Anna Akhmatova Beckons Iris DeMent Toward ‘The Trackless Woods’
“Her poems exist in the context of eternity,” Angela Ball wrote of the Russian writer Anna Akhmatova in the New York Times (September 15, 1997). One might say the same about Iris DeMent’s songs. Like Akhmatova, DeMent has addressed controversial subject matters in unflinching stories of personal witness. And, with the making of The Trackless Woods, out August 7, the musician shows that her songcraft is far greater than the sum of her own lyrical craftsmanship. The album, which took four years to complete, began as a way for DeMent to connect with her adopted daughter’s Russian past as she offered up songs whose lyrics are Akhmatova poems, translated by Babette Deutsche. The final product fuses what’s eternal in well-crafted verse with what’s inviting about melody.
The idea of DeMent using her bittersweet voice to lend melodies to Russian poems about the Stalinist terror may seem unlikely. But The Trackless Woods, while very much an Iris DeMent album, feels like a direct collaboration with the Russian writer, who died five years after DeMent was born. While making the album, the singer frequently felt guided by a spirit outside of herself. She talked to the poet when she got stuck, learning that melody was the gatekeeper on her own journey. Along the way it became clear to DeMent that she and Akhmatova believed in the same things: the necessity of witnessing for others, the importance of family, and the power of creative expression.
Akhmatova was born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1888. Since she was so often an enemy of the Stalinist state, much of the written record concerning her life was destroyed. But we have her poems, including her most famous one, “Requiem.” In it, she tells of waiting each day at the prison where her son was incarcerated, cataloging the others who also wait for news of their loved ones. Akhmatova writes:
That's why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.
It’s hard to imagine that any written record could tell us more about Akhmatova’s conviction, courage, and ability to distill the horror she witnessed.
She lost the country she loved again and again. Perhaps that is one thing that made her poems resonate with DeMent. In 2005, she and her singer-songwriter husband Greg Brown adopted a six-year-old girl, Dasha, from Russia. To connect with her adopted daughter, DeMent borrowed a book of Russian poetry from a friend, and instantly felt called to make music from Akhmatova’s poems. In the liner notes for The Trackless Woods, DeMent writes, “In international adoptions, children, in order to gain a family, have to give up their country and all that goes with that. It’s a high price to pay. I wanted to give back to my daughter some of what she lost. Anna Akhmatova has made that possible.”
Both Akhmatova and DeMent have written incisive words – words that challenge everyday atrocities by telling the stories of individuals. Leo Kottke, who contributes vocal and guitar to The Trackless Woods, asserts that Akhmatova’s historical and literary significance is singular. Asked what captivates him about her work, he replies, “Fatalism and dignity. The rhythm and reconciliation of a word, grief and loss. Russia. There's no poet like her. Certainly not with her place in history, or with her ability to voice the human in calamity. All with a disinterested touch.”
And perhaps what instilled that spirit of witnessing in both women is the conflict each of them faced, each enduring a different kind of exile. Akhmatova stayed behind in her country even though so many of her peers were fleeing to safety. She stayed in what had been her home, writing, raising her son. But of course it wasn’t her home as the Stalinist regime grew ever-more restrictive, limiting what she could say in her writing. Was her home then among her loved ones that had fled, or was it in the terrain she knew, now ravaged by Communist oppression?
DeMent’s exile was of a different nature. Born in Arkansas, she closely identifies with her own Southern roots though her family moved to Los Angeles when she was three. She was the youngest of 14 children in a Pentecostal family and very involved in the church. She sang in the choir, though she has since distanced herself from many aspects of the church. In 2012, she told NPR: “I've left the church and moved away from a lot of the things that didn't do me any good, I continued to pray – and that is singing for me.”
In fact, it is likely the ardent nature of DeMent’s spiritual upbringing that made her so committed to questioning faith in her music. “Let the Mystery Be,” the opening track from her debut Infamous Angel (Warner Bros, 1992), honors the place of not-knowing to which DeMent has come. She sings, contentedly:
Everybody is worryin' 'bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done
But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me
I think I'll just let the mystery be.
In “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray,” (from 2012’s Sing the Delta), DeMent wrote about a time when her baby brother fell down the stairs and died. Pointedly, against surprisingly up-tempo music, she sings:
That was the night I learned how not to pray
Cause God does what he wants to anyway.
Akhmatova, meanwhile, was devoutly Russian Orthodox and also questioned her faith in light of the hardship around her. In her poem “Lot’s Wife,” she retells the Biblical story of the just Lot and his wife leaving their home. But for Akhmatova, the emotional journey of the wife is most important. The parallels between the unnamed wife – who longs to see Sodom once more, though it is ravaged – and Akhmatova’s life, are clear. A translation by Stanley Kunitz opens:
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.
“In my heart I will never deny her,” writes Akhmatova by the poem’s end. It’s easy to imagine that DeMent, too, would find compassion for this woman. DeMent’s “Letter to Mom” is written from the perspective of a young woman writing her mother to finally disclose the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. “I've just been walking 'round with secrets now, too long,” goes the refrain. DeMent’s rendering of the story isn’t melodramatic or cliché; it’s a portrait of a survivor trying to come to terms with her past.
Humbled and Inspired
“A lot of my music is very much soaked in that Southern culture that my family was just submerged in, and that was passed on to me,” DeMent recently told me, over the phone. “A lot of what made me want to do music came out of relationships to my parents and my family, and their relationship to that land and that culture. And that went really, really, really deep for me. I mean, I’m 54 and I’ve stayed pretty much hooked to that with everything I’ve done since, because that’s where the feeling is for me. What happened here, I think, is [that] I opened myself up to my daughter’s culture, which also happened to coincide at a time when my mom had passed … both my parents were then gone. A lot of my older siblings are gone.”
Similarly, Akhmatova’s sense of place was tied to her family. “Akhmatova was profoundly affected by Stalin's atrocities,” says John Barnstead, retired associate professor of Russian at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “[This] directly affected her in the arrest and death of her husband, Nikolai Punin, the arrest and long imprisonment of her son, the historian Lev Gumilev (which embittered his relationship with his mother), and the arrest and death in a prison camp of [poet] Osip Mandelstam. She tried everything she could to obtain the release of her son – even, at one point, trying to write poems in praise of Stalin.”
The poet and the songwriter also share a belief in a creative muse who guides their projects. Akhmatova referred to it as “the muse,” and her poems assert that this muse has visited other poets throughout time. In Akhmatova’s “Recitation to the Muse” (the final song on DeMent’s The Trackless Woods) Akhmatova meets the muse, whom she recognizes from Dante:
She considers me. “Are you the one who came
To Dante, who dictated the pages of Hell
To him?” I ask her. She replies, “I am.”
For DeMent, though, Akhmatova herself may well be the guiding muse.
The songwriter says she can’t really say why Akhmatova’s work resonates with her: “I know this will come as a surprise,” she says, “because you would think as much time as I’ve spent with her poems – and 18 poems later and a record and this obsession – I think that I would be able to better tell you [why]. Intellectually, I’d say I really can’t. It all happened so instantly, in some just-as-deep, sort of not-thinking kind of a place that, even now, I’m kind of at a loss. … There are some things I could point to, I guess, that would probably explain some of that. I think, for one thing, I think her work had a lot of music in it. I think her poems, the translations I was working with, they shared a lot to her original style, which is very rhyme-based. And I just like that there’s a lot of song in it. One of the titles of one of the poems is ‘Song about Songs.’ There’s another one, ‘Listening to Singing.’
“Today,” she continues, “I was listening – I hadn’t listened to the record in, like, a month – and there’s another song, I forget which one it was, but she refers to song in there. So I have a hunch that she might have actually sung some of these and I just feel like I was picking up on a lot of that, and I think there’s a hymn-like quality to her poems, which is something I really identify with. My first music that I was entrenched in was hymns and old gospel songs. I think there was a connection there, too.
“But there’s also just something in her view that reminds me a lot of the story, and the outlook on life that I was exposed to growing up: my Southern parents, and from people that really struggled a lot to survive. I think that’s in her work, and that was familiar to me. I also liked that she has a big message. She uses, like, small, everyday details of life to tell it. But the message is really big, and really deep. And that’s the best I can do, I think,” DeMent finishes with this demurring. It’s clear that the poet humbles as much as she inspires the folk musician.
The National Voice
Elaine Feinstein, author of Anna of All the Russias, says that musicality contributed to Akhmatova’s fame and also to her persecution. “The elegance and memorability of her early lyrics were known across the whole of Russia,” Feinstein says. “It is a question of the language, and the enigmatic, allusive storytelling she handles in forms that resemble Pushkin. That memorability made her poems dangerous, when censorship meant that only politically correct poetry could be published. It meant that anything she wrote could be learned by heart and pass across the country easily.”
In addition to the heinous fates that befell Akhmatova’s friends and family, she endured relentless surveillance. The KGB bugged her room, accumulating 900 pages of intelligence to use against her. She was often followed in the streets. Meanwhile, she constantly had to wonder if her son would be safer had she not been so outspoken. Feinstein adds, “She and her friend Lydia Chukovskaya learned those extraordinary lyrics [for her poem “Requiem”] by heart and then burned them in an ashtray, because Akhmatova's son Lev was in the Gulag, and she could not risk harming him.”
Despite these conditions, Akhmatova maintained openness in her work. Though many around her fled the country, she stayed to be a witness. Her poems use a lot of plain details to discuss relevant, important issues rather than being cryptic meditations on esoteric subjects. “In her early work she is a poet interested in the minutiae of the emotional torments of love,” says Professor Barnstead. “Her later poetry is concerned with what [poet Osip Mandelstam] referred to as ‘nostalgia for world culture’ – and the role of Russia in history, and her own attempt to remain true to the Russian language and to the soul of the Russian people. Perhaps her single most moving lines are in ‘Requiem,’ when she writes: ‘and if they stop up my mouth, through which a nation of a hundred million speaks.’ She felt, and many people in Russia felt at the time, that she had become the national voice,” Barnstead says.
DeMent, for one, believes that it is Akhmatova’s attention to timeless, universal needs that make her poems continue to resonate. “It would be easy for me to sum her up based on the 18 poems that I chose,” DeMent explains, “but she wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems, and some of them that she was most known for were ‘Requiem,’ for example. That’s one of her most well-known poems. I guess you could call it a political poem, but again, she’s presenting a very human experience. She’s talking about a mother – staying at the wall, trying to deliver food to her child. I think if she were alive today, she would still be telling the human story. That’s what she’s talking about: the universal, timeless experiences and needs.”
It’s easy to see why DeMent would find synchrony in Akhmatova’s work and her own. When DeMent sings about the Vietnam War, she does so by telling the story of visiting the Vietnam Memorial in her song “There’s a Wall in Washington.” The song describes individuals coming from far away to trace the names of lost loved ones on the wall:
Who is to blame for this wall in Washington
that's made of cold black granite?
Why is my father's name etched here in it
in this wall in Washington?
When DeMent talks about feeling Akhmatova’s spirit guiding her in making the record, that same sense of being simultaneously humbled and inspired returns. It’s clear that DeMent does not take spiritual matters lightly, whether they involve the Holy Ghost or a Russian poet helping her know what to sing. Asked how she selected these poems out of Akhmatova’s canon, DeMent thoughtfully replies, “I don’t even know that I chose them. This is a weird thing for me to talk about. I felt more almost like I got chosen, and then I just went with it. Honestly, that’s how it felt. But I did most of Babette’s, so the exception of maybe three or four, and one of the last ones of Babette’s that I did was a poem [called] ‘And This You Call Work,’ which ended up being one of my favorites. It was one of the last ones, and I was so frustrated. I remember sitting at the piano one day, and reading that poem. I didn’t care for the poem, I didn’t understand the poem. I don’t know why I did not hook with that poem at all. And I remembered sitting at the piano and grumbling to Anna and Babette. I was like, ‘Anna, why couldn’t you have written a better poem. I need another poem.’ And then I remember seeing it and closing my eyes and I thought to myself, ‘Iris, Anna was a really great poet, and Babette was a really great translator. Turn your brain off, and just trust these ladies.’
“And I put my hands on the piano and out came the melody to that song. And I just wept. I suddenly understood the poem. I get choked up now. It became one of my favorite poems ever. A lot of little things like that would happen. [There] were just these really unique places that I had to open myself up to go to. And a lot of it was trust. These women are supposedly dead, but I’m sitting there feeling like I’m talking to them, and investing my trust in them. And then these beautiful things would happen.
“So it was just a really lovely experience,” she concludes. “I instantly understood that poem, and it just went right down to the bottom of my heart. So there were so many interesting experiences about it for me. Like, I learned a lot about the power of melody to open a door to something. Melody is like the usher that walks into the room. There’s a poem, but I often couldn’t get inside of [it] until I found a melody.”
‘It Never Felt Like Work’
I think of DeMent’s voice on her version of Mel Torme’s “Sweet Is the Melody,” the opening track from her 1993 album My Life. Her sincerity ensures that listeners are aware that she, too, knows what it is to chase a melody. To find a song.
Sweet is the melody, so hard to come by
It's so hard to make every note bend just right
You lay down the hours and leave not one trace.
I think of DeMent at her piano, pleading with Akhmatova and Deutsche until she learned to trust. It is in melody where DeMent has always been at home.
I asked her if it was hard to give up control of the lyrics and just concentrate on melodies and music. “I’ve just always loved melody, and to be honest, before I put out Sing the Delta, I didn’t put out a record for years and years. But during that time, I would just sit around at the piano and play melody. I really wasn’t interested in words for a long time. So I realized now that actually, just talking to you, that I think, in some ways I was being primed for this project not even knowing it. Because I had already opened that door to just kind of surrender my mind to melody, and not feel like I have to come up with lyrics to things.
“I’m a singer,” she continues, “and people expect me to show up and sing some words, so I hunkered down and got Sing the Delta completed. [Then,] when this came along, it was just like, woo-hoo. I feel no anxiety in melody-world. Not to say I have some crazy, amazing melodies. I’m not putting myself up; that’s not what I’m trying to say. But whatever the quality of them … My personal experience with melody is just [that] there’s no frustration, it’s just a restful, really great place to be.
“So that was just a blessing to have this – these beautiful poems complete, in and of themselves. And to be able to just work with them, and try to weave this melody around them. It was just a really joyful thing. I never, ever, ever felt frustrated. It never felt like work. I mean, it took me four years, but if anything, I’m almost sad I finished it because I wanted to keep going. I’ve come across a few poems since that I [think,] ‘Oh my gosh, this would have been better.’ I got that engrossed in it.”
Kottke, a longtime fan of Akhmatova’s work, was blown away by the results: “I would have thought Akhmatova unsingable,” he says. “This is a great discovery on Iris' part, a great love. Anna and Iris are perfectly met, two lives meeting with almost the same voice. No one could have imagined this. Iris did. The ‘how’ is Iris. I can't imagine how she does it, except for that heart in common.”
Though the issues that Akhmatova dealt with are different than those which DeMent has addressed in her music, the women both inhabit the same complexity. They both approach difficult subjects head-on, never sacrificing the integrity of their art for the sake of political commentary. In one journal entry, Akhmatova wrote, “I am in the middle of it: chaos and poetry; poetry and love and again, complete chaos. Pain, disorder, occasional clarity; and at the bottom of it all: only love; poetry. Sheer enchantment, fear, humiliation. It all comes with love.”
For Akhmatova, of course, poetry was literally verse. DeMent, meanwhile, has often been intimidated by poetry.
“I was talking to somebody earlier,” she says. “They were asking me about my experience with poetry in general, and I said I’ve never written a poem, and I haven’t. My first introduction to poetry was in grammar school, and it scared me to death. I mean, I can still remember just holding my pen, I couldn’t get any words on the page, which is familiar to me today too, but there was so many rules. There [was] this list of rules that they’d hand you and say, go write your poem. And I just – I could hardly breathe. I was so afraid that I was going to mess up. I almost hear the word ‘poem’ and I want to run away. So it’s really odd for me to be even be talking about poems and still have even taken on this project.
“With music, with melody, I can breathe,” she adds. “When I introduced the melodies to these poems, it took the teacher out of the classroom for me.”