I CAN WELL UNDERSTAND Stephen Berg's obsession with the great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, since I have experienced a similar obsession myself. A kind of white witch, whe was pagan and spiritual, blended magnetism and goodness. To her irritation, every man who met her fell in love with her. Her spell outlives her death, for no poet is richer in allegory: she stood like a rock against Stalinism; her life and work affirm the supremacy of the spirit; the thugs and hacks who reviled her have become -- as she wrote of Pushkinhs enemies -- garbled footnotes in her biography. For Western poets, enmeshed in their softer, more ambiguous corruptions, she is an icon from which they can draw strength.
Berg stumbled on Akhmatova through the English translations of Richard McKane. Taken over by her numinous presence, Berg first, several years ago, wrote his own version of her poems. These became freer and freer, until he barely remembered the original translations. The result is a book which contains, not translations nor imitations, but "variations"; he meditates in and through Akhmatova's voice. In principle, this is an entirely legitimate form of creation. The work, which is probably as Berg suggests a single poem, is clearly an act of homage. He is right to see advantages in starting from someone else's text; it can be, as he writes in an afterword, "a way of managing the forbidden," and of escaping the limitations of the ego.
Nevertheless, a poet is responsible for the voice through which he speaks. Shakespeare was responsible for Hamlet; Akhmatova was responsible for her poems, and her voice is unmistakably her own, even -- or most assuredly -- when it takes on impersonality as the voice of her people. And Berg, although he hopes for "an identity of truths, not an identity of self-images," is responsible in his book for Akhmatova's voice. It is an awesome responsibility, requiring the utmost tact. In a foreword, Hayden Carruth makes the assumption that there has been "an acute, loving, utterly candid dialogue" between the two poets. This is not true. Akhmatova is dead; she is not responsible for the words that the American poet puts into her mouth. It cannot be taken for granted that she would have welcomed a dialogue. It is a sad lesson which all who translate her, in whatever sense, have to learn. You can only cross yourself, and ask her pardon.
She was unwilling to grant it in the case of Robert Lowell's imitation of Requiem. It upset her; and understandably so. Poems wrought out of Russia's crucifixion did not happily accept Lowell's clever Americanization. With Akhmatova at the Black Gates is not, of course, imitation; some of it is free translation, but for the most part a distance is created. Yet it is still too close to Akhmatova not to arouse unease when it speaks in a tone alien to hers. Her life was sustained by a fervent Christian belief, and she would have been incapable of writing "a mood like the nothingness we are" ("After Sophocles' Death"). Nihilism of any sort is not Akhmatova. And she respected truth too much to conceive of writing that anyone looking into her eyes "feels/heavier than a parent staring into its dead/child's eyes" ("This Cold"). Her poem on which this is based says simply that it is "like hearing a sorrowful tale."
She inclines to understatement, whereas Berg punches the images hard. At the climax of her late masterpiece, "Poem Without a Hero," Akhmatova describes her flight out of besieged Leningrad in 1941, en route for Tashkent: . . . And already the frozen Kama Could be seen, and someone stammered 'Quo Vadis?' and before lips moved, Another panorama, With bridges and tunnels -- the hammer Of the Urals pounded below. And under my eyes unraveled That road so many had traveled, By which they led away my son. And that road was long -- long -- long, amidst the Solemn and crystal Stillness Of Siberia's earth . . .
The reticence of the isolated word "Stillness" (Tishina) speaks volumes. Berg says much more and much less: . . . I left -- bridges, tunnels, the Kama lidded with ice -- I took the road so many from this country died on: my son, you, you, and you, a live, hugh knotted thread being dragged through the grim, crystal silence of Siberia by filthy gods. ("Memory")
Berg's venture is bold and original. There is much that is accomplished and strongly alive; where he draws closest to the original he often produces fine free translations. But a suspicion remains that, in seeking to escape his own identity, the poet has locked himself more securely inside it. Akhmatova wrote that "There is a frontier-line in human closeness/That love and passion cannot violate." Berg may have violated it, without intending to.