by Anna Akhmatova
And the just man trailed God’s shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
“It’s not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed.”
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound . . .
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.
Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.
Lot’s wife, a woman without a name of her own, is a hard person to forget, and not because Jesus admonished, “Remember Lot’s wife.” (Which is a testament to her power—he mentions no other Old Testament woman by name, as far as I can tell.)
As a child, I was fascinated and frightened by her story. An angel leads the Lot family out of burning Sodom, warning them not to look back. Lot’s wife looks back and is instantly and matter-of-factly turned to a pillar of salt. The message I absorbed was, See what happens if you disobey? See what happens if you are too curious? I remember feeling unsettled and vaguely sick at the disproportion of crime to punishment and the likelihood that should the situation ever arise, I would also turn and look back.
Fairy tales, novels, and TV shows are rife with snoopers, curious folk, and disobedient women and children: Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard’s wife, Pandora of course, and a fairy tale called “Green Snake” I well remember but can’t find anywhere–a princess marries a prince who warns her never to turn on the light at night. Her sisters convince her to have a look and finally one night she agrees, only to find a writhing green snake in her bed. (Freud would have an easy time with that one.)
But unlike these characters, the Lot’s wife of Akhmatova’s imagination is punished not for curiosity but for sentimentality. Her old life burns behind her; she wants to see it once more. I read one interpretation of the biblical story on line (one that condemns Lot’s wife regardless) that reasoned she had other daughters, married ones, still in Sodom as it burned. In that case, who wouldn’t leave in anguish? Who wouldn’t want to turn to see if they had escaped?
This poem grips me and rips me. “A sudden dart of pain/stitching her eyes before she made a sound. . . “ How’s that for special effects, poetry-style?
And I love the line, “But in my heart I will never deny her.” Akhmatova lived in Stalinist Russia. Friends and ex-husbands were always being hauled off to the Gulag or shot for their opinions; Akhmatova herself was condemned and sidelined by the state for being too bourgeois. But she would not stop writing and would not leave her countrymen; and so her refusal to deny a woman who acts with her heart carries a special weight.
Thinking about that line brought me round to the problem of translation. The line I quoted is not really Akhmatova’s line. It’s the line that the poet Stanley Kunitz and a Russian translator thought best reproduced the original. If you read other translations of this poem, and there are several here and here, you see how slippery the byline is. Is it theirs or hers? Reading the other versions, I felt like a movie character whose lover has been playing a double role, and finding out, she shouts, “You’re not who I thought you were!”
The rhyme, for example, is handled with such subtlety in this version, but what backbends did the translators have to perform to make the poem rhyme? Translations can capture ideas, images, and meaning, but not with the same beauty and economy of the original. Poetry especially relies on every word, each one indispensable for its sound, length, connotations and associations. How can that be imparted from language to language? Still, it’s a beautiful poem. I do wish I could read it in the original.
Just before a storm rolled in, I taped “Lot’s Wife” to a fence post along a sidewalk used by walkers and casual bikers, none of whom were fleeing a burning city. The drama of the weather and my anxiety over whether I would get home before I got soaked or struck by lightening made me feel a sudden allegiance to this poem. I carried it in my backpack like the flag of my home country.