Mar 08 2017

Anna Akhmatova – A land not mine

Published by at 8:23 am under Poetry

A land not mine, still
by Anna Akhmatova

English version by Jane Kenyon

A land not mine, still
forever memorable,
the waters of its ocean
chill and fresh.

Sand on the bottom whiter than chalk,
and the air drunk, like wine,
late sun lays bare
the rosy limbs of the pinetrees.

Sunset in the ethereal waves:
I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.

— from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, Edited by Jane Hirshfield

/ Image by GregoriusSuhartoyo /

I was thinking about which poem to select in honor of International Women’s Day. My first thought was to select a poem in honor of the Goddess, the feminine face of the Divine, a poem to the primal Woman. Perhaps a poem addressed to Kali or Durga or maybe one of the pre-Christian goddesses of Europe. But I also wanted something written by a woman poet, and most of the poems in adoration of the Goddess that came to mind are by men. I started scanning through the women poets on the Poetry Chaikhana, and I realized that it has been far too long since I last highlighted a poem by the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her writing and her life embody so much of the strength of women in a complex and often harsh world, while courageously retaining a vision of the inner life and the aspirations of the human spirit.

This is a favorite poem of mine from Anna Akhmatova. Though she wrote during some of the bleakest times of Soviet Russia, there are moments of radiant — one might even say, transcendent — joy that emerges in her poems.

A land not mine, still
forever memorable…

There is something of the mystic’s experience in these lines. An ocean. Light. Deep rest and the sense of life. A brilliant white. Wine…

Sand on the bottom whiter than chalk,
and the air drunk, like wine…

Soon, you find yourself asking, Is the day ending, or the world? Ultimately, it is you who are ending. The train of mental chatter has come to a halt. The world and what you called yourself are not as you thought at all, and both are new and alive and too vast to be called your own.

Then you know that the secret of secrets is within you. And it is so deeply familiar you must have known it before, and it is there again.

I cannot tell if the day
is ending, or the world, or if
the secret of secrets is inside me again.

Recommended Books: Anna Akhmatova

Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova Poems of Akhmatova Dancing with Joy: 99 Poems

Anna Akhmatova, Anna Akhmatova poetry, Secular or Eclectic poetry Anna Akhmatova

Russia (1889 – 1966) Timeline
Secular or Eclectic

Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova was born Anna Gorenko into an upper-class family in Odessa, the Ukraine, in 1889. Her interest in poetry began in her youth, but when her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess”. He forced her to take a pen name, and she chose the last name of her maternal great-grandmother. She attended law school in Kiev and married Nikolai Gumilev, a poet and critic, in 1910. Shortly after the marriage, he travelled to Abyssinia, leaving her behind. While Gumilev was away, Akhmatova wrote many of the poems that would be published in her popular first book, Evening. Her son Lev was also born in 1912. He was raised by his paternal grandmother, who disliked Akhmatova. Akhmatova protested this situation, but her husband supported his family. She would visit with her son during holidays and summer. Later, Akhmatova would write that “motherhood is a bright torture. I was not worthy of it.”

Upon Evening’s publication in 1912, Akhmatova became a cult figure among the intelligentsia and part of the literary scene in St. Petersburg. Her second book, Rosary (1914), was critically acclaimed and established her reputation. With her husband, she became a leader of Acmeism, a movement which praised the virtues of lucid, carefully-crafted verse and reacted against the vagueness of the Symbolist style which dominated the Russian literary scene of the period. She and Gumilev divorced in 1918. Akhmatova married twice more, to Vladimir Shileiko in 1918, whom she divorced in 1928, and Nikolai Punin, who died in a Siberian labor camp in 1953. The writer Boris Pasternak, who was already married, had proposed to her numerous times.

Nikolai Gumilev was executed in 1921 by the Bolsheviks, and, although Akhmatova and he were divorced, she was still associated with him. As a result, after her book Anno Domini MCMXXI was published in 1922, she had great difficulty finding a publisher. There was an unofficial ban on Akhmatova’s poetry from 1925 until 1940. During this time, Akhmatova devoted herself to literary criticism, particularly of Pushkin, and translations. During the latter part of the 1930s, she composed a long poem, Requiem, dedicated to the memory of Stalin’s victims. In 1940, a collection of previously published poems, From Six Books, was published. A few months later it was withdrawn.

Changes in the political climate finally allowed her acceptance into the Writer’s Union, but following World War II, there was an official decree banning publication of her poetry and Andrey Zhadanov, the Secretary of the Central Committee, expelled her from the Writer’s Union, calling her “half nun, half harlot”. Her son, Lev, was arrested in 1949 and held in jail until 1956. To try to win his release, Akhmatova wrote poems in praise of Stalin and the government, but it was of no use. Later she requested that these poems not appear in her collected works. She began writing and publishing again in 1958, but with heavy censorship. Young poets like Joseph Brodsky flocked to her. To them, she represented a link with the pre-Revolutionary past which had been destroyed by the Communists.

Though Akhmatova was frequently confronted with official government opposition to her work during her lifetime, she was deeply loved and lauded by the Russian people, in part because she did not abandon her country during difficult political times. Her most accomplished works, Requiem (which was not published in its entirety in Russia until 1987) and Poem Without a Hero, are reactions to the horror of the Stalinist Terror, during which time she endured artistic repression as well as tremendous personal loss.

Akhmatova also translated the works of Victor Hugo, Rabindranath Tagore, Giacomo Leopardi, and various Armenian and Korean poets, and she wrote memoirs of Symbolist writer Aleksandr Blok, the artist Amedeo Modigliani, and fellow Acmeist Osip Mandelstam. In 1964 she was awarded the Etna-Taormina prize and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University in 1965. Her journeys to Sicily and England to receive these honors were her first travels outside Russia since 1912. Two years before her death at the age of 76, Akhmatova was chosen president of the Writers’ Union. Akhmatova died in 1966 in Leningrad, where she had spent most of life.

— from

More poetry by Anna Akhmatova

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Anna Akhmatova – A land not mine”

  1. Janeon 08 Mar 2017 at 9:55 am

    I love this poem. Its last lines annihilate in a blessed way.

  2. Janeon 08 Mar 2017 at 10:01 am

    Can you tell me how to follow a blog or website–yours, that is.

  3. Ivan M. Grangeron 08 Mar 2017 at 10:20 am

    Jane- If you like, I can add you to the Poetry Chaikhana poem email mailing list. Let me know if you’d like that. (Another option is to ‘subscribe’ to the blog’s RSS feed, often an option through your email program.) ~Ivan

  4. Berylon 08 Mar 2017 at 12:00 pm

    The light shines through the darkness and we see

  5. Samm Carltonon 08 Mar 2017 at 12:52 pm

    Dear Ivan,
    This poem by Anna Akmatova is also one of my favorite poems (in translation) so far.
    And, it seems so simple, so spare, doesn’t it?

    Thank you Ivan, once more for your choice, especially to celebrate International women’s Day.


  6. marrobon 08 Mar 2017 at 2:30 pm

    I agree, this is a fine choice for IWD.
    Thank you, Ivan, for letting it come through.

    It seems to breathe a feminine principle in the words
    and between them. I keep rereading it at sunset.

    The secret of secrets is inside me again. I love that line.
    I appreciate the details of her life too. A person true to herself.
    A fine tribute , any day.

  7. Carolon 09 Mar 2017 at 6:18 am

    Thank You Ivan! Such a lovely poem – am not familiar with the poet, but would like
    to read more!. Loved The Thought for the Day and always your commentary is helpful.

    Her life had been so very difficult, but with the coming of spring it feels as if the
    secret of secrets is inside me again. Love that line. . . Carol

  8. Pegon 09 Mar 2017 at 6:59 am

    Thank you Ivan. I love Jane Kenyon’s translations of Akhmatova.

  9. Susie Rockon 09 Mar 2017 at 10:32 am

    Ivan what a wonderful poem and such a fitting poet to choose for International Women’s Day!

    A wonderful tribute as well!



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