New Series No. 20 - 2002
Rhyme is Female
In the Middle Ages venerable scholastics would often consider the
question as to whether women were human and whether they possessed a soul. Since then, as this question with a few reservations has been decided in the affirmative, women have acquired a large number of useful rights – to study, to vote and be elected, to become astronauts, to have abortions, to wear trousers, to get divorced, to apply themselves in all spheres of human activity. Still, I cannot escape the feeling that the shadow of that accursed question, formulated by pedantic theologians, still hangs over us, like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.
Otherwise, why should one publish an anthology of women’s poetry? The expressions “women’s cinematography” or “women’s painting” do not exist, but “women’s poetry” figures at least in the imagination of critics. So, no smoke without fire?
Yes, there is something about poetry that obliges one to consider the
question. The most apposite comment on the subject, in my opinion, is by the Petersburg writer Samuil Lur’e: Poetry has a female voice. The voice of prose is male, but that of poetry is female – or not so much femaleas high-pitched.
It seems to me that this conjecture about voice, intonation is of the
utmost significance. It touches on the very essence of poetry, its celestial dimension, if you like. Not, of course, that it follows that poetry is an exclusively female concern; among the voices is the soprano, but there is also the tenor. It is in the gap between tenor and soprano that we can justifiably talk about male and female poetry (if such exists).
A single preface or a single anthology cannot, I think, decide whether female poetry exists. But that there is poetry written by women is undeniable. Moreover, in my view, if one ignores the very summit (Brodsky, in particular), women-poets in Russia, in recent decades, have been better writers. There are many reasons for this, one of the main ones being that the machine of Soviet ideology (and of any other) damaged women less, not because they are superior to men, but because they are more concerned with the private sphere, family, feelings – those areas that it is harder for any political entity to penetrate. The male tendency is to try to grasp the world as a whole, from the outside; women, on the other hand, try to grasp it from within. And in daily life as well as in art women resort to detail – nappies, love-letters, clothes, flowers. For bloodthirsty ideologists all this seems petty and inessential; however, it is precisely such matters that enable a human being to remain human even in inhuman circumstances.
Let’s you and I sit down, two elderly sprites.
In the kitchenette drinking coffee.
Wherever you look – magical trophies:
A white coffee pot, blue plastic mugs,
A decorative board for bread.
And on the finger, a little ring with amber,
And the storm clouds of a newly constructed sky
Over this peopled wasteland.
writes Nonna Slepakova. She is not just drawing up a chaotic list of
trivial objects, but creating out of this chaos a defence against external forces, hostile to human beings. With that defence in place, it becomes possible to look down at the ground, as well as up at the sky. And one may even move in the latter direction, which is what almost predictably happens at the end of the poem:
Your features lost their wise helplessness
You unfolded your swelling wings
More and more and with greater boldness
In your six metres of kitchen.
By the way, this last detail, “six metres of kitchen” saves the poem from the abstract, unearthly coldness, which was already setting in but which has now, in the nick of time, been warmed by a living breath, a sad smile. It seems to me that in Soviet times female poets wrote far fewer poems composed to order than did men; more often their domain was “the quiet lyric”, which was mocked, and sometimes noisily condemned by leading party literary hacks. Even in those times that secret linguistic business, which always manifests itself in poetry, did not cease to be conducted in their notebooks. The significance of this process can hardly be exaggerated. As Natalya Gorbanevskaya said – “History is the sister of poetry/ and nothing else”.
Or, from another angle:
Into the skin it writhed, also the pores,
like coal, the Russian language
penetrated into all conversations too worn out.
The soul asks to be released from the body,
preferring angelic speech.
In the end what is to be done with it –
bite it, grind it, set it on fire?
Elena Shvarts asks this question – a light breath, lines like tongues of fire. Although “angelic speech” suggests temptation, from which one wants to shield oneself like the Apostle Paul, who differentiated between human and angelic speech, the question has been put.
It is put to poetry in general, so we must for a while distance
ourselves from the question of women’s poetry as such. In my view, we have reached a point when poetry, having attained a zenith at this given stage in its development, has grown weary, bored, and is casting around – how else can I entertain myself? – taking upon itself functions not germane to it, the essay, articles, scientific (or rather pseudo-scientific) treatises, diaries, notebooks, porno-postcards, sermons, social sketches, feuilletons. Poetic substance is less and less visible, hidden behind the external details, which never become events of the inner life. Irresponsiblem metaphors abound – things are not entirely blameless; one recalls Brodsky’s comment that aesthetics is the mother of ethics. What is ugly and meaningless is immoral. All that remains is the hum of a wind-up motor, the grinding of the gears of verse, the shuffling of obstacles, which muffle the voice, turning poetry more and more into a game, a convention. But the Muse is a goddess, and, like all divine beings, she demands sacrifice. It seems to me that women writers are more conscious
of this than male ones.
Poems can be remarkable, virtuoso performances, but if the author
hasn’t trembled before writing itself, hasn’t been inspired by more than the desire to write something, the reader too will not tremble, will not be inspired, will not be tempted to place the book under her pillow. I remember arguing with some Italian female academics, at a conference, about what constitutes good poetry. They insisted that if a text meets their intellectual requirements, formed by Derrida and Lacan, then it is worth considering. Still, we were able to agree on this ultra-simple, even comical proposition: that good poems are those which we place under our pillow.
Amid our hopes and ruins,
Amid trees with foam on their lips, –
How night passed, bed remembered,
How day passed, notebook remembered,
How life passed, snow and fluff will remember,
How death passes, dust and ashes will remember.
This poem by Inna Lisnianskaya is from her book Muzyka i bereg (Music and Shore). Like a naked wire, alive with electricity, it doesn’t even let you put the question: “Why?” This phenomenon is rare in our time: direct speech, in its directness and nakedness has unprecedented effects. The same device (if one can talk about devices) is employed by Lisnianskaya in her poem “Letter”, a penitential address to her daughter, before whom the lyrical heroine of these poems feels guilty:
By the sea where you grew up,
We were not often together,
I did not read you stories,
I gulped down poems with wine.
Probably, this is more a tragic human document than poetry, the
creation of which, however, requires not only skill, but also courage.
Awareness of personal parental guilt is no pleasant matter, not susceptible to the romantic treatment. But Lisnianskaya is unafraid. The occasion is a real one. Music calling speech to life. The word becomes flesh.
And by remembering you increase your tears.
And I increase the salt in my bones . . .
Forgive me, if you can,
And if you cannot, forgive.
The flesh of these words is not just real, lucid, having already achieved that “unprecedented simplicity”, that tension-free atmosphere, where even the absolute need for metaphor passes. You cannot say whether this is a quatrain or an actual lump in the throat. How this can be, I’ll not presume to say, but the mystery of poetry is manifest.
Adjacent to this lofty simplicity in women’s poetry there is another, earthbound, perhaps, even deliberately everyday, as for example that of Zoya Ezrokhi. All her poems are, as it were, lit by a simultaneously wise and mischievous smile. Of course, what she writes may be incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the specifics of Soviet life. (But that’s another matter.) Here is a tiny poem “On Luciferisation”:
When I walk around with an empty can,
And there’s no sour cream to be found anywhere,
In my soul the light of heaven fades.
I turn into a Luciferite.
Someone who has not walked around in the empty spaces of Soviet
shops can hardly be expected to understand what she is on about. But poetry shouldn’t get bogged down in daily life: grim or humorous
descriptions of communal squabbles, daily cares, divorces, illnesses,
transformed all at once through some inscrutable image into a deep
philosophical meditation on the fact that women have the power to
bring the unborn to life, those who hitherto were “beyond suffering”.
Do they have the right? Zoya Ezrokhi is horrified that she did not spare her son, that by giving birth to him, she condemned him to the human lot:
How did I dare to summon him,
Wrapped in my mind, my skin,
From a safe non-existence
To this white divine bloody world!
A certain human boldness is required to formulate such questions
directly, and no less boldness to use these three adjectives, “white divine bloody”, without commas. This, too, may be called direct speech, but of course women’s poetry is not so confined.
These days it contains all: a noble simplicity, as well as the fig leaf of
postmodernism, and the Alexandrian splendour of an over-mature
literature. Polina Barskova’s poetry, for example, is refined, complex, and distinctly virtuoso, insofar as it demonstratively shoulders the burden of culture:
On the one hand, The New World, Ancient Rome,
On the other, dyr-bul-shchir, ulyalyum, fignya, *
And I say: “Guys, it’s a draw, it’s a draw!
Seems to me you’re managing without me.”
* David Burlyuk’s famous pure-sound Futurist formula.
Ancient Rome un-selfconsciously rubs shoulders with well-known
quotations from Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov; the lyrical hero (heroine?) jokingly waves from the hypothetical hill, inviting herself (or the reader?) to go further, “limping like the hands of a clock”: “While someone in your breast with a verb/ Has still not scorched out a little hole for a whistle?”
But Svetlana Kekova does not deploy this burgeoning irony; instead,
there’s clairvoyance, sorcery, music and – odd though it may be to speak of this in a secularised culture – faith. It can be seen at once, with the naked eye, as in the old frescoes: “Yes, in everyone you meet God is concealed, / as in the sound of waves, a sonata”. The best confirmation of the existence of faith is to be found in god-doubting poems: “You are God. But are we in your power? / And is anyone’s will Yours?” But the religious theme in contemporary poetry is another matter, too complex to be dealt with here.
There is poetry, as it were suffused with sunlight, filled with
admiration for the endless metamorphoses of matter, the changing
patterns of life. An example of this is Nina Gabrielian’s work: “There the grass is greedy and thick / Filled with animal vigour . . . / And the
ancient temple, alarmingly red, / Still awaits the pagan god”. And there is poetry transparent like water-colour, somewhat remote, like a landscape after the first snow; some of Olga Sedakova’s poetry seems to me of that ilk: “The sun shines on the just and unjust, / and the earth is no worse here than anywhere else. / If you wish, go east, west, / go where they tell you, / if you wish, stay at home.” From the classical lines of Nonna Slepokova to the vacillating metres of Olesia Nikolaeva; from the verbal exuberance of Bella Akhmadulina to the asceticism of Inna Lisnianskaya; from the inspired visions of Svetlana Kekova to the not so much avant-garde, as already in practice non-verbal experiments of Rea Nikonova; from the truly realistic poetry, characteristic of the 60s of the twentieth century, to existential obscurities; from prophetic cadenzas to eastern meditations; from passionless simulations to the passionate love lyric, the pendulum swings so violently that it seems it might break through the hard cover!
So many schools, generations, temperaments, psychological
conditions, cities (a serious matter where Russian geography is
concerned), different degrees of talent, fates! Where so many names are included, the result, willy-nilly, is a maelstrom, a Persian rug, whose elaborate design can be studied endlessly. Is there any sense in such a motley collection? If it’s a matter of acquiring a good understanding of each poet in detail, no. If of getting a sense of contemporary poetic trends and schools (Petersburg versus Moscow etc), then also no, because you cannot do that if you limit yourself to female poets. But if of shedding some light, however partial, on the mysterious question as to whether there is such a thing as women’s poetry – is it myth or reality? – then certainly, yes.
It seems to me that the metaphor of a rug is apposite. On the one
hand, following closely the elaborate coloured patterning; on the other, positioning oneself at some distance and seeing what is not otherwise visible. Rug apart, these are such distinct images. You can gaze at them for hours, and nothing appears, but at a distance, finding a focus, suddenly in place of the vague patches, you see a recumbent lion, or a flower, or a ship under full sail. That’s what an anthology is like – things held in focus so that out of the patchwork chaos, an image of what might be called women’s poetry is precipitated.
It is not up to me to determine whether such an image actually exists,
particularly since I prefer to divide poetry not into male and female,
but into good and bad. On the other hand, I do recall once writing a
poem which contained the following lines: “Rhyme is female, changing clothes, / plaiting a rose into its hair . . . ” I still believe that rhyme is female.
Translated by Daniel Weissbort
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