Sunday, August 18, 2013


Anna Akhmatova discovered a lyre-shaped charm when she was a young child.  As a result,  her nanny predicted that little Anna would grow up to be a poet.  When she decided to be a poet, Akhmatova’s  father, Andrey,  demanded that she choose a different surname so as not to tarnish the Gorenko family name.  Akhmatova herself explains his concern, and her high-born family ancestry:

No one in my large family wrote poetry. But the first Russian woman poet, Anna Bunina, was the aunt of my grandfather Erasm Ivanovich Stogov. The Stogovs were modest landowners in the Mozhaisk region of the Moscow Province. They were moved here after the insurrection during the time of Posadnitsa Marfa. In Novgorod they had been a wealthier and more distinguished family. Khan Akhmat [was] my ancestor. [...]  It was well known that this Akhmat was a descendant of Genghiz Khan. In the eighteenth century, one of the Akhmatov Princesses – Praskovia Yegorvna – married the rich and famous Simbirsk landowner Motovilov. Yegor Motovilov was my great-grandfather; his daughter, Anna Yegorovna, was my grandmother. She died when my mother was nine years old, and I was named in her honour.*

So, for a pen name, she chose the aristocratic name Akhmatova—the name of her  great-grandmother, who had been “one of the Akhmatov  princesses.”  She then ventured into the  life of,  in her father’s words, a  “decadent poetess.”


One spring years ago, I first discovered Akhmatova  when  I saw the  beautiful Cubist painting, “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova,” by Russian artist Natan Altman.  Clothed in a long royal blue dress, her legs crossed, Akhmatova bears her characteristic solemn  expression in the painting.  (She never smiles.)  Her shoulders and arms are enveloped in a shawl the color of mustard; her face, with an “aquiline profile”; her neck and collarbone are pallid, nearly transluscent.  She looks regally  away from the observer, unbowed yet weary.

In the poem “A string of little beads at my neck,” she gives an accurate self-portrait:

A string of little beads at my neck,

In a broad muff  I hide my hands,
The eyes stare vacantly,

They never shed a tear.

And the face appears pale, 
Against the lavender silk,
My straight bangs

Almost reach my eyebrows.

And how dissimilar to flight

Is my halting step,
As if it were a raft beneath my feet,

Not these wooden parquet squares.

And the pale lips are slightly parted,

The breathing laboured and uneven,
And over my heart tremble

The flowers of a non-existent meeting.


A grey-eyed beauty with a wistful solemn expression, Akhmatova was eleven years old when she began writing poetry.  In Anna of All the Russias, biographer Elaine Feinstein states that by age sixteen, a deep melancholy  pervaded Akhmatova’s  personality.  She published her first poem—entitled “On his hand there are many shiny rings”—one year later.   Then, at  age twenty-one, she married Nikolay Gumilyov, a fellow poet she knew  from childhood.   He had loved her with an unwavering love.  Once she’d decided to accept Gumilyov’s marriage offer, she wrote in a letter to a friend, “I believe that it is my fate to be his wife.  Whether or not I love him, I do not know, but it seems to me that I do.”

Eight years later, in 1918, they divorced.  Two lines from her poem, “Departure,” might describe how Akhmatova felt in the months that preceded the divorce:  “I cannot say if it is our love,/Or the day, that is ending.”

In search of love, she wed twice more—to men who did not truly understand or appreciate her.  Or they may have loved her but not in a way she needed.  “He loved three things, alive”  is the first line of one visionary poem that hints at her predicament:

He loved three things, alive:

White peacocks, songs at eve,

And antique maps of America.

Hated when children cried,

And raspberry jam with tea,

And feminine hysteria.

…And he had married me.

Of one lover, she writes,  “He talked of the summer and said,/How absurd—a woman poet!” Nonetheless, she was sought after as a beauty; and so had several relationships.  To a former lover who had recently wed someone else, she wrote:

I won’t beg for your love.

It’s safely laid aside….

I won’t be penning jealous

Letters to your bride.

But be wise, take my advice:

Give her my poems to read,

Give her my photos beside –

Be kind to the newly-wed!


Many of the poems are self-revealing, yet understated.  Akhmatova gives a woman’s perspective in a time of misogyny in Russia.  A wife was basically a commodity: women were often reviled and abused.  Incredibly,  a  Russian proverb was:  “The more you beat your wife, the tastier the soup will be.”

Luckily, Akhmatova did not witness such brutality as a child.  Several poems evoke sentiments from her sheltered childhood.  She was  “the wild girl”  that jumped into the Black Sea with scant hesitation.   The beautiful poem,  At the Edge of the Sea, draws on this magical time in her life.

In  Northern Elegies,  Akhmatova describes her mother, Inna, with tenderness:

She had an uncommon name, white hands
And a kindness that has come down to me:
Though it has been a useless inheritance

In this harsh life of mine.

At the bottom of her well of sorrow is, perhaps, that Akhmatova never actually raised her son, Lev.  At her husband Nikolay’s insistence, Lev grew up with his grandmother and only saw his mother in summer. 

Of  Lev the child—beloved in absentia—she wrote:

I know you won’t be able to

Remember much about me, little one:
I didn’t hold you, or even scold you,

Or take you to Communion.

Sadly, Lev in later years expressed that he did not feel loved.  He wrote, “If I were not her son, but the son of an ordinary woman, I would have been before anything else a blossoming Soviet professor. . . .”  During his lifetime, he was a well-regarded historian of Eurasian subjects, and wrote poetry.  Not surprising, however, his relationship with Akhmatova was  turbulent; and he never  forgave her.


 The early poems are simple, brief, ethereal in nature.  They describe real moments and loves in her life.  I think of an Akhmatova poem, phrase or image long after I’ve read it.  The image—of “raspberry jam with tea” or  “lavender silk”—floats into my consciousness and stays with me. 

The later poems are longer, more complex in imagery and ideas/ideology.  They are the poems of a mature “poetess”; they evince masterful craftsmanship.  Akhmatova wrote some of these later poems in hardship, during a turbulent era in Russia.  In the months before the Bolsheviks came into power, women stood in ‘bread lines’ for hours, daily.  In  Requiem, she states that she  “stood [in line] for three hundred hours”;  and she refers to herself in an ironic situation:

They should have shown you, little teaser,
Little favourite, friend of all, 

Sylvan princess, happy charmer, 
What situation would be yours –

As three-hundredth in the line

You’d stand. . . .

Thus, these later poems transformed Akhmatova into the voice of  “a hundred million people.” 

That said, I ‘enjoy’ the shorter  poems more—mostly because they are subtler, seem more personal and heartfelt, are infused with  genuine emotion.  These shorter poems reflect a “lyrical soul”—as Akhmatova’s friend described her; but they also make one reflect on one’s own life.

Five original volumes of poetry are the core of  Akhmatova’s oeuvre: Evening (1912), Rosary (1914), White Flock (1917), Plantain  (1921), and Anno Domini MCMXXI (1922).  Each volume flung out into the world, like a blue frisbee.   For this essay, I read  Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem,  with  poems compiled from each of the Russian poet’s major works; it is brilliantly translated by British scholar A.S. Kline and an excellent introduction to Akhmatova.


In an homage to artist Boris Anrep, the love of her life, Akhmatova laments  aspects of her life and asks her lover to forgive her:

The evening light is broad and yellow

Tender, the April chill.

You are many years late,

Yet I am glad you are here.

Sit down now, close to me,
And look with joyful eyes:

Here it is, the blue notebook,
Filled with my childhood poems.

Forgive me that I lived in sorrow,

Rejoiced too little in the sun.
Forgive, forgive that I mistook

Too many others for you.


--Yolanda  A.  Reid


Feinstein, Elaine.  Anna of All the Russias (2007).

*“Biography Of Anna Akhmatova” (article).

For the  FREE  ebook of  Anna Akhmatova: Selected Poems Including Requiem (translated by scholar A.S. Kline), visit

For more info:

To view the painting “Portrait of Anna Akhmatova” by Natan Altman, visit

To view the art Akhmatova inspired, visit


Sunday, August 11, 2013


Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of my favorite books.  I loved the courage Gilbert showed in transforming herself and her life.  Now, she has written a new work--a novel entitled The Signature of All Things--due for an October 2013 release.  Here's an excerpt from her interview with Chantal Pierrat.

Chantal Pierrat: What is it right now that is stoking your passion? What perspective or practice is setting you on fire?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Returning to writing fiction after 13 years away from it. Returning to the rootstock of my whole life as a writer. It’s what I had wanted to be for my entire life, since I can remember, since my particular time immemorial. It’s how I got my start as a writer. My first two books were a short story collection and a novel. Then I took this weird, sharp left turn away from that aspect of my imagination, and very much into the world of the real. For the entire decade of my 30s and the early part of my 40s, I didn’t write a word of fiction. I just left that behind, this dream of my life. It wasn’t a bad idea--Eat Pray Love  came out of it. I moved into journalism, biography, memoir (in that order), and started to feel like I had left behind something really important. I made myself come back to it, even though it was frightening and intimidating. I wasn’t sure if I still even knew how to do it or why you do it. I felt like I had to return or else it was going to be gone forever. So that’s what I’ve spent the last few years doing and what I’m going to spend the next few years doing. It’s such a homecoming. I feel all abloom with excitement.

CP: Do you feel that there’s any real in the unreal? Or vice versa?

EG: I think there’s more real in the unreal than there is in the real. I think the thing that I lost in myself when I stopped writing fiction and the thing that I rediscovered and started mining again is, for lack of a better word, magic. It’s the way you can brush up against the inexplicable and the mystical. I’ve always thought of my writing as a spiritual practice. But I think that fiction is the most supernatural kind of writing that you can do -- or that I can do -- because of the ways that the real and the unreal weave together to create something that feels more true than anything. It feels like a collaboration between yourself and inspiration, a collaboration between the facts upon which your book is based and the lives you invent around those facts. There’s this great kind of spooky dance that happens that I can’t access any other way. I think most of us are given kind of one pathway to that dance, and that’s why I’m a writer -- it’s the only way I can get there. I can’t do it through art, I can’t do it through singing, I can’t do it through mothering, I can’t do it through invention. There are other ways that people participate in that collaboration. This is the only way I can do it. What happens and what you encounter, what you collide with -- it’s so exciting and revealing about how much more interesting and tricky the universe is than we think in our daily lives.

CP: Since you are coming from the world of memoir with your last two books, how are you represented in this new work?

EG: Somebody said once that when you write fiction, you’re writing memoir, and when you’re writing memoir, you’re writing fiction. When you write a novel, there’s a level at which you are much more revealing about who you are because you’re less self-conscious about how you’re presenting yourself. You are accidentally leaving your DNA all over everything in a novel because it’s all coming from you. I had a wonderful conversation with my friend, the novelist Ann Patchett, after she read this book, and she said, “It was so exciting to read that character and see bits of your hair and fingernails growing out of there! I think that what I personally know about you was showing up in this person who you invented. Who you can also embolden to do and be things that you would never do or be.”

It’s funny. So I’m all over this book. It’s about a 19th century botanical exploration. My character, Alma Whittaker, is a botanist who is the daughter of a great botanical entrepreneur, and she’s looking for nothing less than the signature of nature. She’s a real scientist and she’s stubborn about her quest. At the same time, this novel is a love story, and there are great disappointments in the love story. All of women’s stories in the 19th century had either one of two endings: you either had the good Jane Austen marriage at the end and you were happy; or you had the terrible Henry James savage downfall because of your own hubris as a woman, or you’ve made some great error leading you down a path to ruin. One is the story of love that’s successful and the other is the story usually of reckless love that goes terribly wrong that destroys the woman.

But the reality, certainly in my life, is that we all have love stories that go terribly wrong; we all have horribly broken hearts. And somehow we endure. We’re not destroyed by it. We endure and go on to do interesting things and have worthy lives, even though we carry our heartbreaks with us. That’s a kind of personal story of mine that I don’t think I would tell in memoir but I do think I can tell in fiction.
CP: How has disappointment changed you?

EG: It softens me. It makes me be a more sensitive, kinder person. I know what it feels like to be bruised; I know what it feels like to carry things around with you that never totally heal. There’s closure and then there’s stuff that’s kind of like, Well, I guess it’s going to be in the minivan forever. And you carry it with you and you continue on your journey with your minivan full of stuff, which I think most of us do.

All the parts of us that we ever were are always going to be with us. You make space to carry them and you just try not to let them drive. But you can’t chuck them out either. I think I have more compassion than if I had led a life where everything worked out exactly as I had planned or if I had never been wounded or if I had never been betrayed or I had never been harmed. I don’t think I would be as good a person. I’m still aspiring to be a better and better person, but I think those disappointments have made me gentler with other people and their disappointments, the stuff that they have to carry around and endure.

CP: In The Signature of All Things, the character is looking for meaning through plants and nature. Is this a reflection of a connection that you might have?

EG: My mom is a master gardener and I grew up on a farm. I came back to it really late in life and discovered that despite how lazy and inattentive I was as a child, I had managed to accidentally learn quite a bit about gardening. This is a nice metaphor, too, about mothers and daughters -- that when it came time for me to make my own, I was making a completely different garden than the one that my mom has. They don’t look like they came from relatives. Hers is a very productive and pragmatic vegetable garden, and mine is a ridiculous overabundance of useless plants. It doesn’t feed anybody, it doesn’t serve any purpose. I guess it feeds hummingbirds.

It’s definitely a question of following your fascination. When you want to do something creative and you want to do something new, you have to start with the thing that’s making you want to jump up out of bed in the morning, and for me that thing was gardening. I thought, this book is going to have to be about plants, otherwise I’m not going to want to spend three years with it; I’ll resent it if it’s taking me away from the garden.

CP: What do you think the world needs from women right now?

EG: I think the world needs women who stop asking for permission from the principal. Permission to live their lives as they deeply know they often should. I think we still look to authority figures for validation, recognition, permission.

I see women who have this struggle between what they know is right, what they know is necessary, what they know is healthy, what they know is good for them, what they know is good for the work that they need to do, what they know is good for their bodies, what they know is good for their families -- all too often ending that statement with the upturned question mark: “If it’s okay with everyone?” Still asking, still requesting, still filing petitions for somebody to say that it’s all right. I think that, myself included, that has to be dropped before we can take our place in the way that we need to and the world needs us to.

The best and most powerful things that I’ve done in my life were when I decided that I don’t f***** need somebody to tell me that I can do it. To just go and make it myself, do it myself, build it myself, do the project first and not bother along the way to get the requisite paperwork. That requires faith. Primarily it requires a faith in the condition that you are allowed to exist. You are here and you are allowed to be here and therefore you are allowed to make decisions about yourself and the people in your life; rather than sort of backing up and making sure it’s okay with everybody at every turn.

CP: Hallelujah! Do you have a consistent practice or a perspective that helps you through times of contraction?

EG: I do. It all comes down to these two words: “stubborn gladness.” It’s from a poem by my favorite poet, a guy named Jack Gilbert. He’s sort of the poet laureate of my life. He has a poem called “A Brief for the Defense.” In the poem he says, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

Which is not to edit him but I guess that’s how I took him in. He carefully put those words in the order that he wanted them, but somehow in my mind they just go into the furnace and come out like two ingots, sort of melded together, these two words that I keep together. Stubborn gladness.

What I love about the line is that it doesn’t deny the reality of the ruthless furnace of the world. That God wants us to be in joy, God wants us to be happy. Because of this extraordinary consciousness and this great ability for wonder and marvel, and without denying any of the terrors and horrors of the world, we also have an obligation toward joy and toward miracle and excitement. I feel like if I were to get another tattoo, it would probably be those two words. Just stubborn, stubborn, stubborn gladness.


For more info, visit: