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A Closer Look at Anna Akhmatova's I Don't Know If You're Alive or Dead

A portrait of the poet by Nikolai Tyrsa

A portrait of the poet by Nikolai Tyrsa

An Unnecessary Loss?

I don't know if you're alive or dead.
Can you on earth be sought,
Or only when the sunsets fade
Be mourned serenely in my thought?

All is for you: the daily prayer,
The sleepless heat at night,
And of my verses, the white
Flock, and of my eyes, the blue fire.

No-one was more cherished, no-one tortured
Me more, not
Even the one who betrayed me to torture,
Not even the one who caressed me and forgot

-Anna Akhmatova-

I Don't Know If You're Alive Or Dead by the Russian/Soviet poet, Anna Akhmatova is a poem of deep reflection. Like the poet, many of us also ponder about the welfare of someone we no longer see. It is a poem comprised of simplistic words woven together in an understandable way. Yet, it is a poem with a strong message that remains with you long after and, for the duration of the read, seems to resonate through every inch of your body.

In the first stanza, we are made aware that the poet has someone on their mind. They are wondering if a certain someone is alive or dead. In other words, would it be possible to see this person if they so choose to see them or has the chance passed them? In search of the answer, we read on.

We learn in the second stanza that the poet lives every day for this unnamed person when they state “all is for you.” She/he prays for this person (“the daily prayer”). They lose sleep over this person (“the sleepless heat at night”). In short, we are given the sense that each step and breathe the poet takes is done with this certain someone in mind.

If we dared to doubt the magnitude of the poet’s feelings towards the person in question, the final stanza proves to end all doubts. By the poet stating that “No-one was more cherished, no-one tortured Me more” and then following those words with examples of others who have wronged them, we truly realize how much of an impact this person had on their life. If this person has garnered a more lasting place in the poet’s mind than an individual “who caressed me and forgot” and a bully “who betrayed me to torture” it forces you to question what this person may have done to deserve such a place. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t given. We must only ponder this until our mind decides upon a believable solution.

For many people, the holidays are a difficult time simply for the reason discussed in this poem. Whether it be for foolish reasons or for reasons most honorable, people have disagreements and invisible walls are built. It’s a normal occurrence in life and it happens to even the most peaceable people. Once walls are built, we endeavor to go about our lives as if it doesn’t bother us. Yet, something always happens (their birthday rolls around, a special event occurs in your life that you wish they could be a part of, etc.) to remind us that the void is there and it is felt. When this happens, we are faced with the question of whether or not we should seek this person out and allow them back into our lives. We replay the fight in our minds and wonder about every brick that has been cemented into the wall. Our heart is filled with a mixture of anger, sadness and, for some of us, a bit of fear that this person may have passed away without our knowing. For that moment of contemplation, we are overwhelmed by all that we were before the first brick was laid and by all that we’ve become since the final brick was squeezed in. It is a difficult moment, but a necessary one.

Personally speaking, I have more than a few walls. Admittedly, some of the walls aren’t as expertly built as others and could come down with a tap of a finger, but the fact that they are there bothers me and weighs me down. Yet, as I am not someone who puts up such barriers without just cause, I know that in order to take them down there’ll have to be a shift in my perspective. In other words, though I may miss such and such on said day and want to reconcile with them, the realization that him or her undoubtedly still feels the same way they did when brick one arrived and trying to make them see things from my point of view would just cause another fight to break out and another layer of bricks to be thrown on gives me the necessary fortitude to keep from dialing them up. As stubborn as it sounds, there are some points that I just cannot back down on no matter how pained I may feel. Still, I realize that the strength of my convictions will do little to console me on the dreaded day that I hear that they have died which makes me wonder how I can dare to keep the wall in good repair. Furthermore, I am aware that the energy I expend considering their whereabouts is a senseless drain that could be better put to use if I forgave and forgot, but my pride simply won’t allow this and tells my tired mind to zip it. There are certain aspects of my personality that I will never understand.

In an indirect way, this poem is meant to remind us that life is short and grudges are foolish or, in other words, that we should embrace our enemies and let go of the past so that they can become our friends again. However, the poem doesn’t state how this should be done and, for the life of me, I can’t figure this out either. Clearly, we are only cheating ourselves when we shut people out of our lives. Silence is a burden and it is one we undertake in a moment of clouded thinking that few people would accept when they are at their sharpest. I know the world at large (if not mine alone) would be a better place if we all could let go of past insults and start our lives back at the point where the first brick got slapped on. Ideally, all this would be possible. Still, pride tends to outweigh all other character elements. Having experienced too much of the sour points of life and not enough of the sweet, we come to see that while life may be short, tempers are just as short and sometimes when it’s not your fault it really isn’t your fault and no one (not even a tired version of yourself) will ever get you to stray from the truth. Whether we mean to or not, we harm (and are harmed by) others with our supported opinions and seemingly justified judgments every day. In our defense, we will claim that our words are too wise for one so sensitive and will overlook our callousness for the sake of our conscience. Depending on your mood and theirs, a wall could be built on the same space that a truce could be met. It’s an option we all are given and one we pretend not to remember when we look at our wall.

Akhmatova speaks of the loss we all feel when we contemplate someone that we are no longer on speaking terms with. Like the poet, we wish we could tell them that they are in our constant consideration and that our lives are less with their absence. Yet, due to too many unknown factors (Is it really my place to apologize? Will they lash out at me if I try to make contact? Are they still living or will my fears be confirmed? Etc.) we continue living as we are. Though the walls be confining, they are protective. Besides, they’ll knock if they want to be let back in, right?

© 2009 L A Walsh


D.Juris Stetser from South Dakota on April 10, 2012:

I thoroughly enjoyed your 'take' on the poem, and you state your points so eloquently! Obviously you have enormous insight and empathy both of which shine through in your work. Thank you so much for sharing it!

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