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The Russian Version is the first full length English language collection of celebrated contemporary Russian poet Elena Fanailova. Essentially a bilingual volume of selected poems translated and annotated by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler, The Russian Version spans more than a decade and four collections of Fanailova’s work. The book offers English language readers welcome insight into the evolution of this multi-faceted poet whose work incorporates the politics, history and traumas of her native Russia as naturally as the events of her biography.
Reading through The Russian Version, one notes a significant stylistic change as the poems move from short, tightly packed quatrains of sharp-eyed observation with a gilt edge of cynicism reminiscent of Marina Tsvetaeva toward looser forms which are able to incorporate history and complex emotions more readily. “Old New Year,” from Fanailova’s 1997 publication The Russian Album,is one example of her early, more conservative style. It is short enough to quote in its entirety.
The light falls. We smoke in the park.
Yellow comes down from above.
The frozen apple high overhead
Has kept its red.
Old churches glow in the winter−
Transparent from within.
White angels on the hill
Play us the latest hits.
The poem and its title are tightly packed, containing multiple layers available for interpretation. This New Year can be considered old both because it is far back in memory, and old as in boring, expressing the speaker’s ennui. Fanailova’s end-stopped lines and her use of caesura lend a tightly controlled momentum to the poem, as the stark palette of colors recalls Symbolist techniques. The poem suggests rather than states, and its meaning seems to lie beneath the narrative surface. Especially in the final lines, it seems that Fanailova has something specific and significant to say regarding this personal memory or the society in which the event took place, yet she is unwilling or unable to express it more definitively.
The poems from Transylvania Calling, published in 2002, show Fanailova’s style opening up, as quatrains are abandoned for longer, uneven stanzas held together by rhymes in the original Russian. Compared with her earlier work, these poems incorporate more sensory information as well as a clearer range of emotions. In short, Fanailova’s poetry becomes bolder as her career progresses. The poem beginning “… Again they’re off for their Afghanistan” most dramatically exemplifies this stylistic break, which was evidently so significant that Fanailova felt compelled to add a prose explanation to the poem, clarifying its genesis.
And there in ‘Ghanistan were beer-soaked moustaches,
Fucking beautiful Uzbek girls
Unbraiding bridles with their tongues[… ]
Later to keep the whole affair from leaking out,
The colonel himself shot them dead
In front of the regiment− or more precisely,
Had them shot[… ]
The rapists weren’t more than twenty.
And the ceiling bore down slowly like
a chopper to the sound of women wailing.
The poem shows Fanailova’s early cynicism hardened into the dark strength of a defiant witness. In contrast with her earlier work, Fanailova’s later style seems more expansive, more equipped to encapsulate history and emotional reactions to events and atrocities. Her prose explanation of the poem reveals a conscious change brought about by her need to capture reality more immediately in her work:”The details, taste, feel of the time all had to be captured, whenever possible, without distortions… The sense of violence is the main thing that I remember about this era… ”
“Lena, or the Poet and the People” is the final poem in The Russian Version and, at five pages, the longest. The poem incorporates Russia’s national consciousness through the use of a character, namely Lena, a convenience store clerk whom the narrator encounters on a daily basis. The narration is chatty, reminiscent of Frank O’Hara, and the poem uses narrative asides, dialogue, setting and chronology far more fully than Fanailova’s earlier work. Reality is less transubstantiated into art in Fanailova’s later poems, as if the poet has gained the confidence to let the world speak through her poems without such a complete degree of poetic mediation.
There’s a clerk in the all-night store
Where I buy food and drinks
(I hate the word, drinks)
Late at night after work,
One time she said to me, I saw you on television
On the culture channel
I liked what you were saying
Are you a poet? Bring me your book so I can read it.
Fanailova’s willingness to loosen the bonds of her work expands her poetry, making it paradoxically both more personal and universal. Rather than tempering her voice with the stylistic choices of her Russian poetic predecessors, Fanailova’s most recent work shows deeper traces of idiosyncrasy and self reference. By allowing her own experience and insights to speak more clearly, Fanailova has become a representative for her generation of Russian intellectuals, whether she likes it or not. Fittingly, “Lena, or the Poet and the People” goes on to explain the poet’s fight against obscurity, a fight which Fanailova’s own poetic evolution exemplifies.
No matter how large the leap from Fanailova’s earliest to her most recent poems, there is logic in the change. Fanailova’s recent work bears the seeds of her early style, yet exudes the confidence that comes with age and recognition. English language poets can learn from Fanailova’s unwillingness to turn away from events which involve and affect her and her country, no matter what stylistic shifts the struggle to incorporate such events into her poetry necessitate. Readers unfamiliar with Fanailova’s challenging, vast and inclusive poems can be grateful for the introduction The Russian Version provides, and hopeful that its publication will lead to further exposure of her poetry in the West.
Stephan Delbos is a New England-born poet living in Prague, The Czech Republic, where he teaches and edits The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have appeared most recently or are forthcoming in Zoland Poetry, Poetry International, Rain Taxi and Born Magazine.