The Russian Version
Translated by Genya Turovskaya and Stephanie Sandler
Introduction by Aleksandr Skidan
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
Reviewed by Katie Eberhart
The fine thing about Elena Fanailova’s book The Russian Version is getting a poet’s view of Russia in recent years. In this bilingual collection of poems time passes and some things change, and some only shift. Themes which demand attention are the presence of doubles and how both structure of the poems and the poet’s interests change. Fanailova has a keen eye for details of story and scene, but also the even more complex terrain of motivations and dreams in a place where even the dead are denied peace (even from those who were closest to them). The second part of the poem The Land of the Dead (a poem in four parts from the work With Particular Cynicism, 1998-1999) begins:
…A willow sprouted from her grave.
A year later it cracked the tomb apart to the rose-colored stars.
Its roots grew through her ribs and entwined her heart.
But father took an axe and a saw
Pried out the root and chopped down the stalk.
And so it is oppositional forces of life and death that play a role and form knots of complexity and wads of questions, and everything is complicated by family and history and what each person can and can’t control.
Fanailova uses precise language. She has a handle on everything: the atmosphere and seasons, light and dark, male and female, life and death. I was frequently reminded of Osip Mandelstam’s poems, the grim and gritty scenes, the use of atmosphere, ghosts and doubles—but Fanailova’s images and language are thoroughly her own. The book begins with an untitled poem from The Russian Album, 1994-1997:
Already yesterday November was arriving.
Already yesterday the light had changed.
You’ll wake up: a ghost stands at our window,
A lancet in the pocket of its vest.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And death has acquired such an easy style.
Her smile is like a model’s out of Vogue.
Her gestures are taken from old revues,
The dry wings of ballet legs.
Death is consistently present. It would seem death is available, as in socially acceptable—what you’ll see when you wake up, a ghost with a lancet, but there are two sides of a lancet (a sharp knife and a surgical tool) and two faces, or even genders, of death. In these poems Death is comfortable, Death dresses stylishly, and clearly Death is a character.
Fanailova coaxes different effects from a variety of forms, rhythms, and structure. For instance, in Shades in Paradise, the distance of the third person (“They…”), a forward-driving repetition, and short lines create the idea of a mass experience, and again there is the contradiction, the oppositional force even in the title which suggests the unexpected. Shades in Paradise begins:
They come home,
They lie down together.
They don’t give a damn about anyone,
So the poem becomes a kind of map with “war” at the heart—war is generally easy to define and hard to understand. Ghosts are more of an idea or notion that is impossible to prove and yet richly imaginative—and in this poem repetition combined with forgetfulness suggests zombies, and in any event metaphor:
They kiss on the eyes,
They don’t remember why,
They leave no trace.
Nothing keeps them in place:
Not honor, not valor, not duty. . .
But Fanailova uses a broad poetic brush and following Shades in Paradise is Frida’s Album which is a characterization of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s work:
Frida sits coiffed (in whiteface), sits next to the canvas,
A lace underskirt, apron, earrings, braids in a wreath,
Death to her left, Diego headless on her right, . . .
Frida’s Album is torment merged—Frida Kahlo’s and Fanailova’s—through eyes and language, a pairing of Kahlo’s own injuries and pain and the cultural injuries and the pain of which Fanailova writes. This poem is a transfer of the idea (through art) of the personal to the idea (through poetry) of society or community (or anti-community). The poem is metaphor translated and amplified. Frida’s Album has longer lines and more musicality than the abrupt rhythm of Shades in Paradise. The images in Frida’s Album come rapid fire and crushed together, conveying a world in agony and collapsing, a very strange place laden with death and nothing is what it seems: “Frida is dressed as a boy, . . . / . . . [with] drowned women in her hair.” So again it is doubles, and shape shifting and somehow it seems as if the Fridas have split in two because one Frida can not hold everything.
Why do we read poetry of war? For the words and language? To feel lucky with our own lives? Although the theme of war underlies The Russian Version, it is not only a book of war poems. Near the end, in New Poems, I see fruit trees as a hopeful sign even as the yearning for role models continues and the world portrayed is still gritty and afflicted:
who will tell us that the world blooms like the branch of the cherry tree,
the bing cherry, the bird cherry, the apple tree, the plum tree
that the dead are rising, are alive,
like angels of glory?
As a collection, The Russian Version transforms brutal and terrifying history into a compelling story where two things matter: remembering and change—and there is change in the country and change in Fanailova’s poetic style, and subjects change through place in time, and you see what is remembered and forgotten, where history and the unthinkable lodge, and how culture and memory adjust. The Russian Version* is an important book weighted with history and recent times and the poet’s unflinching quest for truth.
* Fanailova’s “Notes to the Text” (endnotes) helpfully provide historical, biographical, and literary references for certain poems.
Katie Eberhart’s writing and poems exploring the fine margin between people and landscape can be found in the Palmer (Alaska) Arts Council poetry anthology Voices Between Mountains and the online literary journal Plasma Magazine. Katie was selected as an Artsmith Artist Resident in 2009 and has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop.