Wednesday, May 06, 2015

STEEP TEA: Polina Barskova



Born in 1976, Polina Barskova is reckoned to be one of the best of the younger generation of Russian poets. Her work has been shortlisted for the Debut and Andrei Bely Prizes. A child prodigy, she began publishing in journals at the age of six, and released the first of her six books when she was 15. Two volumes of her poetry have been translated into English. I found a signed copy of her selected poems THE ZOO IN WINTER while browsing in St. Mark's Bookshop, and bought it on the strength of the opening poems.

In THE ZOO IN WINTER, Barskova, an associate professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College, looks to her tremendous native literary tradition. 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. The very stark line "And they told him that in Prague his mother died" is very moving for the multiple dislocations that it conveys. It reminded me of my own mother's phone calls from Singapore, and I imagined her calling one day to tell me that she has died. (Two nights ago, she called me to say that one of my paternal uncles had died suddenly.) My poem "Singapore Buses Are Very Reliable" is all about immigrant guilt, as Nabokov and Polina would understand it.

The 79 poems in THE ZOO IN WINTER were selected by the translators Boris Dralyuk and David Stromberg to convey Barskova's range of subjects and tones. Barskova also writes classically restrained poems, 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.

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