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Akhmatova: Poems to Three Friends

by John Cobley

Tuesday Sep 1st, 2020





The Shade



What does one woman know about the hour of death?

O. Mandel’shtam



Always the best dressed, rosiest and tallest,

Why are you rising from the depths of long-gone years?

Why does this predatory memory, your transparent profile,

Sway before me in carriage windows?

How we argued then—were you angel or bird?

A poet called you “Straw.”

The tender light of those Darial eyes 

Flowed over everyone through your dark eyelashes.

O shade! Forgive me, beauty of 1913,

But clear weather, Flaubert, insomnia

And the last of the lilacs, as well as

Your cloudless and indifferent day,

Have reminded me… But such memories

Are not appealing. O shade!


August 9, 1940 evening



The “shade” is Solomeya Andronikova (1888-1982), a famous beauty in the St. Petersburg bohemia.


Darial Gorge is one of the two passes through the Caucasus Mountains.  It is in Georgia, close to the Russian border.


Epigraph: From a manuscript edition of Mandel’shtam’s “Solomnika.” See Judith Hemschemeyer, Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, p. 806.




To a Beloved


Don’t send a dove to me,

Don’t write perturbing letters,

Don’t let the March wind blow into my face.

Yesterday I entered a green paradise,

Where there’s rest for body and soul

Under a tent of shady poplars.


From here I see a small city

With sentry boxes and barracks at the palace,

And a yellow Chinese bridge over the ice.

You’ve waited three hours for me—shivering,

But you can’t leave the porch

And you marvel at so many new stars.


Like a grey squirrel I’ll leap into an alder

Like a timid weasel I’ll run about,

Like a swan I’ll start to call your name,

So that it won’t be so terrible for the bridegroom

To wait for his dead bride

In the swirling blue snow.


25 February 1915


The second stanza describes Tsarskoe Selo, a small town near St Petersburg that was the home of the tsars until 1917. It is now called Pushkin. 




In Memory of V.S. Sreznevskaya


It’s almost impossible, but you were always here:

In the blessed shades of the linden, in the siege and the hospital,

In the prison cell, and where there were evil birds,

Splendid grasses and terrifying water.                                                            

Oh, how everything has changed, but you were always here,

And it feels as if half my soul has been taken away,

The half that was you—I knew the reason for it

Was something essential. And suddenly I’ve forgotten everything…           

Your clear voice calls out to me from there

And asks me not to grieve, but to wait for death as for a miracle.

Well then! I’ll try.       





Valeriya Sreznevskaya (1888-1964) was a lifelong friend of Akhmatova. After her marriage break-up, Akhmatova stayed with the Sreznevsky family from 1917 to 1918. Later, during the seven years Sreznevskaya spent in prison camps, Akhmatova sent money and food. According to Akhmatova’s children, the two women shared a secret language: when they talked together, the children couldn’t understand them. (Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, p. 462)


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