Detail from cover of An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets
Image courtesy of Carcanet Press
Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a collection of Russian poetry whose very existence many of its contributors seem to object to: Daniel Weissbort and Valentina Polukhina’s Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets. Actually, the anthology began its life as an issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (no. 20, 2002) and only later came out as a stand-alone book; the version I have is the journal issue. Reading between the lines as I moved through it, I got the distinct sense that the poets and critics involved on the Russian side were mystified by the Western editors’ desire to segregate the women from the men. (Polukhina, though Russian, lives and works in England. She is married to Weissbort.)
In one of the issue’s several prefatory pieces, Tatyana Voltskaya reminds readers that medieval theologians would often debate whether women even had souls, and she takes the demand for anthologies of women’s writing as evidence that the issue of sexism has not yet been settled, even if the writers themselves find it irrelevant: “I cannot escape the feeling that the shadow of that accursed question, formulated by pedantic theologians, still hangs over us, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.” The anthologists’ urge to respond (“They do have souls!”) is especially perplexing when you realize, she says, that “if one ignores the very summit (Brodsky, in particular), women-poets in Russia, in recent decades, have been better writers.” There may be no injustice, she implies, that needs to be remedied. Likewise, Aleksei Alekhin, another preface writer, finds the need for such an anthology baffling: “It has always seemed to me that divisions according to gender should apply only to changing-rooms and public toilets—because of natural bashfulness. In poetry, there is nothing to be ashamed of.”
As for the poet-contributors, one of them, Vera Pavlova, claims that the very category of women’s poetry is limited by its own ideology: “There is ‘women’s poetry’ and there is poetry, written by women. There’s hardly any connection between them. The first doesn’t interest me in the least, and the second I find enormously interesting.” Yunna Morits, another poet who was included in the MPT issue, objected so strongly to the nature of the anthology that she had herself removed from the book version before it was published.
Whatever your politics, you will encounter a great number of phenomenal poets if you pick up the anthology. And the translators whose work appears in it rank among the best. I have only two wishes: 1) that the Russian originals had been reproduced along with the translations, and 2) that more of the translators had made an effort to re-create the rhymes and metrical patterns of the source texts. Left without either one, we can only make vague guesses at how each poem must have sounded as we gaze at the blank face of its English incarnation.
Regardless, the poems are first-rate, and as a nod of admiration to my fellow translators, I’ve included some of my favorite lines below:
Beyond Siberia again Siberia,
beyond impenetrable forest again forest.
And beyond it waste ground,
where a blizzard of snow breaks loose.
- Regina Derieva, “Beyond Siberia again Siberia”
(trans. Kevin Carey)
It’s good when the breathing in the next room
is my sons’ and not a cell-mate’s;
it’s good to wake up, not groaning
at an envenomed reality.
- Natalya Gorbanevskaya, “This, from the diagnosis”
(trans. Daniel Weissbort)
Once I used to study languages dead for millennia,
Losing sleep over the other-worldly verbs:
My voice broke on the fall of a line-break
As it tried to keep up with night’s bolting car.
- Olesia Nikolaeva, “Once I used to study”
(trans. Catriona Kelly)
Holy Russia was what you talked about,
the drowned city of Kitezh,
where Saint Sergius shares his bread with a bear,
where at Easter the blessed Serafim
says, Good morning my delight,
where his smile lights stars in the noon sky,
where prisoners pray for their guards.
- Olga Sedakova, “Letter”
(trans. Catriona Kelly)
Under the weak northern lights
The sky walks on tumours.
The blockade eats up
The soul, like a wolf eats his paw in a snare,
Like a fish eats a worm,
Like bottomless wisdom eats words…
- Elena Shvarts, “A Portrait of the Blockade”
(trans. James McGavran)