Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad
Alex Niemi reviews Ugly Duckling Presse's latest collection of Russian poetry in translation, edited by Polina Barskova.
Written in the Dark, a new collection of poems edited by Polina Barskova, brings immediacy to the horror of the Siege of Leningrad. These works are not only about the siege, but were written during the siege itself. The site of extended suffering, starvation, even cannibalism, the siege of Leningrad is almost unfathomable in our historical memories. This collection gives voice not only to the pain of its authors, but represents art’s attempt to combat the darkness when humanity breaks down.
The five featured poets—Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov and Pavel Zaltsman—illustrate the variety of litany and collective trauma of this historical event. The introduction describes the general wave of writing as “siege surrealism.” This style counters, as outlined in the introduction, the general narrative of postwar siege poetry, which was often used for propaganda purposes and focused on Leningrad as a heroic city. This extract from a poem by Gor illustrates a subversion of the heroic narrative:
A llama in a yellow gown sits on a chair.
He touches a rosary with his hand.
And mama’s laughing, petting his face,
She sits down on his lap.
And time keeps stretching, keeps stretching, elongating.
I am afraid to be late to the Neva for water. (31)
Reality dawns on the surrealism in this passage, the strange, comical vision of the llama and the warping of time is replaced with the immediacy of thirst. While the sense of time feels Daliesque, the image is undercut by the simple need for water. This urgency runs across through each of the poets, whether in language or image: each is writing to survive and unsure of the outcome, not a hero to be lionized. Surrealism in this context heightens the true delirium of hunger and thirst; the shock of trauma.
Barskova’s anthology draws on the work of many translators. Unfortunately, the paratext of Written in the Dark offers little insight into collaboration of the translators and their decision-making process. I felt, especially, in the Gor section—translated by Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matei Yankelevich—that I would have liked to know more about the translation choices. Take, for example, these two poems, which appear consecutively:
Вы немцы, не люди.
Ваш Гитлер — творог.
Пред вами на блюде
You’re Germans, not people.
Your Hitler is curds.
On a platter before you
A rancid pie occurs. (48-9)
The Russian poem is in a comic mode, undercutting the very real German threat with a ridiculous image. The English, however, does not match the meter and the curds/occurs slant rhyme feels forced and weak. The masculine/feminine rhyme scheme is also lost, which gives the English less punch. The decision to preserve the rhyme here, however, does make sense within the English-language tradition of comic verse. Rhyme can mock, as in a limerick, and make its subject ridiculous. In contrast, the next poem in the collection, also Gor, takes a different tack:
Какая тревога на сердце простом,
Умерли гуси в ветре густом.
Остались без веток пустые кусты.
Висели без рек бесстыдно мосты.
Вдруг море погасло.
Остался без мира,
How troubled is this simple heart.
The geese died in the dense wind.
The empty bushes remained without branches.
The bridges hung brazen, without rivers.
Suddenly the sea sputtered
I Remained without the world,
Like butter. (52-3)
The Russian here is also rhymed, but not for comic purposes. Perhpas for this reason, the translator decided on a blank-verse approach, though the assonance is strong, (wind/rivers; sputtered/butter).
This is just a small point, however, in a very beautiful, necessary collection. One of many lovely pieces, Ainsley Morse does a lovely job translating Sterligov:
[НА СМЕРТЬ Д. И. ХАРМСА]
Даниил Иванович! Вы брали дудочку
Тростинку жёлтую с квадратами ладов
Берестяной рожок, сапелочку
И лады перебирая пальцами
И просыпались утро русское
В лаптях росы холщёвый пастушок
Блеснув прохладным жемчугом
По синим храмам ельника
На ёлках блещет молодость
И солнышка разутой стопой
Уже шагнуло в пыль дородную
Чтоб к полудню её нагреть
Росы от капель вы сушить
Смахнув прохладу полночи
Идёт корова громкая
За ней бегут овечки
Подходит стадо к речке.
[ON THE DEATH OF D. I. KHARMS]
Daniil Ivanovich! You took a pipe
A yellow reed with squares of holes
A birchbark hornlet, a little fife
And tapping at the holes with fingers
And the Russian morning woke
In bast shoes of dew a sackcloth peasant
Flashed forth like a cold pearl
Along the blue temples of the spruce grove
Youth gleams on the spruces
And the sunshine with its bared foot
Already strode into the dust of road
So that it would warm by noon
The drops of dew dry up
The midnight cool swept aside
A loud cow is coming
Followed by frolicking sheep
Clicking and snapping their bells
The herd approaches the creek. (100-1)
Daniil Kharms is the foremost representative of the lost generation of Russian surrealism, the appeal to him is particularly resonant here, as he died in 1942 from starvation during the siege of Leningrad. Sterligov’s poem brings the tragedy to the forefront, but memorializes him with a set of surreal imaginings, waking “the Russian morning,” Kharms’ giving life to a new form of Russian literary invention. This poem turns Kharms into the pied-piper of Russian verse and presents a moving tribute to the writer.
This example is one of many ways in which Written in the Dark embodies the pain and loss of an era that few historical and literary works achieve. Each act of writing feels deliberate, questioning its function within the larger strife of the time. Every line asks the artist: How can art meet the needs of a body? What can poetry do against real suffering?
Alex Niemi is a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish, and currently teaches in the first of these languages at the University of Iowa. She is an alumna of the Iowa Translation Workshop, and her translation of The John Cage Experiences by Vincent Tholomé (from the French) is forthcoming, 2017, from Autumn Hill Books.