"Barskova is a poet whose voice is at once so intimate and taunting, it can be almost impossible to resist her. ‘Are you still frightened,’ begins the book’s first poem, ‘my clueless devochka?’ It is this closeness, as though her lines are whispered in your ear, that allows Barskova to turn away from us with such terrific effect in her poems. ‘Now you will forget what you desired,’ she writes, ‘Now,/ Who you were.’… Barskova demonstrates an extraordinary amount of vocal variation, as in ‘When someone dies… ,’ in which Barskova is clear and unforgiving in her instructions on how to handle a dead man: ‘Right now you should lick him.’…Barskova’s is a voice of stunning originality and eroticism."
Polina Barskova’s poems are a zesty paradoxical concoction: bawdy and erudite, elegant and raw, subtle and brazen. As Ilya Kaminsky attests in his introduction to This Lamentable City
, “Barskova is an elegiac poet who brings to her American readers a language formally inventive, worldly and humorous. One of her strengths is her ability to bring together strikingly erotic, sensual images… with a deep sense of history and culture.… In Russian, Barskova is a master of meter, rhyme, and alliteration, and… (w)hat comes across in English is the tonality of the poems, the clarity of her vocal play and images, her intricacy of address.” Though her prize-winning books of poetry in Russian have earned an international reputation, and individual poems have appeared in prestigious journals and anthologies — for instance, in Contemporary Russian Poetry
(Dalkey Archive, 2008) and An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets
(Iowa, 2005) — this is the first book of Barskova’s poems to be published in translation, in a handsome dual-language edition.
Evening In Tsaskoe Selo
Akhmatova and Nedobrovo
Stroll in the evening park,
Which begs for a footnote:
(e.g.: “A park. September.”). He thinks
Of gossip, news from the front,
And his new article, while she
Worries by the horizon’s bent line,
The park bench growing into the ill oak,
And an unfinished line in a poem.
He says: “Tomorrow I will go
To the Stray Dog. You?” And as
He waits for her to answer, Anna
Watches her glass-like shadow, and says:
“This has been an unnecessary day.”
He worries: Will she? Won’t she?
And she knows she won’t.
The pieces of heavy sky
Fill with mist. Nedobrovo takes off
His scratchy awkward scarf.
He wants to know! She — doesn’t want.
Already she half-whispers the ending
Of that comic unresolved verse,
And then, Lord — she laughs,
As the night licks at their boots.
— translated by Ilya Kaminsky
Are you still frightened, my clueless devochka?
Take a morsel of the Lord’s bread (and a spoonful of wine, no?),
Imagine how we will reside in Paradise, in the skies,
And how we (finally) will see every thing —
Our currency, all we have lost or stolen on Earth
Will glitter below: like the minute droppings of an iron bird.
And the proud angels, those tall sexless bitches,
Will again blend into their ruthlessness the sweetest honey,
Which they will pour down your throat, your exquisite throat.
And you are now mute and cautious, now small and tranquil,
Now you will forget what you desired. Now,
Who you were. Now, this lamentable city
Where we have lived together.
Are you still frightened, girl? Already
I am a bitter stranger.
— translated by Ilya Kaminsky with Kathryn Farris and Rachel Galvin
We met on a Sunday, no not exactly,
we met before, but it wasn’t that either:
you drank coffee through a straw but it was more like
a poor bird stopping in to see a horse in a coat
and you took me by the took me by the
took me by the hand
and a tree with red berries and mountains
and we laughed and listened and Lord everything was bullshit
and the tree with its red berries and its bark
and its bark
and we had each other like beasts without pausing
and if everything after the fact is sad we are not things
and we came from garbage and we played with garbage
and you caressed my skin with the seeds of pearls. Now it’s January
already and over us, pardon me, pink magnolias with their dog tongues
on the grey background of old snow have bloomed, and every time I pass
among these miracles I remember the smell of your hand
torn from me
, and torn from you.
— translated by Ilya Kaminsky with Matthew Zapruder
… separation in Barskova’s poems (death, loneliness, heartbreak) is faced with this same curious mixture of hunger, enthusiasm, and anger, as if the hugeness of our human feeling — its ability to reach forward and back in time — were more important than our objective bodied smallness. Russia’s history is a colossal presence in this work, but humans don’t feel tiny in it. There’s an animating voice that suggests life even in ruin[.]
—Jay Thompson, Jacket2