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Annie Finch

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Annie Finch

I approached my translations of Anna Akhmatova in a different spirit than that with which I have approached other poets.We met in the fields of meter, by the river of amphibrachs, and we stared into those depths together.In the water, I saw her face reflected.I knew she was my sister as we were carried together into the pull of that sound.We stood up together and danced together across the wordless field into our different words.

I came on the idea of translating Akhmatova because I fell in love with amphibrachic meter.As I wrote in my essay on amphibrachs in The Body of Poetry, "The particular, sprightly, ironic feeling of amphibrachic meter — and its kind of heathery purple color, if I had to give it a color, a kind of cumin flavor, if I had to give it a taste — had become necessary to my work in poetry."Yet there seemed to be virtually no amphibrachic poems for me to read in English.*When George Kline, a scholar of Russian thought and culture and the longtime translator of Joseph Brodsky, told me about Akhmatova's poems in amphibrachs, I was beside myself with excitement.With George's help I began to translate them immediately, pulled along by the same thread of rhythm that had pulled her.

Each of the three poems by Akhmatova that George and I have translated-"The White Bird" (our title, since the original is untitled), "Lot's Wife," and "Cleopatra" (published simultaneously online in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact) is set in a different time and place.They are also told from different points of view, "The White Bird" in first person, "Cleopatra" in second person, and "Lot's Wife" in third person.The poems were written decades apart:"The White Bird" when Akhmatova was 25, "Lot's Wife" at age 34, and "Cleopatra" at age 50. Yet all three present a common theme.By the end of each poem, a woman comes face to face with the truth of her situation, admits her pain, opens herself to accept her own tragedy.

Perhaps the push-pull rhythm of amphibrachs, their ironic bittersweet call, seemed the appropriate vehicle for Akhmatova to convey hard truths about aspects of the female condition throughout history with such sensitivity and courage.By carrying the amphibrachic meter through into English, I hope that I have captured some of the alchemy of potential transformation that seems to infuse these poems.I know that I was deeply moved, and honored, by the process of translating them.

* One famous exception is Auden's "Oh where are you going."George Kline has reminded me that Thomas Hardy, one of my favorite poets, "wrote many powerful poems in ampibrachs, including several during the final decade of his long life." I have also recently uncovered huge amounts of additional amphibrachic verse in U.S. popular poetry from the second half of the nineteenth century.

The White Bird by Anna Akhmatova

Jealous, and worried about me, and tender —
As steady as God's sun, as warm as Love's breath —
He wanted no songs of the past I remembered.
He took my white bird, and he put it to death.

At sunset, he found me in my own front room.
"Now love me, and laugh, and write poems," he said —
I dug a grave in the old alder's gloom
Behind the round well for my happy, bright bird.

I promised him I wouldn't cry any more —
The heart in my chest was as heavy as stone.
Everywhere, always, it seems that I hear
The tender, sweet voice of the one who is gone.

[translated by Annie Finch with George Kline]

Lot's Wife by Anna Akhmatova

                                            "But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt."

The righteous man followed where God's angel guide
Shone on through black mountains, imposing and bright.
But fear tore his wife's breast.It turned her aside
And whispered, "Look again!There's still time for one sight
Of towers, and of Sodom's red halls, the same place
Where you sang in the courtyard — and wove on your loom
At those now-empty windows-where you knew the embrace
Of love with your husband-where birth filled the room —"
She looked.And the sight was more bitter than pain.
It shut up her eyes.She saw nothing more.
She shimmered to salt.Her feet moved in vain,
Deep rooted at last in the place she died for.

Who weeps for her now?Who can care for the fate
Of someone like that, a mere unhappy wife?
My own heart will remember.I can carry the weight
Of one who looked back, though it cost her her life.

[translated by Annie Finch with George Kline]

Copyright Annie Finch
Copyright George Kline
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