The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova, Translated by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler
"It's terrible to possess brittle things. / How are we to know who taught people to draw / Stars between eyebrows, butterflies over the gristle / Of throats, a weeping eye between breasts? / And who taught them to live . . . / With this yawning, singing, oblivion --"
I am fairly certain that Americans experience existential abyss in a lesser form than those who have lived with the weight of devastating political upheaval in their lives. Literal upheaval. A striking and painful ambivalence for your own home. "It's terrible to possess brittle things," says Russian poet/doctor/radio reporter Elena Fanailova. "[W]ho taught [people] to live with strange / Chasms . . ."? Despite what I believe to be Americans' own uncertainties and empathetic failings, though, Fanailova's ideas work in any modern time or place. "A knife in the mind / Flickers like a projector on a white wall." Any knife, anywhere, seems to be Fanailova's suggestion, even as her poems often act as exposition and meditation on the bloodiest, broodiest moments in Russian culture.
The Russian Version is out of Ugly Duckling Presse, a nice little press with style and taste. I have to take it on faith that the translators, Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler, did a nice job -- as the reading is pleasurable and seems to retain something of the style that is suggested in the chatty introduction (written in Russian by Aleksandr Skidan and translated by Turovskaya). The poems are selected from various books and collections published between 1994 and now. Obviously, a lot of shit has gone down in Russia between then and now, and in Fanailova's life, as well.
Last winter, I saw some of Fanailova's poems in another worthwhile book, Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology out of Dalkey. The poems in that collection are fairly representative of her style as seen in Russian Version, but I think what's most useful is to see her work, in an anthology, through the lens of others, through the lens of Russian collective reality. (If you're interested in reading other contemporary Russian poets, Svetlana Budronava is particularly great.)
The point is: I think that context is important to understanding Fanailova's poetry -- not that I have a comprehensive backdrop for it -- but I believe that a little something as a stage helps a reader see its delightful idiosyncrasies. Sometimes, the poet herself does this for us, as in an unsettling and heartbreaking poem about a veteran of the Chechen War and his family and their memories. Part 1 is the poem; Part 2 is a long note, beginning "The story of how this text came to be is simple enough," in which the reader is privy to Fanailova's eavesdropping and guesstimating experience on a beach along the Usmanka River. "[N]othing is invented . . . The details, taste, feel of the time all had to be captured, whenever possible, without distortions."
Fanailova wrote the poem, in part, by simply transcribing and describing, in the moment. She finished the rest the next day. She writes of trying to retain the tones of two men in conversation. She is drawn in by the combination of sounds in the phrase "roses and Grozny." She summarizes their lives by what she can see of their bodies. Her work as a doctor helps her fill in some details. Conscious of their apparent social status, she presumes that the wife has undergone several abortions: "Soviet gynecology was extreme humiliation . . . absolute shame, like all of Soviet existence." She hears the man tell his conversation partner, quite without self-consciousness, in front of his wife and child, of violence and gnawing despair. The reader has read the poem, has seen it first as an isolated piece of information. Then the reader experiences it again through Fanailova's note, learning that "the whole course and mechanism of this conversation [is a] call for a kind of opening of a window in time." The effect is startling. The poet renders the same world twice -- and then -- infinitely -- given the immensity of human history and its shadow over all individual experience.
Despite all I'm arguing about context, Fanailova's book can be read purely for lyricism, and even, sometimes, satisfying relationship-narratives. The collection, because it covers such a range, allows for a weirdly honest kind of poet, one whose work shows its flaws in a blatant and intelligent light. One of her poems references German director Fassbinder, and I like that overlap. She has a similar sensibility. The poems aren't all great, but they all seem necessary. I like it when writers aren't afraid to show how their tastes and perceptions are a kind of limitation. Fanailova wittily takes on others' voices, dons the role of her own life, seems to stare courageously at the abyss behind and in front of her, and makes an argument about poetry and record. This poetry offers the quotidian only in the form of despair. A blaze can move like a wall vomited up by the lips. "A karmic warrior with an under-heart spike" says "dear daughter, I'm fairly irate / But don't be afraid." There's a bandit wedding and a corpse in the river and a ride in a fancy car with a dangerous man. And there's always this pressing, hard, jaw-clenching cultural reality. Russia herself looms and looms. "You're like a bone in my throat, that's to say, / You're like a dead relative for dinner."
The Russian Version by Elena Fanailova
Trans. by Genya Turovskaya & Stephanie Sandler
Ugly Duckling Presse