Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova Book Review

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Anna Akhmatova has been one of my favorite poets since discovering her in my college Russian classes. She had a wonderful gift for lyric poetry and in her youth, her poems were sheer beauty. Her mature poems, on the other hand, are both beautiful and gut-wrenching, for Akhmatova lived through several of the most dangerous and turbulent periods of Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges. Her ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev (also a poet), was shot in 1921 for suspected anti-Bolshevist activity, her common law husband Nikolai Punin was arrested repeatedly and eventually died in the Gulag, and her son Lev (by Gumilev) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges. Many of her close friends and associates, including Gorky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Esenin, were also killed or committed suicide.

These experiences gave weight to what is, in my opinion, her greatest poem, Requiem. An excerpt:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
innocent lives are ending now…

I gave my copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova to my brother when we moved and kept Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova because Selected Poems is dual-language in Russian and English, while the Complete Poems is English-only. The English translations, by Judith Hemschemeyer in both books, are accurate in meaning and strive valiantly for the beauty and lyricism of Akhmatova’s words, but of course, nothing can compare to the original, so I kept the smaller volume because it has most of my favorite poems anyway (“Poem Without a Hero” is the most notable omission) and I wanted to have both English and Russian versions of her poems together. As a student of Russian, it’s good practice. If you don’t read any Russian, you may prefer the Complete Poems.

My rating: (5 / 5)