The Barriers of Love
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