Poet's Pick April 14
Anna Akhmatova: "The Sentence"
Selected by Tarfia Faizullah
National Poetry Month 2015

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Tarfia Faizullah's Poetry Month Pick, April 14, 2015

"The Sentence"
by Anna Akhmatova (1889 - 1966)

And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready.
I will manage somehow.

Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again—

Unless . . . Summer's ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I've foreseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.

Anna Akhmatova, “The Sentence” from Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, translated by Judith Hemschemeyer, edited and introduced by Roberta Reeder. Copyright © 1989, 1992, 1997 by Judith Hemschemeyer.  Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Zephyr Press, www.zephyrpress.org.


*Tarfia Faizullah Comments:

Akhmatova, like her friends and peers, was frequently confronted with government opposition to her work, but that didn’t stop her from writing and translating poetry through the end of her life. This adamance can be seen in the conviction of the second stanza of “The Sentence.” The speaker’s to do list, however, is an intense one: killing memory, turning soul to stone, learning to live again. The verb “must” amplifies the urgent insistence of fulfilling these metaphysical actions. The first two lines of the final stanza mark a turning away from these interior concerns to the exterior, to the materials of the world: summer, its beauty, and the window through which all seasons are witnessed.

Both the first and last stanza of this translation of “The Sentence” begin with conjunctions, which suggests the continuation of thought rather than its beginning. In this way, the poem begins and ends in motion, in both despair and conviction. “I was ready,” the speaker says, straightening her spine to prepare for a future that is now here. “I’ve foreseen this.” For Akhmatova, writing poetry during a time of Stalinist terror, such futures were as frequent as they were unwanted. And included not just the imprisonment and deaths of her loved ones, but the constant possibility of her own.

Of Akhmatova, biographer Elaine Feinstein writes, “Akhmatova remains an iconic figure, not of dissidence and resistance alone but as a poet of womanly feeling in a brutal world.” The idea that rendering feeling might be threatening to the government of any country is a powerful one. As Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What will happen when women tell the truth about their lives? The world will split open.” It is for this that I admire Akhmatova most: for being unafraid to lean into both time and love, to document its cycles of living, dying, and rebirthing.

Every time I read “The Sentence,” it resonates through a different aspect of my life. It’s a poem of loneliness. A poem of seasons, of leaving one self behind for another. A celebration of summer. An ode to solitude. A poem documenting the injustice of sentencing an artist to imprisonment. A call to arms to write the sentences, especially the difficult ones full of feeling. I read it ultimately as a love poem, and therefore, one of loss. The fact that all three tenses—past, present, and future—are employed here suggests all time is infinite in its malleability. And though the poem is not written to a “you,” the absence of so many yous keens through. As her contemporary, Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, thought, “The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You. All actual life is encounter.”

In this way, the encounter with the future is seen long before its arrival: a bright and radiant day, but also, a house at least temporarily empty of anyone to love or be loved. There is both grief and joy in these lines, in the necessary gaze towards the future in which we most mourn the past, its beautiful and bewildering corners. To love is to create, which is to learn to die then live again, to wake multiple and dazzling, as Akhmatova did. The Sentence: burden and gift, unjust punishment, yes—but also the ferocious and elegant compulsion to write one word after another.

About Tarfia Faizullah:
Tarfia Faizullah was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1980, and raised in Midland, Texas, by parents who had immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 1978. She is the author of Seam (Southern Illinois University Press). Her poems have appeared in The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, Blackbird, The Massachusetts Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Kenyon Writers’ Workshop, and other honors.

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