“The Sentence” by Anna Akhmatova

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

As this is the last weekend of National Poetry Month, I wanted to share the following video from The Favorite Poem Project. The video was produced and directed by Juanita Anderson.

From The Sentence by Anna Akhmatova

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.

Click here to read the entire poem.

The Poetry of Anna Akhmatova (New York Times, June 28, 2007)


These words are from Anna Akhmatova’s poem “The Sentence,” translated from the Russian by Judith Hemschemeyer. Akhmatova was a remarkable woman whose deeply felt poems chronicled Stalin’s Terror, World War II, and what is called the Thaw in Russia after Stalin’s death. She also explored her own local fame, her fall from grace, and her international renown shortly before her death.

With poems far tighter and more powerful than any history, Akhmatova brings readers in with color, emotion, and confession.

When it comes to Russia, all expatriates – from the most fearless investors to the most knowledgeable scholars – are humbled. Most acknowledge that this ancient country nearly 20 years after the fall of Communism is a steep learning curve. No expat self-help text is worthy of this messy epic.

For those moving here, it might be suggested that the appropriate preparation is a lifetime of study. For most of us, it’s too late for that. The next best thing is delving into the poems and life of Akhmatova, a confessional, romantic, provocative poet who gave a voice to millions of Russians in the 20th century. Her poem “The Sentence,” part of her moving “Requiem,” was finally published in 1989, 100 years after her birth.

Akhmatova’s own “sentence” was to see her son, lovers and friends nearly destroyed by the Soviet authorities for their “anti-Soviet” natures. Her first husband, Nikolay Grumilyov, was executed. Her son Lev was imprisoned, and even a poem praising Stalin did not win his release. Her friends Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Bulgakov died after being tormented by the authorities; she eulogized them in her poems. She watched horrified as her prodigy Joseph Brodsky was arrested for “parasitism.” Akhmatova herself lived like a vagabond, hand-to-mouth, in disgrace with the party, for many years.


About Anna Akhmatova

About Nancy Nersessian, Professor, Atlanta, GA

The Favorite Poem Project

The Favorite Poem Project Videos

16 thoughts on ““The Sentence” by Anna Akhmatova”

  1. HawkEye,

    I thought we had learned a lesson after Vietnam. I didn’t think our elected representatives would give Bush the green light to go to war in Iraq. I was so wrong. The war profiteers own many of our politicians. Let us not forget, too, Cheney’s involvement with Halliburton and KBR. There’s money to be made on war–especially now that many of the functions of the military have now been privatized.

  2. Incredibly moving and brings me back to the fervor of the antiwar movement late 1960’s early 1970’s. Often I reflect on the fact that today’s parents (who were part of this movement) are sending their sons and daughters to Iraq and Afghanistan ~ What happened to the heart and soul of the cry that came from an army of people who shouted into the public’s face — “NO MORE WAR”?

  3. Hanoi Haiku

    In Hanoi at last
    Red-carpet in return for
    Our carpet-bombing

    The words no one heard,
    Due so many years after:
    “We apologize”

    Deputy Dubya
    Sheriff Cheney’s Barney Fife
    Lost in Mayberry

    Gullible Goofy
    The boy who cried Wolfowitz
    Far too many times

    Emerald City
    Naked ruler’s brand new clothes
    Viewed through glasses green

    Mission Accomplished!
    A cakewalk in its last throes
    Now a glacier race

    Four Years an “instant”
    Nothing happens right away
    What did you expect?

    Broken-egg omelets
    George Orwell’s Catastrophic

    Shop till the troops drop
    Buy a plane ticket or two
    Your part in the “war”

    Rob the future now
    They will never break our will
    Those grandkids of ours

    Lecture the victors
    About their First and Second
    Indochina Wars

    Where did we get him?
    How come we can’t do better?
    We look so stupid

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

  4. Dead Metaphors

    We serve as a symbol to shield those who screw us
    The clueless, crass cretins who crap on our creed
    We perform the foul deeds they can only do through us
    Then lay ourselves down in the dark while we bleed

    Through cheap Sunday slogans they sought to imbue us
    With lust for limp legacy laughably lean
    Yet the Pyrrhic parade only served to undo us
    We die now for duty, not “honor” obscene

    We carried out plans that the lunatics drew us
    Their oil-spotted, fly paper, domino dream
    Then we fought for the leftover bones that they threw us
    While carpetbag contractors cleaned up the cream

    We stood at attention so they could review us
    Like bugs on display in a cage made of glass
    We hurried, then waited, so they could subdue us
    Yet somewhere inside something said: “kiss my ass.”

    We did the George Custer scene Rumsfeld gave to us
    We took ourselves targets to arrows and bows
    While the brass punched their tickets, the Indians slew us
    A “strategy” ranking with History’s lows

    When veterans balked they contrived to pooh-pooh us
    With sneers at our “syndrome” of Vietnam sick
    When that didn’t work they set out to voodoo us
    With sewer boat slanderers paid to be slick

    The wad-shooting gambler comes once more to woo us
    His PR team planning precise photo ops
    For to sell his used war he’ll have need to construe us
    As witless weak wallpaper campaign-ad props

    The nuts and the dolts in their suits really blew us
    They made our life’s meaning a dead metaphor
    Still, no matter how Furies and Fate may pursue us
    The Fig Leaf Contingent has been here before

    The years pass in darkness and graveyards accrue us
    As early returns on investments gone wrong
    So the next time “supporters” of troops ballyhoo us
    Remember to vomit in tune to this song.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

  5. >What cause have I to war at thy decree?
    The distant Trojans never injured me.

    Hither we sail’d, a voluntary throng,
    To avenge a private, not a public wrong:

    Is this the pay our blood and toils deserve;
    Disgraced and injured by the man we serve?

    Thine in each conquest is the wealthy prey,
    Though mine the sweat and danger of the day.

    — Homer, The Iliad

    “Rich man’s war, poor man’s fight.” An ancient and apparently never-ending refrain.

  6. Better Maimed than Marxist
    (an experiment in so-called “free verse”)

    At our U.S. Navy advanced tactical support base,
    on the banks of a muddy brown river,
    not far from the southernmost tip of South Vietnam,
    I injured my right middle finger
    in a pickup volleyball game one Sunday afternoon.

    Having no X-ray equipment at our little infirmary,
    I had to take a helicopter ride north
    to a larger Army base possessing
    better medical equipment and facilities
    to see if I had broken any bones in my hand.

    Walking down a hospital corridor, I passed
    a room full of Vietnamese patients
    who had no arms or legs.
    I experienced a disorienting sense of scale compression,
    unexpectedly witness to already small lives made minuscule in a moment,

    like seeing living dollar bills cut down to the size of postage stamps,
    or sentient silver quarters suddenly shrunk to copper pennies.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2012

  7. If you are able, save for them a place inside of you and save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go.

    Be not ashamed to say you loved them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own.

    And in that time when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.

    Major Michael Davis O’Donnell
    1 January 1970
    Dak To, Vietnam
    Killed when his helicopter crashed in Cambodia February 7, 1978

  8. Yet, the reality is “Evermore” … until like Anna wrote … until our souls turn stone cold against warmongering … like James Madison suggested and implored.

    “Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!” I shrieked, upstarting —

    “Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

    Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

    Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!

    Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!”

    Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”

    – The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe

  9. Great job Elaine. As Nick suggests, it is a real tear jerker, especially when the discussion turns to our Vietnam experience. The wall is a moving tribute to the brave people who served and gave the ultimate sacrifice. Whatever substance the vets used in country to get them through it, can also be their undoing when they return to the real world. My brother served in Vietnam and he came back a changed man, but had his head on straight. I know others who physically returned that were never the same.

  10. Elaine, You’re selling a lot of kleenex the last couple weekend. I visited the Memorial in 2002 w/ my family. I simply touched Chuck’s name. Maybe I should have traced it? I’m sure you did the same. That Memorial is inspired and pitch perfect, it is poetry w/ names.

  11. Nick,

    My husband and I lost a couple of friends in the Vietnam War. Visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a truly emotional experience for both of us.

    Here’s another video from the Favorite Poem Project about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The poem by Yusef Komunyakaa is titled “Facing It.”

  12. Thanks for introducing me to Anna Akhmatova; I had never heard of her before your column.

  13. The flick, American Gangster, shows just how accessible and cheap high grade heroin was in Viet Nam. Denzel was, of course, superb in that role.

  14. Great post, Elaine. I have spoken previously of my older friend and mentor, Chuck Manarel, who died in Viet Nam. This touching video brings up an issue that very few folks realized back then, and even fewer do now. In the insanity of Viet Nam MANY soldiers turned to heroin. It was the best heroin available, it was dirt cheap, and it helped calm the craziness. My cousin, Scott, who was just a year younger than me, came back a heroin addict. Scott was a self disciplined young man who was the best basketball player in Bristol, Ct. in high school. He was also a practical, blue collar guy. He only snorted and smoked heroin, never shot it. When he got back to Ct. he had to go to Hartford and New Haven to score. It was expensive and shitty junk. So, my self disciplined, practical cousin quit cold turkey. He never talked about it, just did it. He became alcoholic, but a functional one, holding the same job for 30 years. He died @ age 55. The toll of war is much greater than the body count.

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