by Jay Aquinas Thompson | Contributing Writer
We want to know where we come from. Whether our pasts are under a spell of family silence, threaded with forced and chosen migration, or shot through with violence, we seek backward—compulsively, longingly—in the hopes of finding out how to live now, how to bear living.
The Russian poet Polina Barskova has dedicated her creative and scholarly career to feeling backward into a darkened past: the two-year Nazi siege of her home city of Leningrad. The Soviet regime later memorialized the Leningrad siege as a tale of “impeccably heroic inhabitants” holding back the Nazis, as a step in the Soviets’ eventual triumph in World War II. The truth, concealed under monuments and hidden away in siege journals and poetry, was of mass death (more than a million Russian residents lost their lives between 1941 and 1943, from hunger, cold, and sickness) and of terrible psychic disfigurement expressed, among other modalities, in the vivid, surreal, gruesome, desperate poetry of the writers who were trapped in the city. Barskova, born in 1976, grew up in the shadow of this silenced misery and obsessed by the similar spasms of mass violence and death that gripped the twentieth century. Barskova’s afterword to her newest poetry collection in English, Air Raid, is a rangy, chatty, rich conversation with her translator, Belarusian-American poet Valzhyna Mort. In it, Barskova writes of her childhood playground in “Victory Park”:
Little did we know that during the Siege that whole place was an improvised “cemetery” (meaning a ravine with emaciated dead bodies) and a crematorium. So, we played there, flirted there, right “above” the ashes of those people, those children—and nobody told us. . . . Of course, it’s horrific, but now I think about it as a meeting place: here we were silently together with the Siege ghosts.
What form could be appropriate to such a communion? This question remains Barskova’s overriding artistic obsession, and the mode of her response has remained the same since her earliest poems. Barskova enjoyed the mixed blessing of being a literary prodigy: she published her first poems before she turned ten and published her first collection of poetry as a teenager. She’s been a resident in the United States since age twenty-two; she’s currently a professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College. She’s published eight books in Russian, but Air Raid, one of the most recent offerings in Ugly Duckling Presse’s wonderful Eastern European Poets Series, is only Barskova’s third poetry collection to appear in English, following a slim, vibrant chapbook, This Lamentable City, translated by Ilya Kaminsky (Tupelo: 2010) and a selected poems, The Zoo in Winter, translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg (Melville House: 2010), sharing no poems with City and now unjustly out of print. Barskova also edited the wounding, astonishing anthology Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (Ugly Duckling Presse: 2016); this year, New York Review Books brought out her Living Pictures, a set of prose tableaux vivants on Leningrad/St. Petersburg.
Most poets begin in apprentice work; many take years to arrive at their mature aesthetic or emotional concerns. None of this is true of Barskova. Her temperament and emotional range were there, fully formed, right from the beginning. In A Squeamish Race, published when Barskova was just seventeen and selected in The Zoo in Winter, the reader finds these lines in an epistolary poem:
Our suffering would fill up tanks,
Dishes, cartons, containers, and bags.
Would smooth out all the cavities and bumps
On faces gutted by smallpox. Waffle cones
Will fly up, giving off such sounds, that blameless
Virgins will be locked in dungeons by their brothers,
That gondolas of closeness start to crawl
Through the canal of distance. Shriveled hands
And hairdos twisted into snapdragons.(tr. Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg)
Almost thirty years later, the same furious energy, rapid shifts of register, sensual attention, and throb of moral outrage appear in Air Raid. Here the poet records the belongings of the dead still preserved at Auschwitz:
. . . Watch this film
of things, whirling as in a dream:
a battered pince-nez winks,
a cooking pot snorts like a pig, an alarm clock squares the night,
a gnawed pencil scrapes:
Our Master, daily feeder and quencher,
here we are, glad to help—
This pebble here is the last sign of you.
A point. Of no exclamation. Splinter. Spike. Grain.(tr. Valzhyna Mort)
Air Raid is a book set amid ruins, fragments, and memorials: Leningrad, enduring starvation, freezing, and mass death; cemeteries, both in the United States and Ukraine; the picked-over hellscapes of Bialystok and Auschwitz-Birkenau; the broken pieces of a marriage. Barskova’s poetry is not merely verbally resourceful, but rich in obsessive research. Her poetry in Air Raid excavates dozens of names—victims and survivors of Soviet terror and of the Siege of Leningrad; peers and friends among the Russian émigré community; Dickens and Dickinson and Catullus—and a first read of many of the poems takes careful work, referring to end notes (as well as, likely, some Googling). In her afterword, Barskova asks, “How do we remember many fractured, invisible lives disappeared by disaster, sometimes even without a trace?” Her poems dig for an answer, amid fantastical refuse and grisly specific detail. The long sequence “Guide to Leningrad Writers, Veterans 1941-1945” presents itself like a vaudeville revue, with grotesque, funny, and sensually vivid glimpses of the authors, most obscure to American readers, who survived the Siege, as well as those who didn’t:
January 10: snow cap, shit can
Ration cards missing!
Ration cards missing!
Must have dropped them myself
kissed myself good-bye
. . .
Sisters-brothers of mine!
Mothers-daughters of mine!
I worship you, I watch you: I chirp
as I fall, as I fall and fuss.
. . .
I heard rustle, rustle whiff, as I fell asleep
into death, I heard the gentle inedible dab of rats,
I heard the sharp delicious stench of paint . . .
Among the named survivors and victims of these sequence are writers like Gennady Gor and Daniil Kharms, whose violent surrealism, loopy humor, and sensual punch are a clear antecedent for Barskova’s own work. Here, for example, is Gor, in one of his poems from Leningrad, which he never published or shared in his lifetime:
Cat roast. And guests sit
At that very table.
I gaze at the bread, I count the bones
And wait for the guests to go.
Now in comes my father-in-law (death, sleep).
They are pulling the guests off on sleds.
They are laying me on a sled and they pull me.
The postman comes our way.
A telegram from my wife: “I am waiting.”
Windowpanes gleam. The sun screams.
Trees stand, forever drowned.
The houses have drowned. And the people in underwear
In the emptiness, where they’ll eat up the air.(Dark, tr. Barskova)
There’s a direct line between Gor’s fragmented, wounded, almost aphasic speaker, who is trying to describe an “impossible and unpresentable” experience (in the words of Barskova’s editorial introduction to Dark), and Barskova’s own contemporary speaker, who is attempting to inhabit, honor, and restore to life these same experiences, to rescue them from silence.
“[W]e often allow ourselves,” Barskova says in the afterword, “to imagine that we really know history—though there is so much, especially in history’s wounds, that is almost impossible or at least very difficult to know. Perhaps I write about this bitter temptation to fight the offenses of history with knowledge and also with the acceptance that sometimes knowledge is not possible, that we need imagination and compassion.” This is pretty mild as far as poets’ self-assessments go. While it’s true there is “imagination and compassion” in Barskova’s work—there’s a depth of imaginative sympathy and sensitivity here that I find in very few contemporary poets—it’s also true that Barskova’s work is animated by an almost unbearable tension. This is the tension between a heated compulsion to speak and a chilly awareness of the fragility of all speech, all life. In poem after poem, Barskova gives voice to people at the edge of disintegration, into death and out of history. Jews of Bialystok, being lined up for trains to Auschwitz, sing in the opening poem of Air Raid:
Our knees bleed dew,
our teeth rake burning leaves,
why, shiny soldier, are we so sweet with you?
And of the Russian avant-garde authors of the Union of Real Art—“a trail of fellows / who dragonfly on summer days,” authors who were first suppressed, then scattered, then killed, by the Soviet government—Barskova simply asks: “What color traces / did they leave on the wallpaper?” With their language? With their blood? With their voices? The poet knows how little difference the answer makes. She can’t refrain from the work of memorial—the compulsion has moral force behind it—but she knows it will never restore what was destroyed:
of Birkenau, how many years more
will I visit educational barracks?
Cold, cold, cold, hot:
hide-and-seek of the civilized consciousness.
I am numb except for the shame
of brushing Marlboro ashes
on the ashes made here, shed here.
The barracks turned to museums, the children’s game, those cigarette ashes: if there are more unsparing lines written by an ostensible “witness,” I haven’t read them.
This icy-hot mix of irony and urgency animates, as well, Air Raid’s poems of personal loss. “Mutabor” is a sequence on the burning grief of a “friendly divorce” and split custody. “At a certain stage of my spousal relations,” Barskova writes,
I took to spending nights at a local
author’s, Emily Dickinson’s,
either under a tree by her house
or at the cemetery.
. . .
Dead poets love me back
Emily in an unwashed nightgown reeking of fish
In the beginning I was afraid to lie down there
January (but rather warm)
Then it turned out to be just fine
Orgasm into the ground to keep it warm
After a howl turns your insides out
tossing your guts like
barnacles on a boat
how good to lie on the ground
It takes a profoundly lucid, penetrating attention to write this way about one’s own griefs and obsessions. The end of such attention isn’t forgiveness, exactly, or redemption, but a kind of rest, a possibility that glimmers when Barskova imagines herself as “a dark-tongued, grumpy- / bootied Scheherazade,” whose stories evoke not desert, but snow. She addresses Prince Shahryar, her audience and captor:
Sentence me to mercy because across the snows
(flaccidly he asks, What is this “snow”?)
I would lead you away from here;
like a worn blanket,
snow in my empire is yellowed, gray, marked
with mysterious tracks.
Like, in the smoke, after a house fire,
dead shadows are still trying to reach for safety,
snow in my empire frames
the end of desire:
Mercy; the end of desire; shadows preserved on a house’s burned wall: these all suggest rest. And, maybe, moral clarity. Snow doesn’t stand for any sort of purity, but its marks remain a means, for a while, to learn who passed by before. In another poem, set at the grave of dissident Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov, Barskova praises his “darling dust . . . among birds ruined by sunshine,” and she speaks gratefully of this “smartass general of distant battles, / a ruthless judge in a dishonest game,” whom she imagines advising her: “have faith in nothing but words, / have fun with your worthless little self.”
Valzhyna Mort is a potent translator for Barskova in part because Mort’s own poetry is as dense as Barskova’s in horror, wit, obliquity, and musical effect. Mort’s intuition—for when to craze or distress grammar, when to “break Russian while wearing the gloves of English,” when to burst into song—suits Barskova’s. Compared to Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg’s joint translations in Zoo and Ilya Kaminsky’s in City, Mort’s translations are less colloquial and more pleasingly headlong. Air Raid’s final poem, “Pottery/Poetry,” is reprinted from a collection also selected in Zoo, so it’s possible to see the difference in effect side by side as Barskova compares these two art forms, “the craft I have picked” (what sort of pots would Barskova sculpt?) “and the craft that has picked me.” Here is Dralyuk and Stromberg:
Words spread out like the pillow and sheet
In an insomniac’s battle. The clay grows like a tumor on a blameless body.
Poetry skims, with a rusty spoon, the foam, cram, fat, the fertile layer
Off the slush of puzzlement accumulated through the day.
Clay is complicit in every action, assumes onto itself my own responsibility,
Holds still the last twitch of the needle, trowel, and sponge.
And most importantly – all this in silence.
Here is Mort:
Words dishevel like sheets and pillows
in the battle of insomnia. The clay grows like a tumor on innocent flesh.
With a rusty spoon, poetry takes the foam / cream / fat, and fertile topsoil
off the brew of bewilderment amassed over a day.
Clay co-touches, takes charge of my responsibility for myself,
endures till the last spasm of the needle / float / sponge.
All is performed in silence.
Mort’s “co-touches,” or her use of “dishevel” as an active verb, both take the reader a moment to parse, but feel just right once they land. The difficulty of the locution makes tangible something about the messy fragility of poetic work, where, Barskova says, “the walls of the vessel collapse under the pressure of Word.”
In Air Raid’s afterword, Barskova expresses the hope that “poetry can patch the texture of life as it is, make it softer, warmer.” This book is no one’s idea of a soft, warm read, but, in the broadest and most serious terms, even poems like those of Air Raid support Barskova’s hope. The poet and the reader who honor the “darling dust” of our heroes and loved ones, who touch the bleeding dew of those whom history otherwise forgets, just may be able to survive. Even Scheherazade’s fate, Barskova says in her afterword, isn’t necessarily a miserable one: “as long as you are weaving your story, as long as somebody is listening, you are saved—you can save others—from death.” The voices to which Barskova has turned her obsessive, greedy, undeceived attention in Air Raid are not easy voices to listen to, but they are voices she is rescuing even as her poetry (efficacious ritual space that it is) is rescuing her, line by line.
Jay Aquinas Thompson (he/they) is a poet, essayist, and teacher with recent or forthcoming work in Neon Door, Essay Daily, Adroit, and Guesthouse. They’ve been awarded grants and fellowships from the Ragdale Foundation, the Community of Writers, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and King County 4Culture. They live with their child in Washington state, where they teach creative writing to public school students and incarcerated women. T: @jayaquinas, IG: @freshwater_merman