at Link’s Hall

You led me into the trackless woods,

My falling stars, my dark endeavor.

You were bitterness, lies, a bill of goods.

You weren’t a consolation–ever.

–Anna Akhmatova, To My Poems

The paradoxical details of a poet’s life often inspire curiosity. The poets who seem to arouse the most interest are those who have the power to make language soar, yet conduct almost daily battles with their own demons, the demons of circumstance, or both. Robert Frost’s meanness of spirit, Delmore Schwartz’s paranoia and delusions, and Sylvia Plath’s struggle against madness are now legend, well chronicled either by the poets themselves or by their biographers.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), one of a handful of great Russian poets of the 20th century, led a life of great hardship and high drama against the backdrop of postrevolutionary Russia. She was in favor, out of favor, and in favor again–renounced and denounced by her own government, then dusted off and saluted. She led a life that aroused gossip, innuendo, and myth. Reportedly a woman of regal bearing, great beauty, queenly rectitude, and quiet strength, Akhmatova inspired many poets and artists to create portraits of her and dedicate poems to her; in her later years she was seen as a sort of keeper of the poetic flame. The dramas of her tumultuous life, and the reasons she was so beloved in her own country (and finally internationally), would make for a classic story in the tradition of the poet’s biography.

There is so much that director Jill Daly might have examined in Unfinished Portrait of Akhmatova, yet this impressionistic biography, made up entirely of the Russian’s poems and songs, is so abstract and sketchy that the idea behind the project remains obscure. Portrait pays painstaking attention to production values: it fairly sparkles with superficial beauty, given the beautiful original music of Ilya Levinson (who also played piano, accompanied by Martine Benmann on cello), adroit lighting and elegant set by Christiaan Pretorius, and brilliant costume design by Christie Munch. But when one looks for the motivation behind Wendy Parman’s arch mannerisms as Akhmatova, or the reason she chases a seductive, languorous, nymphlike muse (Munch–who has a propensity to choreograph herself into a postmodern corner, with way too many slumps, slouches, and squats), one is left with a riddle.

Pretorius’s set consists of tepeed two-by-fours arranged throughout the space, topped by small red flags; these tepees represent the wasteland/slum through which Parman and Munch wander. The back wall, painted a robin’s egg blue, in an odd way seems to represent the landscape of the mind, of the poet’s consciousness and imagination. With an unsentimental economy, Pretorius has managed to insinuate a dichotomy between the life of the mind and the troubled political landscape.

But the earth-shattering events that transformed Akhmatova’s life–from privileged woman of the Russian upper class, a respected poet before the revolution of 1917, to a twice-widowed woman living in great poverty–are barely made clear. And though Parman’s voice is magnificent, she delivers Akhmatova’s poetry in a wooden chant–when she’s not singing–in what seems an unintentional parody of a poet reading, with no attempt to achieve a conversational tone. All the irony, naturalness, and austerity that are trademarks of Akhmatova’s poetry are lost, and so is the opportunity to juxtapose her amazingly honest poetry with her personal evasions of the truth, which allowed Akhmatova to go on but made her an incongruous figure. Here we see Akhmatova’s personal artifice in the arch, posing delivery of the poems, which does not in itself inspire identification.

Though much of her poetry is about “the muse,” Akhmatova’s life consisted of much more than serving her muse. Those other facets of Akhmatova’s life need to be here: the fact that she founded a poetry movement; the fact that her first husband was executed, that another husband died in a prison camp, and that her son spent 14 years in Soviet labor camps; that she was banned in Russia. Romanticizing the poet’s artifice and her relationship to the muse, without looking for the grit of humanity, buys into the whole myth of “the poet.” If it is an unfinished portrait, as Daly calls it, then the lines need to be so sure that the portrait does not seem facile or shrill. There is so much talent in this production, and so much interest in the raw data of Akhmatova’s life, it’s a shame to leave it at this.

Within the constellation of the arts, poets seem quirkier, more eccentric, and in some ways closer to the fires that both inspire and burn than other artists. A poet’s life, in order to be made into art or biography, needs to be analyzed carefully and lovingly–with respect for the fragility of the myth created but aiming for the truth, which stands shyly yet resolutely beyond bravado and legend.