalin’s time.
**** The poem is Requiem (must reading for all poets)
*****Leningrad was earlier Petrograd.
There are many other references personal and literary, I leave it to critics to tease them out.