Christine Rydel (essay date 1971)
SOURCE: Rydel, Christine. “The Metapoetical World of Bella Akhmadulina.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 1 (1971): 326-41.
[In the following essay, Rydel discusses Akhmadulina’s approach to writing and the inspiration for her poetry.]
The subjectivity of Akhmadulina's poetry leads us not to her life, but to her art. In many of her poems she gives us clues to the mysteries of her feelings and her thoughts, but never discloses her biography. Even when Akhmadulina overtly sets out to tell us the story of her past, she deflects interest from herself to a time well-buried in the past: “… [since my birth] is in no way distinguished from any other births, I turn my grateful memory to the real people and events on which in one way or another it depends.”1
However, in spite of Akhmadulina certain biographical information is known. She was born in Moscow in 1937 to a middle-class Russian family. She studied at the Gorky Institute of Literature where she met and married Evgeny Evtushenko in 1954. Certain circumstances, the nature of which is not clear, led to her expulsion from the Institute and to her travels to Central Asia. She experienced difficulty both in being accepted into the Union of Soviet Writers and in having her own poetry published. Akhmadulina translated many poems, especially from Georgian, and in this way gained admittance to the Union. Finally, in 1962, String (Struna), her first collection of poetry, was published. It is composed mainly of short lyrics of various subjects: love, inspiration, interesting places, the past, and even soda water.
By the time of her first major publication, Akhmadulina was married to the prose writer Yury Nagibin, with whom she collaborated in the writing of a film scenario based on one of his stories—Clear Ponds. In 1963, in Literary Georgia, she published fragments of her favorite (and probably her best) poem, “A Fairytale about the Rain” (“Skazka o dozhde”). Almost simultaneously, in Youth, Akhmadulina published her second long poem, “My Genealogy” (“Moia rodoslovnaia”). Since then she has been translating and writing, with a greater emphasis placed on translation.
The fact that Akhmadulina is translating more than creating her own poetry may be the reason why her second collection, Music Lessons (Uroki muzyki, 1969) contains practically no new poetry. Almost all of this collection appeared earlier in String or scattered publications. Akhmadulina is beginning to write again now and seems to be becoming active in Moscow literary life once more. In December 1970, together with the older poet Pavel Antokolsky, she gave an evening-long reading of her poetry in Moscow's House of Friendship.
At present Akhmadulina is married to the playwright and children's writer Gennadi Mamlin. With an adopted daughter they live in the Aeroport section of Moscow—a notably literary region of the city. The apartment is typically Soviet—with the exception of Akhmadulina's sitting room. It is somewhat reminiscent of her poem “An Old Portrait” (“Starinnyi portret”) with its green velvet loveseat and grand piano. This is the one old-fashioned corner of Akhmadulina's real world.
Akhmadulina has been almost as reluctant to describe her physical features as she has to indulge in autobiography. The one feature which she mentions often in her poems is her red bangs. She still has them. Akhmadulina is as beautiful as her pictures show, but is now much thinner than most of them depict her. She has about her an air of fragility which encompasses an intelligent, witty, clever, aware and whimsical interior—very much like her own poetry.
Akhmadulina's whimsical relationship with her Muse shows through in all of her lyrics on varied themes. Even when she is writing about the construction of a new blast-furnace, she sees it as a circus and the construction worker as an acrobat walking on a tightrope. Akhmadulina's relationship with her own poetic inspiration is the subject of many of her poems. This, together with love lyrics, forms the main portion of her first collection.
Akhmadulina's love and metapoetical poems share a recurrent symbolism.2 She finds refuge from her alienation from the crowd either in poetry or with her lover. In most cases the man she loves shares her inspiration. Where most poets look to love for inspiration, Akhmadulina looks to inspiration for love. It is ironic that it is inspiration which alienates her from the crowd and also consoles her when she feels this isolation. An excellent illustration of this symbiotic relationship between love and inspiration is the poem “December.”3 She and her lover are building a snowman and the people crowd around them to watch their actions. The two lovers answer the questioning glances of the crowd with the words, “We're building a snowman, that's all.” The dialogue between the two as they build their snowman clearly shows how love and inspiration are integrally related:
You say, “Look, how I am sculpting.” Really, how well you sculpt, And how you create form out of formlessness. I say, “Look how I love.”
In the second half of this poem she describes her beloved. She sees his “child-like face” (detskoe litso). Here the snow is a variant of rain, an important symbol of inspiration. In Akhmadulina's symbolic system children also represent poetry, or creative literature in general. She is aware of her calling as a poet and celebrates it in a number of her poems. In “An Alien Craft” (“Chuzhoe remeslo”) she tells us of the power that writing has over her. But even though it treats her cruelly, she is loyal to it.
An alien craft orders me about, Beckoning me to follow, it leads me to sin. My work doesn't help me But vindictively shuns me. I will always be loyal to it.
She further tells us that she is not only jealous of other writers who can create, but greedily covets the right to produce poetry and is glad that she can also participate in the joy of creation. Akhmadulina combines this greed with an awe for creation and even feels unworthy to soil clean paper with her handwriting. She almost gives a religious feeling to her reverence when she says in the poem “A New Notebook”:
I am confused and I quail before a sheet of clean paper. Thus a pilgrim stands at the entrance of a cathedral.
Her reference turns into an almost Pushkinian scorn for the crowd when she describes the phenomenon of Poetry Day.4 She feels that the public does not understand poetry and therefore cannot fully appreciate it. They are confused. But she does not feel that this Poetry Day has been celebrated in vain. Although the children who are listening do not understand all of the poetry, they are enraptured by it:
Not in vain do words come over poets, Not in vain when their voices ring out, Do the eyes of the boys and girls shine With ecstasy and ignorance.
Here the children benefit from the recitation of poetry.
Children as well as rain, flowers, and dogs are the main symbols of poetry and inspiration in Akhmadulina's symbolic system. When inspiration takes hold of her, she flies, thus escaping from the real into the fantastic. Many poems such as “With the deep voice of a prophet” (“Glubokim golosom proroka”), “Flowers” (“Tsvety”), “There's the sound of rain” (“Vot zvuk dozhdia”), “In that month of May” (“V tot mesiats Mai”), and “Your House” (“Tvoi dom”) contain these main symbols and themes—which have their full development in “A Fairytale about the Rain.” In “With the deep voice of a prophet” nature calls her to drink the water meant for the flowers. She lingers behind, and even when the water springs up to meet her longing, she delays, does not drink and therefore does not quench her thirst. This foreshadows the first half of “A Fairytale” where the Rain is following the poetess and she chases it away:
—Shame, you good-for-nothing, Kitchen farmers call out to you in tears, Go to the flowers! What have you found in me?
“Flowers” can be viewed as a lyrical description of flowers and their need for rain. But viewed in total perspective, the flowers can represent poetry—which cannot be stifled in a house where rules and regulations are enforced, but needs the freedom and nourishment of the rain (here clearly poetic inspiration). At first the home seems to be beneficent, with all care given to the flowers; however, the picture is different at the end of the poem:
People give them festively as a remembrance, But as for me—I'm afraid of their fate, You know, they never smell as nice As they do in gardens.
It's not for them to stay on the lips, It's not for them to have bees shake them, Nor ever will they guess, What wet earth means.
And so, these flowers caught in the greenhouse will never feel rain.
In “There's the sound of the rain” Akhmadulina tells a little boy to go play tricks and to be naughty (stanza two) and to free all of the thread from a tight green ball. In “A Fairytale” the Rain also acts like a naughty child: “It tickled my ear with a child's finger” (“On detskim pal'tsem shchekotal mne ukho”). The connection of a boy with a tight ball that is to be set free corresponds to “A Fairytale” (X, 3). The children, here representing poetry, are contained in round or oval objects, somehow straining to be set free:
What if in him, as in a nacreous egg, There slept a spring of bent music? Like a rainbow—in a bud of white? Like a secret muscle of beauty—in his face?
In “There's the sound of rain” Akhmadulina next equates a dog with a comrade: “And with the understanding glance of a friend / The dog looks at me for a long time.” In “A Fairytale” Rain actually becomes a dog (“rain—washed my lips with the scent of a puppy”). The dog looks at her with the glance of a friend, but in the last stanza, the “lyrical hero” of the poem notices the wonder of the passers-by looking at her. In “A Fairytale” the alienation is more intense. She says, “It was dry all around. Only I was drenched to the bone” and “The passers-by were frightened by the look of my misfortune.”
Akhmadulina is most alienated when she is under the control of her Muse—at this time she leaves the confines of the earth and flies out over the city. In “In that Month of May” inspiration takes hold of her, and “spreading out over the land / flying weather attracts me.” She dips her feathers as she flies “in a happy foretaste of singing.” But now every flight is costing her more, and while she is flying:
And somewhere, piping on his pipe, Not noticing the flower beds and plots, a strange child is running about and destroying their order.
And so, while inspiration has taken hold of her, somewhere a poem has been produced, one which violates an established order.
In “A Fairytale about the Rain,” when a guest asks her to describe how inspiration works, she says:
And further—you fly above and below, Smashing your elbows and knees until they are bloody,
On snow, on air, on the corners of Kvarengi, On bedsheets of hotels and hospitals.
Do you remember that sharp cupola of St. Basil's, with jagged edges? Imagine— Against it with all of your body!
Poems in the form of airplanes, not Akhmadulina, fly in (“Oh, how painful are all those other troubles”). They keep coming to her in dreams (“Mne malen'kie samoletv vse sniatsia”) and nip at her nose the way that fish tickle the toes of children (“rybeshka tak khodit vozle nog rebenka, shchekochet”). The airplanes dog her like children and dachshunds. Before she lets the airplanes off into the sky, she calls them “my little one” and “child” (moi malen'kii, ditia). Here she combines the symbols of the plane, children, water and dogs into a representation of her creative works.
In contrast to the themes of inspiration and freedom, the poem “Your House” portrays the stifling atmosphere of a house that the poetess visits. When she enters the house she is greeted with a loud kiss (note the parched onomatopoetic quality of shcheku chmokal [“smacked my cheek”]). The house is good and delicate, but dry—the tea service looks out of the mirror “as if it were a fish out of water” and only a cactus is growing in the window. When she enters, a dog runs up to her, but unfortunately the people in the house kill him. When she leaves the house, it is with a bitter goodbye: “Don't comfort me with a lie.” This poem contains the germ of the scene at the house in “A Fairytale.”
The atmosphere of the house in “A Fairytale” is also dry, simply because rain cannot enter. This atmosphere and an unfortunate experience with the children prompt Akhmadulina to call the Rain to herself. She wants it, and it comes to her. But when it enters the house, everyone tries to capture it in wash basins and the men drive their heels into it, thereby killing it. The departure of the poetess from the house is more intensely bitter than the departure in “Your House”:
He was alive, like an animal or a child. Oh, you my children live in poverty and pain. Blind people, not knowing the secrets, Why did you plunge your hands into the blood of the Rain?
The host whispered: —Take note, You will still answer for this meeting! I laughed out loud: —I know I will answer! You are hideous. Let me pass.
“A Fairytale” solidifies the connections between symbols hinted at in the other poems; flowers become poems, the house turns into a place where inspiration is lacking, and the Rain, animals and children are identified as poetic inspiration. In this poem children are a double image. When the children are outside, they dance around Akhmadulina trying to soak up water. Here they represent poetry derived from pure inspiration. But when the children appear in the house, the song they sing is one of crass materialism—a song opposed to Akhmadulina's aesthetic viewpoint This is another example of the stifling atmosphere of the house, even children are not safe there. Akhmadulina says to the hostess: “You spill your poisoned breast / Into his lips, into the thirsty wound.”
The various symbols and themes of the lyrics and of “A Fairytale” act together to give form to the latter work. “A Fairytale about the Rain” is a highly subjective poem in...
(The entire section is 6206 words.)