cyclops cinderella

Month: May, 2017

I’ve been slowly working my way through the anthology Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, and with the worst of my exams over I had some time this weekend to finish it off.  It’s such a rich and rewarding book; the sort that, when I found it, seemed too good to be true; the sort that I had always wanted but didn’t know I could have.  I can’t even remember how I came across it – if I had heard of it somewhere and set out to find it, or just came across it on the shelves while I was after something else – but how glad I am that I did.

One of my favourites from the collection is Svetlana Boym’s essay Loving in Bad Taste: Eroticism and Literary Excess in Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘The Tale of Sonechka’. There are so many urgent and important things she touches upon, but one of the first things she speaks of is the way in which women’s writing is dismissed and derided, and just why:

Why is it that “women in love” produce what has been often conceived as “bad writing,” or writing in bad taste? What are the aesthetic preconceptions that turn a female lover’s discourse into something akin to kitsch?

We could long think of answers to these (though perhaps there’s no need; Boym answers them excellently herself!), but these questions most of all give me questions of my own: namely, what can being in love add to our writing? In what ways is it enriched?

In some ways we are always associating women with their emotions – women’s writing so often being seen as something sentimental, something silly – but so often do these associations seem to be negative. Writing while in love, or about love, is seen to take away from our work rather than add to it.  I think Chekhov is at his best when he writes about love, for example, but for me to say the same thing about a female writer – what would that invite?  What image would that create of both the writer and of me, as the reader?

What if women’s take on love were appreciated instead? What if men as well as women looked to women’s writing on the matter to find insight and comfort and be guided?

As usual these are questions I don’t have answers for; all this would be another way of being, an alternate world, and we don’t know it.




‘of course the only part that I want to read/ is about her time spent with me/ wouldn’t you die to know how you’re seen?’


Reading Tristia, my second Mandelstam after reading Voronezh Notebooks about a year ago, and I’m doing my best to like it but it’s hard work.  He’s simply too clever for me! It’s just like reading Cavafy; I love them both but I’m always so aware that three-quarters of what they’re saying must just be going over my head, that there is probably so much more to their poems than what appears to me.  Mandelstam is always talking about the past (the classical past, specifically), about mythology, lost cities and dying cities, and making references to the dead, to gods and ghosts and other people I don’t know! And just like Cavafy, these are all themes that I’m interested in, but he speaks of these things and because I don’t know them for myself their full significance is lost to me.  I want to know how Mandelstam approaches and deals with them, the specifics of the questions he’s asking, but I feel like I’m watching from the other side of a glass, or maybe that I’m listening in from the next room; I know there’s a conversation taking place, and I can hear the voices, but I can’t quite make everything out.

If only I’d had a good girls’-school sort of education my whole childhood and I could have done Latin and Greek and all the rest!  If only to better ‘get’ Tristia; for then I would know.

‘i sensed a different existence/ elusive and unfathomable…’


I got into a lot of new writers over Easter, I think because I’ve been reading so many anthologies; it’s been such a good way of discovering people I might not have otherwise.  So many such discoveries are those who are seldom translated into English, except for these little bits and pieces – a poem here, a short story there – in order to contribute to a bigger picture of an era or a movement. I must take all of them that I can get, no matter how little it might be.

One such new discovery, and one of the best, has been Zinaida Gippius.  The library has volumes and volumes of her – her diaries and essays, mostly – but they’re all in Russian, and though I tried one of the diaries I realised that having to look up so many words would only make me feel bad for not being ‘good enough’ and would take all the fun out of it.  So how glad I was to find her in the anthologies.

I had long wanted to read her. I remember her once being mentioned in class and thinking what an interesting woman she sounded, and how it must have taken something, some kind of strength I suppose, to have become known as a poetess at that time (this was before I had read much Russian women’s writing and known who else there was, so she must have been one of the first I had heard of). Yet for some reason I wasn’t expecting to actually like her.  I think of it now and I’m not quite sure why; perhaps because, a long time later, my first proper meeting with her was in a portrait by Teffi, ‘The Merezhkovskys’ in the collection Rasputin and Other Ironies, which I read at the start of this year.  She seemed to me a woman somehow cold, difficult, most of all strange (for a lack of a better word) –  and we are taught not to like strange women.

Yet now that strangeness, the sense of her not being quite of this world, is what makes her voice and her work so appealing to me.  I was sold on her very quickly; the lines that did it were these from Швея (‘The Seamstress’)

А кровь – лишь так того, что мы зовем

на бедном языке – Любовью

Любовь – лишь звук…Но в этот поздный час

того, что дальше – не открою.

Or –

‘Love’ is our paltry word 

For the blood language cannot name.

‘Love’ is a meaningless sound…

but I shall see no more now, it is late.

That was all it took; I was converted.  I liked this idea that there is something beyond, and here, more specifically, the way it pertains to language.  I feel as though I spend a lot of time thinking about how we fit ourselves into language and how there might not be the words for what we need to say; but she gave me the idea that perhaps there is something outside of language, and that that’s what we should be seeking instead.

Not only is it this idea of the ‘beyond’ that strikes me, for this is something you can find in many other Symbolists.  What is unique perhaps is that I find myself able to believe in it.  There’s a difference between simply listening to what a writer has to say, to being told of something and no more – and allowing yourself, however briefly, to be absolutely convinced of it.  Reading Gippius (for I don’t feel as though I can use her first name, as if I’m somehow not qualified; for its beauty and nobility I don’t want to touch it, Zinaida)  is like listening to Russian church music; to me, at least, she speaks to the heart rather than the mind; in the time it takes to read a poem I find myself sold, eyes for a moment on another world, all questions set aside.

I like this beyond, or these beyonds (so I keep calling it, because I don’t know how else to explain it! – but if you read her you’ll know just what I mean), and I think I find them so convincing because they are made to seem so natural.  Innate.  To connect with what we don’t have language for, for example, is not portrayed not simply a departure but a return.  That though we might look for our ‘true’ selves in the next life (or whatever that mysterious place is that she writes of), we shouldn’t necessarily have to, and perhaps they are within us already; perhaps we have lost our way a little, or have not learnt to listen to them, that’s all.  That makes it all easier, I think; we don’t have to go after things if they are already within us, and the mystical becomes less frightening.

My favourite of her poems at the moment, which touches upon so many of these questions, is Домой (‘Homeward’) –

Мне –
о земле –
болтали сказки:
«Есть человек. Есть любовь».

А есть –
Лишь злость.
Личины. Маски.
Ложь и грязь. Ложь и кровь.

Когда предлагали
Мне родиться –
Не говорили, что мир такой.

Как же
Я мог
Не согласиться?
Ну, а теперь – домой! домой!

and in English:

They babbled

fairy tales to me

about the earth:

‘Man lives there.  And love.’

But, in truth – 

there’s only evil, 

disguises.  Masks.

Lies and filth.  Lies and blood.

When they suggested 

I be born  – 

No one told me the world was like this.


was I

to disagree?

Now, all I want is – home! to go home! 


Having got to know Gippius properly over the last couple of weeks, and having all this in mind, I can see explanations for why she and Merezhkovsky are as they appear in Teffi’s depiction, and having revisited the chapter this week I find myself able to appreciate both it and her much more.  The ‘utter detachment from everyone else, a detachment that seemed innate and which they had no compunctions about’ that she speaks of makes much more sense to me now.  I can barely imagine Gippius in the world of war and of exile in which Teffi wrote of her; I read of her dealings with hot-water bottles in a hotel in Biarritz and I think, no wonder. 

Things that had only made them seem strange (again!) to me before I now found oddly moving; ‘when the Merezhkovskys felt frightened, they briskly sought the help of holy intercessors.  They decorated their statuette of Saint Theresa with flowers and, with neither faith nor divine inspiration, mumbled their way through their invocations.’  Some things I even found quite endearing: ‘The Merezhkovskys led strange lives and were so out of touch with reality that it was positively startling to hear them come out with ordinary words like “coal”, “boiled water,”  and “macaroni”‘.  I too found it odd to imagine Gippius speaking these words; and I was delighted to be reminded of the ‘piles of cheap French crime novels which they read diligently every evening.’  Is this really my same poet? – it must be.  Perhaps more of this comes through in her diaries; I look forward to the day I might read all of this that’s still out of my reach.

Concept: a future-me version of the ‘why is my sister called…’ meme that goes ‘enough questions, Anna Zinaida Sofiya Marina Adelaida’

‘when at night i wait for her to come…’

I wish I were articulate enough to talk about Akhmatova and the Muse.  In all that I have read of hers, the Muse seems to be the female figure of the most importance, and who appears the most often.

I have so many thoughts about her devotion to this female figure, the praise she gives to her, and how nice (refreshing, nourishing, comforting) it is to read.  I say ‘her’ rather than ‘it’ because as in poems such as Muse of 1924 and sections of Part II of A Poem Without a Hero (verses XX-XXIV, specifically) the Muse is a figure so alive.  I love seeing the way that female writers interact with other women – spiritually, intellectually, emotionally – for so often when we direct our work towards a you it is towards someone of the opposite sex.  It’s a breath of fresh air to have Akhmatova step outside that, redirect her gaze and her words, so that there is something of her work just ‘between women’ (I feel the very same way about Tsvetaeva’s poems to her, which when I discovered them seemed too good to be true).   And I think the way that Akhmatova writes to or of the Muse (‘what is glory, youth, freedom, in comparison/with the dear welcome guest…’) is the closest I might ever get, in her work, to an equivalent for women of the romantic way in which she addresses male subjects, so I must be grateful for it.



‘sanctified love i have not known’

A poem by an anonymous ‘patient-poetess’ I found today  in Dan Healey’s Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: the Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent, there quoted from Evgenii Krasnushkin’s Преступники психопаты of 1929 –


Sanctified love I have not known, 

Nor have I known maiden’s tears,

I have not sought offspring through marriage,

And I have never woven wreathes of roses…


From afar, encounters have always lured me,

Brilliant sin beckoned wickedly,

The passion of girlfriends, the tears

And their heavy, hidden laughter…


To their circle I was devoted,

Drank their caresses – with caresses, their bodies,

Brunettes captivated me more than once,

And often my sin with blondes was bold.


I loved them day and night,

And in the weaving of our bodies,

I loved their eyes filled with languor 

And on their breasts I loved sleep.


But all is past, all irretrievable, 

I now know, it’s all deceit

I cannot go back by this same path,

For life is but an intoxicant!