We don’t know how to say goodbye,
We wander on, shoulder to shoulder
Already the sun is going down
You’re moody, and I am your shadow.
Let’s step inside a church, hear prayers, masses for the dead
Why are we so different from the rest?
Outside in the graveyard we sit on a frozen branch.
That stick in your hand is tracing
Mansions in the snow in which we will always be together.
“We Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye” by Ukrainian poet Anna Akhmatova.
It’s tricky to read poetry in translation. Unlike literature, poetry is contingent on the subtle turn of le mot juste; one slip up, one elbow sticking out or awkward foot, and the whole thing jangles. English-speakers are lucky: we are heirs to perhaps the finest poetical tradition. As E.M. Forster said, the English novel is not superior. It fears the Russian novel, the French novel, and some might claim the Spanish novel, but English poetry fears no one.
In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Martin Amis mused on this subject, saying, “[I]t was fashionable to say in the seventies and eighties that Russian literature had a kind of tension and high-stakes feel about it because it was always a question of life and death, and not just during the Soviet period. Dostoevsky was imprisoned, as well. The stakes were high. Akhmatova: ‘It loves blood the Russian earth.’ This gives some sort of weight to their literature.” Amis continued, noting how this relates to British writing, “But look at English literature… It is the greatest body of poetry the world has yet known. And completely not dependent on horror and bloodshed. So, I am proud of that. I am proud of being from the same country as Shakespeare.”