|‘You are alone with your love’ … detail of Amedeo Modigliani’s sketch of Anna Akhmatova, |
drawn during their brief love affair.
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.
Poetry slam is one of the few examples we have of a “language game” (to use Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous term, but not exactly the way he means it) that is explicitly named as such. One that is carried out in public, constantly, all around the globe. For Wittgenstein, a language game is implicit in our communication, and sometimes serves an explicitly pedagogical function: for example, simple operations, “by which children learn their native language.”
Joshua Bennett is a professor of English at Dartmouth College. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Owed and The Sobbing School, as well as a book of criticism, Being Property Once Myself: Blackness and the End of Man.