I first met Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya several years ago at the MacDowell Colony, where many of the poems in her new collection, Paul Klee’s Boat, were written.
While in New Hampshire, Anzhelina graciously offered to share her work at a local poetry event. She read each poem in the original Russian, while another MacDowell artist read the English translation. In casual conversation, Anzhelina seems quite soft spoken, but her poems carry all of the force of a head-on collision, particularly when read aloud. She kept us all mesmerized until the final period on the page.
“Polonskaya consciously guards her outsider status,” translator Andrew Wachtel writes in the introduction to Paul Klee’s Boat. She chooses “to live not in Moscow itself, but in the little town of Malakhovka, where she was born in 1969, some thirty miles from the center of the city, a peaceful enclave far from the daily squabbles of Moscow literary life.”
When Polonskaya sent her poetry to Wachtel for translation in 1999, he says he “discovered a poetic voice quite different from the meta-metaphorists and conceptualists of the 1970s and 80s.” Wachtel elaborates in his introduction:
Perhaps this is because Polonskaya, unlike most Russian poets, had not received a classical literary eduction. Rather, her poetry comes almost exclusively from her own experience and, even more important, from her own thoughts. This is not to say that Polonskaya is uneducated. She has read widely in Russian (Brodsky, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Mayakovsky being particularly important) in Anglo-American and in Spanish poetry. Nevertheless, her lack of formal literary education has allowed her to be far freer in her relationship with previous poets than is the case with many of her contemporaries…While one can find echoes of the diction of other poets in her work, her poetry lacks the typical self-consciousness of those poets who are more immediately aware of the weight of their literary tradition.
Loss, loneliness, and miscommunication are major themes in Polonskaya’s work. While most of the poems in the new collection explore these ideas from a personal perspective, the last ten poems commemorate the horrific sinking of the Soviet submarine Kursk in 2000—a tragic loss on an entirely different scale. The ten poems in Polonskaya’s Kursk cycle were the basis of the libretto for composer David Chisholm’s “Oratorio-Requiem” Kursk, which debuted at the Melbourne Arts Festival last year. Here is the fourth chorus from the cycle:
00.15 Water in the hold. The deck rocks.
We sail. A taut wire of legs,
we bespatter the walls
00.45 We’re sinking. The anchor glows
like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the cries,
the sea sucks the Great Bear.
00.53 The storm laid the blueness of its hands
on the heeling boat. Called for help,
no answer. Nothing lasts forever.
“The high point of this collection, in my view, is the ten poems of the cycle Kursk,” says Wachtel.
They’re haunting poems, and the lack of narrative or specifics only adds to their weight and mystery.
For today’s Sunday Poem, I’ve chosen three selections from Paul Klee’s Boat. Enjoy the poems and your Sunday, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving week.
Grey and Blue
Today you came again and asked me to buy
you some clothes. We chose something blue and grey,
but you kept standing there, head hanging, saying: “it won’t do,
won’t do.” And, seeing that my hands too have become all wrinkled,
I suddenly felt, how could these hands lead you to accept a
simple bolt of cloth? They just can’t.
There’s much shame in this world, but perhaps the least known
is to age before your mother’s eyes.
No question, the first things to be cursed
are photo albums: a girl with a ball and mommy.
A bench, the lilac bush should all be cast onto a bonfire.
And the sun declared outside the law.
Call some thieves — let them make off with the iron bedsteads
where we slept long and straight.
Then cut down the rowan by the fence
so we can’t bury the dog beneath it.
There’s no call to cry over emptiness.
And without the past in your pockets,
live like the grass, not asking; who are you.
Flow like water, not tempting memory.
from Free Verses
I. Like a Tree
This land squeezes me
Like a tree ring.
The farther I go, the more a band of hate
At night fear suffocates me—a tree
doesn’t have much right to move about.
During the day I wave my crown.
Red-headed woodpeckers fly to me
And azure bluebirds (azure, you see, is the color of loss)
They don’t care what language they use
to peck at berries or bang on my trunk.
There’s no sense calling to god or a lover
they’re too closely bound up themselves.
Soon I’ll turn into a drop
and I’ll fall.
III. The Fly
As day blossoms a fly bangs against the glass
like an iron filing.
Its tiny heart (if it has one) is full of strength
and it looks out into the cool garden—windows tend to lie.
A day and a night pass, a day and a night, and its efforts
become too weak. You just need
to open the blind but your head is filled with insomnia.
Time flows like water under a bush—you are both old,
and the fly no longer hovers over the world like an autumn star.
About Anzhelina Polonskaya
Polonskaya has published work in many of the leading world poetry journals, including Smena, Volga, Novyi Bereg, Argumenty i Facty, World Literature Today, Poetry Review, The American Poetry Review, and International Poetry Review, Boulevar, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner. In October 2011 the “Oratorio-Requiem” Kursk, whose libretto consists of ten of Polonskaya’s poems, had its debut at the Melbourne Arts Festival. Paul Klee’s Boat, a bilingual edition of her latest poems has just been published by Zephyr Press.
Her first book of verses Svetoch Moi Nebesny (My Heavenly Torch) appeared in 1993. In 1998, the Moscow Writer’s Publishing House published her second book Verses. The Sky in a Private’s Eye followed in 1999. In 2002 her book Golos (A Voice) was published in Moscow; an English version of A Voice was shortlisted for the 2005 Corneliu Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation and for the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) prize for literature in translation.
Since 1998, Polonskaya has been a member of the Moscow Union of Writers, and in 2003, she became a member of the Russian PEN-centre. She also has been a fellow at the Cove Park Scottish Arts Council, the Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers, The MacDowell Colony, Bellagio, and the Villa Sträuli in Zurich.
For more information about Anzhelina Polonskaya, please visit her website. You can watch a short film about the making of the Kursk “Oratorio-Requiem” on Vimeo, as well as video of the entire performance.
About Andrew Wachtel
Andrew Wachtel is the president of the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Previously he was dean of The Graduate School and director of the Roberta Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, his interests range from Russian literature and culture to East European and Balkan culture, history and politics to contemporary Central Asia. His most recent published books are The Balkans in World History (Oxford UP, 2008), Russian Literature (with Ilya Vinitsky, Polity Press, 2008), and Remaining Relevant After Communism: The Role of the Writer in Eastern Europe (U. of Chicago Press, 2006). He has translated poetry and prose from Russian, Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Bulgarian and Slovenian.
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“Kursk: An Oratorio Requiem,” “Grey and Blue,” “Photo Albums,” and “Free Verses” © Anzhelina Polonskaya and Andrew Wachtel. All Rights Reserved. All poems appear in Paul Klee’s Boat (2012) from Zephyr Press and were published with permission from the author.