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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Something miraculous will come

Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia's most acclaimed poets, was described by critic Joseph Brodsky as "the keening muse."  Many of her poems are brief, lyrical, almost mystical, yet with "a note of controlled terror" (Brodsky).  She and her family were terrorized under Stalin's regime, and her poetry responding to that era is her best-known work.  However, Akhmatova is also one of the lost voices of The Great War, a voice that cries out again to be heard.  Her birthday is this month (June 23), and so I'm sharing one of my favorites of her early poems, published in 1921.   

Everything's looted, betrayed and traded

night sky, credit Jason Kinnan
Everything's looted, betrayed and traded,
Black death's wing's overhead.
Everything's eaten by hunger, un-sated,
So why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
Breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July's sky, deep, and transparent,
New constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
Close to the darkness and ruin,
Something no-one, no-one, has known,

Though we've longed for it since we were children.

The title of the poem and its opening images speak of the agonies of living in a world spoiled by war.  Like an immense vulture grown fat upon corpses, Death hovers over the earth, blocking out the sun.  The war is a bloated beast with an insatiable appetite for more death and destruction – "Everything's eaten" – and it seems as if the fighting and pain will never end. 

And yet – the poem whispers that all is not lost forever.  Without reason, beyond rationality, a light shines ahead.  In the mystery of a wood, where leafy trees somehow have continued to live and blossom, a delicate cherry scent perfumes the air.  And in the darkness of the night, "deep and transparent," entire new worlds of stars are thrown into being, as if from the hand of God.   Recalling the incarnational mystery of the dirty stable of Bethlehem, the poem looks past "darkness and ruin" and affirms that "something miraculous" will come. 

What I find most intriguing is that "something," although twice repeated, is never specifically named.  We will know it, however, when it arrives, for "we've longed for it since we were children." 

For what have the children been waiting?  What is the miracle that is anticipated?  Peace is the simple answer, but it seems unlikely that children thought of it or desired it in the distant days of childhood before the war ever began.  I like to think that the longed for miracle is the joyful sense of belonging to the wonders of the world, of participating in everyday miracles, of simply coming to value the miracle and gift of life. 


  1. One of my favorite Russian poets.
    Excellent reading!

  2. The sensitivity of Anna's words was the inspiration for the title for the international WWI poetry anthology I wrote.

  3. An anthology I would dearly love to read! She's a beautiful poet; I wish more people knew of her work.

  4. Replies
    1. It is entitled 'We werden honderd jaar ouder. Dichters over de Eerste Wereldoorlog' (Davidsfonds, Leuven). In English that amonts to 'We aged 100 years. Poets on the First World war'. My book features over 120 poems, both in their original versions (Engl., German, French, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Hindi,...) and my translation of these in Dutch.
      The book was well-received in the specialized press.
      If interested, do check my Linkedin profile.