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St. Petersburg, where a morose spirituality brings forth poets

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

In Petersburg we will come together again As if we had buried the sun there. — Osip Mandelstam What city in the world can boast as many great poets and novelists as St. Petersburg? Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Blok, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, the Bohemian Kharms, the satirist Zoshchenko, Brodsky (the poet who became an exile in the United States), to name a few . . . they created a mystique that became the real city. With its white nights, it majestic River Neva and Italianate architecture, this “window on the West,” as it is called in Russia, St. Petersburg prompted Alexander Blok to write: Live yet another quarter century All will be the same, there’s no escape.

A lesser-known fact about St. Petersburg in the 20th century is that women have played an significant role in the city’s cultural history. The first university for women in Russia was the St. Petersburg Higher Bestuzhev Courses, as it was called. (It was here that, nearly a century ago, Akhmatova and Blok appeared together on stage for an historic poetry reading.) Decades later, in the 1970s, Russia’s first feminist samizdat journals, such as Maria, and Women and Russia, sprang up there.

It was out of this milieu that Elena Shvarts, at age 60 arguably Russia’s greatest living poet, appeared. Making her debut in the late ’70s in journals, Shvarts has proven to be an exceedingly prolific writer, publishing collections first in Europe and the U.S. and then, in 1989, in her own country.

Now poetry publisher Bloodaxe Books from the United Kingdom has brought out a new bilingual anthology of her poetry under the title “Birdsong on the Seabed.” This is the second Bloodaxe Shvarts anthology, and it is a remarkable one, translated exquisitely by poet Sasha Dugdale.

Shvarts’ poetry is experimental in its prosody, with unconventional and extravagant twists of metaphor; yet her lines are tight, metered and often, but by no means always, rhymed. Her themes are the religiosity and surreal heritage of her city, saints and women, and the need to sing out, whether it be about her own darkest thoughts, her mother’s death, a mouse scurrying down the Nevsky Prospect, or, as in the following lines, about the Siege of Leningrad: Teeth are scattered in the sky In place of cruel stars.

Shvarts’ poetry is reminiscent, in some ways, of that of Marina Tsvetaeva, with its jaundiced sidelong glances at social custom and its intense femininity. In a poem titled “The Circulation of Time in the Body,” she writes: This girl is someone’s daughter In her eyes the bluest water, In her groin — the torn blank night And a rosy star.

. . . And her forehead is a garden before dawn Look — dawn is breaking, the sun must rise. But the back of her head is purple evening, And midnight is crawling up her spine.

The ongoing preoccupation in her work is a morose spirituality, harking back to Blok’s prophetic poem about the young girl in the church choir who foresees and sings about the loss of ships at sea. In the poem titled “Arboreous Cathedral,” her soul enters “the cathedral of night — [walking] through the congregation of oak, birch and rowan.” Here nature is re-created as something holy, where trees are icons the soul can kneel before. Shvarts communes with these icons: My soul then turned and asked Of the smallest of those there: What has brought you, why gather And huddle in this ark here?

Shvarts was born in 1948 and enrolled at the Leningrad Institute of Film, Music and Theater. She began by working in the theater as a translator but soon started writing poetry and criticism. Her first major prize, awarded in 1979, was the Andrei Bely Literary Prize. She is a suitable choice, for Bely’s influence, in the best sense, is evident in her work, from its interweaving of the classical and the experimental in poetic sounds to its reconstructed autobiographical elements and mystic faith.

Sasha Dugdale beautifully translates Shvarts’ ironic tone in a poem about Gogol in Rome, “Gogol on the Spanish Steps.” The elusive Gogol appears: A man with a stoop and a long nose Skips down the steps with such joy . . . Now and then he steals a sidelong glance At the shadow’s tricorn With its bag over its shoulder.

What a miraculous poetic image of Gogol, picturing him through his shadow! It is the shadow that possesses the tricorn (a hat with brim turned up on three sides) and shoulder bag. Gogol is merely its semidetached observer.

But this tricorn, this man Of respectable and shadowy age Of limitless, boundless age Runs sideways, fanlike, down the steps

In these translations, Dugdale re-creates the terse and often strange language of the original, yet does not fall into the trap of giving literal equivalents to retain a “Russian flavor,” something that invariably destroys the poem itself in the process. In the title poem, “Birdsong on the Seabed,” we have: These days I am so very sad Sad to the point of yawning Drowning down in dream. Whirlpools softly spinning, Oh, give in to the sea To the moon, the water, the grief

The original reads “Don’t go against the sea,” which in English sounds poetic, but would be a meaningless translation. Dugdale’s “give in to the sea,” and then “to the moon, the water, the grief,” makes this into a poem.

In “Our Lady of the Three Hands in Nikolsky Cathedral,” one line reads literally in Russian, “The quickly darkening snow.” Many translators would have stuck with this. Yet, Dugdale has translated this line with “By the quick night fall of snow.” The primary criterion of the translation of poetry is: Has the poem in translation become a poem in its own right? These translations certainly achieve this with a beautiful style of their own.

Shvarts identifies with and sings the praises of all sides of nature. In “Out of Nothing” she says, “I am both bee and flower.” But, perhaps, it is in “The Freeing of the Fox” that she comes closest to her own experience as a St. Petersburg poet, the wounded, lone creature. A fox has been caught in a trap. It has lost a leg to it. But it continues to run upward in the snow, “now falling, now picking herself up again.” There, at the summit, and waiting, her freedom Heavenly Petersburg, Familiar faces. Fox runs, staining the clean snow Howling gently At the icy heavens.

The voice of Pushkin, of Blok, Akhmatova and Mandelstam, gently howling, is, thanks to Elena Shvarts, still ringing throughout those heavens.