As Osip Mandelstam said, “great poetry is often a response to total disaster.”

This morning, my daughter arose early at 5:30 a.m. because she incorrectly set her alarm clock. Instead of going back to bed, she tiptoed downstairs to read the fifth book of Harry Potter. I decided to get up myself, shave and read some poetry. In my office, I picked up a few volumes, then settled on Anna Akhmatova, one of my favorite Russian poets who shared Mandelstam’s philosophy of poetry, reflected in their commitment to seek beauty in the natural and physical world of their environment. She was a deeply private person and it’s like she is writing directly to each of us in a very personal voice.

Said Max Hayward in his introduction, quoting Akhmatova, she knew “from what trash poetry, quite unashamed, can grow.” She had to deal with the terrors of Stalin’s rule and her own battle with tuberculosis; nonetheless, she still has a way of savoring life in all its fullness. Here are two poems that I particularly enjoyed this morning:

The Return

The souls of all my dears have flown to the stars.

Thank God there’s no one left for me to lose —

so I am free to cry. This air was made

for the echoing of songs.

 

A silver willow by the shore

trails to the  bright September waters.

My shadow, risen from the past,

glides silently towards me.

 

Though the branches here are hung with many lyres,

a place has been reserved for mine, it seems.

And now this shower, struck by sunlight,

brings me good news, my cup of consolation.

Anna Akhmatova, 1944, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

 

The Last Toast

I drink to our ruined house,

to the dolor of my life,

to our loneliness together;

and to you I raise my glass,

to lying lips that have betrayed us,

to dead-cold, pitiless eyes,

and to the hard realities:

that the world is brutal and coarse,

that God in fact has not saved us.

Anna Akhmatova, 1934, translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward