The Guts of the Living: On Polina Barskova’s “Air Raid”

January 17, 2022   •   By Ainsley Morse, Michael M. Weinstein

Air Raid

Polina Barskova

IN HIS “ARS POETICA?” the Polish American Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz wrote: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person, / for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, / and invisible guests come in and out at will.” It is no surprise that Miłosz — who lived through the German bombardment of Warsaw in 1939 and aided Jews under the Nazi occupation, only to write these lines in Berkeley in 1968 — continued to be haunted by the voices of “invisible guests” who had not lived to tell their own stories. Miłosz and his compatriots, from Herbert to Szymborska to Zagajewski, have helped to create an association between Eastern European writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and this type of post-disaster poetics. Under every one of these authors’ lines thrums Whitman’s famous claim of authenticity: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” But what happens to a poetry of witness once its last living witnesses are gone? What is the role of a poet born into the aftermath of historical atrocity — and yet shaped inescapably by its resonances?

Air Raid, the newest collection by acclaimed Russian poet Polina Barskova, offers one answer. Barskova is one of the preeminent scholars of the literature and art produced in, around, and in the wake of the Siege of Leningrad (1941–’44). This harrowing material has, in turn, penetrated her own writing, producing a fascinating kind of alternative scholarship, as Barskova imagines and inhabits and interprets the almost unimaginable human experiences of the millions of people stuck without fuel, light, or food in freezing Leningrad. Although it’s important that Barskova comes from this place — she is a quintessentially Petersburg poet, self-consciously a part of that city’s high modernist tradition that reaches back to Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam — her work is constantly interrogating the dubious proposition that she might have any kind of privileged access to this kind of extreme suffering.

Barskova is indeed acutely attuned to the hackneyed notes of disaster tourism, as heralded in one of the first poems in Air Raid: “Auschwitz-Birkenau, a Guided Tour for American Students.” [1] The poem starts numb and then warms to its subject, playing the “hide-and-seek of the civilized consciousness.” The poet expresses cynicism about her role as a guide to the past’s atrocities, but also guilt at her own numbness — indeed, at the casual irreverence with which she strolls around this place, “brushing Marlboro ashes / on the ashes made here, shed here.” As Auden wrote in a 1939 elegy for Yeats, “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living” — and this poet tells us that her guts are strangely unperturbed by this place.

Many of the poems in Air Raid perform acts of poetic reanimation, lending the letters of famine victims and forgotten authors the kind of verve and lushness that are Barskova’s signature. These poems cast a canny and often self-ironizing eye on her own endeavor: “Dead poets love me back,” she quips in “Mutabor.” And yet, their playfulness is undergirded with a sense of mission: to amplify the voices of those whom history has reduced to statistics. The feelings occasioned by this historical position are not simple, and Barskova’s writing does not avoid, but indeed revels in, their messiness.

Likewise, the contents of Air Raid are curiously and rather wonderfully heterogeneous. Despite the military urgency of its title and cover image (crisscrossed spotlights, echoing the Xs that Leningraders taped to their windows to prevent shattering), less than half of the poems are situated in Siege-space or even, for that matter, in Russia (Barskova’s status as an émigré poet, subtly evident throughout the collection, deserves separate attention). To be sure, death is omnipresent, but the fullness of life asserts itself at every turn (and in every cemetery); it’s clear that the guts of the living interest Barskova at least as much as do the dead. Or perhaps it’s better to point out, with her, that everyone who is now dead used to be alive, and all of these poems are populated with vividly, awkwardly, cruelly, and gloriously living things, variously caught up in the madness of their time. The tender wartime correspondence between a father and daughter in “After the War He Found Himself in the West” rhymes with the stiff charm of “Ivan Turgenev to Pauline Viardot. A Letter.” Earrings and other treasures are lost and found again.

Air Raid is not just a heterogeneous book, but a book produced by two poets: the translator, Belarusian-born Valzhyna Mort, is a celebrated American poet herself. The pairing is compelling, recalling other famous poet-translator collaborations like W. S. Merwin’s Mandelstam, or John Ashbery’s Rimbaud. What results here often seems squarely in the camp of “versions”: poems written by Mort “after Barskova.” Meanwhile, these are both poets with highly distinctive voices: Barskova’s is baroque, rich and weighty, purring and squelching before stopping short on a mot juste: “Желудок жалобно подчиняется Диккенсу: / Ворчит, мурлыкает, блазнит, вздорит.” Mort’s English does a beautiful job with the onomatopoeic verbs here: “Mournfully, a stomach surrenders to Dickens: / grumbles purrs lusts squabbles.” But Mort’s own poetic voice is sharp, clipped, and precise, with a penchant for mad leaps that send the reader flying.

The two poets’ senses of humor are likewise worlds apart; Barskova’s wry, self-consciously eloquent speakers achieve understatement via generous circumlocution, while Mort is pithy and quirky. In one poem, the speaker makes bold to question the pathos of a monument to the Defenders of Lvov (then Lwów, now Lviv), asking, “Ahem, if I may / Defenders of Lvov from who?” Who hasn’t invaded here, she asks, who didn’t seek to swallow the place up — punning on the verbs pokushat’sia, to attempt (a takeover) and vkushat’, to taste. For this tasting, Mort works with a clever false etymology that lands us in Panera: “But who didn’t usurp / But who didn’t soup and salad.” Similar flights into modern American idiom reveal, through contrast, the more old-fashioned and sumptuous turn of Barskova’s phrasing, as in “какой бессмысленный ma chere искусительный карнавал” (more literally: “what a senseless ma chère seductive carnival”) versus Mort’s “darling, what a queer triggering drag.”

This is just fine, of course; in poetry translation, there are no rules. And even if there were, these two poets are game to break them: as Barskova writes in the book’s afterword, “I am not that interested in translations being exact replicas, pale simulacra; I want, ideally, translations of my poems to be wild.” And Mort (a native speaker of Russian and Belarusian who has published extensively as an English-language poet) certainly knows what she is up to. For fans of both poets, this volume presents something rather unusual and, indeed, wild.

A nagging question, however, remains: is this Barskova in English? Sometimes, it seems like the answer is yes, as in the childlike inflections of “Children’s Literature”: “We come here to a museum / What do we see in this museum? / We see: a trail of fellows / who dragonfly on summer days.” The odd use of “dragonfly” as a verb is Mort’s, and it is both delightful and seems to complete Barskova’s thought. Many lines sound stranger in her English than they do in Barskova’s Russian, but sometimes this adds something significant to the poem, as in, “With this I close this letter being as I am out of paper and fire” (cf. “На этом кончаю письмо, так как кончается бумага и коптилка гаснет”). Here, Mort seems to have taken on the choppy, telegraphic style that crops up in poetry (and diaries) written under wartime conditions; and perhaps she is also acting as an “untraceable Belarusian criminal,” getting her revenge on two imperial languages by, as she puts it, “[breaking] Russian while wearing the gloves of English.”

At other moments, Mort’s willful disfigurement of one language by means of another — as if she sought to make the language hurt the way it has hurt those legacies it has distorted — creates a more jarring stylistic divergence. One of Barskova’s cemetery poems ends with a highly lyrical couplet, somewhat Brodsky-esque: “Передо мною любопытное молчание: / Так молчат после боли и после любви.” A more literal rendering would read: “Before me [is] a curious silence: / [People] are silent like this after pain and after love.” Mort skewers the speaker and leans theoretical: “I’m pinned by this strange silence / post-pain, post-love.” No rules — but words and syntax matter more than this, especially when the ethics of the material itself seem to demand a certain kind of accuracy and specificity. We can write off “post-love” as a matter of taste, but in the eulogistic “A Guide to Leningrad Writers” come the lines “Leningradtchiks suck on the shaved / breasts of our Big Earth.” Barskova’s lines do anthropomorphize the “Big Land” (what besieged Leningraders called the territory outside the Siege corridor) as huge-bosomed and abundant, and it is from her teats that Leningraders must drink. But the coarseness and deliberate othering (“shaved breasts,” “Leningradtchiks”) of Mort’s interpretation seem to limit English-language readers’ access to the affective invitation of Barskova’s lines.

Barskova is far from the only contemporary poet to test her medium’s resonances when it comes to conveying historical tragedies that occurred elsewhere. On the American scene, the past five years have witnessed a proliferation of poetry books that espouse the “documentary poetics” style of archival excerpts (some real, some invented) — married, often uneasily, with a more recognizably “lyric” voice. From Philip Metres’s Shrapnel Maps (2020) to Don Mee Choi’s DMZ Colony (2020), these books attempt to shoulder an unwieldy responsibility: to do justice to the lives lost in a way that renders their absence particular. The books’ sense of mission gets undercut, at moments, with a recognition that pierces the surface like a rip in archival film: the poet speaks not only into, but also because of, the silence of these millions of others. The results are indeed memorable, harrowing, but, as Don Mee Choi writes in her book’s endnotes, these are ultimately “imaginary stories based on reality — history — yours and mine, and dreams.” How fine a grain of detail, and how much accuracy, gets lost in this process of turning these victims’ histories into “yours and mine”? And why must we start from the premise that readers will only care about historical trauma if authors make the terror somehow “theirs”?

However much their approach appears shaped by the legacies of deconstruction and Language poetry, these books seem, often, to embrace the archivist’s fantasy of inscription as presence — and of writing itself as what Robert Frost once called “play for mortal stakes.” At times, recognizing that their specific contexts will be unfamiliar to many readers, poets drawing upon other traditions will revert to shortcuts in order to ratchet up this sense of stakes, both historically and emotionally. In Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic (2019), for instance, an unknowable place (half-real, half-imagined, it seems) gets abstracted into a quasi-Soviet city — complete with bread shortages, search patrols, and a town square in which “[s]omeone scribbles the names of the arrested and nails the list to the wall.” At this degree of generality, the parallel between a firing squad in the Soviet town square and an America “in which a boy shot by police lies on the pavement / for hours” is easy to see. And yet, in contrast to Barskova’s letter-writers, the denizens of Deaf Republic read, at moments, like socialist realist archetypes or allegories in Greek tragedy; the landscape, schematic as a line-drawing, stands in for their faces.

Or take these lines from “To Antigone, a Dispatch,” in Mort’s own Music for the Dead and Resurrected (2020): “Brought up by dolls and monuments, / […] I’m cement in tears. // You can spot my graves from afar, / marble like newborn skin.” The address to Antigone is apt: both the speaker and her ancient interlocutor seek to perform the work of mourning without a particular body to mourn. These graves, with their own enduring inscriptions, are stand-ins for what the poems wish they could be and do: monuments deep in the land where these events and feelings came from, close to their source — and yet putting a stopper in the past, turning a lost generation into (as Christian Metz put it) “one who can be loved as dead.” In contrast, Barskova’s poems never eschew the nuance, disorder — and, yes, beauty — of the polyphony that this “air raid” of voices rains down upon us.

As Mikhail Bakhtin wrote (in Stalin-era works that, like those of Barskova’s letter-writers, would be rediscovered only decades after), such a polyphonic style is one of the surest means of undermining both the repressions and falsifications of official discourse. Such discourse is a crucial context for Barskova’s work; its specter haunts Air Raid in a way that few Anglophone readers will see. Barskova’s quotations of quotations are part of a lengthy Soviet and post-Soviet tradition of taking the language of the State at its word, to the point of absurdity. Now, under the Putin administration’s efforts to “make Russia great again” by systematically whitewashing official accounts of 20th-century history, Barskova’s poems stand in the face not only of cliché but of wholesale, state-sponsored erasure. Indeed, from the late 1940s and into the present day, official accounts of the Siege of Leningrad recast it in the image of heroic and redemptive suffering for the sake of the nation. As with every city’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, such rhetoric makes mass trauma public by draining it of particulars. Cliché, however memorable it may be, is the enemy of memory — not least because one monument can serve any number of arguments.

Much like the translation on facing pages, the archival impulse at the heart of Barskova’s endeavor is twofold: these poems are born from the archives as much as they seek to serve as memorials in their own right. But in her attempts to do justice to her material, Barskova never loses sight of how hard (and dubious) it is to “scale up” from object to symbol, or from personal experience to general, social fact. When Barskova tours the concentration camp, the genocide victims’ “bowls, prosthetics, red- / framed glasses” drip with significance — a significance that comes, paradoxically, from the stolen everydayness of the lives they represent. And yet, when we try to say how an Auschwitz umbrella differs from the one “clutch[ed]” in the “hand of a female student purple from cold” as she visits these “educational barracks,” we are hard-pressed to articulate what this “film // of things, whirling as in a dream” intends to show us. We can’t point to any one object, any one utterance, and declare, “There — that is trauma.”

In the midst of this complexity, Barskova’s poems owe their bravura to their refusal to settle for stock answers or teachable symbols. She is, in essence, an anti-mythologist. However sensual her language, her poems maintain a distance between the Siege victims’ suffering and her own embodied experience. Air Raid beguiles and frustrates because it wants two things at once: to speak with the dead, and yet — since detail bespeaks the presence of a world of details beyond the page — to trouble our consumption of their suppressed or apocryphal testimonies. Maybe, Air Raid suggests, we ought to be shown just enough of the Siege to be told, with some force, that even if we’ve bought the book, these histories are not ours.

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Ainsley Morse is a literary translator and Russian literature scholar specializing in poetry and the 20th century.

Michael M. Weinstein is a poet, essayist, and literary scholar. He lives in Tucson, Arizona and can be found on Twitter @transpoetics.

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[1] On another level, this poem testifies to how Barskova’s day job has likewise been pulled into the endless task of making sense of historical catastrophe and human suffering. In a previous collaboration with Ugly Duckling Presse, the devastating and intriguing Written in the Dark: Five Siege Poets (2016), Barskova worked with a team of Hampshire College students to translate a collection of work by five poets who lived through her native city’s darkest days.