What does a 20th century Russian poet have to do with Johnny Cash?

The World
Iris Dement

Iris DeMent.

Shore Fire Media

The minister who married my husband and me said one thing that’s stayed with me: "Falling in love is like recognizing a member of your family you just haven’t met yet."

This is exactly what happened to singer-songwriter Iris DeMent when she returned, exhausted, from another long tour. She and her husband had decided to adopt and an agency had sent over a booklet with photographs of children waiting to be adopted. 

“I was looking at these pictures, not thinking much of it and in there was a picture of our daughter and it was an instantaneous kind of ‘that's my child’ kind of a feeling,” DeMent says.

That child happened to live across the world, in Siberia.

Years later, when her daughter was entering her tweens, DeMent was struck by that feeling again when she randomly opened a book of Russian poetry a friend had sent her and began reading a poem by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, “Like a White Stone.”

Soon, she found herself sitting at the piano.

“It would go from a handful of interesting words on a page to this — suddenly the air entered the room, for me. I could feel when the melody was the right melody for the text,” she says. “I felt like I went inside of the poem.”

The result was "The Trackless Woods," an album based on 18 of Akhmatova’s poems.

But who was Anna Akhmatova? Born Anna Gorenko to an aristocratic family in the 19th century, she lived through the Russian Revolution and two world wars. You could say the scars she bore became poems. Her family history reads like a playbook of 20th century Soviet horrors — executions, imprisonment, censorship — but her will to survive, and the beauty that she wrought from pain, made her literary royalty. She became the people’s poetess. 

Here’s the only audio I could find of Akhmatova reading one of her poems, “The Muse,” not long before her death in 1966.

“When at night, I’m waiting her arrival,” it begins, “life seems to hang by a thread.” 

So how does a woman born in Arkansas relate to these poems of a woman with Stalin’s scythe hanging over her head?

“My parents were poor, white farmers and my grandpa never owned his land,” DeMent says. "They came from nothing. They came from hardship. Yeah, it wasn't Russia and Stalin ... but that view of life, and that understanding of how unfunny life can be, got passed on to me in a big, big, way.”

DeMent recognized something ancient and universal in Akhamotova’s poetry.

“It has that hymn-like, broad, ‘My feet are planted really deep and I'm reaching really high’ quality that, I want to say that she's lost in it, but it's that thing you get lost in that makes you more clear than ever.”

Anna Akhmatova is as quintessentially Russian as Mark Twain is American, but when DeMent read Akhmatova’s poem, “From an Airplane,” about her first flight when she was evacuated from St. Petersburg during the Nazi’s devastating siege.

DeMent says she instantly thought, “This just feels like Johnny Cash wrote this ... talking about flying over ... the cotton fields in Arkansas. And I decided, I'm going to make this in this kind of rollicking, Johnny Cash, musical thing. So I didn't get locked into trying to emulate some Russian sound or anything like that. I went with my world.”

That also ended up providing a window to her daughter’s world.

“I felt a sadness about my inability to maybe link her early world to the world she was in now, on a musical level,” she says. “I don't know, this might be true of lot of people, but music allows us to be in the world in a more open, raw way than we're normally allowed to, you know what I mean?”

Yeah, I do.