The following is the first of two features on Galina Rymbu to publish at Music & Literature. An interview between the poet and her translator, Jonathan Platt, can be found here.
There is a lot of talk now, in the United States at least, about political poetry and even revolutionary poetry, and what these are, and how to write them. The discussants should consider the work of a young Russian poet, Galina Rymbu.
I first came across a poem of hers shortly after she posted it on LiveJournal, a social network popular in Russia, on February 27, 2014. It was the day that Russian troops started operating in Crimea, and several days after the victory of the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv and the tawdry close of the Sochi Olympics. Russian media fanned the flames of patriotic hysteria and the Kremlin was clearly going to exploit Maidan to crack down on domestic dissent.
It felt strange that a work of this artistic sophistication and power could be composed and posted on the Web simultaneously with the events it responded to. Its viewpoint was that of the minuscule and very young Russian Left—roughly the same political alignment as those of the poet-activist Kirill Medvedev and of Pussy Riot, to cite figures known to some Western readers. But the poetry was different. It was Big Poetry, very much grounded in tradition but also propelling it forward, into the terra incognita of the now. It’s been a while since I read a poem that felt so real.
That poem has since appeared in English translation by Jonathan Platt. It can be read here, the middle one, starting with “the dream is over, Lesbia, now it’s time for sorrow…” I want to talk about the Russian original a little, and then say a few things about the present publication of Rymbu’s work in Platt’s translation in Music & Literature.
It is hard to formulate to an English-speaking audience why the Lesbia poem spoke to me so personally. The practices and traditions it incorporates are either alien or have a different significance than in the US. In Russia the “Western” “classics” that Rymbu alludes to are associated with Enlightenment values, and are consequently politically anti-government. For various cultural reasons, self-publishing on the Internet carries no opprobrium: the point of poetry is not to bulk up the author’s résumé. A poem, if it’s good, belongs to everybody.
Another potential difficulty is the poem’s subject: it is about the historical now, about finding yourself at the temporal point after which everything will be different. The question of history is not as natural a question for American poetry. On one level, the Lesbia poem thinks about the historical now via allusions to Catullus and, less obviously, to Horace’s ode on the death of Cleopatra—allusions that, by juxtaposing the Russian and the Roman situations, inter-illuminate them. On another level, by the third time Rymbu says the word “time,” we are hearing the word in the context of the same theme, that of designating historical change, in Mandelstam. Her “free verse” keeps evoking ancient meters, like in the echo of Sappho, the original Lesbia, in line four. But, despite Rymbu’s allusions to the historical past, the language she is working with is breathtakingly modern and fluid, with the kind of morphological play that affects the slang of inflected languages, technological terms used colloquially, and political clichés, such as the Putinist slogan “Russia rises from her knees,” that are flipped and literalized back into living speech.
There always existed an argument that left-wing literature needs to be simple in expression in order to appeal to the masses. Recent Russian poetry has also experimented with the lack of poetic devices and poetic language. But, in an interview she gave to her translator, Rymbu makes a compelling case for the contrary position:
It can seem like the oppressed have a simple language, that we should employ a series of reductions to work with this language in order to be comprehensible as poets and artists. But there is no such thing as a simple language, just as there are no simple emotions. Here [i.e. in the language of the oppressed—EO] everything is even more complex—a real rat’s nest of complexity made up of the languages of violence, ideological pressures, propaganda, biopolitical manipulations, survivals of the past, fantasies, hopes, and even certain seeds of “emancipation”—meaning, partially violent concepts that provide an intuition of what might lead the “simple people” to freedom. In this sense, the idea of “simple language” is really just a total syntactic, lexical, and discursive collapse, and it’s very hard to work with it, almost impossible.
If I get the argument here, it is that the educationally disadvantaged also speak in a manner marked by discursive multiplicity; that the discourses imposed on them from without to speak with their mouths are themselves rife with complexities and contradictions; and that, consequently, a contemporary poetry that is likewise composed of clashing discourses may lie open to them not despite but because of its complexity. It is a hopeful and an admirable position to hold, and it at least avoids the indignity of condescension.
The three poems translated for Music & Literature show the same linguistic complexity, although they are less of anthemic, barricade-music pieces than the Lesbia poem had been. Their main obsession is again the presence of history—which replaces the Muse in the sampling of the Iliad in one of the poems—in one’s life and one’s experience. Actually, to speak of history being “present in” something already implies a distinction the poems defy. Even one’s body is conceived as historical—and consequently fluid—in essence. It is not an object existing in the river of historical time but rather it itself is streamed through and formed by history. For there is no border between my body and the multiple processes of historical change, which are enacted through me, who am at once the mouth and the word of their polyglot glossolalia. If “revolution” is history projecting itself into the future, “my” revolution is history immanent in me as desire and anticipation. It is why the blood that comes out of the body is red.
—Eugene Ostashevsky, January 2016
so lightly touching my tongue to your tongue . . .
the dream breaks off suddenly:
we buried our weapons in the ground
the lightning approaches with a crack
the advertising hoardings are about to crash down
pushing my tongue deeper to your tongue’s root
and the cool, sweet roof of your mouth
the stirring scent of spring and the rumble
of the first world war. then, without a subject,
they produce an individual utterance
with the question: who is speaking?
I: who is kissing us as long as
the dream lasts? we are trapped in history.
one bell and
puffs of smoke fall out into the open
look, my burning house, the summer right behind
mixed with blood
it knows in wide moments
where your pain is, how it hurts
to gather tears off a cheek, a collarbone, with your tongue.
at night, in the ditch, in bed, where the flashes are,
where blood speaks, you can cry with me,
close your eyes in distortion.
the closeness of thunder, when
the ribcage is white hot,
as if meeting by chance in the hallway, by touch,
running my tongue across your neck…
hearing orchestras in the distance, cannons,
falling into madness, is it possible to recall
when it all began, beyond any concrete markers of time,
like a bee swarm, it stings,
leaving one alone, to cry, and the other, inside this swarm,
falls to her knees.
Translated by Jonathan Brooks Platt
vague sounds of distant night clubs, the bass notes
wring out reality like a wet sponge. migrant
skeletons in the half-dark move fresh earth in wheelbarrows.
some guys, angels no doubt,
are hanging about as the people pass, whispering something
in the language of the insane, masturbating in parks. spring is here.
to be in love without desire, to desire without
sense, when you knock at your neighbor’s door, like it’s your own,
but no one’s there, you drown out anxiety with cheap
cocktails, get mixed up with suspicious guys,
telling them everything like it is, though they could be Putin Youth members
or just sympathizers of the regime, while the ones standing in the dark
dressed similarly—may be Stalinists,
you ask them for a light.
you spit out blood, in the toilet of an internet café
you write a short post about it, and you scream into the little puddle of puke,
my revolution in Russia
in this peculiar place
on boards grown damp from rain and time
by abandoned gatehouses
and dusty shop windows,
where love hollowed out a heavy boat for itself
from my body, to sail off on a journey
across your cold seas,
to look into your white pupils.
making no effort to find light, or anything there that might bring you more strength.
lacking all possibility of loving more loves, with trembling hands
holding a teacup at breakfast, squeezing out, “leave, go away,”
locking yourself in another room or just hanging around in squares, in the metro
with a few bad books instead of foreign philosophy
trying to feel something out in the shadow of your decline
falling into insignificant sleep
scrambling in the shadows of what’s disappeared
where are you
have been looking for you for a long time
waiting for you for a long time
Translated by Jonathan Brooks Platt
I want to send you an excellent gift,
when the heat pierces the dry trees,
it’s a western—the gravel, the brown dust quivers,
rising over this scorched place, when
troop carriers pass by the abandoned industrial zones,
strewn with red caviar.
Maybe I’ll send you a letter, make contact, get mixed up in it once and for all.
Here it is, the fire’s started—the doors of the clouds open wide, and out
roll the guillotined heads of the Bonnot Gang.
History, sing your wrath.
Are you that little girl in the sticky panties, who
stands in front of the mirror, putting on
powder and blush.
Are you that little girl
the one with her black and pink, icy gob wide open,
who climbed into bed with everyone
playfully singing a patriotic song,
rubbing anti-fungal creams on her feet,
you piss and spit into a special pot
by the bed.
Turn around. Think about my gift,
think about weapons in general,
only a couple of days ago—
there was no mention of blood.
But the party is still going on somewhere
Night, the hum of voices, meat roasting, a little beer…
History, sing your wrath!
Let everyone in Moscow now look at the black sky
with its huge moon.
Why is the rage in our hearts so watered down?
Where “Russian, be afraid” rules the ball, where no one sings of freedom anymore,
where 60% of the population is dying from the “small public deeds”
of a few compunctious bureaucrat intellectuals,
where my little friends, little boys, who were born in 1990—
The provincial cemetery is swollen with wrath.
Remember them. My gift will come in handy.
Tomorrow, or now—
it will serve you very well
Translated by Jonathan Brooks Platt
Galina Rymbu was born in 1990 in the city of Omsk (Siberia, Russia) and currently lives in St. Petersburg. She has published poems in the Russian Journals The New Literary Observer, Air, Sho, and in the Translit series. Her essays on cinema, literature, and sexuality have appeared on the internet portals Séance, Colta, and Milk and Honey. She is the author of the recently published collection Moving Space of the Revolution.
Eugene Ostashevsky is a poet and translator of Russian avant-garde and contemporary poetry. His edition of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think won the 2014 National Translation Award from the American Literary Translators Association.
Jonathan Platt is Assistant Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh. His monograph, Greetings, Pushkin!: Stalinist Cultural Politics and the Russian National Bard, is forthcoming from Pittsburgh University Press. Platt has translated poems by Kirill Medvedev, Roman Osminkin, Pavel Arsenev, and Elena Kostyleva; artistic texts by Chto Delat, Natalia Pershina (Gluklya), Nikolay Oleynikov, and Anastasia Vepreva; and philosophical texts by Oxana Timofeeva, Aleksandr Pogrebnyak, and Andrey Platonov (with Robert Chandler).