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.) 

Stepanova-the-poet continues with her description of Stepanova-the-player, documenting what she sees on the court while at the same time imagining by way of vivid metaphors how the player does what she does, what it must feel like, and what sort of tribal identity she represents. In fact, that just may be the governing theme of the poem: representation. (Or could it be transformation? Perhaps both.)

In an unexpected shift, the next section of “O” concerns the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, which the poet and her companion (fiancé?) watch from the couch on German television, like “geese / gazing out from Easter baskets” («гуси / Глядят из пасхальных корзин»). At some moments, she and her partner fuse with what is unfolding on the screen, while at others, the TV wedding becomes a spectacle that has little to do with any one couple’s relationship and instead represents only collective fantasies. The section closes with limousines returned to their garages, hats to hatboxes, and the newlyweds lying down “like dogs,” where they will remain, ominously, “like lions.”

A motif running beneath “O” from start to finish is corporeality – after all, the first two sections concern bodies that we gaze upon – and it reaches its apogee in the third and final section, when Stepanova muses upon her own pregnancy. In fact, that theme had first emerged in the Charles and Camilla section, where the poet wondered, “How does the female body zeroize its pregnancy / … / to fill out the compact O [of a new person] from inside?” Now, she visits the zoo with her partner and identifies in a rather physical way with the “wretched” animals within, “two-winged, four-legged,” who put on weight and bear their young, just like her. Many of Stepanova’s poems follow this same pattern: she begins with her own experience and moves towards something more general. In this case, by the end of the poem her pregnancy has become a tribal and animal phenomenon, representing simultaneously the political future and the evolutionary past, with the life inside her becoming “a dimensionless O, like a wide window aperture” («Безразмерное О, как широкий оконный проём»).

I have described this poem in some detail in order to emphasize just how much it differs from the poems in her newest collection, Kireyevsky (Киреевский). When I was in Moscow last summer, I happened to pick up a copy of the book, and I’m glad I did, because it later appeared on a number of best-of-2012 lists and was nominated for several major prizes. While poems like “O” employ a documentary method that moves from the personal to the universal, I can find little trace of the factual or the personal in Kireyevsky. On the contrary, the book traffics in myth, abstraction, and universalism. In this way, it reminds me more of central European poetry (Polish, Slovenian, Serbian) than it does of most contemporary Russian poetry. Think of the powerful allegorism of poets like Czeslaw Milosz or Vasko Popa — or to give one specific example, think of Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.” Such is the visionary realm that Stepanova seems now to be working in.

In the collection’s first poem, for instance, Stepanova describes a group of young pilots, always “on the move” («на колесах»), returning home with a wounded companion in their arms. They bring their mothers to see the “wretch” («убогий»), give him bread and wine, and plant buttercups («Лютики содят» [sic]) at the foot of his bed. When the pilots leave, they do so unwillingly, with tears in their eyes, “regretting their youth” («сожалея молодость свою»). Poems like this one simply beg to be read allegorically. Through their universalism and dreamlike logic, they reach the level of myth, so that the poem ends up being not about a few pilots, but about Russia itself. What sacrifice or loss does the “wretch” represent? Why does his society consist only of mothers and soldiers?

Reading Kireyevsky, we encounter poem after poem that read, like the first one, as allegory. A few pages into the book, for example, we find a dialogue between a mother and daughter about a man with chasm-like eyes who lives beneath their building, fallen in a heap like a bedspread. Who is he? The younger woman’s husband, it turns out: “Ah, daughter, you and I didn’t know / that our lost Aleksey / lives in the unheated basement / half-forgotten by people.” («Ах, дочка, мы с тобой не знали, / Что наш пропавший Алексей / Живёт в нетопленном подвале, / Полузабытый от людей.») Stepanova’s mindscape is littered with just this sort of dysfunction.

Midway through the book, we find a poem that exemplifies her new allegorical method. This one is completely figurative, since, after all, songs are not people:

The last songs are gathering,
warriors on an invisible front:
They are leaving the area,
escaping a few lines at a time,
and meeting at the rendezvous point,
as they glance around warily.


And they keep silent while the cannons thunder.
And they keep silent while the muses thunder.

(Собираются последние песни, / Бойцы невидимого фронта: / Выходят из окруженья, / По две-три строки бегут из плена, / Являются к месту встречи, / Затравленно озираясь. // // И молчат, пока грохочут пушки. / И молчат, пока грохочут музы.)

Again, we are compelled to extrapolate a larger meaning. Clearly, a culture is dying, but what are the causes? How is it happening? Cannons are one thing, but why do the muses constitute a threat to the songs too? Reading a poem like this one, I think, “What a pleasure it would be to discuss its ambiguity in a seminar with my students!” Their answers would no doubt be enlightening, especially if they knew something about contemporary Russian society and politics. My mind alone leaps to one solution after another.

All told, Stepanova’s shift towards complete allegorism seems to be a recent evolution in her aesthetics. Like “O,” the few poems currently available by Stepanova in English translation (all of them several years old) tend to begin with something concrete and then migrate in the direction of something abstract – to shift, that is, from the personal to the universal. But their initial impulse is documentary, not mythic, and in this way they contrast with the poems of Kireyevsky. For instance, a poem entitled “It’s God or else,” which appeared in Dalkey’s Contemporary Russian Poetry in Forrester’s translation, seems to have been prompted by Stepanova’s riverside observations of a squirrel in a tree, though it ultimately leads her to contemplate the motives of God himself. And another one called “A Few Positions,” translated by Tatyana Golub, begins quite literally with the personal (“I am writing…” “I am narrating…” “I am alone…”) and only then moves towards more general conclusions. As I read her less recent poetry, I see this pattern everywhere.

Will my hypothesis about Stepanova’s poetics hold for her entire career? Has she typically grounded her poems in facts and observations and only recently shifted her emphasis to dreams and myths? Honestly, I doubt it’s so simple, but I’ll only really know for sure when Relocations arrives in my mailbox and I can take it in in one gulp. I look forward to the answer!

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