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‘History crams a lesson down your throat:’ a thunderous poem on wartime by Russian poet Polina Barskova

‘History crams a lesson down your throat:’ a thunderous poem on wartime by Russian poet Polina Barskova
State Memorial Museum of Defence and Siege of Leningrad, St Petersburg. Image: Deror_avi via Wikimedia

26 November 2021
Introduction: Paula Erizanu

Polina Barskova is a Russian poet and academic who teaches literature at University College Berkeley in the United States. Born in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) in 1976, she has published numerous acclaimed volumes of poetry in Russian, out of which The Zoo in Winter and This Lamentable City are available in English. The poem below opens Barskova’s latest collection translated into English, Air Raid. Employing different voices, the volume includes a selection of poems on cataclysmic 20th century events in Russia, and beyond, including the Holocaust, and the Siege of Leningrad during the Second World War. “A Sunny Morning in the Square” is followed by an excerpt from a conversation between Barskova and the translator of Air Raid, Belarusian poet Valzhyna Mort, which closes the volume, printed by Ugly Duckling Presse.

A Sunny Morning in the Square

Written by Polina Barskova and translated from Russian by Valzhyna Mort

to T.P.

My half-baked flesh

stuffed with its own tricks

finds itself as a leaf

or a leaflet caught in the rush

of a train to Bialystok.

Bialystok stuck in 1941 (1939?).

Bialystok padded in fright like a Christmas star

stored away in its box.

People still wake there

alive living ablaze.

They discuss an earlier event

and read an announcement:

“You are to appear in person on the square at six,

bring only your wrist watches, in the amount of twelve,

bring only your greyhounds, in the amount of twelve,

bring only one bolt and one hatch.”

Bialystok grows silent and speaks

stocked with soldiers in the amount of one,

between his brows a swastika shines,

in his mouth a star shuns speech.

“Where should we shovel our hounds, our watches, our hatch?

Our knees bleed dew,

our teeth rake burning leaves,

why, shiny soldier, are we so sweet with you?

The soldier curses at them: we’ll build a circus!

Our circus king will show you his tricks.

A star built of smoke and scream!

History crams a lesson down your throat.

Mercy me/Master me on the square at seven,

greyhounds bark, hatches shine, wristwatches bang,

by eight the square is ready for bedtime

and you crack like a glass Christmas star. Arrr arrr

A Conversation between Polina Barskova and Valzhyna Mort

Mort: “A Sunny Morning in the Square,” a poem about the deportation of Jews from the town of Białystok, opens with a train “padded in fright like a Christmas star” and ends with the image of this star cracking: “you crack like a glass Christmas star. Arrr arrr”. This hard German “r” that falls off the cracked “star” enacts in English something that is indeed not in the original Russian. And yet, it is there, perhaps not exactly in this place, not exactly like that. Earlier in the poem, the citizens of Białystok read an announcement that starts off very formally: “You are to appear in person on the square at six.” But already with the second line, something is off: “bring only your wrist watches, in the amount of twelve.” The formal quality of the pronouncement is made strange with this exact (and large!) amount of personal watches, that are the “only” thing allowed. By the last line of the pronouncement, what seemed direct and formal, is just bizarre: “bring only one bolt and one hatch.” This packing is unnatural and the mouth making pronouncements is enacting this unnaturalness by slowly breaking. The ending represents the final breakage.

Time and borders spin and our moment merges with 1939 (the year the Soviets occupied Białystok) and with 1941 (the year of the Nazi occupation). The town reflects our arrival in the distorted mirror of history: we arrive as the citizens of Białystok are told to pack and prepare for departure. Are they leaving on the train we’ve arrived on? Could it be that our dream train is also a death train?

We are lost in time because time is New Year’s Eve, the night of a magical time shift. The whole town is being packed “like a Christmas star,” a fragile topping of private gatherings glittering in the dark. (It’s New Year’s, not Christmas, that is celebrated in the opening poem, as is traditional in Eastern Europe). This family heirloom—a fragile star of private lives—is countered with the stars of public narratives: the Soviet star, the star of David, and the swastika that shines, star-like, on the forehead of a German officer overseeing the timely departures on the train of death. The private lives are gone: either crushed or sealed away from the public eye. While Western discourse has serialised and overproduced the narratives of twentieth century pain, the Russian (and Soviet) discourse has done everything not to allow such an archive to exist.

English and Russian have something important in common: they are both imperial languages. This commonality makes them hurt to the same degree when they are broken by a poet. As a poet and a translator, I’m in a unique situation: I write in two languages, Belarusian and English, neither of which is my mother-tongue in a traditional sense. Russian, my stepmother tongue, is an imposed, colonial language. When I translate your work, I get to break Russian while wearing the gloves of English — I’m an untraceable Belarusian criminal.

Barskova: I think you are touching here upon a very important question: for whom — that is, on whose behalf — do we speak? We know (that is, we were taught) that literature is nothing but a dialogue — continuing through time. And, allegedly, we can choose our interlocutors. What interests me, perhaps, are interlocutors having speech troubles. A million blokadniki — the inhabitants (including dozens of poets) of besieged, starving Leningrad, the city where I grew up. In spite of all our efforts, we’ll never hear from most of them, they are traceless in history, voiceless. And something really upsets me about that, really troubles me — and makes me write. That was the case with Zinaida Bykova, the hack translator who disappeared in the snow drifts of the dying city: this very word “disappeared” fills me with anger towards history and tenderness towards her. Yet, obviously, it’s not only about the tragedy of the Siege. The disappearance of Catullus, or, differently, of Pushkin or Chekhov also ignites some reaction of writing — Chekhov spent his last years coughing up blood, with his voice completely changed. Because of TB, he looked like an old man at 42, and he already knew that he’d never write that novel of his. It might be a delusion, it might be a grave moral mistake, but I feel that sometimes poets can spare some words for the dead.

Auden said, “poetry makes nothing happen,” and we’ve been wondering ever since — are we so impotent, so powerless? Poetry cannot shoot, cannot heal, cannot abolish death. Poetry’s jobs are minor: to comfort a mourner, a lover, for a brief moment. Elegy, one of the earliest forms of poetry, was born as funeral song. As I see it now, the job of consolation is crucial, the job of giving medicine — even if it cannot bring anybody back to life, it can patch the texture of life as it is, make it softer, warmer. Damn it, make it prettier.

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