This year, two separate anthologies of Russian poetry were published by two independent presses that I admire a great deal. The first, Verses on the Vanguard: Russian Poetry Today, edited by Polina Barskova, was published in February by Deep Vellum; a month later, Two Lines Press published This Is Us Losing Count: Eight Russian Poets as part of their ongoing Calico series. Good anthologies—and both of these are—offer a snapshot of a particular moment and from a particular vantage point. That snapshot is a result both of the content and the editorial stance, and reading these two anthologies together feels like seeing a landscape from two different angles. You may not be able to see the whole field, but there are some notable features that draw the eye and you may be able to imagine a more complete whole based on these two views.
The two anthologies share four poets in common—Aleksandra Tsibulia, Oksana Vasyakina, Ekaterina Simonova, and Nikita Sungatov—and three translators—Catherine Ciepela, Elina Alter, and Valeriya Yermishova. It's notable that only one of these writers, Nikita Sungatov, is a man, indicating that the editors of both anthologies are interested in correcting the male-dominated field of Russophone literature in the English-speaking world. In fact, of the ten Russian poets featured between the two books, only two are men, and much of the work included in both anthologies is explicitly queer. In the last several years, the Russian state has increasingly cracked down on queer, feminist, and generally dissident voices (bolstered by the example of certain other global superpowers), so these two anthologies provide a view of a culture that is more vibrant than official propaganda would have us believe.
For me, Aleksandra Tsibulia's and Oksana Vasyakina's works are the standouts in both books. Tsibulia's pieces, translated by Catherine Ciepela in both collections, are brief and pointed. Here's one from This Is Us Losing Count:
The leaves are gone, it's bleak. Weeks and months
of monotonous, painstaking labor and no contact.
Then comes summer and old women lie on the embankment in their underwear:
no one touches them with love anymore
except this meager sun.
I no longer think poetry should be opaque,
it should be severe and confiding.
Snow falls evenly, onto small purple flowers,
as though the person you love were somewhere nearby.
The brevity of this piece enacts the speaker's belief that poetry should be "severe and confiding." The length is like a whispered aside, and the repeated references to lack of touch in the second and fourth lines are brutal. Even the final line implies lack of touch, a loved one nearby but out of sight.
Oksana Vasyakina's works are more sprawling. The thirteen-page "Ode to Death" in This Is Us Losing Count is an elegy for the poet's mother that is melancholy and bitter. "Theory of Glare" (six pages) and "Opera-Ballet Homophobia" (five pages) in Verses on the Vanguard are angry and erotic. All three, however, feel like they're daring the reader to clutch their pearls. These are poems of the body, of sex and death and all five senses.
I give myself to you
like a petal gives itself to a stream
I write petal and stream, but I prefer other things
I adore our sex
And I love the word fuck
—from "Theory of Glare"
This Is Us Losing Count, like the other entries in the Calico series, features only the writing itself. No introductions or author statements to explicate the work, only biographical notes for the writers and translators. We're simply offered the poems, with Cyrillic text on facing pages, and it's up to us to parse and interpret, just as we would with poems originally written in English. That there are no introductions or author statements in the Calico series is one of its strengths, to my mind. Twice a year, Two Lines Press brings out an anthology that is "curated around a particular theme, region, language, historical moment, or style." Here's the work, come back soon and there will be more. That the series covers so many possible framings means that they truly do feel like snapshots, and it feels possible that some of these framings could be updated in the future. Other entries have included Chinese speculative fiction, queer Brazilian writers, and Arabic-language poetry. I imagine a decade from now a new Calico anthology of Russian poetry that looks vastly different from This Is Us Losing Count. That we should be so lucky!
Verses on the Vanguard came about as a collaboration between Deep Vellum and PEN America's Writers in Dialogue project. The book includes an introduction by the book's editor, Polina Barskova, and brief interviews or notes by the poets and translators. These take different forms: conversations between the poet and translator; notes by the translator. Like This Is Us Losing Count, the poems are presented in a bilingual format, which is especially striking with Ivan Soklov's "fragments" which rely heavily on visual elements. The second fragment included is "O R T," in which the text is formed into a circle covering a two page spread. In order to read the poem, the reader must hold the book sideways, and translator Elina Alter informs us that the piece "implies, among other things, the revolutions of ice skaters around a rink." She goes on:
The fragment suggest that such eternal and occasionally infernal revolutions are driven by desire. There’s a little directional arrow indicating a possible entry point into the fragment, but the routes through it, a labyrinth, are self-evidently various.
These notes offer insight into the challenges of translation and of being translated. Ainsley Morse asks Maria Galina, "When you were choosing poems for me to translate, did you think about their translatability?"
MG: Unfortunately, I did. I was cravenly combing through the overall mass for texts that would be guaranteed to make their way to readers with nothing lost. This may be a mistake—for me and for others—the idea that you should undertake tasks within the boundaries of the possible.
Boundaries and possibilities are especially relevant in the case of translating Russian poetry. In her afterword to Verses on the Vanguard, Polina Sadovskaya, Free Expression Programs coordinator for Eurasia at PEN America, writes, "slowly but steadily over the last twenty years of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rule, the Iron Curtain has been replaced by the Glass Wall: you can see through but cannot really get to the other side." As empires (the one we live in included) continue to violently police and expand their borders, writers within those borders, with the help of translators, can use poetry to send messages elsewhere. Here's how it is here; what is it like there?