WATCHING FOOTAGE from bombed-out Aleppo on the evening news, I can’t help but wonder whether anybody there is writing poetry about what they’re going through. They must be. Poetry is the last tangible form of hope to die, or so I believe. Surely the Syrian people, who’ve been shelled indiscriminately by all parties in the conflict, have better things to do — like finding shelter and food, and, yes, burying their dead. Still, I wait for the poetry to emerge (if it hasn’t already). Will these poems be concise and devastating accounts of being caught in the crossfire, describing the most quotidian of activities in razor-sharp detail? Or will they take the form of eulogies, formally and rhetorically elaborate paeans to the city and its residents, the war and its participants, both combatants and civilians? Anna Świrszczyńska, the Polish poet who wrote about the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Building the Barricade, which I’ve had the pleasure — and pain — of carrying over into English in its most recent rendition, employed the former style, seeing herself as a chronicler of “the last Polish uprising.” The five Russian poets gathered in this slender yet handsome anthology chose a different path: a surrealist mix of fact and fiction, naturalism and distortion. When reading their work, rendered by a team of no fewer than eight translators, it helps to keep in mind the question that poet and editor Polina Barskova poses in her introduction: “once a human being is undone by his historical situation, what can poetry do, if anything?”
The full scope and meaning of the Siege of Leningrad (1941–1944) — which Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Pavel Zaltsman capture in their poems — remained hidden long after the ceasefire was reached. Since their poems did not fit the narrative espoused by the Soviet authorities, according to which the city was “a Soviet Troy, defended by impeccably heroic inhabitants wholly dedicated to the manufacture of weapons and tanks for the war effort,” most of these poems surfaced only in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of perestroika and glasnost liberated Soviet culture. Anybody who hasn’t read these “censored” poems can still imagine how their depictions of the Siege differ from the official account. In the latter, we encounter the heroic Soviet everyman, who overcomes any and all hardships, or, if he doesn’t, is happy to give his life for the Motherland; in the poems, we see the work of men “whose main creative urge had not been to inspire a superhuman effort to ‘prevail,’ but to represent the extent of the pain inflicted by the disaster.” Needless to say, these five poets had no less desire to survive than those whom the Soviet propagandists chose to glorify in their monuments, but they wished to capture their experience in all its complexity. To do so, they found a language that couldn’t be easily coopted or corrupted by the authorities.
Nearly half of these poems belong to the first poet, Gennady Gor (1907–1981). For the most part untitled, and rhyming in the original Russian but less frequently in translation, these poems are surreal indeed, and even macabre. They focus, above all else, on the speaker’s dehumanizing mission to procure and consume food:
I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom
At how slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing,
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.
(Trans. Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yankelevich)
The act of cannibalism is depicted with a shocking nonchalance — a sick joke: having consumed the laughing Rebecca, the speaker is now himself full of laughter. Yet everything is tinged with spite. Does the speaker care that his dinner is “hideous”? How is he different from the scavenging raven? The bird is hungry and so is the man, who chooses not to share his meal with another creature. In a similar poem later on, Gor defines the limits of his faith as being synonymous with the limits of his body, the contours of which continue to change due to hunger and illness. As the body withers away, so does faith.
Sergey Rudakov was the only poet of the five who died a soldier’s death, not in Leningrad but elsewhere on the front. His poems, too, mention scarcity of food and shelter — the day-to-day struggle to survive. Successful as they are overall, in my view it is the penultimate poem that deserves special attention:
On the streets there’s quite a chill.
Wherever you look, they’re dragging sleds
Of sorrowful remains.
Sewn into the white of linen.
The row of frozen mummies slides along.
In this world, everything repeats:
The rituals of Egypt’s sands
Arise again in North Palmyra.
(Trans. Anand Dibble and Matvei Yankelevich)
What the poem depicts must have been a typical occurrence in Leningrad under siege: bodies of the dead being transported to the burial site. And it helps to remember how long the siege lasted — two-and-a-half years. The poem describes a ritual, but a makeshift one. As conditions deteriorated, there was no longer any time or energy for proprieties. People must have been buried where they died. In its final lines, the poem opens up rhetorically, situating the tragedy of Leningrad in the larger scope of human history. These deaths are but links in the chain. I wonder if the traumas of Aleppo will soon force its citizens into a similar position of stoic despair — if they haven’t already.
While Rudakov lingers on the rituals of death, Pavel Zaltsman’s “The Apocalypse” asks what becomes of the dead. The note below the poem tells us that Zaltsman composed it in the spring of 1943, “Along Furmanov Street from the bazaar in the rain.” Its Biblical horsemen are depicted as “four kids flying fast”:
The first of them is war,
He’s riddled with wounds.
The second lugs a sack of grain,
And even that’s in tatters.
The third kid is a crook,
Missing a hand, wielding a stick.
The fourth and last is slain,
He’s lying on the trash heap.
(Trans. Charles Swank and Matvei Yankelevich)
These children are both victims and harbingers, but what they herald is not a metaphysical battle. The fourth is already dead, lying on a pile of garbage. The only lesson to be learned from this tragedy, Zaltsman seems to suggest, is that one fate awaits us all. His reworking of Biblical iconography stands as a resounding cry of protest at the scale of human cruelty.
The label “poetry of witness” has been with us at least since Carolyn Forché’s 1993 anthology Against Forgetting. It’s usually defined as poetry written during, in response, or after a trauma, mainly of the military kind, by participants, perpetrators, victims, and survivors. Think Celan. Think Miłosz. In his afterword to Written in the Dark, Ilya Kukulin, recipient of the Andrei Bely Prize for “Scholarship in the Humanities,” situates the five poets in the larger historical context of the pre– and post–World War II European avant-garde, thus drawing our attention to the fact that poems of witness may take all sorts of rhetorical and stylistic shape. They are, above all, meaning-making: “The authors in this volume invented — in antihuman conditions — the aesthetics necessary to represent the endless suffering of both the collective body and individual bodies, as well as the violent transformation of meaning.” Reading about someone else’s trauma, poem after poem, page after page, can dull our senses. But these poets shock us anew with each line, making sure we remain alive to the horror. Kukulin again:
Here, we see poems that shape the writing of trauma in the very moment of historical catastrophe and, simultaneously, represent new speech — distorted and hopeless, but striving to rename the phenomena of disintegrated reality, and to create a new language for further survival in a world which has lost its meaningfulness but continues to exist.
The new language creates new meaning both for those who wrote these poems and, perhaps even more importantly, for us, who may put that meaning to good use, drawing lessons from what has transpired. Polina Barskova’s pocket-sized anthology can inform us as we try to make sense of today’s tragedies, and as we await the poems of Aleppo.