Nicholas Birns Reviews Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology

1 February 2014

Some of the most original poets are those who juggle personal immediacy, tangible imagery, and thematic implications in one linguistic performance. Two of Mark Shatunovsky’s poems, ‘The Fly’ and ‘Petty Man’s Poem’ displays this energising getting-into-gear-on-all-fronts. ‘The Fly’ gives a detailed description of a fly’s world, dipping us into it enough to make us feel it is ours, and then shows the fly being killed with a slap of that day’s evening newspaper, and ‘the dust of the events discussed within.’ The poem tells a suspenseful, moving, and in the end bitter story, all the while gesturing to the power of political contingencies to impinge on individual lives, a predicament ameliorated in post-Soviet Russia but, as recent events from Sochi to Kiev have demonstrated, not yet entirely absent. ‘Petty Man’s Poem’ evokes someone more like Evgenii in Pushkin’s ‘Bronze Horseman’ than the lishniy chelovek, the superfluous man, of the mid-1800s. Pettiness here, though, is not lamented nor sentimentalised, but seen – in the way it adheres to minute, tangible objects – as a final stay against ambient meaninglessness. Shatunovsky sounds classic chords in the Russian tradition but comes up with a sensibility very much new and one that is his own.

The three poets who the general international reader may have heard of before perusing this volume are most likely Sergey Gandlevsky, Olga Sedakova, and Elena Shvarts. All three are potential Nobel Prize winners; readers of poetry everywhere should know all. Gandlevsky’s register – at once opulent, meditative, and subtle – is on wining display in ‘Such Rust And Pale Yellow’, a poignant reverie on youth and age which presents the poet, in mental terms fully accepting of the wise vulnerability of later years, still yet yearning ‘for a twenty-something woman in a long black coat’ (127). Sedakova’s ‘The Earth,’ dedicated to the learned theorist and critic Sergei Averintsev, shows the earth’s ‘wan, no longer wanted light left over’ (69), at first we might think, as foil for a transcendental or mystical revelation, but ultimately in a deep defense of Earth’s (perhaps capitalised and without a definite article, in a Heideggerean way) and its capacity to absorb, to renew, and to withstand. Sedakova elsewhere sounds a drier melancholy:

Ah, my darling Augustin
It’s all gone, dear Augustin 
All gone, all finished.
     Finished as usual. (67)

Shvarts is the most resolutely lyrical of the three, but lyricism is in a sense the practical state of, not the a priori condition of, her poems. ‘My separateness is getting on my nerves’ (33). If lyricism persists, though, it is not so much as a neutral ground as a felt problem, the quandary of the lyric position being, as Anna Russ, the youngest poet included in the collection, ‘isolated splashes of my lamentations’ (471) Shvarts sense of the inextricability of love and fear, her insistence on the preposterousness yet necessity of tears, performs that miracle of a resonantly lyric voice standing, without posturing, at the end of lyricism. Will this tradition of lyricism somehow persist through new changes, or will the US-influenced arsenal of ellipticism and flarf, the twin arms of the contemporary West’s slightly prefabricated avant-garde, suffuse it? The answer will come from the next generation of Russian poets.

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About Nicholas Birns

Nicholas Birns teaches at the New School; his books include Understanding Anthony Powell (2004), Theory After Theory: An Intellectual History of Literary Theory Since 1950 (2010) and Barbarian Memory (2013).

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