Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Getting Closer": Bridge, Kareva and Barskova

This Presidents' Weekend, I read three recent books by three women poets from different countries. Born in Wellington, New Zealand, where she now lives, Diana Bridge is the recipient of the 2010 Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry for distinguished contribution to New Zealand poetry. Aloe & Other Poems (2009) is her fifth book of poetry. I was turned on to the next poet by a TLS article. Doris Kareva is one of Estonia's leading poets. Shape of Time collects poems from three previous books. It is translated by Tina Aleman and introduced by Penelope Shuttle. I found a signed copy of Polina Barskova's The Zoo in Winter while browsing in St. Mark's Bookshop and bought it on the strength of the opening poems. She was born in St. Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, and moved to the States when she was 20. Regarded as a child prodigy, she published her first book of poems at age 15.

Bridge is a poet of seeing. A scholar of Chinese culture and Indian art, she writes her finest and most ambitious poems by viewing and reflecting on ancient artifacts. Her poems are about Chinese vases, Japanese prints and Indian temples. Her descriptive powers are considerable, and her meditations never uninteresting. "Sequence, Sarnath" in the early part of the book is even stronger than the concluding sequence "Temple," perhaps because the earlier poem focuses on a specific temple instead of allegorizing explicitly a ritual of worship. In the Sarnath sequence, Bridge first sees the statue of a seated Buddha by turning a corner, then measures the real distance to the base of the statue. In the second section, she contrasts her companion who likes to theorize and herself, who is "simply addicted to looking." Looking at Gupta sculpture, the third section considers the postmodernist dictum that "to look is never/ neutral" and then observes that the circle of stone closest to the head of the sculpture is completely free of ornamentation, "a plainness which stands in for silence." The final section is transformative. Changed herself, the speaker takes the sky for the stupa and grasps, without grasping, that all is changing:

You think you're getting closer to it, to what is real--the re-
arrangements of your mind like leaves adjusting to the light.

If some poems in this book follow a predictable order of description first, reflection next, at her best Bridge fuses observation and meaning into a whole of looking and thinking. She writes well about trees too (hence the title of her book). In fact, her tree poems in PN Review convinced me to read more of her work.

Doris Kareva must be nearly impossible to translate. She writes short lyrics with densely patterned music. Shape of Time prints the poems in Estonian and the English translations side by side. The Estonian weaves rhyming, consonance and assonance tightly together in a manner impossible to render faithfully in English. A small example. The last stanza of "When the fear of death becomes so great" reads:

The most dreadful
gravitation is fear.

This rather banal phrasing does not convey the music of the original:

Hirm on hirmsaim

I don't know Estonian, but the spelling suggests the importance of repeating "Hirm" and the sound of "on" in the last syllable of "gravitatsioon." Without such repetition, the English translation loses the finality and force of that stark assertion.

Because Kareva is primarily interested in the philosophical dimensions of her world, her images are simple and universal, although they are drawn mainly from nature. Without the music of language to carry them, these plain images can come across as too easy, as in the devotional poem "Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God--." There are no dappled things here, just "song and prayer, work, creation and dance."

The more successful poems in English here are those that double back on their path of thought to find a sudden turn. The lovely "That which is can be expressed" is such a poem. In others, the epiphany succeeds through sheer originality, independent of music or imagery.

I don't know if all roads lead to truth,
but every truth is a road.
The sea is salty from the glad tears
of the rivers, when they meet.

Into that apocalyptic water
I throw all my delusions,
into the clean water dregs of the times,
black pepper into the golden honey.

Suddenly there's lightness. Suddenly it's clear.
Everything is still and separate.

"Still and separate" is the perfect description of the end of a watery apocalypse.

If Diana Bridge looks to art for inspiration and Doris Kareva looks into herself, Polina Barskova looks to the tremendous Russian literary tradition in which she moves and has her being. Her poems engage in a very lively manner with canonical writers such as Pushkin, Nabokov, Akhmatova and Brodsky. In the sequence "Pantheon," she riffs off the name of Pushkin by inventing poetic lookalikes such as Khlopushkin, Pliushkin and Peshkin. Her engagement with the tradition is at the same time deeply personal. On a visit to Prague, she writes movingly in "Motherhood and Childhood" about the death of Nabokov's mother in that city.

Besides the giants, she is also well-versed in a whole host of less-known Russian authors. The endnotes to this translation by Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg usefully identify her references, but since I do not know the authors I read the poems feeling like an outsider peering into a rather grand house. Barskova loved Shakespeare from the beginning, as evinced in a series of poems written in the voices of various characters from Hamlet. Later, her residence in the United States has drawn her to American poets such as Elizabeth Bishop, to whom her poem "Brazilian Scenes" owes a creative debt.

Unlike Bishop, however, Barskova's imagery often strikes me as arbitrary rather than precise. Sometimes the juxtaposition of images produces a frisson, but at other times the clash falls into a heap. I don't understand, for instance, why "Verses of Winter Gone By. From Henry VI" begins with Hecate, continues with Dante, and ends with Antinous. The same poem shows a tendency to overwrite. "What do you feel yourself to be on nights like this?" asks the poet, and answers:

A pimple on the brow of angered Hecate,
Whose menstrual blood distends the sunsets
Across the surface of the skies.

I hear Anne Sexton in these lines, and they are more gross than engrossing.

Barskova writes classically restrained poems, however, and one of the finest is "Reflection." As the speaker and her lover gaze at their reflections in a piano, they enter a chasm, "And the further, the deeper, the darker the lacquer." Barskova seems to be pursuing a course into the depths while ranging high and free over the steppes. She is a very stimulating writer to read.

Three formidable women and poets. They are very different not only in their styles, but also in the sources of their inspiration. They have in common, however, a silence about gender issues. They may allude to differences but these conflicts remain at the periphery of their poetic visions. Art, religion and literature are the territories they traverse.

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