Like something about to be born

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.