Paul Klee's Boat
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the world of dancing and moved back home to the small town where she was born to focus on describing the ice within the human heart. Paul Klee’s Boat is Polonskaya’s first collection of poems published in English since her debut A Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2004), also translated by Wachtel. Her poems have been published widely in the meantime, in World Literature Today, Poetry Review, the American Poetry Review and International Poetry Review, Drunken Boat, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner.
Described as “a rising star in Russia,” Polonskaya rose to prominence in the tumultuous post-Soviet 90s. One of the notable things about her is that she does not live in Moscow, but rather in a small town in the outer ring of exurbs outside Moscow. This distance, along with her unique background as an ice dancer with no formal poetry training other than what she read on her own from the great Russian poets, grants her work a sort of outsider status in the Russian poetry scene.
As you make your way through the collection, you will hear echoes of said great Russian poets, none more evident than the anguished voice of Akhmatova, reinvented in Polonskaya’s tragic “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM,” a cycle of poems written over several years in remembrance of the 118 sailors killed in the sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk submarine in August 2000. If there were one reason alone to buy this collection of poems, it would be for this requiem. It is tremendous. Powerful. Epic. Timeless. And so, so sad.
For some background on the Kursk submarine and why Polonskaya would devote a cycle of poems to the memory of its lost sailors, shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia, while America was immersed in the Bush-Gore presidential campaign, the sinking of the Kursk became the first international incident affecting Putin, and gave hints to how he would engage the rest of the world for the next decade plus. After an explosion on board killed a large number of the sailors instantly, the submarine sank to the bottom of the Barents Sea in salvageable condition, and in relatively shallow water, but with an unknown number of the men still alive (some think it was most of the crew), no power, and oxygen depleting fast. Putin spurned offers of help from British and Norwegian rescue expeditions despite the lack of Russian crews that could do anything to help in the vicinity. In the delayed Russian response to the tragedy, all 118 sailors died. The men who survived the explosion suffocated to death, knocking in vain on the hull of the submarine for days on end in an attempt to alert rescue crews, and rumor has it several managed to write farewell letters to their loved ones. The tragedy became a permanent stain on Putin’s presidency. Many Russians will never forgive him for ignoring the chance to save the men on board in favor of trying to prove the still-weakened Russian state’s competency in its own matters—and failing miserably.
Westerners have all but forgotten the Kursk incident, since Putin went back to war with Chechnya around the same time and 9/11 distracted all foreign media for the decade since. But the Kursk sinking still means so much, and Polonskaya has provided the first attempt to come to terms with this tragedy, and she writes with a palpable sadness, alternating between the voices of Chorus, Sailor, Siren, and Angel to tell the tale of loss without ever naming the submarine or its sailors directly:
00:15. Water in the hold. The deck rocks.
We sail. A taut wire of legs,
we bespatter the walls.
00:45. We’re sinking. The anchor glows
like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the cries,
the sea sucks the Great Bear.
00:53. The storm laid the blueness of its hands
on the heeling boat. Called for help,
no answer. Nothing lasts forever.
The effect is haunting. The nameless sailors transcend the political ramifications of Putin’s inaction and become universally recognizable victims. The voices in “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM” provided the basis for the libretto to David Chisholm’s orchestral adaptation of the cycle, which premiered in Melbourne’s Arcko Symphonic Project in October 2011 (a link to watch a documentary on the making of the adaptation of Polonskaya’s poem into music can be found here on Vimeo, which also includes a video performance of the piece).
“KURSK” is presented at the end of the collection, which Wachtel lays out in an orderly fashion that follows, seemingly, some sort of thematic logic, wherein a poem about one subject segues into another poem on a similar subject, which opens the door into another theme, and so on. The first thematic cycle is a dialogue between the poet and the work of classic visual artists, from the collection’s namesake Paul Klee to Picasso, Magritte, and Michelangelo’s David. From the breathtaking “Like David”:
There’ll be snow tomorrow. It will alter our faces, sewing solemn lines of
Winter’s white goats will wander the orchard, stripping bark from the apple
and they’ll look into the windows where we warm our hands over a quiet
Such are the days here, like drops of water in a prisoner’s solitary cell.
And we are immobile, like David, our legs planted deep in the ground.
Subsequent themes reveal themselves as layered elements that build off and complement each other in the shape and scope of each poem. The poems ponder a wide range of themes, such as the relationship between humanity and nature; or of the triumph of evil over good; of love lost; of “God’s indifference”; snow and cold (standing in for so, so much, emotional and physical, “the snow within”); the passage of time; the fragility of memory; family ties; soldiers and war.
The poems in Paul Klee’s Boat are for the most part unrhymed free verse. Occasional rhymes in the Russian are translated into English unrhymed, and occasionally structured poetic forms appear, but without holding true to the forms’ stylistic convention. The first half of the collection consists of shorter poems, all a page or less, then rounds out with five longer cycles of poems, starting with “The Wave,” a requiem about the devastating 2005 tsunami in Thailand, followed by the more personal “Greek Diary,” “Dalmatian Cycle,” and “Free Verses,” in which Polonskaya reflects on her own style, all of which crescendo in the epic sweep of the closing cycle, “KURSK: AN ORATORIO REQUIEM.”
The collection is not expressly political, and I am loathe to always analyze Russian poetry and literature toward the political, and Polonskaya never names names, nor does she descend into open criticisms of anyone in particular (“KURSK” being an exception to the rest of the poems). But there is an undercurrent of malaise in these poems that recalls the period of “stagnation” under Brezhnev, that has been morphed under Putin into “timelessness,” i.e. Russia has become a land that exists out of sync with the rest of the world. You can see it in the short excerpt above from “Like David,” the prisoners with their legs stuck in the cold winter’s ground. It’s as if perestroika and the Berlin Wall’s collapse never happened in Russia, and people can’t decide if Putin has thrown Russia back into the 1980 Soviet Union or Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovy. Without saying it, but in unspoken acknowledgement, Polonskaya paints a grim portrait of a contemporary Russia developing a sense of its own angst, gaining a voice yet still ultimately powerless, that reminds me of the pre-revolutionary poets and their entrapment between the tsar’s vice grip on power and the murky future that revolution would bring.
Paul Klee’s Boat is part of the series of contemporary Russian poetry called “In the Grips of Strange Thoughts” that Zephyr Press has published since an extensive anthology of the same name in 1999. Zephyr Press is an amazing and dedicated independent publisher that has been around since 1980, and has become one of the most important publishers of international poetry in translation, especially from the Russian. Their complete collection of Anna Akhamotva’s poetry put them on the publishing map in 1990, and they have since published emerging poets and new voices from across the world.
In short, Anzhelina Polonskaya is a fantastic poet whose work calls to mind Russia’s great poets past, and Paul Klee’s Boat is a vital addition to the contemporary poetry canon, a collection as interesting as it is touching that will inevitably be remembered for years to come.