In my study is a box of old index cards with fragmentary thoughts, notes on narratives and characters, and quotations taken from my reading. The box is labelled “Notes to Digitise,” and perhaps that will one day be a retirement project. But for now it is a stimulus to dig deep down into the Burning Archive and recover some old treasures.
Take this card, for example, on which I have transcribed Anna Akhmatova’s “Inscription on a book” – or so google names it, though my own referencing derived from Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: a cultural history of Russia (2002) that points to a poem “Leningrad, 1959” from Akhmatova’s Complete Poems p. 716.
From beneath such ruins I speak,
From beneath such an avalanche I cry
As if under the vault of a fetid cellar
I were burning in quick lime.
I will pretend to be soundless this winter
And I will slam the eternal doors forever,
And even so, they will recognize my voice,
And even so they will believe in it once moreAnna akhmatova “Leningrad, 1959”
This “expression of lonely suppressed prophecy”, as I noted on my card sometime in the early or mid 2000s, evokes the trope of Cassandra, scorned yet prophetic. Others have described Akhmatova as “Russia’s Cassandra,” who became an “icon of suffering and authenticity in Russian literature,” and I return again and again and again to this story in my song of myself. Twice I have visited the Akhmatova Museum in Fountain House in St Petersburg in 2003 and 2019, and a card with her portraits sits on my desk, inspiring me to emulate her: she who was, in Figes’ words, “one of the great survivors”; who was “fortunate enough to retain her capacity for writing poetry until the end” of her long life; who in writing the unforgettable Requiem, created a “resurrection song… a literal incarnation of the spiritual values that allowed the people of that city to endure the Soviet night and meet again in Petersburg” (Figes, Natasha’s Dance, pp. 520-521)
Here is a fine reading of Akhmatova’s Requiem by Zahar Panda, in Russian with English subtitles.