Few poets stood higher on Joseph Stalin’s hit list than Anna Akhmatova, the Soviet doyen of reverie and suffering who was born near the Black Sea in 1899 to an upper-class family. Like many in her literary milieu before the Russian Revolution, she revolted against drowsy symbolism and became a poet of spiritual clarity and of simplicity—but she always resisted the characterization of her poems as the work of a seductive poetess or a counter-revolutionary. She preferred to consider herself a poet of the soul. Certainly, the architects of Soviet ideology, first under Lenin and later under Stalin, thought of her that way and set about trying to stop her from writing poetry of refined self-awareness. Censors accused her of flirting with mysticism and eroticism and lacking political conviction. As early as 1921, nine years after Akhmatova published her first book of poems, the Cheka arrested her former husband, Nikolai Gumilev, who was a charismatic figure in Russian poetry before 1917 and the father of her only child, on the trumped-up charge that he was an anti-Bolshevik conspirator. Three weeks later, he was executed. The charge was, of course, fabricated. His reputation would not be rehabilitated until 1992.
From the early 1920s to the ’50s Akhmatova’s published works were officially suppressed, sanctioned as too feminine and not sufficiently Marxist. To inspire her—let us say—to write politically sympathetic poems, officials arrested her son and her husband. Both men spent time in gulags. And we know that Akhmatova was in the Moscow apartment of Osip Mandelstam when the secret police arrived to arrest him in 1934 for writing a poem critical of Stalin—an arrest that would eventually lead to Mandelstam’s death in 1938.
The harassment of Akhmatova’s son, Lev Gumilev, came to dominate the poet’s existence during the worst years of Stalin’s terror. Since Lev was the offspring of two “public enemies,” his father, Nikolai Gumilev, and Akhmatova, he was arrested multiple times, imprisoned, released, reinvestigated, and threatened with execution (until his inquisitors fell victim to an internal Stalinist purge and were executed first). After World War II, Soviet authorities recommended that Lev change his last name to avoid arrest again. He refused so as not to betray his father’s memory—and was sentenced to a forced-labor camp. These actions were meant to intimidate Akhmatova into writing the patriotic poetry Communist ideologues expected from her. But she refused. Only after her son was arrested again in 1949 did she relent, publishing some dozen poems in half-hearted praise of Stalin’s life as an emblem of freedom. Her effort was a failure. Censors found the work to be of little propaganda value. So her sacrifice was suppressed as well. Secretly, Akhmatova was writing her masterpiece, Requiem, about the sufferings of the Russian people under totalitarian rule. The poem was not published in Russian until 1987 during the Gorbachev era. But long before that, she was whispering lines to her closest friends, who worked to commit the poem to memory. Akhmatova would then burn the pages in an ashtray next to her cigarette butts. (She kept the original copy safely hidden.) Today, lines of Requiem are known by heart by millions of Russian schoolchildren. Akhmatova died of a heart attack in 1966.
Presumably none of this history was on the mind of American singer-songwriter Iris DeMent when she and her husband adopted their daughter, Dasha, from Siberia in 2005, when the girl was six years old. It’s a delicious irony that the most vivid country-soul album released last autumn should be DeMent’s The Trackless Woods, in which DeMent sets to music eighteen of Akhmatova’s poems, translated by Lyn Coffin and Babette Deutsch, as a gift to her young daughter, who now lives with her in Iowa and not, it goes without saying, in Vladimir Putin’s regressive neo-Soviet nation-state. In the liner notes, DeMent writes:
I didn’t know any [of Akhmatova’s tortured history] the day I came across a handful of her poems in a book a friend had loaned me. The cover of the book is red, with a drawing of a Russian samovar on it. The words “An Anthology of Russian Verse” are printed inside the samovar. I opened it up and read my first Anna Akhmatova poem, “Like a White Stone,” and by the time I’d finished reading it a second time, I felt like somebody (besides me) had started talking to me. What I heard was: “Set that to music.” So I did.
The album includes a good deal else, including compact totems of the trials of creative invention such as “To My Poems,” which goes:
You led me into the trackless woods,
My falling stars, my dark endeavor.
You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods, a bride,
You weren’t a consolation—ever.
These lines convey despair about the difficult process of writing, but also, paradoxically, feelings of devotion and tenderness. They evoke the sacrifices an artist makes to find the “broad gold, the … heavens glow,” as Akhmatova writes in another poem “covered” on the album. One of DeMent’s most moving renditions is the poem, “Not with Deserters,” which Akhmatova wrote out of disdain for Russian exiles:
Not with deserters from the battle
That tears my land do I belong.
To their coarse praise I do not listen.
They shall not have from me one song.
Poor exile, you are like a prisoner
To me, or one upon the bed
Of sickness. Dark your road, O wanderer,
Of wormwood smacks your alien bread.
Here, into smoking fires that blacken
Our lives, the last of youth we throw,
Who in the years behind us never
Sought to evade a single blow.
We know that in the final reckoning
No hour will need apology;
No people in the world are prouder,
More tearless, simpler, than are we.
Reading the poem now it’s worth remembering that, in Requiem, Akhmatova refers to herself as the “mouth through which a hundred million scream.” The glum lines above are a rebuke to those who have fled Russia—in effect, silencing themselves. Surely Akhmatova would not, imagining the future, include DeMent’s daughter in her indictment. But it’s fascinating to consider that DeMent is attempting to convey to her Russian-born daughter something of Akhmatova’s pride of place. Speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air, DeMent sounded sensitive to this question about her daughter: “I didn’t try to pull her along into that. The extent to which she absorbed [that part of her Russian culture] is her story to tell and yet to be seen in the future.”
For many the album will raise interesting questions about the roots of creativity, too. Musicians have a long history of performing covers of each other’s songs, and poets too have the tradition of responding to poems by other poets. DeMent’s album is a peculiar crossover, where an American singer of soulful, heartland individualism sings “covers” of poems by Russia’s iconic poet of elegant self-esteem in a pristine, back-of-the-choir Pentecostal voice. Akhmatova was a member of a group of writers, the Acmeists, who extolled the values of directness and clarified images. This characterization neatly describes what DeMent has been performing for more than two decades as well, beginning with her breakthrough album, Infamous Angel in 1992. Her music typically relies on just a few chords strummed on a clean-sounding guitar or sometimes a piano accompaniment that comes across like it’s being played on a shabby upright shoved into the corner of a hallway—The Trackless Woods recordings were made in DeMent’s living room. If you’ve listened to her albums, you already know that her voice exudes old-timey plainness and humor, along with heartbreak and disillusionment.
I know my comparison will evoke resistance. But like Akhmatova’s poems, DeMent’s songs depict people who exist not in the margins, but in the non-utopias of complex lives. They confront their own desperations and difficult joys, tensions and transformations. The figures in DeMent’s songs thrive in passageways outside the noise of partisans and ideologues. “Let the mystery be,” DeMent sings in an early song against the pressure to believe in God, if not fundamentalism—religious, political, or otherwise. This temperament resembles Akhmatova’s in “Song about Songs” as she commends the body as a vessel for humility:
Others will reap. I only sow.
When the triumphant scythers lay the grain low,
Bless them, O Lord!
Accompanied by an easy, parlor-piano rhythm, DeMent presents “Song about Songs” as a ballad for salvation in a voice that pines for the purity of love. The architecture of the material here is the countryside. It’s like a dreamscape conjured up to encompass what a single body can see and hear and smell. It’s a vision of direct movement against ideological and industrial culture. It’s a pastoral rendition of a life intended to preserve one’s dignity against the forces determined to slaughter it. What lingers from the ferocity of Stalin’s terror—as heard inside DeMent’s renditions of Akhmatova’s poems—is the latter’s non-revolutionary sensibility, her tragic sense of individual solitude:
Let me give the world a gift
More incorruptible than love.
It’s difficult to hear these lyrics and not consider, even briefly, the backwardness, corruption, and despotism that have overtaken Akhmatova’s Russia under the rule of Putin and what can only be called his Russia. To listen to DeMent’s plaintive renditions of Akhmatova’s poems in praise of the incorruptible soul makes you feel deeply dispirited over the resurgent nostalgia for the Soviet era today under Putin, who, prowling the Kremlin like a KGB czar, trucks in ethnic Russian nationalist paranoia, is hostile to democratic reform, advances a sovereignty of personal power, and embraces a narrative of Russian history that begins with grievances with the West and ends with missing or mutilated Russian citizens who are critical of Putin and his autocratic regime. And—thinking closer to home—it’s fair to ask whether the state of the soul is being jeopardized here in the United States as well. Couldn’t DeMent’s partnership with Akhmatova be equally indicting of nativist and sometimes violent impulses in our political dialogue? Consider, by way of illustration, this thuggish scene from a Donald Trump campaign rally reported by Ryan Lizza recently in The New Yorker:
Trump’s fans tend to express little regard for political norms. They cheer at his most outlandish statements. [Bill] O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would “take out” the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would “put out hits on women and children” if he were elected. Trump replied, “I would do pretty severe stuff.” The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. “Yeah, baby!” a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.
Could the world be made new in DeMent’s versions of Akhmatova’s work? Of course not. DeMent’s songs don’t abolish the intent of Akhmatova’s poems (that would be impossible). But they do more than simply pay homage. Both DeMent’s singing and Akhmatova’s poetry are arguments against obsoletism and in favor of an artist’s solitary interior. This is DeMent’s great gift to the poems of Anna Akhmatova and to devotees of her poetry. She has given us a transcription and new reading of another language, culture, and political time, and then offers all that as a message to our own time—though principally as a gift to her young, Russian-born daughter. In this sense it is not too much to say that DeMent nearly redeems Akhmatova’s futile gift of debased patriotic poems she once resentfully offered to Stalin as a means to rescue her son.
To go through this album is to realize how much Stalin’s reign was, among other things, an onslaught against language and the worship of the machine of state power. H was, above all, a wretched genius for scandal and murder. By remaining a poet of the soul who is true to the interior life, Akhmatova was a provocateur. She is also a prototype for the kind of soul-seeking artist DeMent has become. This is the primitive spirit DeMent brings forward in The Trackless Woods. She turns traditionalist Russian poetry into one American artist’s private revolution to extol and defend the individual unconscious. For how do you create poetry and songs except to write from the most interior margins of selfhood?
David Biespiel’s most recent book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry.