When i was nine years old, I stood onstage in front of the whole school and recited a poem by my mother, Jean Valentine, about the end of her marriage to my father. They were divorcing for the second time, after a remarriage that lasted less than a year. “The problem with your generation is you don’t give divorce a chance,” my father joked years later.
It was odd of me to choose a poem by my mother to recite in the annual poetry contest rather than one by Robert Frost or Ogden Nash. But I was always a bit of a show-off. I liked to shock people, to stop the room, a quality which steered my adolescence and beyond more than I like to admit. I grew up in New York surrounded by poets and artists whose lives were constantly exploding. Everyone’s parents were saying good-bye, some permanently—with pills, gas stoves, window ledges, shotguns. The poem was called “Goodbye”:
And finally I’ll say goodbye. Don’t feel you have to love. I’m chattering, crazy, or maybe coming into a crazier kind of peace.
How you loved! Your lips just grazing over disaster, tasting nothing. But that doesn’t matter. How you loved! How you destroyed! Offhandedly, like a great pale curious boy.
O coldness of failure, cold certainty, there’s no settling with you. The body wanders around, sees light; sun and moon shine through the glass pane.
The empty body goes on with its little task. But the hands fall light and slack, and like a small flock, sideways, all sounds and smells graze off away.
At that age, I may have best understood the last stanza, a tightly observed portrait of depression. My mother struggled with the noonday demon all her life, and our apartment was often charged with a complicated silence when I came home from school. In those years, she was either writing at the kitchen table, unfiltered Pall Mall in the ashtray, or taking a nap that could outlast the day. If her bedroom door was closed I would open it a crack to make sure the blankets were rising and falling with her breath. We were never in need, but my mother’s complete lack of interest in domesticity taught me to prioritize writing at the kitchen table over meals or conversation. I often felt disjointed and lonely, but I loved hearing my mother read her poetry, proud of the stillness her voice cast over a room, and as a child I read her books like a detective, trying to discern myself in her pages. I also learned not to ask how the work was going, in case it wasn’t going well.
My mother survived. We survived.
i was nomadic by nature and became adept at leaving, and in January 2020 my own writing and teaching led me to St. Petersburg, Russia—a mythical city to someone raised on Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky. I longed to walk along Nevsky Prospect. No matter that Nevsky is now a row of chain stores where one can buy cheap amber necklaces and nesting dolls of Putin, Obama, or Trump. I loved the canals and the glimmer of domed churches in the late morning sun.
She joined the other women waiting in line for hours: "In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad," she later wrote about her great poem "Requiem."
For all my traveling, I’m not an avid visitor of writers’ houses. This may be a result of growing up around writers. I was that kid sitting on the floor with a coloring book at the poetry reading; I am unmoved by the desk where they wrote their masterpieces, and only mildly curious about the view from the window. But a Russian friend I trusted told me to go to Anna Akhmatova’s house. I didn’t tell her that the poem by my mother that I had recited as a child was “after” a poem by Akhmatova. (In poetry, the term “after” in a title signals to the reader that the poem is heavily influenced by the original poem, though not a direct translation.) I didn’t even tell my friend that my mother was a poet. Walking to Akhmatova’s house in St. Petersburg, I still remembered the first two lines from that day in assembly:
And finally I’ll say goodbye Don’t feel you have to love.
Both of my parents stayed in New York after their divorce, but there was no particular childhood home for me to get attached to. None of the people we knew owned their apartment, and they moved if the rent went up or a relationship ended, always carrying more books than clothes. By the time my mother moved into her final apartment, I was gone. I left home at fifteen, and never again spent more than a few months living with either of my parents, although I knew they both loved me fiercely. They taught me about love, language, and the rhythm and taste of words on the tongue. Some writers were brought up in the church; I was brought up without religion in a cathedral of books.
The building where Akhmatova lived for the longest stretch of her own nomadic life is now an intimate museum. The overcoat on a hanger as you walk in the front door is wrinkled and slightly askew. There are hats jumbled on the shelf above the coat, and the twisted strap of a black purse on a hook below looks as if someone just got home.
The overcoat belonged to a man Akhmatova considered her third husband, the art critic Nikolay Punin, who left his coat behind when he was arrested for the first, but not the final time. (By that point he and Akhmatova were living together platonically; she stayed in the apartment long after she and Punin stopped being lovers because she had nowhere else to go). Punin died in the gulag in 1953 while Akhmatova continued to share the apartment with Punin’s family, the wife he had never divorced, their daughter, and eventually their granddaughter. The apartment does not seem small by New York standards until you realize that it was shared by three families, and that two of the women considered themselves married to the same man. (The third family included the Punins’ former housekeeper, Tatyana, and her two sons; in all likelihood she is the one who reported on Akhmatova and the Punins to the secret police.)
On a shelf with darkroom equipment from the 1930s, a large magnifying lens stands in front of some photographs lit by an amber-colored bulb, figures gesturing through the glass. Punin was an amateur photographer. One theory holds that he was arrested because of an ill-advised joke he made after taking a snapshot of a group of friends in his living room about the noise and flash from his camera being able to kill Stalin. If there were ever more than ten people in a room during Stalin’s reign, it was generally understood that one of them was likely to be an informer. Akhmatova, however, insisted that trying to find the reason for any arrest was a waste of time. No reason was needed during Stalin’s Great Purge and the terrifying years that lasted through the Second World War.
The small communal kitchen has a clothesline over the stove, an enamel pitcher, a samovar, and a few pots and pans. The state gave Akhmatova a pension that just about covered the cost of the rent she paid to Punin, along with cigarettes, matches, black bread, and sugarless tea.
Akhmatova was a dangerous roommate in the eyes of the state. She moved from room to room in the apartment over the course of fifteen years. She began by staying in Punin’s study with him, during their relationship, while Punin’s wife remained in the marital bedroom. A religious icon sits in a high corner of the dining room, and here there are more family photos, including one with both “wives,” children, and friends sharing a holiday table.
After their affair ended, Akhmatova was no longer welcome in Punin’s study or dining room. She squeezed into the former nursery, next to Tatyana, whose two small boys she adored. When one of the boys was killed during the siege of Leningrad, she wrote for him:
Knock with your little fist—I will open the door— I always opened the door to you.
Her own son, Lev, lived in a narrow hallway past the kitchen. Lev’s father was Akhmatova’s first husband, Nikolay Gumilev, a poet who was executed when Lev was a child. As young poets in St. Petersburg, Akhmatova and Gumilev left their son to be brought up by his grandmother in the country, and by the time Lev arrived at the Punin apartment, he was an angry half-orphan of seventeen, sleeping on a steamer trunk with books piled on a shelf over the door frame. Lev was resented, tolerated, and, like Punin, eventually arrested, imprisoned nearby, and then sent to the gulag. Akhmatova loved her son, but their relationship was laced with her guilt and his anger. Punin’s granddaughter, who was close to Akhmatova, wrote that Anna loved children, but “chiefly other people’s children, for whom she did not have to take responsibility.”
During the years when her son was imprisoned in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Akhmatova walked every day to Kresty prison to bring him money and provisions. She joined the other women waiting in line for hours: “In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad,” she later wrote about her great poem “Requiem.” “One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind was a young woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had of course never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there), ‘Can you describe this?’ And I said, ‘I can.’ Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”
Akhmatova began to write “Requiem” in 1939, though she knew it had no chance of being published under Stalin, and even writing it down was unsafe. She composed the poem on scraps of paper, and when her friend Lydia Chukovskaya came to visit, Akhmatova whispered the words to her. After Lydia memorized them, they burned the paper in a metal ashtray that still sits on the edge of a small desk in what was once the children’s room.
decades later, my mother wrote a poem, “Come Akhmatova,” about Akhmatova waiting at the prison, which reads in full:
A homeless woman with harsh white hair stands outside my Chinese-red door blocking my way into my home place: She says I lived here once. This was my place. I want my pictures. I have them, the glass of the frames is broken, if she comes in she will be my bad ikon, throw me away as I throw her away, her gray unmoving accusing stare. Come Akhmatova in the siege of Leningrad: “Can you write about this?” “I can.”
I may not understand either this poem or the one I chose for the poetry contest; or I may understand both.
She had an amber necklace that fascinated me as a child, with an actual bee suspended in one of the beads. In my teens, I asked where it was, and she said offhandedly that she had given it to a student. I pretended not to care.
Akhmatova left the city for two years during the siege of Leningrad, returning to live in Punin’s apartment for the rest of her life. Her final room is near the front door, where her white shawl is placed over the back of a chair, though she mostly wrote in bed. This thin shawl with a long fringe is nearly always around her shoulders in the later photographs. A famous writer consciously representing herself for the camera; a woman trying to stay warm in an apartment that was often cold.
When I left the museum, I decided to walk to the monument in Akhmatova’s honor, which the city placed, in 2006, across the river from Kresty prison, where she had waited in line for hours and days. It was farther than I thought, and evening came earlier. I walked to the river Neva and leaned over a stone wall next to the highway, wondering if the statue was below, next to the water. I doubled back, hurrying along a street that ran parallel to the river. There was hardly anyone else on the sidewalk, and I fell into my New Yorker’s trick of pretending I knew where I was going, when I had no idea. I caught glimpses of courtyards through locked gates, but unlike the streets I had been wandering near Nevsky Prospect, there were no bars or restaurants. The wind was cold off the river, and I kept thinking of Akhmatova walking this path every day carrying a bag of food, clothes, or books for Lev. Just as the sky was turning its last, violent blue, I saw the thin, bronze figure. The statue carries nothing in her hands, looking over her shoulder at the prison.
And if ever in this country they should want to build me a monument I consent to that honor, But only on condition that they Erect it not on the sea-shore where I was born: My last links there were broken long ago, Nor by the stump in the Royal Gardens, Where an inconsolable young shade is seeking me, But here, where I stood for three hundred hours And where they never, never opened the doors for me.
when i came home from Russia, I looked up the poem I had memorized for the school contest all those years ago, and realized that I was wrong. The poem was “after” the Russian poet Bella Ahkmadulina, not Anna Akhmatova. I may have stood in the assembly hall conscientiously saying “After Bella Ahkmadulina,” but memory replaced Ahkmadulina with her literary predecessor.
The collapse of a marriage creates an emotional cocktail that feels like exile, imprisonment, or death to a child. It can also feel like freedom. It was true that for me, my mother’s poem “Goodbye” was a refraction of my own life at the time, as Ahkmadulina’s may have been for my mother.
I prefer my mother’s poem to Ahkmadulina’s, but then, I would.
The nine-year-old who recited “mom’s poem” with such bravura did not yet understand that the “I” in the poem was not necessarily my mother. It wasn’t even necessarily Ahkmadulina. I was not yet old enough to understand that drawing a direct line between personal biography and art is too facile. It may have been that the “I” is both of them. My mother’s memory loosened with age, and I will never know what she intended.
My copy of my mother’s second book, Pilgrims, which contains the “Goodbye” poem, is marked in her handwriting as a “reading” copy, the one she used when she gave readings from her work. I must have carried this reading copy around with me when I was memorizing the poem. There are childish doodles in pencil inside the front cover, imaginary profiles with lips and eyes, copied in the style of the drawings on the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver. One corner of the flyleaf is ripped right out, and there is a scribbled address in my handwriting. A friend’s house? A place I was supposed to meet her? Why did my mother let me scribble in her reading copy? Was she aware that I was memorizing one of her poems for the contest?
She may not ever have known. She was not the kind of mother who came to school assemblies. Like Akhmatova, she found it easier to be with other people’s children. Her relationships with her students were always very close. She had an amber necklace that fascinated me as a child, with an actual bee suspended in one of the beads. In my teens, I asked where it was, and she said offhandedly that she had given it to a student. I pretended not to care. If she noticed the scribbles and partly ripped page at one of her public readings, she never mentioned it. She might have liked seeing a reminder of my existence; I don’t know.
Before I left Russia, I went to Nevsky Prospect and bought my daughters amber bracelets, and myself an amber necklace. I was wearing one of my daughter’s bracelets the last time I saw my mother alive, because a Russian woman had told me that amber is worn for health and protection. I read poetry to my mother in the hospital until the winter sky went dark and the limited, COVID-era visiting hours were over. A nurse poked her head in, and finally I said goodbye.
Rebecca Chace is the award-winning author of Leaving Rock Harborand other books. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, The LA Review of Books, Guernica, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
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