Archive for September, 2012

Ahkmatova’s Requiem

22 September 2012

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It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.

As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,

One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.

This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.

And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.

The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

6 September 2012

Charles Mingus’ great musical eulogy for the saxophonist Lester Young shuffled across my iPod on my way to work this week. Although it is an elegy, it is a compelling piece of music, and has become something of a standard, covered by many musicians. Mingus, of course, is one of the towering figures of post-war jazz, and Mingus Ah Um, the record which featured Goodbye Pork Pie Hat was released in jazz’s ‘golden year’ of 1959.

I heard Pentangle’s version of the tune as a teenager before I really knew who Mingus was (they also did a fine cover of Mingus’ Haitian Fight Song) though I did know the name from the Merseybeat poet Adrian Henri. So I was primed, at least, when I saw a “cut out” copy of Mingus Ah Um going for a song in a discount jazz shop in Cambridge.

Anyway, the Pentangle version was built around a duet between their guitarists, John Renbourne and Bert Jansch, which they used to perform together before joining Pentangle:

A few years after that I came across what seemed an unlikely cover by Jeff Beck (on his record Wired). It seemed unlikely since Beck had only just finished with the hard rock power trio Beck, Bogert and Appice (think Cream: no, think Mountain) but again, although he plays it very differently from Jansch and Renbourn he brings something to the song (you’ll be redirected to youtube to watch this for copyright reasons):

And then there is Joni Mitchell. She wrote some plangent lyrics for a version of the song that was included on her record Mingus, which Mingus himself collaborated on. The record has a bizarre moment in which Mitchell and her band sing the jazz musician ‘happy birthday’ but can’t remember how old he is. The record is also blessed with the sublime playing of Mitchell’s sometime bass player Jaco Pastorius. Unfortunately there are no copies of this on youtube, but here’s the American singer, Lenora Helm, singing Joni’s words to Mingus’ tune: