Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets

Two women dominate the history of Russian poetry: Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva. Both authors transcended the label of “woman poet” and live in the realm of the eternal untouchable legends of Russian poetry. To wit, I remember a Russian professor in college correcting a short essay I wrote on an Akhmatova poem because I used a feminine noun to describe her, as what in English we would call a “poetess.” My professor crossed that word out emphatically and wrote in the column in bold Cyrillic letters: “Akhmatova is a POET,” using the masculine-gendered noun to correct a term Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva were both outspoken in rejecting. In the strictly-gendered Russian language, this choice of gender is not a trivial distinction, and provided a lesson in gender politics that has stuck with me to this day.

Yet since these two grand dames, standard bearers of the rich Russian poetic tradition and shining lights of 20th century poetry, passed away, there have been precious few Russian women poets translated into English. This is where Zephyr Press comes in, and bless them for it. Relocations: 3 Contemporary Russian Women Poets is their latest bilingual collection of contemporary poetry by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova. Relocations was released around the same time as their edition of Anzhelina Polonskaya’s Paul Klee’s Boat, and in just two books, Zephyr Press has published more Russian women poets than all other American publishers in the last 20 years combined. And they’ve been doing it for a while now.

Relocations is a 21st collection of poetry in constant dialogue with Russia’s past, present, and future. The ghosts of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva haunt the pages, as does the brutal history of Russia and the Soviet Union’s 20th century, with its revolutions and wars, and the middle-class stabilization and increasing internationalism of Putin’s 2000s. These three quite different but well-paired Russian women poets are each attempting to “modernize” Russian poetry, while at the same time reclaiming the status of “woman poet”:

“. . . they [Barskova, Glazova, and Stepanova] confidently leave behind Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova as poets of female desire, while remaining conscious of themselves as writing women. Stepanova insists on calling herself a ‘ poetess,’ a knowing postmodern reclaiming of a category Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova felt necessary to reject.”

In her introduction, editor Catherine Ciepiela notes that these women live and work internationally, in contrast to their lyric Russian poet forebears like Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Joseph Brodsky, whose movements were restricted by Soviet authorities. The “relocations” of the collection’s title are as much physical as artistic, as each poet’s work “relocates” across genres of poetry as much as each poem represents part of the international lives these 21st century Russian women live in Russia (in the case of Stepanova), abroad (Barskova and Glazova), and the spaces in between.

Polina Barskova’s poetry is included first in the collection, translated by the collection’s editor, Catherine Ciepiela. Her work is dominated by a conversational tone that puts emphasis on the sounds of words strung together, stretched across the page in unrhyming, varying forms free verse. Dual language poetry books are awesome for this reason, especially if you know the original language, and Ciepiela does a fantastic job translating Barskova’s language into a playful, yet serious, English, as in this excerpt from “The Translator I”:

bq, We flounder through powdery snow
Siamese t-t-
Twins joined by the tongue’s sweet saliva,
My round-the-word dawns break inside you over you
With awkward precision—
A tattoo job,
Wet still, trace of blood from the needle,
The trace of my writing stains you.

Barskova writes from a first person, seemingly autobiographical narrative “I”, unafraid to link herself to the history of Russian letters, as in the epic “Leningrad Directory of Writers at the Front 1941-45,” which provides creative interpretation of the choices made by the Soviet Union’s most famous poets and artists to survive the brutal Leningrad siege in World War II. And at the same time, Barskova is capable of moments of profound beauty in imagery and ideas, as in her section’s closing poem, “Tomatoes and Sunflowers”:

Brimming—branches, shadows, lineaments,
Flavor and scent not quite stench, just exhaling.
Grasses black, brown, blue, then down from the
Sky, a gust—there’s a rush, shuddering.
But as soon as the picture completes itself
And perspective shrinks to zero, everything
Collapses. You know what will stay with me?
The spider web—its dire embroidery,
The tomato—the crack that won’t close again,
Half-minute foretaste of ashes, calamity—
I was given it all, none of it promised to me.

Anna Glazova, translated by Anna Khasin, is a quite different poet from Barskova and Stepanova, and writes much shorter poems that are unnamed, uncapitalized, and unrhymed, with a detached narrator observing the essence of the world around them in a style that is at once sensually lush and haunting:

the work of hands is the work of ears of grain.
through bread we want to touch death.
who eats bread.

we, wheat, growing, don’t know.

he who cuts
breaks the whole thing with all.

Glazova’s style is described in the introduction as “phenomenological,” reflecting the individual’s direct interpretation of their surroundings. The closing poem in Glazova’s section is a fitting image of her style, encapsulated in the haunting final line, a rare instance of the narrative first-person:

it takes all kinds of thoughts to come of departure,
hid the throat in the collar, somebody standing in the backyard
or taking a feral way to the through yard.

given that to wait for an answer
is simpler for me than to arrive home.
and the sense of a foothold keeps getting lost.

this is me remembering how hard it is sometimes to walk before the wind.

The poems of Maria Stepanova, translated by Sibelan Forrester, are bold, narrative reflections on the world, especially current affairs, with a strong narrator writing in the first person. Stepanova is well known in Russia as the founder of Openspace.ru, an online journal of cultural commentary akin to The Huffington Post. She more recently founded Russia’s first publicly-funded cultural journal, Colta.ru. Unlike Glazova’s work, which straddles ambiguous narrative spaces by not identifying the narrator, Stepanova writes strongly feminine and feminist poems that play with form, rhyme, meter, and content, that drop endings off of words, leave out lines, and hint at what remains unsaid between the lines. These poems are quite different from the works of Barskova and Glazova, both in terms of form (longer, rhyming at times) and content, they all refer directly to the feminine form in its many forms, with political intonations both indirectly and directly expressed, as from the “The Wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, Broadcast Live by RTL German TV”:

But who is a man, and who inhabits him,
Puffs him up, follows after him as if he’s a plough,
As pregnancy reduces the female form to zero,
Traces the coming contour with an unseen circle,
So its cramped O will be filled from within,
And are you and I to remember it forever?

Between the poems on current events and contemporary political topics, the Russian and Soviet past makes an appearance in Stepanova’s work as well. Like to Barskova’s poem about the Leningrad siege, Stepanova’s “Sarra on the Barricades” gives a history of Stepanova’s own great-grandmother, who participated in the 1905 revolution, and who miraculously lived long enough to know her great-granddaughter. The poem is a spectacular recreation of Russia’s 20th century history, dominated as it was by women, the women who were left home, left to make do and keep the country running with what ravaged remnants of society remained while the men went off to fight and die by the millions in revolution after revolution, war after war, purge after purge:

Now—just in my own cramped skull.
With her daughter.
With her granddaughter.
With her great-granddaughter me.
The storm cloud swallow of feminist skies.
Noah of a female ark.
And when she crowns the barricade,
I shall not bare her arms and breasts,
But neither will I drape her with a flag,
Because there’s no such flag.
And neither the color red, nor the white and blue
Are suited to such a task.

In the cacophonous lead-up to the Sochi Olympics in a few weeks, these last lines remind the reader that politics in Russia is an inhuman constant, whether under the flag of the Soviets or the ostensibly democratic Russian Federation. Their sentiment of the flag as beneath humanity echoes one of my favorite poems by the American poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz, writing in the height of the George W. Bush war era: “I don’t believe a flag / is important / / enough to kiss— / or even burn. / / Some men would hate me / enough to kill me / if they read those words.”

Reviewing poetry presents a world of problems. Reviewing translated poetry presents another world of problems in addition. Reviewing translated poetry by women poets throws the male reviewer into a universe of problems that could take lifetimes to extract himself from. As with most reviews, context is everything. How to contextualize the contents of the work under review is the most important task any reviewer faces, and with a collection like Relocations, the reviewer could go in any number of contextual directions, before settling, finally, on presenting these three incredible female poets as a vital new chapter in the history Russian poetry.

Relocations is a highly enjoyable collection of poetry introducing the English-language world to three incredibly diverse and talented women poets writing in Russian that could be as meaningful to a casual fan of poetry as to a comparative literature scholar. Since the 80s, Zephyr Press has published more Russian poetry than just about anybody, including numerous women poets, starting with the comprehensive collected works of Anna Akhmatova, a thick tome that has become the standardized edition that I remember all so well buying from my college bookstore as a wide-eyed freshman, Akhmatova’s legendary profile on the cover. It would have been easy for Zephyr Press to stop there—after all, most publishers do, rarely delving into contemporary poetry; but Zephyr Press started publishing contemporary Russian poetry in the 1990s in a bilingual anthology called In the Grips of Strange Thoughts, which morphed into a series of Russia’s most interesting contemporary poets.

Relocations is a fantastic addition to the In the Grips list, and a much-needed, timely, fun, and all-too-relevant read in 2014. The best part about anthologies like Relocations is that no matter what style of poetry you like best, it’s included within, though you’re more likely to enjoy all three poets as their poems strike various chords in your mind as you make your way through the collection. A great anthology, highly recommended.

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