“You Aren’t the Center, but the Radius”

Irina Shevelenko on Maria Stepanova’s Kireevsky, with translations by Eugene Ostashevsky

“The chill of having no place […] is the only thing that gives poetry a chance not to participate in the parade of general achievements, not to wind up as a passkey that opens the doors for a third-party, external meaning. In this situation opacity seems like the only choice: a murky, closed, unpopular, unentertaining, unsuccessful existence in the catacombs, one that remains aloof.” This statement comes from Maria Stepanova’s 2010 essay “In Unheard-of Simplicity,” where she reflected on the dismal effects of the successful integration of experimental poetry in the consumer-driven culture of the prosperous “aughts” in Russia. Distancing oneself from that culture, she suggested, became a matter of sustaining one’s integrity and creative independence.

Stepanova’s book of poetry, Kireevsky (2012), was at once opaque in its relation to the present and to tradition: mastering the languages of twentieth-century historical traumas, languages of loss, misery, and excludedness, might have seemed an exotic endeavor in 2010–2011, when Stepanova wrote most of these poems; it is striking how less and less exotic, by the year, it has been looking in the Russian context since. Stepanova’s other essay, “Displaced Person,” reads as an extended commentary on her work on Kireevsky, although its implications are broader. The title of this essay is a pun: “person” in this case is a grammatical category (as in “first-person pronoun”), and the displacement refers to the conscious transfer of the “I” of lyric utterance to a voice—or indeed to a self—that is not the author’s. Stepanova calls such selves, subjects of poetic utterances, “fictive figures of authorship,” whose existence is limited to the “space-time of one cycle or one book of poems,” a territory that “exists according to laws that are not entirely identical to those the author recognizes over himself.” This affords new freedom to the poet:

“I” turns out to be not an actor now, but a camera; suddenly several cameras appear—a lot of them—and they aren’t pointed at you. […] But if we suppose that all the cameras are working, all the voices are speaking (singing, coughing, whistling, stuttering; one of them, obviously, belongs to the author himself, but we can’t say with any certainty which)—and if this sheaf or whiskbroom of diverging intonations exists as a text, as a unity, we can consider the experiment a success. In that case a poet’s oeuvre appears as a kind of gigantic installation with a displaced center—and what happiness to know that you aren’t the center, but the radius.

Kireevsky became an experiment in new vision and new hearing. For the title of the book, Stepanova took the last name of Pyotr Kireevsky (1808–1856), a nineteenth-century collector of folk songs, whose voluminous collection (1860–1874) was published only after his death. It was the first comprehensive collection of Russian folk songs, and Kireevsky’s name became emblematic of the enterprise of Russian folklore collection in general. An amateur collector, he relied on many submissions from his contemporaries, also amateurs, who would often edit and correct the texts they recorded or even submit their own imitations of folklore alongside original folk songs, as Alexander Pushkin claimed to have done. Stepanova had this premise in mind when calling her book Kireevsky: as an author, she writes her texts over the tradition, infusing it with a strain of experimental poetry and thus ensuring its transition into a new age.

The excerpt below is Eugene Ostashevsky’s translation of six poems from the first sequence in Kireevsky, entitled Young Women Are Singing, which he rendered as Young Maids Sing (see his note on the reason for that). This sequence consists of balladlike songs predicated on the experience of trauma—wars, purges, prison camps, and post-Soviet havoc. They evoke a variety of sources, from the medieval vita of Alexis the Man of God (“Mama, what janitor”) to the song “Katyusha,” a love song, whose heroine’s name became a nickname for a Russian rocket launcher in the Second World War (“Ordnance was weeping in the open”). The title of the sequence, however, adds another layer of complexity to the text: young women who sing these songs aren’t the subjects or voices of these ballads. These songs are seemingly not about them, and yet they actually are: the singers are vested in the experience the songs relate, and they appropriate and reenact it in their singing.  

Irina Shevelenko is professor of Russian in the Department of German, Nordic, and Slavic at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She edited the newest release in our Russian Library series, The Voice Over: Poems and Essays, by Maria Stepanova.


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