Common Denominators & Distinct Differences

edited by Valentina Polukhina and Daniel Weissbort
[Carcanet, 14.95]

As a lover of Russian poetry a little too ensconced in the Silver Age, I found this a wonderful collection for a wealth of reasons. The editors act as a formidable team. Valentina Polukhina, clearly on a mission, provides a highly inclusive collection of women poets drawn from all parts of the former Soviet Union, and the Russian Diaspora. Daniel Weissbort, himself a true poet-translator - from an eclectic mix of translators - gives us high quality translations free of archaisms, inversions, 'translatese' and the worst forms of artificial metre and rhyme. The scholarship is also daunting: a superb bibliography, lists of periodicals, websites, etc, as well intros, prefaces, and essays from various writers giving a thorough survey of the contemporary Russian scene.

True to the book's egalitarian nature the poets are listed alphabetically. This allows the reader the fun of rock-climbing without a rope. I was immediately taken by the rather lovely soft liquidity of Regina Derieva's 'I don't feel at home where I am' well rendered by Alan Shaw:

     ...only where,
     beyond counting, there's freedom and calm,
     that is, waves, that is, space where, when there,
     you consist of pure freedom, which, seen,
     turns that Gorgon, the crowd, to stone,
     to pebbles and sand...

I also enjoyed the Wendy Cope like funny-serious poems of Marina Boroditskaya. Consider 'Sound Letter', a poem to cheer all those poets aspiring to top journals:

     Hullo Lord!
     A minor poet
     Is writing to You,
     A voice from the choir,
     A little pine tree from the forest,
     A clarinet in the school orchestra.
          [translated by Ruth Fainlight]

Finally, Vera Pavlova's 'Grass' stood out because it was one of the few in a traditional form. Though a little old-fashioned, Maura and Terence Dooley's translation, with its plain, often monosyllabic, diction combined with the careful use of alliteration, assonance and rhyme, and regular iambic tri-meter provides something satisfying:

     Oh praise the lowly stalk
     that will not sing alone
     enfolds its single talk
     in general conversation
     commingles with the lawn
     and, neighborlike, will share
     the shade, the rain, the air
     and, standing tall, will hide
     the unofficial mint,
     the bridegroom and the bride.

Yet climbing ropes, have their value and there is nothing to stop the reader 'looking up the answers in the back'. The women in this selection are born between 1936 and 1981 and there are patterns to be detected. The issue of a women's anthology is debated at certain points in the book and Yunna Morits (like Elizabeth Bishop before her) refused to be included. As Weissbort points out though, the reason for the focus on women was quite pragmatic and both editors would have liked originally to produce a complete survey of contemporary Russian poetry. As a collection of women's poetry it is refreshingly free of the more 'traditionally' female themes: motherhood, domesticity, and that old 'all men are bastards' chestnut. As Tatyana Bek says, 'We've all got history on our hands...' Both the Russian experience and the task of being a poet dominate many of the poems in this volume.
Though Russia acts as the common denominator there are distinct differences to be detected between the generations. As one might expect, the poetry of the oldest poets frequently often focuses on imprisonment, repression, and the suffering history has imposed on the Russian people. There is Elena' Shvarts's Blockade poem and Natalia Gorbanevskaya's firsthand experience of imprisonment, for example. However, it is the less well-known writers of the nineties, marginalized in Russia itself till recently, that the editors are particularly keen to promote. Dmitry Kuzmin's essay on the samizdat journal Vavilon does a marvellous job in informing us of the pliead of 'angry young women' with their 'tendency to convey the fragmented consciousness of the youthful writer of today swamped by all kinds of information'. Their poetry is often difficult and but one is more prepared to engage with it when one understands what they are trying to do. We also see many of these young poets introducing a feisty urban feel to their poems with references to popular culture, or just a less 'poetic' language, such as Yana Tokareva's 'Brief reflection on the greatness of God:

     So wondrous are
     the Almightly's deeds
     that I'm a bit blown away by it:
     got myself specs see.
          [translated by Daniel Weissbort] 

Elsewhere there are young poets following more in the tradition of Akhmatova. Consider the love poet Negar, conveyed with Richard Mckane's sure touch:

     Forgive me that I opened the door silently,
     without knocking enter your fate,
     that I lit the fire but then turned cool,
     that I searched but did not find.

Or the fine lyricism touch of Stella Morotskaya's 'Morning sleep'

     Morning sleep
     It's sweeter than your palms
     whiter than knees, milk and down duvets
          [translated by Vitaly Chernetsky]

There are many other groupings to be detected. Poets of the Diaspora have different experiences yet again. There are also a number of Jewish poets inside and outside Russia who deal with anti-Semitism head on. Here Zoya Ezrokhi does it with a wry sense of humour:

     Today I stayed at home,
     Fearing a pogrom against he Jews,
     In the name of Russian Christianity.
     The dog pointed its muzzle at the door.
     "Don't ask," I snapped.
          [translated by Daniel Weissbort]

Simon Armitage described the job of being a poet in the west as 'shouting down the toilet'. Russia has until recently been in a more privileged position with the bulk of the populace appreciating their poets. Larisa Miller's 'the light cross of lonely strolls' epitomised for me the attitude many of these women poets have towards their chosen vocation:

     The light cross of lonely strolls
     O, Mandelstam
     I write poems, what's more in Russian
     And I don't want any other workload,
     I don't want any other job.
     Honestly I don't want to shoulder
     any other enterprise.
     The time of year involves me,
     The moment of risk, the hour of the soul...
     I sharpen my pencils with them.
     Pencils. Not knife or teeth.
     The silver trumpets sing
     In the frail neighbouring forest
     Where I will carry my usual cross
     Of lyric-making strolls.
     Each backstreet is full
     Of the torment of the soul and yearning
     For feminine and masculine rhymes.
          [translated by Richard Mckane]

We can only hope that Russians can keep a remnant of the special value that they have always placed on poetry, but what is certain is that the women poets writing today are very aware that they belong to such a tradition, and this is ultimately what makes this such an uplifting volume.

            Belinda Cooke 2005