Tatiana Voltskaia, Cicada
Tatiana Voltskaia arrives, in translation, somewhere close to the H.D. of Trilogy, a poetry full of Classical allusions where modernity is ruin, poems which are a mess of the mythical-abstract unhooked from any concepts which would locate problems, the verse driven by varied rhythms, the affect-incantation. Voltskaia's intensities limit themselves from overload, as H.D.'s do, by means of occasional sardonic eruptions. This is a bilingual Russian-English selected poetry and prose, Voltskaia's first appearance in English. Emily Lygo's translation renders the rhythmic variety of the Russian originals as traceable echoes, a formal pulse, and apart from one or two clumsy word choices ("Harden and set in the clayey darkness"), the poems are rendered into the crystalline plainness necessary to relay Voltskaia's soulful theatrics without becoming overblown.
First transparency (glasnost), then reconstruction (perestroika), and now? Voltskaia, a St Petersburg poet whose first collection was published in 1989, expresses this question most directly in the prose series 'On The Ruins Of Our Rome': "All of us hated the lie, hated the fingers we could feel around our throats but, despite that, it's not so easy to get out of the habit of an empire. It is as if we were so used to a certain pressure that, when we were released from it, we suddenly noticed the terrible weight of our own bodies for the first time; we saw the awkward form of the soul we always knew what to do with in the past – hide it. But what now?"
In an earlier part of this prose series, Voltskaia finds co-ordinates: "But the crucial thing is not what is around us or inside us, but what is on the horizon – where then there were ruins, as there are now. And all cultural movements find their conclusion if not in these ruins, then by means of them." The space of this poetry is quickly established: ruins, snow, a howling wind that "sounds like a Mass", and people who are not quite alive, as in the constant talk of shadows, or thoughts like this: "She has to wear a skirt that fits tight and gives / The hint of a body inside".
In Nancy Ries's ethnography, Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation During Perestroika, the conversation of middle class Russians in 1989-90 reveals recurring patterns: the litany form, lament, the trickster narrative, the "tales of heroic shopping". Society is cast as an inescapable realm of absurdity and suffering. One woman's lament Ries records: "Why are we forced to live like this, when in all the other countries of the world, you can go into any store and buy ten different kinds of sausage and as much sugar as you want?" The effect of these conversations and their cosmology is political.
"Let the star die / Without fulfilling my pitiful wishes" writes Voltskaia. In Moscow of 1989, the horizons of early perestroika (it was introduced as a concept in a speech by Gorbachev in April 1985, and it meant a combination of socialism and democracy where these terms juxtapose State control and market freedom; commentators in the East and West are divided on whether there actually was an opportunity of achieving this in Russia at that critical point) had seemed to vanish. Entrenched positions and immovable bureaucracy aided a collapse. So, when reform is seen to fail, what then? This disorientation runs as a cry through Cicada, its contents written precisely during this time, a book in which St. Petersburg's architecture vies with the rhythmic rain for the status of most gloomy portent.
But what sign? What miracle? Everything is either sodden or frozen. What remains entirely oblique is the form of any help, uncovering, life-giving, H.D.'s life given back to itself, "the flowering of the rod", an impossible idea here. Life is aborted and its aborted form is that of shadow. It's extraordinary how this intensity is maintained. If there's a kettle it's "already boiling dry". If there is a lover then "We've got used to loving from afar, / The weight of live embraces is too heavy." In this poetry of symbolic images, every line seems to point towards a despair which can't find its satisfying complaint, so keeps on howling in a place, a city perceived as hollow. Like knitting, it could go on forever. A recurring word is "eternal". Then the rain comes with its "tiny hooves."
Among St. Petersburg poets there's an illustrious line: Pushkin, Blok, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Kushner. Very loosely, these poets are certainly formal, at times playful, even if the play gets you into danger. They all encompass a form of (never guileless) intimate address. It's Brodsky who appears as a distant mentor to Voltskaia, the poet gone overseas to whom a sequence from 1995 is written, 'On the possibility of Joseph Brodsky's return', beginning: "Orpheus, don't come here. We don't exist." In one of the 'On The Ruins Of Our Rome' essays (the prose is all written as a striated knitting of assertions, each short essay seeming to drift sideways), Voltskaia offers a critique of Brodsky: "Space is the clothing of time; time grows out of it, wears it into holes, throws it away, and exchanges it for new space. This process fascinates Brodsky, and appears in one guise or another in almost all of his poems (he creates himself and makes up his accomplices). It is the binding hoop and moveable axis upon and within which his poems, taken all together, constitute a universe, an entire mythological space with its own calendar [...] The proximity and attraction of his poems is inversely proportional for us to his physical remove."
Voltskaia also pursues snow, the space of snow
Snow doesn't divide – it extends our bodies,which "grows old" and decays as "light has decayed":
Our movements, this is the phantom aim
Of creation. A white rose is a blizzard
(from 'Snow is the source of its own light...'
The snow has receded, like a sea, and uncoveredThen the snow is "dead". For a despair which is cast in Gothic ("Cologne cathedral [...] where chaos has not quite been transformed into a cosmos, as though it cooled and set when only half way there: not a phenomenon, but a process"), and reads the Gothic as pure love, it's no surprise that cathedrals receive attention (as they do in Brodsky), culminating in a whole 'Cathedrals' sequence towards the end of Cicada. Voltskaia's ability to create a flickering object which makes everything else flicker too:
The skeletons of dead grass, the shells
Of barns, damp mirages of groves
(from 'The snow has receded...')
As the twilight swallows familiar buttresses,
The skies are drawn to the whirlpool of a cathedral,
They slowly revolve, pulled by its undertow:
Here feathers rustle, there gleams a halo,
There's Adam and Eve in a paradise of stone,
And somewhere at the side there sits a demon,
Quivering like a leaf and green from anger,
Grasping at the guttering with its talons.
Faster into the centre, slower outwards
The solitary twister spins around –
A portal – with ring after ring, row after row –
The grapes that hang from the vine of the Promised Land,
Apostles in cloaks and rulers in their thrones,
Heroes on horseback, and angels wearing crowns
Made from rays of light drift on to Doomsday.
Maidens chatter, while angels sing in praise,
Faces of martyrs are flickering, like lamplight
On a gloomy night, and pigeons softly coo.
But the waves of towers, black as forest,
Rush upwards, their flight muffling all voices.
[£8.95, paperback, ISBN 185224 704 5, 160pp., 2006. Bloodaxe]