In the Wake of Trauma: A Response to “The Sentence” by Anna Akhmatova

The definition of a sentence reads, ¨The decree of punishment from a judge.” Therefore, the The Sentence´s text begins at its title, where it introduces the idea of a lasting punishment. The title as well as the body of the poem create the speaker´s memoir, communicating what it feels like to continue after trauma leaves us destroyed.

The first stanza begins with the “stone word” falling onto the speaker’s “still-living breast”, thus beginning the punishment that is to be inflicted upon the victim. Lungs are breathing and a heart is pumping at this poem’s start. Then a trauma is executed, and it immediately begins to wreak its havoc. However, the third and fourth lines indicate endurance. ¨I will manage somehow,¨ the speaker states, finding the motivation to continue despite the burden. Is this not the position many of us find ourselves in? Whether it be a mental illness, a break-up, a lost job, or a family tragedy, we must all find ways to survive through what haunts us.

Despite the ability of hope to bring us strength, some days seem to take more from us than we can give. The pain felt in this overwhelming moment can be indescribable, but the speaker eloquently voices it: ¨Today… I must kill memory once and for all…¨ she relates. To kill memory is to forget joy. Sometimes, despite the paradox created, the strength to live comes from forgetting what it felt like to live before a tragedy. There have been times when we all have killed our own memory, purposefully forgotten the gentle touch of a loved one or the ease of a reliable paycheck. This practice, although tragic, is necessary to cope with life-changing trauma. It prevents comparison of the present to what used to be, and rids us of the false hope that we are capable of returning.

The second step for survival reads, ¨I must turn my soul to stone…¨ Similar to forgetting memory, turning a soul to stone creates a barrier between the heart and the world. If your soul remains soft it also remains sensitive, fragile, and subject to punishment the way a body is subject to mortality. In the video created by Favorite Poems Project, a woman relates the trauma her brother endured while fighting in the Vietnam War. She claims that her brother´s soul was quickly turned to stone in order to survive the violence, poverty, corruption, and death both around him and inflicted by him. Although stone is uncomfortable, it is the lesser evil when faced with intense pain. When one lives through trauma, their vulnerability has been abused. Once one hardens themself to the pain of this abuse, hopefully it no longer takes its advantage. By sacrificing your innate naivety, you believe you are protecting yourself from the behavior that mislead you in the first place.

Perhaps the most encompassing step related by the speaker of The Sentence is the ability to retry. The text reads, ¨I must learn to live again.¨ This summarizes all preceding statements, for to live again is to be completely separated from life before the trauma. To learn to live in a new mind, a new perspective, and a new opinion, however, is still painful. It requires absolute metamorphosis from the past into the future. After surviving an accident that resulted in the loss of those around you, you must teach yourself to live with this new guilt. After being held prisoner (metaphorically or literally) by evil, you must be able to be free again. Trauma can change us in this way, tearing away our very humanity and forcing us to discover a new identity entangled in heartache.

Despite these wishful, desperate reformations, the speaker remembers her trauma. In her third stanza, it is revealed that her past cannot be forgotten. She writes of her feeble memory using metaphor, comparing summer to her past, a house to her lost home of comfort.

 

¨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.¨

 

Summer, comparable to something warm, nostalgic, and happy, represents the speaker’s memories of her past. Her past, carefree and gentle, plays just beyond where her trauma reigns. Even after killing her memory, turning to stone, and renovating her lifestyle, the concept of happiness remains. This is compelling, as it requires that happiness be constant, even after life-altering pain. But is happiness really constant, even after all hope seems lost? Is it possible to experience both? If it has indeed been attained, the speaker does share it with us. However, she does tell us that she has recognized it. The brilliant day, brimming with warmth and reassurance, as well as the deserted house, an abandoned home filled with hope, appear in her vision. ¨For a long time I’ve foreseen this,¨ she remembers, alluding to the days spent imagining what it would be to experience true peace after what she has been cursed with. Finally, the light breaks in her prison sentence, revealing a new, brighter comfort even after all hope had been lost.

Ultimately, this poem examines surviving in misery while also indicating the inevitability of recovery. In the wake of tragedy, violence, or fear, after all attempts to live without being vulnerable to more pain, hope persists. May we all remember that to live is to hurt, but irrefutably, to live is to rejoice.

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