On Maria Stepanova’s War of the Beasts and the Animals (Trans. Sasha Dugdale)
“My poems, I suppose, are indeed written by various authors, and from various points of view and with various voices, they attempt to bear witness to or to overturn one hypothesis that someone put in my mind as a lifelong sting. Like a prisoner in shackles, the poet is bound with the shared chain to precisely this hypothesis, rather than voice-manner-gait – and in order to estrange oneself from it, see it from a distance and from above, one needs these series of fissions and substitutions, of exits from the self and from the world, familiar-unfamiliar voices that speak with you from the sidelines, with the indifferent engagement of a stranger. Thus, a fictive poetics forms around the hole in reality. Its task is to overturn the paving stones of personal pain that have rooted into the earth and to make the water of life flow beneath them. If that works out.”Maria Stepanova, Displaced Person (2012), Trans. Sibelan Forrester
Towards the end of February 2020, on a chilly evening in Cambridge and in what turned out to be my final attendance at a public event before lockdown forced all such pleasures to become online affairs, I sat at the back of the Latimer Room at Clare College to hear Maria Stepanova in conversation with Irina Sandomirskaia on the subject of ‘Memory’. Of the many interesting things they said that evening, one comment that passed between the two women has stayed with me more than any other – though I may be paraphrasing (my memory, ironically or appositely, not being my strongest faculty): “The present is a battlegound for the past”, Stepanova said, or some phrase very similar. This strikes me as true; but it is not its truth particularly that is the reason it stays me, or necessarily its originality, it was after all used in conversation not poetically and it is a phrase which may well have been used many times before, but it is in relation to Stepanova’s poetry that it takes on extra significance for me. And there is a sense in which the idea behind this phrase, although it may sound rather grandiose to say so, changes everything. Stepanova was speaking specifically about the Russian state manipulating the memorialisation of the siege of Leningrad, but the idea of battling over the past is a truth which we in the UK see played out over the treatment of public memorials to those with links to slavery, and in conflicting perspectives on how our history as an Empire-building nation should be treated. The battleground metaphor contains not only ideas of opposing sides and violence, but also loss, mourning, pain, genocide, devastation, confusion, fear, pity, humiliation, the obliteration of the individual to the group and to the earth, and many other associations which, when applied to memory, either individual or cultural (ultimately both), rightly conflates the past and the present into a single physical zone in which those who are living use whatever power is at their disposal to gain control over the dead. And the weapon used in this battle (although real war stripped of all metaphor is its ultimate expression) is language. Memory is an event in the present, it is an event of the mind that takes place through language, which in turn is a social activity that is subject to negotiation and power play. Our language moreover is a social activity in the vertical as well as the horizontal sense (to pilfer and distort Helen Vendler’s expression), i.e. we use it and morph it in dialogue with those in the present but it is bequeathed us by those in the past. Any language possible in the present (and to the extent that we cannot think in any precision without language, any thought possible in the present) owes its meaning to the past. This is what I mean when I say that Stepanova’s phrase changes everything. And while Stepanova writes specifically about Russia and what she sees as Russians’ “strange relationship with the past and its objects” (‘Intending to Live’, 2016, trans. Maria Vassileva) I think my point above about her work’s applicability to the present cultural moment in the UK holds, as I will try to expand in the final part of this essay. My reading of War of the Beasts and the Animals (Bloodaxe), the recent collection of Stepanova’s work translated by Sasha Dugdale, essentially a selection of poems from as early as 2005, is steeped not only in the idea of the present battling for the past, but also in the idea encapsulated in the quote that began this essay, specifically the notion that “a fictive poetics forms around the hole in reality” and perhaps something can be learned about this hole in the same way that we can learn about black holes by the way light bends around them.
I – Why does she speak in voices?
This leads me to ‘Spolia’ (2014), the first poem in the collection and one which is structured on just this language-around-a-hole basis. “I’m a bagel I’m a bagel says the speaker-without-an-I,” the speaker says early on in the poem, in response to those traditionalists who ask her (Stepanova we assume) “why on earth does she speak in voices”. And in the middle of this long series of what I guess we could call ‘movements’ (linked, poems in themselves to some extent, but more importantly carriers of the poem’s flow) there is a pause:
<insert hole in bagel here>
The surreal humour is pointed here, aimed at those critics who dismiss a female voice which rejects traditional male discourse (the multiple repetitions of she, her and herself in the early part of the poem makes the point clearly without having to make it at all). And so the hole in the poem becomes the hole in reality, which is also a hole – an ‘unknowable’ – in the self; at the same time as the poem becomes the self, the self becomes the body. And in turn, as literary quotations and allusions build up through the course of the poem (the ‘voices’ which she is condemned for speaking ‘in’ – the association being with the chaotic nonsense of ‘speaking in tongues’) the body becomes both bodies-plural and the state of Russia itself – the hole therefore taking on the added symbolic value of both a bullet hole in an individual and a sense of national vacancy – a lacuna in the country’s self-understanding.
So the self and the state become fundamentally intertwined in this poem (and others in the collection), as does the individual and the collective, and materialism and idealism. And central to this blurring of boundaries are the ‘voices’ that sit within the text, driving it onwards and drawing in its meanings from throughout literary history. There are direct quotations and allusions as I mentioned above, but that does not do justice to Stepanova’s (and Dugdale’s as translator) extraordinary treatment of other texts. The references are sometimes clear and straightforward, sometimes buried, often manipulated and bent out of shape, and sometimes they just seem to breeze across the surface of the poem, leaving “a nagging sensation of familiarity” as Dugdale says in her introduction. I will, I’m sure, have missed many of these “embedded quotes” as some will be from writers both Russian and otherwise that I don’t know, but Dugdale has brought in allusions to English language writers in order to replicate for an English speaking audience the vastness of Stepanova’s intertextual creativity. There are moments where this creativity seems to go into overdrive: at one point, in three or four short stanzas, I found references to Walt Whitman, Byron, Charlotte Mew, Edward Lear, Robert Browning, Philip Larkin, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke (I admit to a little help from Google). Later, Paul Celan rubs shoulders with Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare with the King James Bible; Frantz Fanon slips in and slips away again. And always these allusions are soldered together, often with the simple rhythms of nursery rhymes and folk ballads, accentuating the way language builds on language, alters and twists meaning, with the past materially affecting the way we think in the present from the very earliest stages of life.
II – Out of the murky pool
And this brings us to the notion of memory, which is never far away in Stepanova’s work, because woven into the structure of ‘Spolia’, alongside the allusions and the wordplay, family memories (some half-familiar to readers of Stepanova’s Booker-shortlisted ‘In Memory of Memory’) appear and disappear like snapshots and fragments of notebooks, as though they are being glanced at and then discarded (“five-year-old mother flicks her silken ribbon …//… a headless cockerel…swooped dead through the yard”). But as the personal memories and family stories bubble up, they mingle with more abstract images of war and again the boundary between the personal and the universal is blurred:
everyone round a laden table
ninth of may victory celebration
windows thrown back radio on
victoria herself sitting at the table
singing the blue scarf song singing schubert
as if there were no death
This reference to both a member of Stepanova’s family and a Russian patriotic song juxtaposed with (what I take to be) a reference to ‘Death and the Maiden’ highlights the other boundary that is continually questioned in several poems in this collection, that between the dead and the living. The swirling rhythms that carry ‘Spolia’ are the voices of the past (that is to say, the physical non-presence of the dead) in continual and almost hallucinatory dialogue with the “speaker-without-an-I” of the present (the living, present in both time and space). These rhythms are presented to the reader alongside the idea of a single, eternal ‘nation’ and a single, eternal ‘people’ who are almost literally born of the national earth in the sense of the Narod – the ‘folk’, like the serfs, the workers of the land who were seen by narodnik nineteenth century intelligentsia as “autochthonous man…born from the earth, historically tied to the soil and therefore custodian of ‘true’ Russian national identity”* That the latter creaks and strains, if not entirely breaks apart, from the centrifugal force of the former, is one of the great themes of Stepanova’s work.
The earth, and of course the soil that comes from it, is rich with ideological significance both on the left – the anti-tsarist narodniks were the precursors of the the revolutionaries of 1905 and 1918 – and on the right – the blood and soil movement of nationhood was and is a mainstay of the fascist worldview. So in Stepanova, the dead speaking through the earth to the living not only brings the past together with the present but also pulls opposing political forces into the gyre of its ‘Natasha’s Dance’**. As a whole, collection seems to spin at the crossroads where individual, cultural and ‘post’ memory intersect with History.
Time and again the interplay between the materiality of the individual and that of Russia itself is expressed in single stanzas, lines and even words so that the distinction between the two almost entirely disappears:
holes and dugouts and pores
through the skin of the country, these doors
through which passers-by
may not descend unauthorised
not a tear duct, nor a shallow well
but a mine in every hole
a deep long shaft
to where the canary me is held aloft
And then in ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, the title poem here, but also from 2015’s Spolia, the profoundly present materiality of the human body is expressed in terms of seasonal renewal – again the body and the earth become one; this time in my favourite section in the collection, a sonnet, if you take its first line as its title:
the human body
is not soap wearing thin to a hole
in the scented water bowl
nor is it ever wholly
of the past, always of the here and now
glows through the deadwood
not easy to dispatch
it creeps up like a snowdrop
through the carbon patch
and what was pining, barely alive
shut away within its bony cage
now floods into the dark recesses
to happen again
new life emerges when hope is no more
and you stand there, empty-handed and unsure
III – Made of deep hole
The reference in the second line of the section just quoted to the hole in the soap not only triggers grim associations with the myths around Nazis creating soap from murdered victims of concentration camps, it also links us back to the ‘bagel’ structure of ‘Spolia’ and the unknowable centre of the self. This exemplifies another characteristic of Stepanova’s verse, its use of theme, motif and internal referencing to build and enrich ideas which are in a constant state of flow. The “hole in reality” returns as “earth’s caesura”, also in ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, where it appears to be a feature of war – the pause between battles or no man’s land. It returns again in a small selection from the cycle ‘Underground Pathephone’, from the earlier collection, Kireevsky (2012), which wittily creates a folk-musical voice for Persephone (Goddess of Spring, Nature and the Underworld, i.e. life and death) and the dead of war: “Dig a hole, speak into it / Press your ear to it, catch a sound…//…The one who stood at the window with you / Is made of deep hole”. It returns again in the most recent sequence in the collection ‘The Body Returns’ (2018) where it takes the form of the “space” that needs “to be cleared” in a woman’s body – signifying the creativity/fertility of the metaphorical/literal womb; and again when it is politicised: “Where is my body says the middle stratum / The earth’s middle class: dead and still unresurrected”; and again in the final stanza, whose middle lines are missing, represented by three dots, as though the absence at the centre of ‘Spolia’ has returned in this contemplation of the century since World War One. It is as though Stepanova is an artist revisiting the same model or landscape again and again sketching it in different lights and from different angles.
Sparrows, legs, pelts, the warming sun, petals, soap, and roses are all images that are repeated either locally or across poems written years apart, glinting off one another and adding to the sense of thematic coherence that I think is unusual in ‘selected’ collections – and sometimes this might just be a repeated structure, like “fish hooks a fish” in ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’ picked up a few poems later (though chronologically three years earlier) with “Tear answers tear” in ‘Kireevsky 3”.
IV – Like something about to be born
‘The Body Returns’ is worth focusing on because it ties together so many of the themes in previous sequences – they ‘return’ to the reader in the same way as the earth returns the dead, and in a way which reminds me of the body of the mountain climber in Sebald’s ‘The Emigrants’ which is returned years after his death by the movement and melting of the glacier he fell into. The sequence plays with ideas of fertility and creativity, reimagining the idea of the Earth Mother as a female poet (drawing on Inger Christensen, Anne Carson, Marjorie Pickthall, and Virginia Woolf – probably among others I didn’t spot) whose poetry becomes, like an as-yet-unmade foetus, the great symbolic ‘potential’ (i.e. the future that the past and present have “rendered useless” – see section V). Poetry is both an allegorical figure and a composite, made of “manymouths” and “found in many bodies at the same time”, definitely female, but also Christ-like, not yet risen but “(l)ike something about to be born. Paradoxically, poetry is not only the watcher of – or listener to – the conflict-riven world over the last hundred years (the sequence was written to mark one hundred years since World War One) it also becomes the manifestation of the war dead themselves, lying beneath the old battlefields, who return “like earthed-up potatoes”; they, and it, are the seed in the creative ‘room’/womb/stanza of the female poet. But there is also a hint of something more, something undefined but bordering on the spiritual: “There is a Presence here”. But this is not nebulous idealism as much as an acknowledgement that the material earth gives the impression of something beyond the Human: “As if wind … / Gainsaid any human part in this … //… As if the ear of the earth … // … received and transmitted the very same” (my italics). In the end, though, as always in Stepanova, the human – the human body – is at the very centre, and the returning body is less a resurrected Christ than a Lazarus, who comes back to life not to take part in it fully but whose physical presence is a symbol of, and a receptacle for, life (“You hold my head like a basket … // … Put it in a sack. / Put it in a pot. / Grow basil from it”). What is dead is male, patriarchy; what returns is female, the future potential inherent in creativity/fertility; and there is therefore a deeply feminist streak running through the poem.
“The unheroine makes an uncourageous effort
(like underground water through a seive)
Attaches herself to the dead
Her own body a tessera
Between dead white men”
The resurrection that is taking place, then, is a living female poetry replacing a dead male one. And the bird that stirs within the “observant little girl” is not Bede’s sparrow-as-soul (“Word is not a sparrow”) but something more closely resembles Emily Dickinson’s ‘thing with feathers’ (“The swallow’s heart had started beating again.”)
Whether these allusions are Stepanova’s in the original Russian or Dugdale’s for the English translation, or whether I am reading more into the text here than was intended, is probably not important. What is important is that together Maria Stepanova and Sasha Dugdale have created a rich and profoundly affecting work, which presents seemingly endless ideas – and it seems nothing short of miraculous that such a complex work in Russian is available to those of us who can only access it through English. More than any work I have attempted to write about here this is one which frustrates only because there is always more to say about it.
V – Envoi
In her essay ‘Intending to Live’, Stepanova writes of Russia’s obsession with the past being “unlike any other illness I know of”. She goes on:
“…it needs to be analyzed and treated. The inability to allow even a sliver of air to come between oneself and the past, the absence of any distance, or even the desire to create distance, between oneself and everything that has already happened – lead to strange transmutations. When the past and the present coexist with such intensity, the future is rendered useless – and it comes to resemble a descent into Hades.”
From the standpoint of the UK, it is hard to read these lines without relating them to the current state of the liberal, middle-class disorientation that is central to what has become misleadingly known in the mainstream press as the Culture Wars (the Ideology Wars would be more appropriate). I have already said how it seems to me that Stepanova’s melding of the past and present on a linguistic level provides a new way of thinking about thinking. But here she goes further and diagnoses an ‘illness’ that needs to be cured.
The UK, and more specifically England, and more specifically still White England, has a relationship with the past that is an illness in the same way, I think, as Russia’s. The past, be it Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon, VE Day, or the 1966 World Cup final, is with us in the present at all times. We are caught in something not entirely dissimilar to Timothy Snyder’s ‘politics of eternity’, a key feature of his ‘Road to Unfreedom’, and one way in which, as Stepanova has it, “the future is rendered useless”. Furthermore, in post-Brexit Britain, the ideological capaciousness of Liberalism has been stretched to breaking point with the centre-right looking back to a time before the UK joined the EU, and the centre-left looking back to a time before we left it. At the same time the language of gender and race is changing, further disorienting liberals of a certain age and causing them to look back to a time before Millennials and Gen-Z came along with their new and disturbing ideas. The political centre then is reeling from the shock delivered by the events of the first twenty years of the twenty-first century as, like Russia under Putin, its future seems to have disappeared and it has come to “resemble a descent into Hades”. “Strange transmutations” indeed.
The truly future-facing movements, like Black Lives Matter and Trans Rights, ones for which Liberalism would have, I think, under different conditions, created room, appear revolutionary to many white, heterosexual, middle-aged liberals (are revolutionary, in fact) because they refuse to get caught in the hellish authoritarian descent – ironically appearing authoritarian themselves (to liberals) as a result – insisting on the re-evaluation of core assumptions. They ask, in effect, that we do not drop the future “like a coat into someone else’s hands”, as Stepanova puts it.
My view is that the treatment this Stepanovan illness in the UK needs is a wholesale re-evaluation of our relationship with Empire – a surgical investigation of what colonialism means and how its legacy has affected how we think and act; and a similar investigation of the ways in which we categorise our bodies and sexuality. It seems to me that poetry is in an ideal position to do this for the UK, as Maria Stepanova’s does for Russia. She talks, in ‘intending to Live’, about “flashpoints” in Russian history appearing like “clusters of conflicting versions” rather than “paragraphs of a shared narrative”. She says
“There is no period in the past three centuries that we could consider free of such conflict – and that wouldn’t belong to the territory of the artistic. That is – of restless, unfinished, effervescent uncertainty rather than reconciled knowledge.”
Is the territory of British colonial history not artistic in the same sense? And isn’t this “effervescent uncertainty” exactly the realm which poetry, the artform of language, is best suited to explore? Aside from the many insights, pleasures and challenges that come from Maria Stepanova’s work, there is surely great value in the fact that it might inspire other poets to look as seriously and unsparingly as she does at the past and its relationship with the present.
You can buy War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova from Bloodaxe, here.
‘Intending to Live’ is from The Voice Over: Poems and Essays by Maria Stepanova (Ed. Irina Shevelenko), which you can buy here.
* quoted from Laura Mieka Erley, Reclaiming Native Soil: Cultural Mythologies of Soil in Russia (freely available here).
**Natasha’s Dance is a reference to Natasha Rostova’s famous folk dance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and it is also the title of Orlando Figes’s cultural history of Russia, which I read to help me orient myself in Stepanova’s work.
In a week in which, inexplicably, a kerfuffle was kicked up over Ange Mlinko’s not-extravagantly-unreasonable comments about Adrienne Rich in the London Review of Books, the poetry contribution to the same edition of the LRB, Emily Berry’s Paris, seems to have passed more or less without comment. I’m surprised only because Paris is a prose poem and prose poems always seem capable of getting someone’s goat; I would at least have expected someone to take to Twitter with a complaint about how this sort of thing ‘isn’t poetry’. I’m posting about it now not to bemoan the form of Berry’s offering (if interested, see more on the subject in relation to Jeremy Noel-Tod’s prose poetry anthology, here) but to celebrate it as a complexification of literary power dynamics, an exposé of authorial paranoia, and a parody of Proustian psychological observations.
This week is also of course Proust’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversaire, and so it is appropriate that the LRB should mark the occasion, even if it is tucked away in the sub-text of a prose poem. Berry is very witty in shrinking the vastness of Á la recherche du temps perdu to what is (prose/poetry debates notwithstanding) basically a single paragraph. And it is a paragraph repleat with ironic thoughts on that most thoughtless of modern mechanisms for capturing lost time, the selfie. What took Proust thirteen years to write, and most readers months if not years to read, is whittled down to a minute or two for readers of the LRB and a single moment of posing for the protagonist of the poem. Not that we ever find out if the speaker actually takes the selfie, comically wracked with doubts and insecurities as she is (I say ‘she’ but the speaker is not gendered, we know only that the admired poet who Berry’s ‘I’ is visiting is male and famous and therefore in some position of implied authority – which is part of what Berry is dissecting). The sentences have a rather Proustian feel to them too; the first is short and clear, but from the second sentence onwards they are curiously difficult to parse, as the protagonist’s thoughts layer and divide and digress, so the clauses build within lengthening sentences, punctuation causes the reader to double-take slightly, and sense also seems to leap across full-stops sometimes, which sounds perfectly normal when read aloud but requires a little more from the working memory than would usually be asked. The opening of the poem begins to give a flavour of this:
“I went to Paris to visit a writer I admired. Because I was not confident he really wanted me to be there, he promised me that he did and we hugged for a long time but he let go first and I was not completely reassured. In his apartment he had taken my photograph when I had just finished showering and was looking rather dishevelled because I had dressed hurriedly and I asked if he would take another one later, or if maybe we could take a selfie together.”
With seven ‘I’s, six ‘he’s, two ‘me’s, two ‘we’s, a ‘my’ and a ‘his’, the proliferation of personal pronouns in these opening sentences suggests another reason that the reader needs to slow down a little: the things being done in the poem are swamped by the two people doing them; the verbs feel crowded, harried almost, by their subjects. As with selfies themselves, the people involved are paradoxically both foregrounded and stripped of any real identity, while blocking out anything of real interest that might be going on.
We are offered the suggestion (one we can accept or not) that the ‘admiring’ writer is in Paris having an affair with the ‘admired’ writer – it is after all the city where clichés tell us such things are commonplace, and anyway why is the protagonist showering in the other writer’s apartment? And why does the admired writer photograph his admirer in a state of post-shower dishevelment? There is an unexplained level of intimacy here, and we do not have enough information about the couple to disentangle the innocent from the creepy, or the romantic from the manipulative. Is the male writer a symbol of the power an aging literary patriarchy wields over rising millennials?
And if there is no affair going on here, why is the speaker in Paris at all, other than out of this professed admiration? What is in this visit for either of them? Is it simply the professional kudos of proximity to a ‘famous’ and ‘interesting’ writer? To gather that all-important photographic evidence that one literary celebrity has been close to another – with all the intimations of heavy-weight intellectual conversation that brings with it? Are they each other’s trophies? Paris, city of literary as well as romantic clichés, is the right place for such trophy gathering.
This brings us back to the poem’s central theme, the overwhelming and crippling sense of paranoia and insecurity (a word used multiple times, building almost feverishly and comically towards the end of the poem) which the speaker feels both in relation to the other writer and their respective social media ‘audiences’. It is the level of over-thinking that the speaker brings to the more-or-less thoughtless, impulsive activity of selfie-taking, and, for example, the solemn use of the word “collaborate” to describe the two writers posing together for a selfie, that seems to me both amusing and profound in equal measure. We know what research has to say about the effect of selfies and social media on emotional health, and by juxtaposing this with the supposedly High Intellectual world of literary relationships, Berry both pokes fun at such relationships and exposes the dissonance between what we show of ourselves to the world and the turbulent individual emotions laying just below the digitally connected surface.
“I wanted to appear secure and aloof but it seemed to me that what such pictures conveyed was quite the opposite, even though that wasn’t their intention.”
The speaker gets tied up not because she is paranoid that she is not “famous or interesting enough”, although she is paranoid about that, but because she is applying the very observations required to be a good author to her actual relationships, layering psychological insight upon psychological insight, as though she is in a game of chess with herself and finally finds herself in check-mate. Ultimately, the reader leaves Berry’s speaker tangled up in a final sentence that takes a particular effort to unpick:
“He had done almost everything in his power to assure me that I had every reason to feel secure, except by going to such lengths that he himself would feel insecure in the event that I failed to assure him of his security.”
We can pull from this the criticism of the male writer for his hidden, but ever-present and ever-fragile, ego; but this criticism is itself hidden within the speaker’s own insecurities, which clog up the narrative in a way that, for me, brings to mind Sylvia Plath’s descriptions in The Bell Jar of the physicality of words on the page coming between a reader and a text’s meaning, impeding rather than facilitating progress. Is this writer, too, on the brink of a breakdown?
We can only guess, because there we leave our speaker, trapped in the box of a prose poem, a little like Proust sitting in his Paris bedroom not going anywhere but thinking himself into eternity.
Two lonely walkers meet in the usual deep wood,
A glade perhaps or a meeting of ways,
And as they sense the aura or click of the other,
Before even suspicion kicks in, there is terror
That this is the end of the world, and they’re right.
But nevertheless their paths have been forged
By previous travellers in this same dense jungle
Which disappears on every side into the night,
And so they arrive, in a state of high tension,
Before a new and unfamiliar pair of eyes.
What strikes them first is that someone is missing –
Or at least someone is there they cannot see –
So again, before they even begin, they understand
As all living things do, that though they are two
They should be three. What then ensues in this wood
Could be called the distrustful creation of a third.
They negotiate a structure between and above them
To compensate for this one great missing thing
In the silence, and they do so by building
Word upon word upon word upon word
Upon word upon word upon word upon word.
In order to allay their fear of each other they want
To create a forest of their own, where every leaf
And root is of their design and in thrall to them.
But the basic matter of their being confuses
And causes them (a) to mistake this structure
For theirs alone and their opposite pilgrim
For a statue or an ants’ nest, or (b) to fail
In their fury to notice that all they are doing
Is gathering small stones and withering flowers,
Constructing a frame of brittle twigs
With such care and laughable solemnity.
They are making a little castle like children
In the soft dirt at the feet of trees.
None of which matters as the two lonely walkers
Move on, changed forever, leaving behind nothing
But what the deep wood accepts beneath its canopy.
Shash Trevett’s debut pamphlet, From a Borrowed Land (Smith|Doorstop) begins with what feels like a cleansing, or perhaps a renewal. As a recent arrival to the UK as a refugee from the Sri Lankan civil war, in the first line of the opening poem, ‘New Words, New Clothes’, the speaker declares: “I discarded the words first”, immediately evoking not so much a sense of loss as one of self-will . The verb discard is surprising here, it is a deliberate action, not a passive one; we do not get the sense, even in a strange new country, that the “mute silence” she finds herself in is something happening to her, but rather it is being done by her; and I think there is a manifesto of strength in this short opening line. The speaker then begins observing – “I watched and learned like a mynah bird” – and building, as she replaces one language with another, transmogrifies one into another would be closer, as Trevett uses Tamil script (“அ became A”) to emphasise the physical transformation entailed in the process of language learning.
After a while through whispers and croaks
new words emerged
in the borrowed tongue of a borrowed land.
This first poem gives an authentic sense of a new-language user’s building confidence, from the symbol-changes, to the child-like simplicity of Edward Lear’s nonsense alphabet lines, to the “single, stuttering, borrowed syllables”, to the final graceful torrent implicit in “and the new words began to flow”. The new words, like a new set of clothes, have transformed the speaker, made her new again as she has escaped the painful history contained in her own language.
I abandoned two millenia
of poetry, mythology and history.
No Pallavan or Cholan could claim sovereignty
over my tongue, my mouth, my mind.
There may be guilt here; there is certainly irony in the fact that the speaker finds this sense of escape from Imperial repression in the UK, but the succeeding poems show that Trevett, though she may have abandoned her mother tongue, has far from abandoned her mother land or people. English and England remain, after all, a “borrowed tongue” and a “borrowed land” and there remains in that word borrow the suggestion that the day will come when what has been borrowed will have to be returned. Touchingly, at the very end of the pamphlet in the Acknowledgements, she juxtaposes this sense of impermanence with something more abiding when she expresses love to her family, who, she says “have made this borrowed land my home”. But still, there remains the sense, as in much diaspora poetry, that her new home is not entirely hers. The poet’s life in the UK is not the subject of the pamphlet though, which on a basic level is twofold I think: the memory of violence and the role of language in that memory.
The “mute silence” of the first poem stands in comparison to the “fug of silence” which wraps the speaker’s father in the second (‘In Your Old Age’) which “clots” and “strangles”, not only trapping the old man, who is perhaps a victim of aphasia or silent simply from having witnessed too much, as though in a windowless room (“so thick it will not let the light in”) but also severing his memories from his voice, and so from his child, the speaker.
Appa, in your muted world
what do you remember now?
And the sensation of a collapsed, decaying internal world returns at the end of the collection, in ‘My Grandfather’s House’, where the crumbling words of ‘In Your Old Age’ are replaced with the physical, and of course metaphorical, crumbling of a family home back in Sri Lanka.
There is moss growing in the bedrooms
of my grandfather’s house and raindrops
sing a lament on deserted floors.
This neglected, decaying house also sits in silence, apart from the “music” making mosquitos, who are the “inheritors of (its) rooms” and “the sum total / of our dreams”, all sound reduced to a buzz, all traces of everyday human activity to an empty and slowly disappearing space. The poem is a potent symbol of lost language and a lost time – the falling away of memory.
But between these two bookends, Trevett’s pamphlet is an excerise in measured rage. Rage at the supression of the Tamil language, for example, in ‘The Sinhala OnlyAct, 1956’, the second half of which is addressed, wonderfully, to the language itself: “Oru naadillaathe aatkal, in exile, / bearing the beauty of your music, still.” – the ‘people without a country’ and the music, of course, returning at the end of the pamphlet tragically decimated as insects and absence. Rage at international indifference to the juggernaut of endless war, in ‘Things Happen’:
When they shoot blindfolded men in the back
and take souvenirs of mutilated lives
and hopes. When they rape girls and grandmothers
and celebrate the hecatomb of their success –
and the world moves on.
And rage at the betrayal of vulnerable refugees by politicians in ‘Psalm’, which condemns the British MPs who voted against the 2016 Dub Amendment to the Brexit Bill by incorporating their names into an enormous (almost page-sized!) single word: ‘NO’.
But From a Borrowed Land is more than just rage, it is a celebration of the beauty of the Tamil language, and of the culture it represents. Trevett presents two poems by other Tamil writers (Cheran and Vinothini) in their original script, followed by her own translation and then, enlighteningly, a third poem, a response to the original. This tripartate approach to translation is stunning in both concept and execution. The original versions, to a non-Tamil speaker reading from the page, appear like a garden of strange and beautiful flowers, presented as though Trevett is challenging the reader – if you want this, she seems to be saying, you’re going to have to come closer, read more, listen more carefully – and the translation then provides shape and shade, with the response expanding that into a different context and country. ‘Psalm’, mentioned above, is the reponse to the Vinothini poem translated by Trevett as ‘My Songs’, which celebrates a child’s creativity, tenacity and most importantly her future, which is then taken away from her in the most leaden and symbolically violent manner with that single negation of the final response. This is from Trevett’s translation:
Those unwritten songs rest
in the hands of that little girl
who won’t release them, easily.
I could dwell for a long time on a number of other lovely poems, such as ‘Blue Lotus Flowers’ which is written using the classical Tamil Akam form and which contains such a brilliant description of a young lover, that I can’t resist adding it here:
As beautiful as a peacock on the hillside.
As strong as a bull elephant
swaying among the young grass.
Bright as a green parrot
skimming the mango tree
he called to me.
Or ‘The Last Mango Tree’, which stands as a requiem to, and in soldiarity with, “a lost people”.
But I will finish on my personal favourite poem of the pamphlet, ‘I was Na’amah’, in which ‘the wife of Noah’, who “was known by many names and now by none”, wrestles an identity away from the patriarchy using the many alternative names by which she has been known across the world and throughout the ages. This poem seems to me to encapsulate much that is exciting about this pamphlet: the various names for Na’amah burst onto the page like the flowers of Tamil in other poems; the strength is that of the ‘mute’ refugee arrived in the UK in ‘New Words, New Clothes’; the celebration is for those who are repressed yet stay strong nonetheless; and the rage is aimed at the deadening blindness of a subjugating force which is unable to see the beauty and profundity of the lost meanings this character’s old names represent:
I was Emzara, Noyemza. Norea to the Gnostics.
The Babylonians called me Tytea.
I was the sunrise of creation
the moon glow of eternity.
This poem (like the responses to other poets’ work) brings to mind Carol Ann Duffy, and I don’t see any reason why Shash Trevett should not be mentioned in the same breath as poets of that calibre. From a Borrowed Land is a terrific debut pamphlet, and I would fully recommend buying a copy.
You can buy From a Borrowed Land from The Poetry Business, here.
Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal’s first collection, The Yak Dilemma (Makina Books) provides wonderful evidence that Dhaliwal is a poet who understands instinctively that poems make sense of the world through asking questions which neither provide nor expect answers. The speaker of Dhaliwal’s poems asks question after question; in fact she says herself in the title poem that she stands “in a labyrinth of questions”. Some are rhetorical (“What month do sunflowers die? September”), some genuine (“…was this Indian lady sitting cross-legged in front of me really Jemdanee?), some pointed (“where have I truly come to?”), while others feel like stop-offs on unfinished philosophical journeys (“In a city where desire is sold as livestock, / does it become the currency of lust?”), or ways-in to the internal monologue of an un-made-up mind (“Was it solitude’s better byword / for a happier state of mind? Was it a watchword / for failed solitude, the worst of all our fears?”). Even when questions are not asked directly, expressions of non-comprehension point towards a question just over the horizon (“I never understand the geometry of a mountain – the minute and vast distances between its several folds”), and some of the poems simply seem to stand where a surfeit of questions and dearth of answers has left an empty hole. This last is exemplified best by the first poem in the collection ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, where, in two prose columns of three stanzas each, facing each other on opposite sides of the page, the speaker proposes a dream-like space where two can come together in all the freshness and hope connoted by ‘morning’, where all the world’s solidity and division disappears into a place “where our heads float and so do our hearts” and where “we will create a daisy chain of ampersands”. Far from coming over as callow or naïve, though, there is a knowing strength at the centre of this beautiful poem – for one thing, the claim that in such a place of unity “we are not white nor brown or black but just the shade of our most loved colour” and that “Everyone will qualify to be a person of colour” strikes me in the current climate as a very brave claim to make, and one which shows great understanding of the enormous leap we as a society need to make to overcome the divisions between us – a poet’s understanding, dare I say? But the solid core of the poem is in its central conceit or wordplay of ‘no man’s land: is this a land that is not owned by men, or one where men are not admitted, or one which, to give it its prosaic Wikipedia definition, is “land that is unoccupied or is under dispute between parties who leave it unoccupied out of fear or uncertainty”, indeed is the poem referring to man as a gender, or Man as a species? Dhaliwal does not answer these questions, and neither should she – the poem stands in place of the questions and the answers.
The poems take us from “Punjab’s fewer than five rivers” to “the weightlessness of the sea” in Istanbul, to “the seven hills of Edinburgh” to “the correct blue // of the Dublin sky” and the constant jumping between countries causes the reader to sense the disorientation that the poems are negotiating, descriptions like those above adding to this feeling of dislocation, almost to the point where immigration and emigration come closer to transmigration. The speaker is a homeless soul and the “‘bulldozed dreams’”, “rubble” and “peeling paint” of the K-25 area of Hauz Khas in Delhi, the naked men she sees from her apartment window in Antwerp and the “four rented walls” of a hotel in Cairo where she rests “like animals forced in jars of formaldehyde” only accentuate the sensation that the speaker is like a bird looking in vain for somewhere suitable to perch.
So these are poems that work alongside each other to create a steadying sense that the speaker is working towards a new kind of understanding in a globalised world where the idea of ‘home’ has become detached from its moorings. She is feeling her way through the world as a constant outsider, as she points out in ‘Poem in which I am an Interloper in an Art Gallery’, cannily picking up on and adapting Theresa May’s infamous 2016 phrase “if you are a citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere; or just foreign”. Even when she returns to northern India – saying, perhaps provocatively, that she is “Dressed in black from head to toe / (to look as white as I could)” to learn more about the Irish actress Norah Richards, she discovers that something indefinable has changed: “I came looking for someone else, for something else // But who is it? What is it? // I have come here as an intruder”. With her sense of home, her sense of identity is slipping away – and it is no coincidence that in the following poem, “Drinking Coffee Together”, the speaker is in the middle of splitting up with her lover; the waning of a love affair having been working concurrently with a building sense of wider psychological loss throughout the first three quarters of the book, it now breaks, with restraint and kindness but decisively (“It matters / what we tell each other. / I do not tell you I do / not love you nor / do you.”). Restraint, in fact, and the thoughtfulness and dignity that go with it, mark the collection from beginning to end, although a sense of frustration builds subtly, only poking through the surface at the very end of the final poem, ‘What Jasmine Said’, where the speaker breaks a toenail while visiting Giza and feels “like a princess who is not a princess // because she is wearing boots / and they are so fucking tight.” The constricting footwear here takes the reader back to earlier poems, particularly ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’ where shoes, old and new, seem to stand for comfort or lack of it within a language (“Words fail me often” she says “and so do shoes”). I’m not sure if there is link I’m missing between the antifascist writer Ginzburg and shoes per se, but it may be the speaker is reading in the original Italian rather than in translation and that her Italian is not as expert as her English so the text highlights to her the way exploring a writer’s work is like exploring a new city and the language(s) you have available to you, like footwear, affect your journey: those we have had longest will help us in our encounters with with subtleties and “little virtues”. It is not a straightforward poem and I’m not sure I am doing it justice with this reading, but Dhaliwal’s fascination with words, translations, and living between languages, is beyond doubt; it is if anything the central question in The Yak Dilemma – yak of course not only being an animal but a synonym for chatting, and so the dilemma here is about what words do to us, and what we do with words.
I don’t want to jump to conclusions but I guess, being from Palampur originally, Dhaliwal’s mother tongue is likely to have been Punjabi, but she probably learned English from a very early age, and her original language began to slip away (or perhaps her parents spoke English and she was raised as a second-generation English speaker?). But anyway, this bifurcation of her language makes its political parallel in the Punjab region almost impossible to avoid, with the India-Pakistan border running right through it, and all the horrific Imperial baggage that comes with it. (The border is treated most directly in the haunting ghazal ‘your bird/my bird’, which also brings a more overtly political dimension to the previously mentioned “no man’s land” of the book’s first poem, and of which “The bulbul on the barbed wire knows nothing”.) The speaker wishes to learn Arabic, we discover in ‘Arabic Lessons’, in order to connect with the Arabic-speaking world, hoping that the Urdu which had surrounded her growing up might be a way in. For all of her good intentions, it does not seem to have been a success, although it does perhaps signify a moving on to somewhere new: “Nothing came more naturally than the phrase / for bidding farewell, our minds ready to depart / wherever we had come from. // Ma-Issalama.”
Dhaliwal’s relationship with languages finds its way into most of the poems in the collection, but nowhere more beautifully and poignantly than in the brilliant villanelle ‘Migrant Words’ where she expresses “a vain hope” that the “buried…words” of her ancestral tongue “will grow / into a dialect of some hybrid descent” and that her Punjabi vowels “will plough / a cadence that my anglophone tongue could not invent”. It could not be a lovelier, sadder poem, which I think could stand as a fine representative of the collection as a whole.
On the evidence of this work, we have in Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal a poet who sees complexity with great clarity, and who does not allow her sadness to turn to rage. She writes with genuine lyrical beauty and while she has surely benefited from the several top-level Irish lyric poet teachers and mentors she lists in the acknowledgements, there is a sure-footed handling of cadence and rhyme, and a fluidity to both the stricter closed forms and the prose poems, which indicates that the heart of a natural poet beats inside her. As with much diasporic poetry (that I have read anyway), the work itself seems to become something not entirely unlike the hoped-for, intangible and perhaps impossible home whose absence drives the lyric – and this prompts me to ask the question (it seems appropriate to end this review on a question): where, I wonder, will this remarkable poet’s journey lead her next?
You can pre-order The Yak Dilemma from Makina Books here.
You can hear Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal reading three of her poems, including ‘Meet me in the morning on no man’s land’, at The Lonely Crowd, here.
You can read ‘Reading Natalia Ginzburg in East Cork’, at the Irish Times, here.
You can read another poem from The Yak Dilemma, ‘Women who dine alone, dine alone’, at RTE, here.
You were the between-people
before there was anything to be between,
broth of hunters and textures,
fragments of migratory deer,
eyes on a dark sea, sniffing air,
rooting, scuttling, scuffling.
We look down on you
through Time’s backward telescope
and a hundred feet of sea,
domesticating your memory,
overlaying you with race,
displacing you with purity.
Let’s call them a family
and imagine them close up,
give them faces and dreams,
assume they laughed, argued,
slit fish, held as we do
wood smoke in their hair.
Let’s follow their eyes
across the marsh, towards
a low, dark line of trees
and wonder with them
what the great red and silver
discs above will bring.
As they walk along the seabed,
carrying their ancestors,
let’s say they lack, like us,
understanding beyond their horizon,
compassion beyond their reach,
language beyond their need.
The dinghy is halfway
between the seafloor
and the sky.
The refugees are caught
Eternity is on an axis –
it can be vertical
Gas giants and death
above, death and
Prevented from arriving,
Everyone loves John Keats.
I’ve looked for #KeatsHate online just to see if it exists – there is hate for everything else after all – but as far as I can discover there is nothing in the modern world but love for this particular JK, love for the poetry and love for the man*. If the haters are there, they’re keeping very quiet. My conclusion is this: those who love poetry love Keats, and those who don’t love poetry don’t care enough about Keats to hate him. Perhaps now, 200 years since his death, is the wrong moment to be looking for criticism of the man and his work, but thinking back I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone express serious reservations – not unless you go right back to the classist snobbery of Yeats. And I’m not about to set a precedent, but I am interested in why his stock remains so high, particularly amongst poets themselves.
It is a paradox, but true I think, that one of the reasons he remains so well remembered and so well loved is exactly because he is so well remembered and so well loved. Even for those whose tastes do not run to the Romantic, Keats represents the kind of poetic longevity every poet hankers after, whether they admit it or not. All literary writing is a bid for immortality, even the ancient Egyptians sensed something along these lines. Keats was intensely aware of this, and the cynic in me is tempted to read his final request of Joseph Severn to have ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ inscribed on his gravestone as one last, slightly duplicitous but nonetheless genius attempt to make such a bid. Like Shakespeare, Keats is living the kind of literary afterlife we all aspire to but which none of us will achieve (and yes, that includes you, 99.99% of published poets). Poets love Keats, in part at least, because they want to be him. They want to be one of the tiny fraction of poets who poets and readers will still be admiring and taking inspiration from in 200 years’ time, and that Keats did it means they can do it too.
It might also be worth noting that the suffering artist who was not properly recognised until after their premature death is a seductive cliché, and one which strikes a deep and resonant chord with poets’ Inner Bohemian. Often the origin of this cliché is located with the Romantics themselves, but I find it tempting to look back 2,000 rather than just 200 years to that other great and noble sufferer, Jesus Christ, whose torment on the cross still inspires more than any other, whose struggles and early death point towards greater, more permanent truths. The poetic ego internalises Christ’s pain and appropriates his immortality, and by extension that of the Christ-like Keats. ‘If I am nothing today’, the poet tells themself, ‘what does it matter when I am to be a God in 200 years?’
Too much? Maybe.
At any rate, unlike Christ, or Shakespeare, the details of Keats’ life are more than hearsay, guesswork and legend. His medical training, his literary friendships, his contemporary reviews, his tragic “family disease”, and more than anything his intense love for Fanny Brawne are well documented by both Keats himself and by those who knew him. FR Leavis thought that Keats the man disappeared entirely from his verse, and this may once have been so, but in this Age of Celebrity I don’t think it is any longer. The facts of his life are like accessories that hang from his poems, decorating and complimenting them. This is where Keats differs from other poets of two centuries ago who are also still remembered, read and valued. There are no others whose lives so perfectly enhance the tone of their poetry – Wordsworth’s move from revolutionary to reactionary, for example, has the opposite effect, as does Byron’s lordly philandering and arrogance.
To modern sensibilities, Keats’ life has the benefit of not being overly-privileged (unlike most of his contemporary poets he was from the lower end of the middle class), of being short (he did not have a chance to grow old and give us cause to dislike him, á la Wordsworth), and of being a gratifying confluence of misfortunes which give his 25 years an attractively readable narrative (the death of his father, then his mother, then his brother; the debts; the hurtful reviews; and finally his own death from tuberculosis). And then there are those letters. Oh… (or perhaps I should say ‘O…’) those letters! The intelligence, the searching curiosity, the pain, the vulnerability, the embarrassment (thank you Christopher Ricks) and the sheer humanity that comes through them like a great highlighter pen emphasising those qualities in his poetry. They are there in the poetry anyway, but how much more do we notice them as a result of knowing his letters? And how many, I wonder, have fallen for the letters first, only subsequently becoming enraptured by his verse?
His poetry too, it goes without saying, is rather good. And I don’t mean to disparage it by saying that like Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson, Keats is extremely ‘readable out-loud’; in terms of a writer’s ability to remain in the public consciousness this is no small thing – Eliot and Homer have the same quality. The luxuriance of its sensuality that plays in the mouth so satisfyingly is its key strength in this respect (and the means by which Keats elevated the Romantic project, then in its second generation, to new heights, pushing it towards the Victorian era that would both consolidate and clog it up). And so we can add to his misfortunes the extraordinary and intense quality of his work – distilled, again satisfyingly, in that one almost impossibly creative year of 1819 – and again it is hard to avoid the religious connotations of an individual being touched by a genius which, if not quite divine, certainly feels almost visited upon his tormented young soul from some mysterious Elsewhere.
But what does Keats have to offer today’s poets in particular? Well, his particular strand of Romantic introspection may speak to the identities-centred worldviews that shape so much public discourse at the moment. The external becomes the internal, and the internal becomes the eternal. Truth, for Keats, is not to be discovered by the scientist ‘unweaving the rainbow’ with their ‘cold philosophy’ but by the poet imagining a silent voice in the designs engraved on a Grecian urn. What is true, then, is mediated through the individual consciousness rather than dictated by the tenets of logic and empiricism. This seems to chime at least with many contemporary perspectives on literature, history, gender and race. If Keats continues to resonate with a new generation of younger poets, could this be part of the reason?
Linked to this might also be the fact that the Romanticism Keats represents is emphatically ‘not Modernism’, which developed as a reaction against it, and whose Big Name Poet practitioners (Pound, Eliot, Stevens) are seen by many as supporters of a conservative and in some cases fascist politics which is anathema to liberal contemporary poets.
This brings me to me to one final possible reason for Keats’ longevity: that his poetry is a looking rather than a finding, a question rather than an answer, it is the journey to a place rather than the arrival at that place. His idea of Negative Capability (that someone might be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) reminds us of a fundamental quality of the human condition, which is easy to forget when almost everything we do is geared around making ourselves feel like we understand what we are and what surrounds us, that is: we don’t understand.
It is deeply consoling, I think, particularly at this point in time, as social media boxes us in, monetises our hopes and fears, and streams us along tracks of entrenched opinion, that John Keats is still there, still making his “awkward bow”, and still looking for truth, of all things, in, of all things, beauty.
*Actually, this is not entirely true, I found one negative assessment of Keats, here, but as sophisticated as it is, I’d be surprised if it’s written by a poet so I’ve decided not to let it interrupt my take.
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
When Maria Stepanova was fifteen, her mother showed her a small lace purse which had belonged to her grandmother Lyolya and which contained an old, small piece of paper “beginning to tear at the folds”; on the paper was written a single name: Victor Pavlovish Nelidov. The name was a mystery to her mother, and it remained one to Maria despite her searching; and a mystery it remains – as far as the reader of In Memory of Memory knows – to this day. The purse, the folded piece of paper, and the ‘invisible Nelidov’ are a potent symbol of the hopeless yet meaning-rich search which has clearly obsessed Stepanova for years and to which this book is an outstanding testament.
I have had no success, only the feeling of walking into yet another empty green field and realizing once again that the absence of an answer was the answer, and that upset me, I just had to get over it. As soon as I appeared, the past immediately declined to make anything useful of itself, or to weave itself into a narrative of seeking and finding, of breakthroughs and revelations.
This lack of success is localised though. On the wider scale Stepanova’s investigations in this work, which has been described (not completely satisfactorily) as a ‘documentary novel’, do bear fruit and the author’s family becomes, to use the hackneyed phrase, a lens through which we view the past; in this case, early to mid- twentieth century, Russian-European, Jewish history. But it is the sense of reaching out into an eternity of darkness, and the compulsion towards narrative (Graham Swift once offered a definition of the human as ‘a story-telling animal’) which pervade the book. It is not actually about the past at all, in fact, but about how far the past is to be found in the present; in family stories, diaries, photographs, letters, postcards, places (e.g. Pochinky, Odessa, Paris), objects (e.g. the tiny white figurine which Stepanova calls her aleph, and which I shall come back to), and in an ongoing engagement with writers and artists such as Marina Tsvetaeva, W.G. Sebald, Charlotte Salomon and Francesca Woodman, among many others.
There is much to be learned, therefore, in the sense of ‘objects to be found’, but what sense is to be made of the past? Narrative is the search for order, but this proves elusive; instead, Stepanova reaches out for a different kind of sense, one which begins to explain why her prose cannot be completely separated from her poetry (her first full English language collection War of the Beasts and the Animals is forthcoming from Bloodaxe). At one point, Stepanova quotes Karl Krauss, “‘Immer passt alles zu allem’ (‘Everything fits with everything else’)” which she then refines in Tsvetaeva’s words to: “Everything rhymes”. So, we do not find stories in the past, but rhymes in memory.
There is no escaping the Proustian comparisons with aspects of Stepanova’s project, the title itself nods towards them, at least in Sasha Dugdale’s translation of it (Memory as both a ‘search’ and as ‘lost time’), but the ‘invisible Nelidov’ is evidence of how we are denied the satisfaction of a ‘madeleine moment’, and the writer/narrator is denied that easy, sense-triggered slide into clarity and focus. For Stepanova, making sense of memory (perhaps we could call it the search for lost rhyme) is deliberate, difficult, and frustrating. Towards the end of the book, Stepanova visits an overgrown Jewish cemetery in Kherson, one of her family’s ancestral towns, to look for the graves of relatives, and she finds herself fighting through the brambles between the tombstones with increasing fury before giving up.
The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery.
There is a layering here: the past is a dangerous place to wander, somewhere the unwary, careless traveller might get lost or worse; but it is also a dangerous animal guarding and protecting those who are dead from those who are living. There is certainly a sense, here and elsewhere, that the dead are in need of such protection because of the need the living feel to take possession of the past for their own purposes. Stepanova notes at one point “This was all about her (Stepanova) and not about them (her ancestors)”, and at another she confesses to being “horrified and offended” at her father for not allowing her to quote from his letters in her book. Her ruminations on her father’s refusal are a good example, not only of Stepanova’s remarkable self-awareness and clarity of thought, but also of her ‘poet’s sense’ for metaphor which runs through and enhances the book. Considering her evolving relationship with her father’s letters, she says
Without being aware of it, I had internalized the logic of ownership. Not in the sense of a tyrant, lording it over his hundreds of enslaved peasants, but perhaps like the tyrant’s enlightened neighbour, with a landscaped park and a theatre in which his serfs acted and sang.
And with this understanding of the power the present has over the past, we also come to realise our ancestors’ inherent vulnerability (“The dead have no rights”), because whether the tyrant is enlightened or not is entirely a question for the living. What comes through Stepanova’s problematising of history and cultural memory most clearly is that they are both open to abuse. So the writer/narrator’s difficult (and ultimately incomplete) attempts to find a path through her own family’s past are a symbol of the enormous job of work which needs to be done at the individual level if the ‘official’ version of history (i.e. at a national, state level) is to be prevented from picking and choosing what is included and excluded from cultural memory for its own political ends. And with the Holocaust at the centre of twentieth century Jewish history, and global politics veering to the right, the stakes could not be higher.
That Stepanova at times finds her search for sense exhausting is clear. On the train to Paris from London to look for clues to her great-grandmother Sarra’s time in 1912 as a student at the Sorbonne, she reflects:
Looking out of the window, I thought how terribly tired I was of family. I couldn’t look away from it, I saw nothing else. Like the wrought iron fence of the Summer Gardens, I couldn’t see beyond the captivating design and into the space within. Every past and present phenomenon had been tied to my indistinct relatives, I had rhymed it all, emphasised the simultaneity between them and me, or the lack of it. I’d had to learn to put off my own relations with the world for later, just as truffle pigs are trained to ensure they don’t eat their precious findings.
It’s worth taking a moment to step back and notice how carefully chosen, and astounding, that word ‘simultaneity’is. It is easy to bunny-hop over individual words in novels – even documentary novels – but Stepanova is a poet, as is her translator Sasha Dugdale, and I feel both have brought their powers of poetic focus to bear throughout In Memory of Memory.
What is so exhausting for Stepanova is the Tsvetaevan ‘rhyming’ of ‘it all’, the emphasising of simultaneity, or its absence, between her ancestors and herself, which at this point has become less clarifying than obscuring of her view on the past. Her almost desperate search is not only for ‘likeness’ or some vague sense of ‘connection’, but for the actual ‘simultaneity’ of bringing together temporally separate lives, through the study of places and objects and language, into concurrent existence – and it is a relativistic impossibility. But her struggle is important, and as an individual person locating meaning in individual objects she ascribes a value to them which is both outside any commodity value and which works in resistance to hegemonic ‘big’ history.
One of the ways that Stepanova find symbolic simultaneity is through her focus on the small china figurines, apparently used for packaging in Germany in the late 1800s, one of which she carries with her and calls “the aleph of (her) story”. By attaching this word, which represents both the first letter of the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets among others, and the Hebrew number one, and by attaching it to these tiny, broken (seemingly worthless) figurines, Stepanova is utilising its mystic associations with primoridial oneness – the number which contains all other numbers – and by extension its symbolic bringing together of all things in one point in space and time (as Borges used it in his short story of the same name). It is interesting to note that the the aleph also represents a glottal stop or hiatus in modern Israeli Hebrew speech, thus perhaps also representing a pause, or silence – a rest – for Stepanova in her ongoing search for meaning in her family’s past.
The china alephs are transfigured later in the book as ‘frozen Charlottes’, the small porcelain dolls also originating in Germany but named gruesomely in the US after a supposedly true story of an unfortunate girl who froze to death on the way to a ball. The frozen Charlottes themselves become an echo of Stepanova’s fascinating rumination on the life and work of the German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who left her entire oeuvre of autobiographical and quite unique art in the hands of her friend, a local doctor in Nice, before being arrested by the Gestapo and murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The vocal hiatus of the aleph perhaps also returns here as a catch in the throat, an inability to speak and a silence that cannot be filled. Everything rhymes.
There is another reason that the little broken dolls are important as objects, and that is in the extent to which, imperfect and injured as they are, they are survivors. Stepanova expands Marianne Hirsch’s concept of postmemory beyond the families of those who lived through the Holocaust, saying
Because twentieth century history spread its cataclysms liberally around the globe, most people alive can consider themselves survivors to some extent, the result of some traumatic shift, its victims and the bearers of its legacy, people with something to remember and to call back to life at the expense of their own today.
And she goes further
Each of us is in fact a witness to and participant of a lasting catastrophe...
As she thinks her way down her chosen route, as so often in this book teasing meaning from her metaphor, we all become not only survivors but refugees, and the past becomes the suitcase we carry with us “in which the dearest items of a life have been lovingly packed away”. The past, then, is not something we are travelling away from, but something we are forever carrying with us, until we ourselves become the past and our descendants carry us.
This idea of carrying a small selection of “the dearest items” is at the centre of Stepanova’s project because it represents the need to make choices. Some objects, some people, are selected, others are not – or as she puts it “those who are fit for retelling, and those who are only fit for oblivion”. Here we see why cemeteries are so important on her journeys; it is not because they bring her closer to the dead, but because they are democratic, and inclusive:
A cemetery doesn’t make that choice: it attempts to remember everyone.
It is mildly frustrating that no family trees and only one photograph accompany this deep dive into a family filled with so many intriguing and striking characters. But it is clear why Stepanova has chosen not to include such visual aids. It comes back to inclusion. Portraits should, she says
…draw together and condense everything that makes you what you are now and will become, your past and future, and to sort all this into a fixed shape that is no longer subject to the laws of time.
There is, again, an echo of the aleph here. But there is always something left out of a portrait, whether endlessly repeated like a selfie, or brilliantly executed with “a disrespect for borders” like a Rembrandt – Stepanova turns to Foucault on this, who, she reports, observes that “a person is imprisoned and limited by the parameters that describe her borders and leave the centre untouched”. The problem is what the portrait cannot reach.
So, can language reach the untouched centre and represent the full lives lived by Galya, Sarra, Lyodik, Lyolya, Misha and all the others? This is what history so often tries to persuade us is possible, that we can know, that we can see and make sense of the past. But Stepanova’s journey into cultural memory tells a different, more complicated story: “Nothing ever comes to an end” she remarks, before finishing (if not ending) on a note of almost Wittgensteinian acceptance, as she ponders once again the flawed, dented frozen Charlottes:
… representatives of the population of survivors; they seem like family to me – and the less I can say about them, the closer they come.
Stepanova has rightly been compared to W.G. Sebald in her quietly serious and unsentimental dealings with memory and history, but the writer who came most often to my mind while reading In Memory of Memory was Olga Tokarczuk, whose Flights is further to the ‘novel’ end of what Stepanova has called the “documentary novel spectrum”, but whose narrator is similarly blurred with the main protagonist, I think, and whose search (which also draws inspiration from objects, or curiosities, though with a more fleshly, corporeal theme) also takes her on a journey around the spatial and temporal worlds. The two writers share another similarity in that there are sections of their narratives which feel almost like they occupy some indefinable ground between the prose paragraph and the prose poem. Many of the effects of their prose in English may be down to skillful translations from the Russian and Polish; but in Stepanova there are lists which almost seem like poems, there is a chapter of numbered descriptions of photographs, and there is a chapter in which each short section is labelled ‘obverse’ or ‘reverse’, as though a coin is spinning though the air in slow motion; and Tokarczuk focuses her writing intensely at some moments to similar effect. But above these resemblances, I mention Tokarczuk by way of finishing this review only really to make the point that as a Nobel Prize winner, she and Maria Stepanova are in the same literary class.
You can buy In Memory of Memory here (from 17th February 2021)
You can buy Flights here.
You can buy War of the Beasts and the Animals here (from 25th March 2021)
Interview with Maria Stepanova, Punctured Lines, Feb 2021.
Interview with Maria Stepanova, LARB, June 2017
Article by Sasha Dugdale on translating In Memory of Memory, KLN, Sept 2020