Tuesday, June 25, 2013

“The last songs are gathering…”: Reflections on Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova (2012) / Image courtesy of Valerij Ledenev

One of the books that I am most excited to get my hands on this year is Relocations: Three Contemporary Women Poets, which comes out with Zephyr Press in August. The collection includes Russian poems by Polina Barskova, Anna Glazova, and Maria Stepanova, translated into English by three more women: Catherine Ciepiela, Anna Khasin, and Sibelan Forrester. Thats six writers for the price of one! According to Amazon’s description of Relocations, the three poets were all born in the 1970s and “came of age” during the frenzied years of Perestroika:

They are old enough to have visceral memories of Soviet life but young enough to move adeptly with the new influences, new media and new life choices introduced in the post-Soviet era. In distinct ways all three are engaged in the project of renovating Russia’s great modernist tradition for a radically different historical situation.

Even if I knew nothing about the poets, this description alone would be compelling enough to make me want to buy the book. These three women are my coevals, and I find it fascinating to consider how their generation in Russia has tracked alongside mine, though on a completely different path. Given their experience, it is only natural that they have been among those writers seeking a new poetic idiom for post-Soviet Russia – as poets always must do, but as is all the more necessary in their case.

More than the other two poets, Maria Stepanova has kept crossing my radar in recent years. The first poem that I remember reading by her was “O,” which came out in the journal Znamia in 2006. At the time, I was on the lookout for poets to translate, and even though I still have never tried my hand at translating Stepanova’s poems (except piecemeal in this post), the sound of her voice stuck with me.

The poem begins with Stepanova’s reflection on another Maria Stepanova – no doubt better known than her by the sports-loving general public – who played center for the Russian national basketball team until 2011. In a helpful footnote to “O,” we learn that the other Stepanova is 202 centimeters tall (or 6’7”) and was selected in 2005 as the best woman basketball player in Europe. (Apparently, she is also one of the few women who can dunk.) After an intentionally misquoted epigraph by Velimir Khlebnikov about a ball and sword, Stepanova proceeds to describe her namesake:

Her height is just right for this sort of thing—
to look the air in its half-opened mouth
and pop in a caramel (the color of its rubber):
a dazzling ball into a vulnerable basket,
grounding itself at the other end of the arc,
through the funnel where it was coaxed by
kisses of soles and soil, the minutes ticking by,
the rumble from the stands, the slap of each pass.

(У неё подходящий для этого дела рост— / Чтоб заглядывать воздуху в полуоткрытый рот / И совать карамельку (в цветную его резину): / Ослепительный мяч в подставленную корзину, / Приземлив себя на другой конец вертикали, / В ту воронку, куда баюкали-утекали / Поцелуи подошв и грунта, минуты часа, / Урчанье трибун, шлепок каждого паса.)