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Bold and intimate: 2 poems by queer and feminist Russian poets

Bold and intimate: 2 poems by queer and feminist Russian poets
Image: Oksana Vasyakina via F pis'mo

The first anthology of Russian feminist and queer poetry, selected by Galina Rymbu, and edited by Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse, is due to be published by isolarii later this autumn. The Calvert Journal is publishing two of the volume's brave poems below.

2 October 2020
Introduction: Sebastian Clark

“Feminist poetry? Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone talking about feminist poetry as an independent phenomenon in Russian literature, or anyone even saying this phrase out loud without a pejorative or ironic subtext,” Russian poet Galina Rymbu writes in her introduction to F Letter (isolarii, 2020), the first anthology of feminist Russian poetry ever published. “But now we can say with confidence that the 2010s saw the rise of a powerful field of feminist and LGBT+ culture in Russia, in which feminist poetry plays a critical role,” she adds.

While paying homage to earlier rather exceptional feminist poets like Anna Alchuk (1955-2008) and Marina Temkina, Rymbu herself played a part in galvanising the Russian feminist and queer literary scene via the literary journal she founded in 2017, F pis’mo. Its effect has been to palpably change the Russian language, coining many of the ‘feminitives’ that have become a source of controversy, much as ‘they/them/their’ has in the Anglophone world.

Against the backdrop of state violence, censorship laws, and Putin’s revanchism, these poets have brought verse to bear on political life. Their poems do not live solely on pages, but are chanted in the streets, sprayed on banners, and projected onto buildings. The group has published many of the first — and only — personal accounts of sexual abuse and violence in the Russian language; they have organised marches in support of political prisoners like the Khatchaturian sisters and Yulia Tsvetkova; and they frequently stage seminars for reading and discussing feminist theory.

In her introduction to the work, Rymbu goes on to write that F Letter is “a secret burrow, an island of freedom” — a seed that can carry their movement further afield.

My Vagina

Written by Galina Rymbu and translated by Kevin M.F. Platt

On May 17, 2013, to music by Semantic Hallucinations,

a son came out of my vagina,

and then the placenta, which the midwife held like a butcher,
weighing it in her hands. The doctor placed my son at my breast
(at that point I still didn’t know his name)
and said, “Your son.” And immediately my son peed all over my breasts and stomach,
and the world became my vagina, my son, his burning stream,
his wet, warm head, my empty

Then they stitched up my vagina;
it changed shape. Became narrow and constricted,
a vagina-prison, vagina-wound. I was wearing
white compression stockings—all bloody—
a cheap red wrap-dress, bought at the Chinese market, and on it—
two women, holding the crowns of trees,
and beasts, holding the women.

With no underwear, no support, with tangled hair
post-op I walked along the maternity hospital’s sunny hallway
to collect my son. I picked him up and thought:
his fingers look like little gummy worms.

Now my vagina is a burrow

for your little brown beast with its big red head.
Where he slips in once in a while to gather strength. It’s a furrow
for your tender tongue, for your thin, strong fingers, resembling
last century’s writing instruments.

Now my vagina is contracting and next to it, a little higher, my clitoris is swelling;
it looks like a little bead and it’s wrapped in a delicate
folded hood, which sometimes can be pulled back
under a blind rain of light touches.
Go ahead . . . Careful . . .

When I was 13, I tried to push a summer

cucumber into it: I wanted to understand what sex was.
I didn’t know back then that it’s not just
penetration. I often looked at my clitoris with the little
broken mirror that papa used for shaving.
I was dry wood that burned
stronger every day.

I lived in а world of assigned reading, where everything is viewed with the male gaze,

in the world of gangfights and stairwells crammed with sweaty
guys in black jackets and tattered boots. I loved squatting on my haunches, loved
tight jeans, pressing against my clitoris
and big lips.

I didn’t know then that everyone had an interest in my vagina:

the state, my parents, gynecologists, strange men,
Orthodox priests with epaulets under their robes
and women’s blood on their robes,
employers, anti-extremism agents, the military, fascists, immigration cops,
banks, conservative critics of “depraved lifestyles,”
patriotic cultural figures, appropriators of traditional values,
washed down with brandy.

Blood comes from my vagina once a month

and then my beloved goes to the store for pads
(I like the thin ones, with chamomile scent).
Sometimes the blood spills out in clots that look like
the round helmets of little astronauts.
My menstrual cosmos in miniature: the womb planet,
egg comets, swollen vulva as milky galaxy.
Sometimes the blood pours like vodka
from the special narrow neck of a souvenir bottle.
Sometimes there’s no blood.

I like to have sex during my period;
my whole body gets super-sensitive.
I love it when your penis is covered with my blood,
and love to imagine that you’re also on your period,
that salty, warm blood is dripping from the little hole
in your glans.

I love it when your hands are sticky with my blood,
when it dries on your nails and ragged cuticles,
love to feel my womb pulsing in my belly,
like a second heart, my breasts swelling and getting warm,
like milk is about to pour out of them.
I’ll let you drink it, love, it will pour over your face,
your tender pink nipples (almost like a girl’s),
wetting the fuzz on your chest,
neck, your tummy, where,
in my dreams, you might someday carry our daughter.

I love when you talk about my vagina

and when we discuss it together,
while you sit on top of me
in my t-shirt and the green earrings
that I gave you;
love it when you lightly slap against my lips.

It’s so good you’re not doing it in Russia,
where they want to send Yulia Tsvetkova to prison for delicate images of vaginas
where my girlfriends are afraid to kiss in the street,
where Katia and I would lie forever on the rug after school
over at her place touching one another, turning into a single
salty sea, and then
were scared to talk about it.

They call our vaginas and vulvas pussies,

but mine is less like a pussy than a decorative, domestic mouse—
small, furry, and restless.

Will it die before its time?
Will it die in a cage?

Once I was touching my mouse during a university lecture,

touching it in an empty bus crawling through the night city
from the factories to the concrete-block housing, from the cemeteries to the shopping centers.
I was touching it behind the garages, one fall morning,
sitting on a rusty pipe,

touching it in the ambulance taking me
for the operation, and touching it after the operation
when I had a catheter in my urethra, and when blood trickled from my urethra,

touching it when my belly was huge, in the stifling
maternity ward,
when I peed in a jar at the polyclinic,
when I was peeing and crying at night in the old dacha garden,
full of crickets and night moths,
when I peed right in my pants on the Irtysh Embankment
for the fun of it, when I was peeing on the snow
by the factory entrance checkpoint,
when I peed in the dorm in my son’s potty,
when I was peeing after drinking beer at the Culture Park while nearby
cops were creeping around
was touching it in the summer woods while I was covered with insects,
embraced by trees.

I touched it after I accidentally cut my lips and clitoris with a razor,
after fighting with a boyfriend and after
the forensic medical examination,
after the trip to the oncology center and after
the arrest, at the rental apartment,
after the protest on Bolotnaya Square
and after the protest on the Field of Mars.

Touched it while reading Nicholas of Cusa,
while reading Gastev,
Ernst Bloch,
Alain Badiou’s Ethics,
Ise monogatari,
the physics textbook,
an anthology of German poetry

(I took them by storm!).

I touched my mouse when I was crying and wanted to leave you,
touched it when I was crying and wanted a child from you,
touched it, sitting on your face,
and touched it when my face was pressed
to your dark groin,
and just while looking in your eyes.

And all the same I still don’t know it, don’t understand it completely,
my mouse,
it scares me, throws me off balance.

But I like to think it politically—

it winds things up, rocks the dance floor of old ideas
gives hope in the absence of new
methods of activism.

To make revolution with the vagina.
To make freedom with oneself.

I think, well, maybe the vagina will bring down this state for real,
drive out the illegitimate president,
disband the government,
abolish the army, taxes on the poor,
the FSB as a structure of utterly vile power and oppression,
deal with the police,
with conservatism and revanchism,
dismantle unjust trials, free
the political prisoners,
make putrid Russian nationalism impossible,
the humiliation of the oppressed, fabricated cases,
will fucking shatter oligarchy and patriarchy,
paralyze troops deployed in other states—
farther and farther:
crush militarism with the cunt!

My vagina is love, history and politics.
My politics is the body, the everyday, affect.
My world is a vagina. I am a vagina. And I bear peace.
Yet for some I am a dangerous vagina,
a fighting vagina. That is my monologue.

Born in Omsk, Russia, in 1990, and currently based in Lviv, Ukraine, Galina Rymbu is a poet, translator, curator, and editor of the feminist literary journal F pis’mo. Rymbu wrote this poem in reaction to Yulia Tsvetkova’s prosecution for feminist drawings.


Written by Ekaterina Simonova and translated by Kit Eginton

There’s not much time left:

In twenty years, no one will imagine
I might have sex.

In thirty more, no one will think

I could ever have had sex.

Look, standing behind me on the trolley,
Asking me to pass along fare for two tickets:
Could anyone ever run fingers through that straggly hair.
Could that sagging body press up against another.

Could men and women want her, now or ever.

For thirty years now it’s been something no one must know,
Because these things just aren’t supposed to happen.

Look, they’re getting out, walking away in the morning light,
One supporting the other.
Loose skin above the elbow, stooped backs,
Two ridiculous camel colts

Not touching each other more than they ought.

Life worked out this way, they only have each other,

Neither ever managed to meet ‘the right guy.’

Before bed one of them flicks through Instagram;

Half of the people she follows are dead. The second one dabs

Cream on her hands, covered in liver spots, then, complaining

About the pain in her back and neck, about
How lately she gets cramp in her legs at night,

Takes the phone from the other woman,
Lays her head on her right shoulder, slips her hand

Underneath her pajamas, the main thing is not to tell anyone about this.

For thirty years now it’s been something no one must know,
Because these things just aren’t supposed to happen.

Born in Nizhny Tagil in the central Sverdlovsk Oblast in 1977, and currently based in Ekaterinburg, Ekaterina Simonova is an award-winning poet, curator and editor.

Get your copy of F-letter here.

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