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A Peculiar Crossover: Iris DeMent Sets 18 Anna Akhmatova Poems to Music, With Surprising Results
How might American singer-songwriter Iris DeMent and the “Soviet doyen of reverie and suffering” Anna Akhmatova come together? At Bookforum, David Biespiel reminds us that in DeMent’s last album, The Trackless Woods, she set to music 18 of Akhmatova’s poems, translated by Lyn Coffin and Babette Deutsch, as a gift to her daughter, Dasha, adopted from Siberia in 2005.
…Surely Akhmatova would not, imagining the future, include DeMent’s daughter in her indictment [of Russian exiles]. But it’s fascinating to consider that DeMent is attempting to convey to her Russian-born daughter something of Akhmatova’s pride of place. Speaking on NPR’s Fresh Air, DeMent sounded sensitive to this question about her daughter: “I didn’t try to pull her along into that. The extent to which she absorbed [that part of her Russian culture] is her story to tell and yet to be seen in the future.”
For many the album will raise interesting questions about the roots of creativity, too. Musicians have a long history of performing covers of each other’s songs, and poets too have the tradition of responding to poems by other poets. DeMent’s album is a peculiar crossover, where an American singer of soulful, heartland individualism sings “covers” of poems by Russia’s iconic poet of elegant self-esteem in a pristine, back-of-the-choir Pentecostal voice. Akhmatova was a member of a group of writers, the Acmeists, who extolled the values of directness and clarified images. This characterization neatly describes what DeMent has been performing for more than two decades as well, beginning with her breakthrough album, Infamous Angel in 1992. Her music typically relies on just a few chords strummed on a clean-sounding guitar or sometimes a piano accompaniment that comes across like it’s being played on a shabby upright shoved into the corner of a hallway—The Trackless Woods recordings were made in DeMent’s living room. If you’ve listened to her albums, you already know that her voice exudes old-timey plainness and humor, along with heartbreak and disillusionment.
I know my comparison will evoke resistance. But like Akhmatova’s poems, DeMent’s songs depict people who exist not in the margins, but in the non-utopias of complex lives. They confront their own desperations and difficult joys, tensions and transformations. The figures in DeMent’s songs thrive in passageways outside the noise of partisans and ideologues. “Let the mystery be,” DeMent sings in an early song against the pressure to believe in God, if not fundamentalism—religious, political, or otherwise. This temperament resembles Akhmatova’s in “Song about Songs” as she commends the body as a vessel for humility:
Others will reap. I only sow.
When the triumphant scythers lay the grain low,
Bless them, O Lord!
Accompanied by an easy, parlor-piano rhythm, DeMent presents “Song about Songs” as a ballad for salvation in a voice that pines for the purity of love. The architecture of the material here is the countryside. It’s like a dreamscape conjured up to encompass what a single body can see and hear and smell. It’s a vision of direct movement against ideological and industrial culture. It’s a pastoral rendition of a life intended to preserve one’s dignity against the forces determined to slaughter it. What lingers from the ferocity of Stalin’s terror—as heard inside DeMent’s renditions of Akhmatova’s poems—is the latter’s non-revolutionary sensibility, her tragic sense of individual solitude:
Let me give the world a gift
More incorruptible than love.
It’s difficult to hear these lyrics and not consider, even briefly, the backwardness, corruption, and despotism that have overtaken Akhmatova’s Russia under the rule of Putin and what can only be called his Russia. To listen to DeMent’s plaintive renditions of Akhmatova’s poems in praise of the incorruptible soul makes you feel deeply dispirited over the resurgent nostalgia for the Soviet era today under Putin, who, prowling the Kremlin like a KGB czar, trucks in ethnic Russian nationalist paranoia, is hostile to democratic reform, advances a sovereignty of personal power, and embraces a narrative of Russian history that begins with grievances with the West and ends with missing or mutilated Russian citizens who are critical of Putin and his autocratic regime. And—thinking closer to home—it’s fair to ask whether the state of the soul is being jeopardized here in the United States as well. Couldn’t DeMent’s partnership with Akhmatova be equally indicting of nativist and sometimes violent impulses in our political dialogue?