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What’s Astonishing: Polina Barskova’s The Zoo in Winter and Austin LaGrone’s Oyster Perpetual
Posted By Sarah V. Schweig On April 26, 2012 @ 8:00 am In Reviews & Interviews | No Comments
The best way to gain time is to change place.
Any review of literature in translation is also a review of the translation. And in this act, the review is also, in part, a comment on the endeavor of translation itself.
The Zoo in Winter, a selection of Polina Barksova’s poetry translated by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg, often addresses this issue of translatability head on. For Barskova, language shapes both perceptions of and expressions of interior identity and exterior reality, writing, “how could one describe in Russian/ The grand and small (goddamn) details/ Of need, so that the martyr’s crooked body/ Would not be crooked more painfully,/ So that, as it had once, it should desire/ Purposeless days in place of rueful days?”
In her work, Barskova doesn’t shy from explicitly stating her concerns as a writer, a woman, and a Russian living in the U.S., writing, “most of all I’m occupied with beauty/ I’m driven mad by the fact that the prattle healthyyoungbeautiful/ in their language means simply alive…” Here, and in its concern for beauty and its confrontation with mortality, poetry has the capacity, despite language-gaps, to bring people together, across genders, across nations, across languages—even as memory recedes, even as death intervenes—in the very act of articulating these divides. Barskova writes:
Under a foreign sky, under the ward
Of smiling Berkeley invalids
Whom I attend,
My soul lies like a hero killed,
No longer drawing crows.
Everything toothsome has been pecked from it,
It should be washed by rains and kicked by winds.
But – there is neither rain, nor wind, and one can hardly
Pick out a word to cover up the shame.
Words that serve here are meek and even,
Foreign to past grandiloquence…
In that passage—from “On Overcoming the Language Barrier”—language is not a mere characteristic of a nation’s people, but shapes nationality, and nationality, is not only a characteristic of an individual, but shapes that individual from his/her origin.
Two years ago, in celebration of the Tolstoy Centennial, at a Russian-themed reading at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn, Polina Barskova read with Ilya Kaminsky and Boris Dralyuk, a translator of Tolstoy and also Barskova’s translator. And this reading in 2010, marking one hundred years since Tolstoy’s sudden disappearance, then illness and death at a railway station in then-Astapovo, now named Lev Tolstoy, Barskova read her poems in the original Russian, then in the English translation, suggesting a loyalty to her own language, while also a commitment to being understood across barriers.
Also there in reading’s audience was Austin LaGrone, a Louisiana poet I met just before the reading began. We discussed the Southern Writers Reading series, which takes place monthly at a massage parlor-turned bar in Chinatown, and his then-forthcoming first book, Oyster Perpetual, selected for the Idaho Prize for Poetry by Thomas Lux and now available through Lost Horse Press. (Months later, in the same backroom of Pacific Standard, LaGrone would read from it, and I’d snag a copy.)
His book, like Barskova’s work, rings out strongly of its origin, but in a way that neither exoticizes where it comes from nor alienates a reader who comes from someplace else. Further, it shares a similar concern with being transplanted to new cities, with bridging time and place, and with conveying experience that is specific to an era and locale while also reaching beyond its context. In “Peach Flavored Cheyennes” LaGrone writes:
I’m not sure how things
come together to make a life,
or at what nexus we choose our heroes.
I want to sing Hank Williams.
But then I see girls
outside Pete’s Candy Shop
tying cherry stems with their tongues
and I think about Crystal
working the pole down at Maxine’s.
The heart grows stubbornly
in whatever soil we give it.
And even though this conversation during the break in this Russian-themed reading was our first-ever, our talk ended up landing on the topics of illness, death, and grieving. Oddly, it is with this similar, associative motion that Barskova’s poems function. In the book’s title poem, she writes:
Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand –
Should be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,
And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.
The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm – awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,
What’s astonishing – your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.
This reading was two years ago, now, as Tolstoy died in 1910, but I can still remember, as Barskova read the last lines of that title poem, “Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,/ Let him give names to us: Madness and Death,” LaGrone and I caught each other’s eye, astonished, across the packed backroom of that Brooklyn bar on 4th Avenue and St. Marks.
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