As Russia’s armed forces continue to unleash devastating attacks upon Ukraine, it is becoming increasingly clear that Putin is in danger of fighting a war on two fronts. This is his war and not the war of the Russian people. Still, decades of oppression and the dismantling of the internal apparatus of Russian democracy by Putin has rendered the people under his power without the tools to voice their opposition. Anti-Putin sentiment is swiftly and mercilessly stamped down, with street protestors promised eight years behind bars. And so it is with great bravery that poet Aleksey Porvin opened a dialogue with T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Philip Gross about a collection he has been working on for the last eight years focusing on Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Philip, a long time friend of Wales Arts Review, brought the proposition of publishing a selection of these poems that explore the ugliness of Putin’s policies in the most humane of ways to our editor Gary Raymond. Here we publish a selection of the poems with introductions by Philip and Aleksey.
Philip Gross: For most of the time, Auden’s famous half-truth ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’ can be nodded by. The lines of connections between what we see on the news and what we write and read are visible but slack. Then suddenly one of the threads goes taut, across half a continent and several languages, and you realise that poetry is, can be, the truest world-wide web.
These poems dropped in my inbox just as the Russian invasion of Ukraine shattered hopes of dialogue along this fault line through the North and East of Europe. What struck me was not that the poems were an immediate response to the shock, but something deeper: Aleksey Porvin had been writing steadily and searchingly about the continuing Russia-Ukraine conflict for years, assembling a book-length collection. The invasion faced him with the urgent choice, to make the voice of sensitive concern and protest, increasingly stifled within Russia, heard in the wider world. ‘We are all exhausted here by the search for ways of resistance,’ he writes. ‘By remaining silent and not taking any steps, I would have condemned myself to tacit acceptance of the violence that has blossomed between two kindred peoples.’
Aleksey Porvin, born in 1982, is the author of three collections in Russian, with English translations of poems in many journals internationally. He has been twice shortlisted for the Andrey Bely Prize. The English versions are by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, poet and translator from both Russian and Ukrainian.
Aleksey Porvin: My predicament is extremely clear: I am a citizen of Russia, a country separated from the fraternal people of Ukraine because of political processes, and this separation stands like an impenetrable wall of violence. Kievan Rus, being the historical source of the Russian state, transformed into a separate nation with its own language and identity, and gradually mutual denial grew between the two states. I am a citizen of a country whose government I did not elect, and this government has made a disastrous decision to invade the territory of a neighboring state. The most acute feeling of the inadmissibility of these actions came over me and millions of my compatriots, but the instruments of influence on the authorities and dialogue with them have been emasculated for a long time; today, there are no levers of influence on the authorities left.
The protest movement has been methodically suppressed; it is well known that protest has a chance of success in countries with developed democracies, where the procedures for contacting the authorities have been fine-tuned for decades. As I write these lines, I catch myself feeling that this narrative itself seems to resist my use — as if I am retelling a dry theory that is not supported by political practice in any way: in fact, the concepts of truly democratic procedures, dialogue with the authorities, effective contact between different strata of society seem to be something very far from modern Russian realities.
I am categorically against the war, and a feeling of helplessness and despair overwhelms me, a feeling that my country and my people are falling into the abyss.
However, this catastrophe did not occur overnight: for many years, Russian people, with the approval of the authorities, got used to the catastrophe, made it an attribute of their daily life, hid it behind cynicism and ostentatious apoliticality, nurtured their learned helplessness. And for many years now I have been engaged in political poetry, groping for those foundations for poetic utterance that would disassemble the poetic agenda into pieces, teach not to take for granted any rhetoric of any power, try to “return” a human to his original free state. Most of my political poems written in the last few years are devoted to understanding the conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, only a few are devoted to such historical events and phenomena as the Second World War, fascism, inequality, etc. I am far from aestheticizing violence: on the contrary, I see poetry as a way of developing consciousness, which will, in turn, allow us to abandon violence. What we are currently witnessing in Ukraine is the fruit of many years of work by the authorities to cultivate a special type of person — submissive, helpless, accustomed to tacitly agree with — no matter how destructive and undemocratic they may be – the course of state power.
My predicament is living in conditions of constant violence being perpetrated on the minds of millions of people. A kind of salvation was working with poetic language. I believe in the performativity of the utterance, in its close connection with action and willingness to act, and each poem is an attempt, more or less successful, to get out, verbally resist, recreate the source of speech, detached from the field of identities, through the experience of detachment from one’s identity to give an experience of expanding perception and readiness for creative dialogue. My predicament is my enemy, my friend, my ancestor.
A Selection of Poetry from Caught Lacking
One of our boys compared the horizon to a heart monitor—
so long as there are hills and lowlands, the patient is alive,
but now we’re entering plains of rancid Ukrainian speech,
adding another variation on what we call “light.”
On a peaceful night, rays of starlight twirl freely
into the thick cord that holds our crowd;
nobody strays from the path until the leash is worn through
by the rifleman’s breath, smooth as a blade.
The shooter has to watch how he breathes—
irregular inhale and uneven exhale;
illustrated as a line, they look just like
a horizon jagged with ruins.
The cow ran away and the useless rope twitches
in the tears of the child herder as he pulls
its fibers apart. What does he think is hidden
between them? Consolation, light, milk?
The stars are slow to penetrate the foliage,
like questions in no hurry to choose a language
in which to be formulated. We plod along
in the dark, trying to blend in.
The best fate is to become one of the locals,
feel a deep connection with this landscape, to parse
that connection into its constituent elements, to discover
they are bound by gunpowder and the cries of children.
Один из наших сравнил горизонт с кардиограммой:
мол, пока есть холмы и низины, пациент жив,
но мы входим в равнины прогорклой мовы,
добавляя еще одну опцию тому, что называем «свет».
В мирную ночь звёздные лучи свободно свиваются
в толстый канат, на котором держат нашу толпу,
никто не собьётся с пути, пока не перетрется
привязь дыханием стрелка, гладким как лезвие.
Нужно следить за дыханием тому, кто стреляет:
прерывистый вдох и неровный выдох,
если их изобразить линией, очень похожи
на линию горизонта, искромсанную руинами.
Корова убежала, в слезах ребенок-пастух
теребит бесполезную веревку, разбирая
ее на волокна, будто между волокнами
спрятаны утешение, свет, молоко.
Звёзды медлят проникать сквозь листву,
как и вопросы не торопятся выбрать себе язык
для формулировки – мы бредём в темноте,
стремясь не отличаться от местных.
Лучшая участь – причислиться к местным,
ощутить глубокую связь с этим пейзажем, чтобы
разложить эту связь на составляющие элементы,
узнать: они скреплены плачем детей и порохом.
Ode to Sawdust
Can the conscience break down
into tremendously fine pieces? Can nonviolence
go under the saw like a tree does? Yes,
if they know they will grow back into a single whole.
To sing the sawdust covering the floors
of interrogation rooms, to sing the smallest shaving;
with its sharp edges, it imitates
the carpenter’s plane that engendered it.
To sing of the splinters that go under the skin,
the burdensome air of prisons and railroad stations,
to pay tribute to all the other wooden minutiae
the wind lifts up higher than the flag.
The Russian forest passes into the Ukrainian forest,
not on the land but in the speech of the people;
the Russian forest passes into pulverization
if only to become sawdust and absorb everything it’s given.
Only by becoming a shaving, only by laying down like sawdust
under the bodies of people, is it possible to absorb their sweat, their words,
their despair and hope—and only when imbued with all this
is it possible to stick together, to grow into a trunk again.
The one who sang all this listens to a rustling in himself
something revived now that it is swollen with damp
and salt that hid inside bodies for so long
they have become indistinguishable from the words “lay down arms.”
Может ли совесть распасться на части
предельно мелкие, может ли ненасилие
лечь под пилу, как ложится дерево? Могут,
если знают, что заново срастутся в одно.
Воспеть опилки, усыпающие полы
в комнатах допроса, воспеть мельчайшую стружку,
она своими острыми краями подражает
лезвию рубанка, породившего её.
Воспеть занозы, вводящие под кожу,
тягостный воздух тюрем и вокзалов,
воздать должное прочей древесной мелочи,
поднимаемой ветром выше флага.
Русские леса переходят в украинские
не по земле, а по речи людей,
русские леса переходят в свое измельчание
лишь бы стать опилками и впитать всё, что дано.
Лишь стружкой став, лишь ложась опилками
под тела людей, можно вобрать их пот, слова,
отчаяние и надежду – всем этим пропитавшись,
можно склеиться, заново срастись в ствол.
Воспевший все это слушает шелест в себе,
который возродился, набрякнув влагой
и солью, так долго прятавшейся в телах,
что стала неотличима от слов «бросай оружие».
Our speech is constrained; they drummed
that into us as children, but our hearts were still
enveloped in the murk of truth: neighboring languages
are suitable for appeals to the reason behind all power.
A bullet’s brass casing is ashamed
of hiding its steel guts, of belonging to pain;
when they melt them down, they strip off the brass first—
you go into the flames separately.
But the factory building is from the previous century;
it remembers when they would process the sky
into gold, stretching it long and thin
enough to engender kobza strings.
Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc,
i.e. a fusion of military coffins
and churchly ringing; it does not achieve the luster
of gold, so its shine is the murkiest of all,
murkier than the eyes of those who meet in combat.
Sunrise will force its way into their pupils
but abandon its attempts to speak Russian
when addressing itself to animosity.
Нам внушали с детства несвободную речь,
но обволакивали сердце мутью истин:
для обращенья к причине власти
годятся близлежащие языки.
Стыдно латунной оболочке
таить нутро стальное, к боли принадлежать;
в цехах переплавки – сдирают латунь:
по-отдельности войдёте в пламя.
А здание завода с позапрошлого века
помнит превращение неба в золото
его вытягивание и утончение
для рождения струн кобзы.
Латунь, являясь сплавом меди и цинка,
то есть слияньем военных гробов
и церковного звона, не дотягивает до цвета
золотого – оттого её сиянье всех мутней.
Мутней, чем глаза сошедшихся в бою.
В такие зрачки рассвет побьётся,
но оставит попытки говорить по-русски,
адресуясь к злобе.
Many things are easier to acquire in childhood:
a foreign—no, neighboring—language,
impressions of day, thoughts of history
in a country divided in two.
There are scratches on the tree trunks,
left by bullets: we won’t read these
lines, we won’t put them into letters: on the horizon
allied banners loom mute.
Animals understand: gotta keep biting to the end,
not hand over territory, not let your body be torn apart
—that’s why words love them,
why they adopt this method of living.
In times gone by, the chronicles
of collective days were kept on birch scrolls.
Yesterday, hungry children passing
through these woods chewed young bark.
What will the unrealized birchbark see?
What signs will it accept? The marks of juvenile teeth,
like those left on the hands of the marauders
who went through the woods to the orphanage.
What will the might-have-been birchbark see?
The darkness in the stomachs of children
who digested the thunder of guns and the shouts of soldiers.
The silence isn’t hard to explain.
В детстве многое легче усвоить:
иностранный – вернее, соседствующий – язык,
впечатления дня, мысли об истории
страны, разделенной надвое.
На древесных стволах – царапины,
оставленные пулями: не станем читать эти
линии, не сложим их в буквы: на горизонте
маячат немые знамёна союзников.
Звери знают: надо кусаться до последнего,
не сдавать территорию, не отдавать свои тела
на растерзание – за это их любят слова,
перенимают этот метод жизни.
В былые времена на бересте писали
летописи коллективных дней,
а вчера голодные дети, проходя по лесу
жевали молодую берёзовую кору.
Что увидит несбывшаяся береста, какие
знаки вберёт в себя? Отпечатки невзрослых зубов
те же, что остались на руках мародёров,
добравшихся до детского дома.
Что увидит несостоявшаяся береста? Темноту
детских желудков, переваривших грохот
выстрелов и выкрики солдат:
тишина объяснима несложно.
For more information on the Russia-Ukraine war, including ways you can help, please click here.
You can follow all contributions to Notes of Solidarity from Wales Arts Review here.
Aleksey Porvin is a Russian poet born in 1982. English translations of his poems can be found in World Literature Today, Cyphers, Saint-Petersburg Review, Ryga Journal, SUSS, Words Without Borders, Fogged Clarity, The Straddler, The Dirty Goat, Action Yes, Barnwood International Poetry Mag, Otis Nebula, New Madrid, The Cafe Review, The New Formalist etc. Porvin is the author of three collections of poems in Russian – Darkness is White (Argo-Risk Press, Moscow, 2009), Poems (New Literature Observer Press, Moscow 2011), and The Sun of the Ship’s Detailed Rib (INAPRESS, Saint-Petersburg, 2013). His first book of poems translated into English, Live By Fire, was published by Cold Hub Press in 2011. Poems by Porvin have recently been short-listed by Andrey Bely Prize (2011, 2014). Aleksey Porvin is the winner of the Russian Debut Prize (2012).
Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is a poet and translator best known for his work with co-translator Reilly Costigan-Humes on English renderings of novels by great contemporary Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan, including Voroshilovgrad, published by Deep Vellum, and The Orphanage, published by Yale University Press. Wheeler’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including the Big Windows Review, The Peacock Journal, and Sonic Boom. He holds an MA in Russian Translation from Columbia University and is currently earning another in English Secondary Education at CCNY. Wheeler’s first poetry collection, The Eleusinian Mysteries, is available from Aubade Publishing.
Recommended for you:
Helen Calcutt casts a critical eye over Philip Gross’s collection of poetry Love Songs of Carbon.