Grey Gowrie

The Bar­ri­ers of Love

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Let­ters to Akhma­tova, Pa­tri­cia McCarthy, Water­loo Press /Agenda Poetry, Au­gust 2015, £9.00 (pa­per­back)

How does a con­tem­po­rary poet write a long poem? One so­lu­tion is to chop it up, cre­ate a se­quence. This is not new. Shake­speare’s Son­nets, after all, tell a story. They make up a novel, re­ally: one with an am­bigu­ous, com­pli­cated, un­put­down­able plot. An­other so­lu­tion is to minia­tur­ize, in the elec­tronic sense; to sub­sti­tute tran­sis­tors for valves, iPhones for the old gi­ant bank of com­put­ers. Lavinia Green­law does this in the com­pelling riff on Chaucer’s long nar­ra­tive poem Troilus and Criseyde which she calls ‘ A Dou­ble Sor­row’. In this book, Pa­tri­cia McCarthy’s pas­sion­ate ad­dress to the shade of Anna Akhma­tova, McCarthy em­ploys the an­cient de­vice of the epis­tle, the po­etic let­ter. The beauty of the form is that you can­not eas­ily do it to death be­cause read­ing other peo­ple’s let­ters still pro­vokes guilty ex­cite­ment. We are peep­ing, eaves­drop­ping. And when the let­ters are, fig­u­ra­tively, ‘be­tween’ two re­mark­able women, the voyeuris­tic plea­sure deep­ens into awe.

For Let­ters to Akhma­tova is in truth a di­a­logue. We read, and hear, the voice of a fine con­tem­po­rary poet but the mind’s ear also sup­plies an­swers, an­no­ta­tions, ri­postes from a dead ge­nius. Akhma­tova is to many peo­ple the most re­mark­able fe­male poet of the last cen­tury. She is also a tow­er­ing his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. That lit­tle qual­i­fi­ca­tion, ‘to many peo­ple’, is needed not merely be­cause most of us do not read Rus­sian but be­cause pretty well every­thing sounds so won­der­ful in that in­fin­itely mu­si­cal lan­guage. And Rus­sian has a com­plex music: the music of Stravin­sky and Shostakovich. I sus­pect, there­fore, that the loss in trans­la­tion is very great. But the force­ful way in which Akhma­tova elides pri­vate and pub­lic con­cerns, the erotic and the po­lit­i­cal, al­ways gets through.

And in my dream it seemed That what I was writ­ing was a li­bretto for some­body, And the music re­fused to stop. But a dream – is also some­thing real Soft em­balmer, Blue Bird The para­pets and ter­races of Elsi­nore.

This is from Akhma­tova’s long med­i­ta­tive Poem with­out a Hero. She wrote most of it on lit­tle se­cret shards of pa­per dur­ing the sec­ond phase of her catand-mouse duel with Stalin. She of­ten felt the need to hide whole chunks of the poem in her me­mory. Her duel was not dis­sim­i­lar to that con­ducted by Shostakovich. When­ever the com­poser was on the verge of be­ing sent to a gu­lag, he man­aged to pull out a ‘patriotic’ piece, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by mu­si­cal ironies lost on the rul­ing monster. Stalin would have liked to have been able to get rid of Akhma­tova. Even he did not quite dare to. Be­fore the Rev­o­lu­tion she was a best­selling poet as well as a young, aris­to­cratic beauty: a star. To­gether with the com­poser and her friend Boris Paster­nak, Akhma­tova was the great Re­mainer. She would not leave, like Stravin­sky or, years later, like her young pro­tégé Josef Brod­sky. She de­fied the Ter­ror. She al­ways said she could have left Rus­sia but Rus­sia ( not the Soviet Union) was her home and her sub­ject. She stayed. She survived. She was born in 1889, one year after T.S. Eliot and died in 1966, one year after Eliot died also. So she did ex­pe­ri­ence Khrushchev’s wel­come, imperfect thaw.

You can ad­mire, and en­joy, Pa­tri­cia McCarthy’s Let­ters with­out study­ing Akhma­tova but it helps to do so, not least be­cause the ad­dressee needs a voice for her imag­ined un­stated re­sponse. McCarthy’s great achieve­ment is to meld Akhma­tova’s voice with her own with­out vi­ti­at­ing the sub­tlety and force of ei­ther. Here is McCarthy:

You’ll rally For him the tribe in you They’re about to de­mol­ish So you can ter­rorise their nights As you draw him into your shel­ter With a stock­ing over your face. Let him climb you in dreams, His flag wav­ing from the top Through your days; the one Tres­passer they can­not pros­e­cute.

In­deed through­out this riv­et­ing se­quence of poems we do get an un­usual sense of eaves­drop­ping on a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween two pas­sion­ate, trou­bled, het­ero­sex­ual women, both of whom rec­og­nize the im­ped­i­ments which cir­cum­stance, ter­ri­fy­ing and geopo­lit­i­cal in the case of Akhma­tova, lo­cal and in­di­vid­ual in the case of McCarthy, puts in the way of or­di­nary hu­man feel­ing and af­fec­tion. These are poems about bar­ri­ers: in­ter­nal, ex­ter­nal or both.

Anna Akhma­tova is a world fig­ure whose rep­u­ta­tion is se­cure. McCarthy’s rep­u­ta­tion is still in the mak­ing. This has less to do with her ob­vi­ous tal­ent than with lit­er­ary pol­i­tics. She plays an im­por­tant, but in some re­spects con­tro­ver­sial role in the Bri­tish po­etic econ­omy. She is only the sec­ond ed­i­tor of Agenda, the poetry re­view founded by the late Wil­liam Cook­son nearly sixty years ago. Cook­son died in 2003. He was a dis­ci­ple of Ezra Pound: Pound the imag­ist and in­toner, not Pound the agrar­ian, fascis­tic ex­plainer. He cor­re­sponded with Pound while he was still at school. He be­lieved in a kind of self-con­tained poetry. His­tory was al­lowed to creep into a poem but not un­til it had been thor­oughly ab­sorbed, pro­tag­o­nists safely dead. The poem as its own icon, a made thing, must be para­mount. The chatty, notic­ing kind of poems cham­pi­oned by the Move­ment and cul­mi­nat­ing in Philip Larkin were not for Cook­son. He went for David Jones, RS Thomas and Ge­of­frey Hill. His suc­ces­sor, Pa­tri­cia McCarthy, is An­glo-Ir­ish, though not in any Big House, Faulkne­r­ian con­no­ta­tion. She is much more catholic in her taste than Cook­son. Nev­er­the­less, some­thing of

a need to pro­vide a home for out­siders still clings to Agenda and there­fore to McCarthy as an ed­i­tor. There may also be sus­pi­cion. Im­pa­tient with the pro­duc­tion stan­dards of most cotem­po­rary pub­lish­ing houses that pro­duce poetry, she makes use of her own Agenda Edi­tions. These are mod­els of their kind. The front cover of her Let­ters shows a won­der­ful litho­graph by the Amer­i­can artist Thomas Hart Ben­ton called Let­ters from Over­seas. In my view, McCarthy is too con­fi­dent and too ac­com­plished a writer to worry about ap­pear­ing, so to speak, un­der her own sign. Her last book, about warhorses, was as­ton­ish­ing. It was re­viewed in this mag­a­zine by Michael Mor­purgo.

Poems about horses only work if they are in a way, like all good poetry, poems about love. These let­ters be­tween col­leagues, as it were, are cer­tainly about love. Akhma­tova was a strik­ingly hand­some woman, at once beau­ti­ful and strong. She was much drawn by Modigliani and prob­a­bly had an af­fair with him around 1911. There is an erotic poem which sug­gests this. She was mar­ried to the poet, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and founder of a lit­er­ary move­ment Niko­lai Gu­milov. They had a son, Lev. Gu­milov was se­ri­ally un­faith­ful. This caused Anna suf­fer­ing but she did, sen­si­bly, take it ly­ing down so to say. Gu­milov was ex­e­cuted by se­cret po­lice in 1921. Lev, and also Anna’s sub­se­quent com­mon-law hus­band Niko­lay Punin, spent years in the gu­lag. Anna pros­ti­tuted her art by writ­ing bad poems prais­ing the Soviet state in or­der to help en­sure Lev’s re­lease. Punin died in prison. In Rus­sia’s belle epoque, as has been said, Anna was a best-sell­ing love poet, a lyri­cist, in a coun­try that reads poetry as eas­ily and of­ten as fic­tion. With the Khrushchev thaw she be­came a best­seller again. There is a great prose por­trait of her by the Riga-born his­to­rian of ideas, Isa­iah Ber­lin. He met her in 1945. He was at­tached to the Bri­tish Em­bassy in Moscow after the un­com­fort­able al­lied vic­tory in western Europe. Akhma­tova por­trayed her few meet­ings with Ber­lin as the launch of the Cold War and her ‘Friend of the Fu­ture’ poem to him may be its an­them.

Anna Akhma­tova is ab­sorb­ing and con­se­quen­tial enough as a fig­ure in Stalin’s land­scape. She was also a great poet. McCarthy’s Let­ters re­veal the sex­ual and emo­tional wa­ters be­neath this his­tor­i­cal earth. A spe­cial

un­der­stand­ing, across time, be­tween the women is won­der­fully ap­par­ent. After read­ing Let­ters to Akhma­tova you might turn to Pa­tri­cia McCarthy’s ear­lier book Rodin’s Shadow (2012). Here again she em­ploys his­tor­i­cal fig­ures to put her own per­son­al­ity and emo­tional his­tory to the test. This is an odd and un­fash­ion­able thing to do. Much con­tem­po­rary poetry, good poetry even, de­pends on un­medi­ated emo­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence. That is what con­tem­po­rary lovers of poetry go for. They tend to sus­pect his­tor­i­cal or less im­me­di­ate writ­ing. McCarthy, how­ever, ex­em­pli­fies Eliot’s quest for what he called “the present mo­ment of the past”. Now Ge­of­frey Hill has died, no one writ­ing here is bet­ter suited to pin­ning it down. Note: The quo­ta­tion from Poem With­out A Hero is by Ju­dith Hem­schemeyer

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