Anna Akhmatova’s Return to Leningrad

by Sabine Holzman

Leningrad, mother-city, I return to you in the dark with lungs swollen,
breaths incapable, your streets no longer skin immaculate as ice.

I remember your cold northern nights like the back of my left hand,
how I chronicled your alleyways in days I spent waiting for my son

in snow that wanted to smother me. Mother-city, I name you
my own & my husband’s, who is as dead as you are now, slaughtered

like an animal, bullet in his brain: his last religion. I remember
his blood: black-blue in the moonlight. And I see it now, in children

with the faces of ghouls, hollowed, hungered. What God is here,
in Leningrad, in Russia—a man in the cold, looking down at you,

a rifle in his hand, the word gulag in his mouth: his voice harsher
than terror, promising a waiting, freezing doom. Yes, the war is cruel,

but you, Leningrad, are even crueller. Mother-city where mothers murder
other mothers for rations. Mother-city where we eat the dead to stay alive.

Mother-city where men starve & fall in the streets. Mother-city, in my
      absence
you have become a ghost in the house, a fist clenched and cold. I am no
      
Tsar,

pledges the man in the grey-blue cloak, & yet we bleed anyway. But still
I must remember: the beauty. The fairytales. The light on the windowsill.

My son pulled from the womb like gold wheat from the fields of peasants,
my husband’s laughter in the face of the Cheka, the blue-lipped

woman who told me write this down. You, mother-city, a Tsarina cloaked
in ice, half between black forest and black sea, a woman beautiful as she is
      sharp & gutting.

I must remember to be godless as a man fumbling for a light in the dark.
I must remember each woman has a quiet that aches like wolves.
I must remember that you, mother-city, are an elegy too.