Terror Firma: On Lida Yusupova’s “The Scar We Know”

By Vanessa PlaceMarch 1, 2021

Terror Firma: On Lida Yusupova’s “The Scar We Know”
Life is ill-advised. This is funny, in the way of great tragedy, and the other way around. Things happen, never for a reason, rarely for a lesson. And yet we go on, tailoring our weak understandings to fit the brute contingencies of our fleshy circumstance, preferably with a moral set precociously beside. And so what we think we know of real violence is its hapless experience and its heroic story, heroism being the preferred position of victims, perpetrators, and, best of all, witness-penitents.

why did I go back to school
I went back to school so my dad would be happy
so that he would be happy
I went to school to make my dad happy
even if he’s dead

I have read the Russian poet Lida Yusupova’s collection, The Scar We Know, five times, maybe six, in increasing pain and admiration. Much of her work involves crimes and violence, the quotidian kind: men murdering the women who won’t have them, and them that will, parents killing annoying children, children killing problem parents, gender-cleansers murdering gender-queers, rapes that happen and those that don’t, because sometimes other people are home and sometimes they don’t care.

if the kid had been home Mateyuk would not have raped me
bad luck

Yusupova serves us the daily bread of deadly dog bites in the forest and abrupt head-bashings in the entryway and the casual dismissal of an eager new face at the beautifully named the Center for Gender Problems. For what Yusupova knows is that gender is always a problem, not least because it is the center where there is no center. And so is the everyday cause of everyday death.

Steps on the red moss not knowing that it is blood

This collection is about such knowledge and knowing, an ongoing transition from not knowing to knowing to knowing too much to knowing too little to knowing the impossibility of knowing at all — a truly poetic philosophy. Not one of hope or even compassion, but a far rarer composition: capacity. Which is not considered as a substance but should be.

I forgive you. If you can, forgive me too.

It is tempting to leave it there, because what you need to do is read the thing, not this thing about the thing. For while there are lines that serve as prismatic fingerprints on the murder weapon,

he took a wooden stick and thrust this stick with force
into her vagina

and sometimes serve as the weapon itself,

It was a story of eternal love

it is the voice telling the story, the story telling the voice that deserve to be heard. I write voice, and this is wrong, for there are many voices, in both major and minor keys, the minor often commanding the major, as lines and their fragments echo and overwhelm a page and bit players in these stories suddenly step forward, reminding us that all small actors are stars to someone. So the story of a deadly fire cedes to the incidental firefighter now set center stage as his mother watches the fire’s coverage on Channel 5, thinking not about the arson murder of another mother by another son, but rather her precious child on television

she’s afraid to blink afraid to miss not to hear not to see for her
whole life she will remember these seconds how she loves him god
how happy she is she has such a clever strong handsome fireman

I found a video of Yusupova reading one of her pieces because I wanted to hear the poet’s voice and the sound of that work in its first language. I do not understand Russian, but her speech felt animated, light, and matter of fact, like a neighbor reporting a nearby bicycle theft, exactly right. I do not read Russian, but the translations here are admirable to me in their consistency, and in their rendering of this precise voice, exactly right. That they are the work of multiple translators makes their fluidity all the more graceful, and their precision all the more remarkable. [1] Just as the poet’s capacity to hold the dying and dead and disappointed is a rare and generous supple gift. And, if I may, feminism of the finest variety. I hesitate in this, only as you may mistake me for writing too narrowly. But that would be a failure of your imagination.

I promise, I swear, my friend Fuentes, no one will touch you, no
            one will kill you, not even the queen, nobody.

Just as in the excerpts from Yusupova’s “Verdicts” collection, a repurposing of official court documents, where the poems contain the dates, the names of the judicial officers, the relevant code sections, and preserve the format and typography of the original documents, inclusions that to another reader might appear detritus compared to their harrowing facts.

Criminal Judgment No. 1-337/2013
In the name of the Russian Federation
City of Krasnogorsk, November 13, 2013
Judge A.V. Mordakhov, Krasnogorsk Municipal Court of the
Moscow Region,
with public prosecutor
and assistant of Krasnogorsk city
prosecutor D. V. Koslov,
defendant A.A. Rodionov,
defense attorney I.A. Bykhanov,
having considered in public court proceedings the evidence
in the criminal case against
Anton Andreevich Rodionov,
accused of committing the crime stipulated in
section 1, article 105 of the Russian Federation Criminal Code
                                                have found that:
The defendant, A.A. Rodionov, committed murder,
that is, intentionally caused the death of another person.

The crime was committed under the following circumstances:

But facts in criminal courts are generally harrowing, just as abortions and executions are stereotypically botched. And I applaud these brittle details as they amplify the law’s frame, which is far more harrowing than the facts of any one case, being the sound of a monotone that smooths over atrocities so easily, so necessarily, turning bones into gravestones and gravestones to pavements, paths for the law ongoing.

After which S.A. Gritsinin, completing his criminal intention
of killing V.I.M., carried out strangulation of the latter, causing
thereby a fracture of the greater horns of the hyoid bone, and a
fracture of the thyroid cartilage on the right side, which resulted in
grievous bodily harm and

The death of V.I.M.

These are veracities, the liturgies of autopsies and refrains of homicidal motivation, the repetition of which sometimes felt de trop,

the vagina is not a vital organ

and then again, no, as this particular repetition caused me to mis-read that the vagina is not a valid organ, and I would have missed this misreading and the casting of another light, just as the number of times

the death of the victim

tolled in the poem (29) reminded me eventually that the word for victim is only gendered feminine in Russian, and so

he took a wooden stick and thrust it with force into her vagina 

and then withdrew her intestines. Yet

Death of the victim occurred only after 102 days

was cited as a judicial factor in mitigation. The vagina is not a valid organ. I said that these are poems of violence, and that is true, and that these are poems of knowing, and that is true, and then there is a third truth, that these two truths are linked, that the poems propose this relation, and, more radically, propose that this fundamental truth is the terror firma of much of our existence. For we know violence and we don’t and we can’t and we will and won’t and there is a violence also in knowing and this not, as we insist on penetrating whatever remains of mystery, or, alternatively, lie back and think of god as our witness. But god is a shitty bystander, who rarely intervenes and never calls the cops. Leaving us to weep, again, and try to scrape some lesson from life’s horror, again, to go dumbly on, again. Which is how the pain of the beauty of Yusupova’s work comes in, properly dialectically, its brutal little feet palping our bruised and brutal hearts while its gorgeous little feet dance on the site of the victim, forever feminine.

As Yusupova writes, the door of the Center for Gender Problems is

a double door with a cast-iron hook
for protection from bloodthirsty men

but it still opens.


[1] The collection is edited and introduced by Ainsley Morse and Oksana Vasyakina, with translations by Morse, Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Bela Shayevich, Sibelan Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Joseph Schlegel, and Stephanie Sandler.


Vanessa Place is a poet, critic, and criminal defense attorney, and serves as co-director of Les Figues Press.

LARB Contributor

Vanessa Place is a poet, critic, and criminal defense attorney, and serves as co-director of Les Figues Press.


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