(Russian Federation, 1977)
© Elvira Polonskaya
BiographyA poet like Anzhelina Polonskaya, the author of five books of verse, is a significant exception in Russia, where, at least until recently, everyone knew how to become a poet.
In school, practically from the first grade, children were made to memorize classic poems by the great Russian writers. By middle school many children began writing their own verse in the manner of models chosen from the school curriculum. And after finishing high school the most talented ones went to the Gorky Literary Institute where they refined their technique under the tutelage of master poets and the watchful eyes of their fellows.
Born and raised in Malakhovka, a suburb of Moscow in 1977, Polonskaya did not receive a standard Russian literary education. Rather, she attended a special school for athletically talented children, where she focused on figure skating. In the mid-1990s, when post-Soviet Russia was economically devastated, she joined an ice show as a lead dancer and spent a number of years living in Latin America. She learned Spanish and opened herself to literary traditions outside of those familiar to Russian literati.
Returning to Russia in the late 1990s, she began to publish verse that did not fit in well with existing models. Her poems were carefully crafted, spare, direct, emotional, often a bit gloomy, and for the most part neither rhymed nor metered, as is expected of Russian poetry to this day. Though not widely accepted, her poems caught the attention of Andrei Voznesensky, who after a wildly popular career in the late 1950s and early 60s, had remained a productive poet with a good eye for talent.
The title poem of this first English collection is a good starting point to appreciate the poetics of Polonskaya at around the turn of the century:
A voice bouncing off boarded-up windows, a quivering voice
within walls like well-driven nails.
A throaty voice, as if of a caged dove
groping through deaf darkness into bunches of hanging fingers.
Through them, through the air heated by snow,
torn apart like fabric, like flesh that has known the scalpel.
How silent it is! Either a hot flash on the cheek
or simply snowflakes melting and rolling down like tears.
That voice! Free, unmaimed by wheels, not pursued,
edgy, floating beneath the damp stone vaults,
remarked only by the lightning glances of parishioners
who will remain in this blue twilight, today or tomorrow.
The poem presents, in terse and condensed form, a mysterious narrative. Through the point of view of a watchful, sympathetic, yet just slightly ironic voice, we observe a scene that burns itself into our consciousness while remaining eerie. Even in the absence of an intertextual citation, for the Russian reader, the poem sets up an implied dialogue with Alexander Blok’s famous 1905 lyric “A girl was singing in a church choir”.
But as opposed to what would likely be the case in the work of a more traditional poet, this poem does not directly reference the work of Blok and can stand completely on its own. A number of thematic concerns that appear with regularity in Polonskaya’s poetry are present here: a fascination with desolate places, a complex synesthesia of sound, sight, touch, and smell, and the omnipresence of maimed bodies and death. Polonskaya’s favorite tropes are apparent as well: complex, original extended metaphors and frequent ellipses (in this, and in much else, her poetry clearly builds on the tradition of her favorite Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva).
Polonskaya’s second collection in English, Paul Klee’s Boat (Zephyr Press, 2013), had the distinction of being the only book chosen as finalist for both Three Percent Best Translated Book and PEN Award for poetry in translation in 2014. In contrast to the lyrics in A Voice, the poetry featured in this volume eschews narrative for the most part and is far more visual, even pictorial in nature. It is no accident that Paul Klee’s Boat includes a number of poems that directly refer to individual works of art, although in most (but not all) cases they are not ekphrastic descriptions of an individual work but rather evocations or memories of it. Take, for example the short lyric LIKE DAVID:
Perhaps this is the fear of leaves on a fall day?
David the conqueror gropes the space through empty sockets;
he forgot that he turned to stone long ago and has nowhere to run.
The damp horizon looks like a potato sliced by a spade.
There’ll be snow tomorrow. It will alter our faces, sewing solemn lines of wrinkles.
Winter’s white goats will wander the orchard, stripping bark from the apple trees,
and they’ll look into the windows where we warm our hands over a quiet geranium fire.
Such are the days here, like drops of water in a prisoner’s solitary cell.
And we are immobile, like David, our legs planted deep in the ground.
The speakers are not actually observing Michelangelo’s statue. Instead they recall it, which allows them to create a moving connection between an attribute of the statue (its empty immobility) and their situation, that of a couple trapped somewhere and for some unknown reason in the north. To be sure, there may be a narrative behind this poem, but it has been squeezed out, leaving only the barest husk behind, a technique that readers will find in many of the most effective poems in the collection.
The high point of this volume are the ten poems that make up the cycle “Kursk”. Written over a number of years, they do not form a coherent narrative. Indeed, although they commemorate the tragic sinking of the Soviet submarine Kursk in August 2000, the poems make no direct mention of the event. They do, however, evoke in an extraordinarily moving way, the simple tragedies of loneliness, fear and loss that have always marked man’s battle with the sea and the emptiness left behind on land after the men have departed. In this instance, set to evocative music by the Australian composer David Chisholm, Polonskaya’s favored themes of loss, loneliness, and death proved capable of forming the basis for a large-scale work, the oratorio-requiem Kursk, which was premiered to great critical acclaim at Melbourne’s Arcko Symphonic Project in October 2011.
By the end of the first decade of the century, Polonskaya’s position in Russia had become problematic. She began to take public positions at odds with the prevailing political and social concerns of Russia, and soon found herself almost completely ostracized from the literary scene. She spent much of her time abroad, primarily in Germany, and in addition to poetry she began to write and publish haunting prose pieces, which have reached a wide audience through publications in major journals in the US and in Germany.
2019 saw the publication of Polonskaya’s most recent collection,the bilingual volume From the Ashes (Zephyr). Her more recent poetry captures the reader’s attention both through its exceptional density as well as its delicate sound patterning. And while many of her poems deal with fairly universal themes of love and death, often from an ambiguous gender position, some of her work also touches on sensitive political issues (though these are always presented in a veiled matter). 'I'd like to be the sea' reveals a desire for agency in a bleak world:
I’d like to be the sea, so I could sink ships,
as their masts creaked, and the woman wailed.
One by one the sailors would go down to the depths,
while the seagulls circled above.
And the women would wail. Seagulls would peck their eyes.
The sea doesn’t yearn, nor feel guilt, nor shiver,
And when you look backward, all you see
are cliffs and someone falling into the abyss.
Not surprisingly, such poetry has not found favor in today’s Russia, where literary messages are meant to be patriotic and optimistic and if violence appears it is to be directed against approved state enemies only.
Despite intimidation and at no small risk, Polonskaya continues to produce both poetry and prose of extraordinarily high quality. Although she finds it difficult to publish in Russia, she continues to reach a broad and appreciative audience in English, German, and Spanish translation, and her work continues to evolve.
© Guest-edited by Andrew WachtelBibliography
Светоч мой небесный (My Heavenlike Torch). Malakhovka: Malakhovskii vestnik, 1994.
Стихотворения (Poems). Moscow: Writer Publishing House, 1998.
Небо глазами рядового (The Sky Through a Private’s Eye). Moscow: Kogelet, 1999.
Голос (A Voice). Moscow: Podkova, 2002. ISBN 5-89517-207-4
Снег внутри (Snow within). Moscow: R. Elinina, 2008. ISBN 5-86280-091-3
A Voice: selected poems, Northwestern University Press 2004. ISBN 0-8101-2089-5
Paul Klee’s Boat, Zephyr Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9832970-7-9
To the Ashes, Zephyr Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-938890-24-6
Schwärzer als Weiß, Leipzig: Leipziger Literaturverlag, 2015. Trans. Erich Ahrndt
Grönland, Stuttgart: Edition Solitude 2016. Trans. Erich Ahrndt ISBN 978-3-93715-896-0
Unvollendete Musik, Leipzig: Leipziger Literaturverlag, 2020. ISBN 978-3-86660-26-18
A taste of words (English)
Die Wunden des Exils (German)
The Poet Against the Machine (English)
A grim portrait (English)
'The world does not mean happiness for most people' (English)
In addition, a short documentary on the making of Kursk and a video of the performance can be found at at Vimeo.
Plus, an interview with Andrew Wachtel on translating the work of Polonskaya.
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère