Russian Poet Explores The Way Politics Corrupts Culture

Russian poet addresses toll of politics on culture

(The Russian Version, Elena Fanailova, Translated by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2009, 169pp)

Most reviewers think it distasteful if not a downright capitulation to hype to quote a blurb-the endorsement that appears on book jackets. But I’m not a reviewer, I’m an appreciator. I don’t write about anything I don’t like. And I do like the poet Cole Swensen’s blurb for The Russian Version. Elena Fanailova’s poems, she says, “underscore the human price culture pays to wrest itself from politics.”

Nothing I plan to say is as succinct or relevant as that, but I will say a few things about Fanailova for two reasons: 1) she is an admirable poet, and 2) Americans are not reading enough foreign literature to understand our place in the world. And it’s not our fault. It’s the fault of a hyper-commercialized publishing industry that recognizes no responsibility to the culture in which it operates.

Fanailova is a medical doctor. She understands the kinship of the scalpel and the poem, of diagnosis and poetry. She has witnessed great tumult-her country’s disastrous misadventure in Afghanistan, which we are haplessly emulating, its startling abandonment of the communist experiment, and its struggle for equilibrium in a world ordered more by capitalist greed than national interests.

She, like other Russians, has witnessed the chilling truth of Karl Marx’s dictum that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the corollary to which might be the monstrous Reaganomic lie that the rich shovel their crumbs to the poor. Like us, she has witnessed the persistent denial of Marx’s axiom.

I began reading The Russian Version-which might be thought of as a Russian version of our lives on earth- only days after my third reading of the Susan Wicks translation of Valerie Rouzeau’s Cold Spring In Winter. II was struck by the similarities between the young French poet’s work and Fanailova’s later work, work undoubtedly influenced by Russia’s transformation into a piratical capitalist security state. Rouzeau’s father was a scrap metal dealer, and the astute Hedi Abdel Jaouad, a scholar and author at Skidmore College and editor of a review of North African arts and literature, Celaan, has pointed out to me that her use of seemingly disparate imagery and ideas may have been influenced by her father’s trade.

I read French poetry but am not fluent, so I was able to some degree to appreciate the decisions Susan Wicks made in translating Rouzeau. I do not have this advantage with Cyrillic. The original Cyrillic version of her work on the left-hand pages of The Russian Version helps me not a whit. I must blindly trust Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler, her translators. But I can see the poet’s transition from a formalist prosody to a jazz-like lyricism, occasional perhaps even accidental rhyme, assonance, dissonance and sometimes conversational riffs that strike me as rap or North African rai. I admire her formalist and lyrical work alike. Her unusual meld of irony and reference, and her seamless weave of literary and political reference with current events is masterful, and much harder to achieve than it might seem.

One way or another I acquire much more poetry and fiction than I can read, and I read more slowly than I used to, albeit perhaps a bit more contemplatively. So I should confess that it was The Russian Version’s exquisite, subtle, understated production values that drew me to the book. This first printing of 1,500 copies was published by the Ugly Duckling Presse of Brooklyn, New York, a radically creative collective of artists and writers. It is Number 18 of their Eastern European Poets Series. I have rarely seen a paperback book of poems so meditatively produced. Ugly Duckling has done an important poet justice. Don’t Look Now, the designers, celebrate the work’s subtleties and secrets. This is how poetry should be published, by Orphic priests and priestesses of the creative spirit.

Visionary poets ignore popular sentiment, vogue. And they pay the price, which often means a torrent of rejection slips and marginalization. It’s their job to see things differently. So, when Fanailova contemplates Franz Kafka’s relationship with Milena Jesenska and John Lennon’s with Yoko Ono, this is what she is doing, seeing things differently. She stands in Kafka’s shoes when he addresses the erratic and heroic Milena and she imagines writing in Ono’s diary. In her hands Lennon comes off as a bit of a boor. Of Ono, who has more than her share of detractors, she says “she is a lady, a beauty and a yellow ape,/A goddess without flaw.”

Poets should surprise us. If they don’t, they’re just surfing some kind of tide. But why should Kafka’s fey and ill-fated relationship with Milena Jesenka interest anyone but literary scholars? Why should we care more about Yoko Ono than the popular magazines once did? It is because Kafka and Lennon-and the people who played such crucial roles in their lives and work-have influenced the world every bit as much as the politicians and gurus and preachers who stirred up so much trouble and did so little to enrich anybody’s life. When Fanailova writes about them or Mary Shelley, who gave us the unforgettable metaphor of Frankenstein’s monster, a metaphor our politicians keep trying to improve on, she knows that they dwarf Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama in importance. She knows that the headlines never reflect what is really going on but rather what certain elites wish us to think is going on. She knows that “news” is not unlike a camera obscura with a projectionist, and the projectionist has an agenda. Poetry and art are always the antidote to the illusions of a given time and place, that is why Stalin and Hitler arrested and imprisoned them. And it is why our own media giants seek to capture and imprison the Internet.

Fanailova’s poetry may offend the American distaste for referential poetry and fiction. But we don’t have to know about Franz and Milena to enjoy her poem about them. I have never understood distaste for references because I have always welcomed a well-crafted invitation to go through a hidden door. I regard such references as gates to secret gardens. And I think critics who regard them as annoyances are churls. But it depends on what the writer is trying to achieve. I myself write poems and stories that require other kinds of attention from readers. We shouldn’t take critics as seriously as they take themselves. They perform a vital task, but it’s shame to use them as we use CliffsNotes.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is to me an understandable concern of a Russian poet. Or any poet, especially a poet who has lived in the embrace of a superpower with a global ego. Shelley’s monster stalks us. It rampages in Afghanistan. Every ism is a Frankenstein’s monster, every extremist idea, every oversimplification. You should know about Shelley, because she, not Dr. Frankenstein, invented the monster, and America loves its monsters. And you should know about her for more reasons than her relationship to Percy Bysshe Shelley. is to me an understandable concern of a Russian poet. Or any poet, especially a poet who has lived in the embrace of a superpower with a global ego. Shelley’s monster stalks us. It rampages in Afghanistan. Every ism is a Frankenstein’s monster, every extremist idea, every oversimplification. You should know about Shelley, because she, not Dr. Frankenstein, invented the monster, and America loves its monsters. And you should know about her for more reasons than her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley. And there are equally compelling reasons for knowing about the other people who intrigue Fanailova, people like the Mexican painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Fanailova herself acknowledges the issue of reference in an arresting passage:

“Could you autograph it,” she says. To Elena, I write, from Elena. I hand it over nervously. For a few days she doesn’t look me in the eye. Then one day there aren’t many other people. She says, “So, I read your book. I didn’t understand a word of it. Too many names of people no one knows. I had the feeling that you write For a narrow circle. For friends. For an in-group. Who are these people? Who are they, Elena? The ones you name? I gave it to my girlfriends to read, One of them knows a little about literature. She felt the same way: It’s for a narrow circle.”

These lines from “Lena, or the poet and the people” could have been a conversation between a poet and a political commissar. It is a magnificent poem, and this quotation hardly conveys its breadth and insight. But Elena, the hurtful friend-no, she’s not a friend-is breathtakingly wrong. The Russian Version is not for those who choose to be narrow, not for this boorish Elena, but for everyone who chooses to be as much alive as we allow ourselves to be, everyone who sees life as an adventure and not a series of mishaps, everyone who chooses to hear, see, think and feel as much as is humanly possible. Such people are The Russian Version’s true audience and they are as dangerous as angels.

I admire a great deal in “Lena,” not least that booby trap of a comma after the word “so”-So, I read your book. It expresses the mean critical demeanor of an entire establishment, beginning with parents and going on to the nastiest critic we will ever encounter. It expresses the anality of people who refuse to appreciate any art that does not brighten their day. Worse, it expresses a robotic consumerist response to experience. What are you trying to sell me? it asks. I’m not a thinking person, I’m a consumer bot, it proclaims. I enjoy Fanailova’s ear for the poetry in our everyday palaver. It’s a rapper’s ear, and it reminds us how often rappers say the one thing society does not wish them to say, and they say it exactly the way society does not want to hear it. That’s why rap is more controversial than Elvis’s gyrations ever were. That little comma after that little word expresses our everyday put-down of our artists.

Because Fanailova’s poetry is in Cyrillic, the Slavic script, I am unqualified to speak about her metrics, but her earlier prosody comes through to me like modern dance. I think of Alvin Ailey when I see familiar conventions conveying startling juxtapositions of intellect and image. This kind of formalism had to evolve into something more aggressive, less reassuring. The Russian futurists and surrealists were turning literature and art on its head when the Communists came to power. At first they hoped their own revolutionary fervor would be welcomed by the Reds, just as many of them embraced Communism. But their hopes were dashed. Communist orthodoxy was soon painting them as enemies of the state. Poets, artists and mystics are always enemies of some state, especially a paranoid state of mind. When Fanailova’s formalist work-it is never fustily formal-gives way to a jivier, jazzier language the images and ideas stop obeying the rules of gravity and linear time, and she, like Rouzeau, becomes a radical agent, having found elixirs that will make potions dangerous, not to our health but to our lies, our official versions of ourselves and our societies. Sometimes we overhear an elegant conversation between two refined, educated people, Fanailova and her alter ego. We do not always know who is speaking, but neither do we care. Either voice will do.

Why in the world do I care if she gets it? Why am I trying to justify myself? Why do I have this furtive sense of unease? This forgotten wish that she like me?

This beguiling passage is so plainly spoken that we overlook its poetry, and that is the nature of fine poetics. Anything else is showy, exhibitionistic.

Shock in poetry is volatile material. It can disrupt poetics and cheapen the whole, or it can be the difference for the reader between being a passenger or being a crew member in a passage through white water. In short, it is very hard to handle.

Fanailova, the doctor and journalist, understands shock. She lives in a country that has withstood cataclysmic shocks. So she understands that a term like “shock and awe,” our Nazi-like term for invading Iraq, is blather, because real shock often arrives in slippered feet.

Marina Malich wrote in her diary: Yesterday, the Cheka made another appearance, Because my husband reads on the toilet And adjusts his glasses

Absurd, isn’t it? Of course, Marina Malich was the second wife of Daniil Kharms, the absurdist and surrealist poet and children’s writer who starved to death while imprisoned in a mental hospital during the Nazi siege of Leningrad. The Cheka were secret police. The French Surrealists found surrealism everywhere, but the Russians didn’t have to look. They were everywhere beleaguered by absurdities and surreal circumstance.

Malich continues:

Yesterday, nine naked muses-that’s right!-flew in his window He was stringing them together like a flock of beads Then they dissolved like little clouds, And I can’t begin to predict their fate

Now we’re happy for the tragic Kharms, happy to find him in the company of naked muses. But this is not row, row, row your boat poetry. Here is the next stanza:

He taught me that screwing father Is much easier without wearing heels Absolute nothingness flooded His optical sight

Take a deep breath, you’re hyperventilating. Screwing father is…. well, who recovers from such lines, such audacity and despair? Easier? What kind of world do we live in? I’m sure Fanailova has read this stanza to audiences, but I can’t imagine her glancing up to measure its effect. She isn’t that kind of poet. She’s not looking for effect. She knows what she has seen and heard. She knows that what is not said is as important and often more important than what is said, so when she refers to optical sight it is understood there are other kinds of sight.

Consider the punctuation here. It’s one thing to use it to clarify what metered words alone could not convey, it’s quite another to use it as musical notations, to scatter the foreground of a poem with clues that go beyond the words rather than merely supporting them. Why a comma after clouds but not a period after window? There is no one interpretation, nor should there be. The poet is simply inviting the reader to consider the possibilities. It’s not a translator’s decision; the Cyrillic is the same. The poet minimizes punctuation but does not abandon it; it is a projection of the language but not an adjunct. This is not cleverness, which is a betrayal of language, this is alchemy, the use of certain punctuations as elixirs to activate latent meanings and subliminal interpretations. By employing punctuation this way, she deploys it. It’s like a pebble in the foreground of a Dali painting: you pay special attention to it because you know it wasn’t arbitrarily deposited there.

Alexandr Skidan has written an illuminating introduction to this work, translated by Turovskaya. It should be savored. It is so insightful that I felt I had little light, if any, to shed on this great poet’s work. But as I read and reread her poems I felt a growing kinship with one who, like myself, spends a great deal of time wondering about the lives of others, of people like Mary Shelley, Marina Malich and Milena Jesenska. She sees the historical figure, the person made of information, but then there are the contradictions, all the things that person thought, all the things she saw and didn’t write about. Why should they be lost? Why should not a poet like Fanailova animate these people much as ancient Egyptian priests are said to have animated their statues? Why should they not be given new voices? Why must they remain taxidermied by their own choice of words? They are people worth thinking about, unlike most of our newsmakers.

Source: The Student Operated Press