cyclops cinderella

‘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!


Beautiful things that keep cropping up in Akhmatova: roses, night, the sea.

I’ve recently started reading The Lesbian Body by Monique Wittig.  I’m not currently far enough into it to have a proper opinion, except to say that the edition I’m reading has been translated by a man and I can’t help but wonder if that’s kind of missing the point.  The introduction reassures me (jokingly?) that he ‘has abandoned any male chauvinism long enough to translate this book’ – and yet.  How, I find myself asking, might a female translator approach this most female of books?  What might be different? what might her own perspective and reality lend to it?  Instead these words, which seek to break away from male language, male culture, the male body, all the rest, make their way to me in English through the filter of a man.

It’s difficult to voice this these reservations because if I didn’t know the translator’s gender I would perhaps not be troubled by it; I wouldn’t be able to tell, I don’t think, whether it had been given to me by a woman or a man.  Mostly, however, I struggle with it because I feel so conscious of the way these thoughts might make me come across as one of those women, those lesbians, one embittered and ‘man-hating’.  It’s not that I think it’s productive to distance myself from such stereotypes, for I would hate to think of trying to set myself against other women and throw them under the bus, as it were, in such a way.  It helps no-one, I think; and I know that there’s no point trying to make myself likable or my words palatable to the sorts of people who would use these accusations.  Yet I fear that my words won’t be considered seriously if they can be so quickly dismissed.


Another thing that struck me in My Half-Century was the way that Akhmatova and her circle valued oral recitation of poetry.  She speaks, for example, of Mandelstam reading his verse to her and of her committing it to memory, and then is able to reproduce it in her writing decades later.

In a chapter on Modigliani, which can be found here, she describes the days she passed with him in the jardin du Luxembourg:

‘We in two voices recited from Verlaine, whom we knew well by heart, and we rejoiced that we both remembered the same work of his.  […] Most of all we used to talk about poetry. We both knew a great many French verses: by Verlaine, Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire.  […] He never read Dante to me, possibly because at that time I didn’t yet know Italian.

I was surprised and then amused at the ease with which she says all this.  I think of all the poetry I read and for all the passages and fragments that stay with me or that I copy out, there are very few that I could recite beginning to end from memory the way that she often speaks of.  If I do know any Russian verse this way, it’s usually coincidental  – that I learnt them as songs first, for example – rather than because of an active effort on my part.

Hearing Akhmatova talk of poetry this way, most of all, makes me want to do better.  We could all listen to Dante if we wanted to, after all, and we could all learn Italian.  It’s not beyond us to sit down and learn Mandelstam or Verlaine – but it’s certainly something to be worked at, something that takes time.  Perhaps because of this we’re used to thinking of the learning of poetry as a chore, as something serious or for schoolchildren (for the poems I can recite best, I’m ashamed to say, are The Lion and Albert and Matilda Who Told Lies, and was Burned to Death), rather than something enjoyable that might bring us closer together with others.  But – for me at least – I think putting that time in, the effort on top of everything else (and with exams so close I do have plenty else that I should be doing!), would be worth it.


Akhmatova by Modigliani (x)

‘loyalty to greatness – to guilt – to grief’: tsvetaeva and the dramatic

There are two things in particular about Tsvetaeva’s verse that make her my favourite.  The first is her honesty, which is something that captured my imagination from the very beginning; my introduction to her was Над городом, отвергнутым Петром, where I think it really does make itself felt, and then Подруга (of course..!). I think I appreciate this honesty so much because I personally find it so difficult – with myself, with friends, with everyone.  I am impressed and humbled by the way she manages to do it – for she makes it look so easy – and with what eloquence.  Honesty always feels like a weakness, to me, and I know it shouldn’t be; I say things and I’m instantly regretful, always afraid I’ve said too much, that no one ‘wants to know’.  But when I read Tsvetaeva I can let myself believe that there might be strength in honesty and in vulnerability; that to be truthful with ourselves and with others can enrich our inner and exterior lives.

But anyway.  The second thing, which I had thoughts about today, is the scale, the sense of grandeur, the drama she’s able to evoke without being histrionic (though this is a word I feel rather hesitant to use because it seems so often reserved for criticising the work of women; I don’t want to come across as saying ‘she’s not like those silly writers…’).  In My Half-Century, which I’ve just finished and which I absolutely loved, Akhmatova briefly writes of their only meeting in the summer of 1941 (oh, to have been a fly on that wall!).  Of it, she says:

It is frightening to think how Marina would have described these meetings herself, if she had remained alive and I had died on August 31, 1941.  It would have been “a sweet-smelling legend” as our forefathers put it.  Perhaps it would have been the lamentation of a twenty-five-year-old love, which turned out to be in vain, but in any case, it would have been magnificent .

I wish I could have read her account of things, of course.  In the notes at the back of the book the editor, Ronald Meyer, says of this: ‘Akhmatova refers to Tsvetaeva’s highly developed sense for the dramatic and the ability to transform seemingly everyday events into Poetry.’  That’s it exactly!  As much as I adore the poems of Лебединый стан, for example, which speak so powerfully about and bear witness to something much bigger than the individual, I like it just as much when, as he says, the ordinary is made something so grand, our daily lives and relationships.    Compare these two poems, for example (translated by Robin Kemball), one about the tsarevich Alexei and one heralding the birth of Tsvetaeva’s own daughter, Irina:

4 апреля 1917

За Отрока — за Голубя — за Сына,
За царевича младого Алексия
Помолись, церковная Россия!

Очи ангельские вытри,
Вспомяни, как пал на плиты
Голубь углицкий — Димитрий.

Ласковая ты, Россия, матерь!
Ах, ужели у тебя не хватит
На него — любовной благодати?

Грех отцовский не карай на сыне.
Сохрани, крестьянская Россия,
Царскосельского ягнёнка — Алексия!

4 April 1917

Pray for the Son – the Dove – the Adolescent,
For the young Tsarevich, for the young Alexis –
Russia, pray, who the true faith confessest!

Wipe those angel eyes now, ponder deeply
Him that fell upon the stones – think meetly
On the dove of Uglich, on Dimitri.

Gentle mother, Russia, kind, caressing!
Is thy heart so hard as not to grace him
With thy loving-kindness, with thy blessing?

Visit not upon the son the father’s trespass.
Russia of the country folk – be his protectress:
Spare the lamb of Tsarskoye Selo, Alexis!


And the second:

8 сентября 1918

Под рокот гражданских бурь,
В лихую годину,
Даю тебе имя — мир,
В наследье — лазурь.

Отыйди, отыйди, Враг!
Храни, Триединый,
Наследницу вечных благ
Младенца Ирину!

8 September 1918

To clamour of civil strife,
in times that are evil,
I give you a name that’s – peace,
an heirloom – blue skies,

Get thee hence, Satan! – So
preserve, O Redeemer,
from whom all blessings flow,
the infant Irina!


The way that she speaks about her own daughter and the tsarevich (who means so much for Russia symbolically, represents so much of a ‘bigger picture’) is exactly the same to me; the same language, the same invocations and petitions.  Why, after all, should we not be talking about our own sons and daughters with the same language?  Tsvetaeva’s petitions for divine protection are not somehow less urgent or symbolic because they are for her own daughter ‘rather than’ something ‘bigger’ (if anything I think this would intensify her invocations because they are made more personal); all children, I think, are equal and must be looked upon equally – this goes without saying.

After only saying the other day how rare it is for me to cry at books, I found myself in tears when I first read this second; partly because I knew what Tsvetaeva did not at the time of writing – that Irina’s life would be cut so short, that all she asks for in the poem is not granted – but partly also just because it’s so beautiful.  The language, the religious language, is so strong; nothing is held back, and that too is a kind of honesty in its way.

Below the cut, here are some other favourites that ‘do’ the dramatic so well:

Read the rest of this entry »

Some nice descriptions of Akhmatova quoted in the introduction to My Half Century that I’d like to remember:

The first quoted from Ненаписанная книга.  Листки из дневника А. А. Ахматовой, L. A. Mandrykina (translated for the introduction by Ronald Meyer) –

Among the  poetesses who read their poetry at the Tower, Anna Akhmatova stands out most vividly in my memory.  She was captivating both as a woman and as a poet. 

Lithe, tall, svelte, her head wrapped in a floral shawl.  The aquiline nose, her dark hair with the short bangs in front and held in place in back with a large Spanish comb.  The small, slender mouth that seldom laughed.  Dark, stern eyes.  It was impossible not to notice her.  You couldn’t walk past her without admiring her.  The young people went crazy when Akhmatova appeared on stage at literary readings.  She was a good and skillful reader, who was fully aware of her feminine charm, and she possessed the regal self-assurance of an artist who knew her worth.

And two from Lidia Ginzburg, this quoted in Nadezdha Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned:

[Akhmatova] is gifted with an absolutely natural and to a large extent convincing majesty.  She holds herself like a queen in exile at some bourgeois spa.

and this from 1927 (quoted from Lidia Chukovskaya, Записки об Анне Ахматовой, trans. Ronald Meyer):

Akhmatova clearly has taken on the responsibility for an era, for the memory of those who have died and for the reputations of the living.  Those who are not inclined will naturally find this irritating – it’s a matter of historical taste. Akhmatova sits very quietly and looks at us with a puzzled haze.  This is not because she doesn’t understand out culture, but rather because she doesn’t need it.  It’s not even worth discussing whether our culture needs her, since she’s a part of it. 

How I wish I could have met her! – but I wouldn’t be worthy.  Some people from the past feel ‘closer’ to us today than others – that they lived or wrote more recently, touch upon things that are still relevant to us now, have well-documented lives or were known by people still living.  To me she is one of those; especially since I’ve been reading this, as I’ve got to know her ‘own’ voice (as opposed to her poetic voice), which is so strong and distinct I could have heard it on the radio or read it in an article this morning. It’s difficult to think that she has been gone fifty years.

It’s Easter and with this unexpected time on my hands I’ve been reading a collection of Akhmatova’s selected prose, My Half Century.  In a diary entry from February 1966, she writes of Yevtushenko, ‘Why does nobody see that this is simply very bad Mayakovsky?’

I laughed aloud, then felt rather guilty about it.  Not only because of his death so recently – which left me shocked as well as saddened, somehow, for I had somehow never conceived of his death – but because he has long been of a kind of sentimental value for me.  When I think of my favourite poets and writers, he never comes to mind right away, but I owe a lot to him.  He was the first Russian writer that I read actually in his original, as opposed to in translation – a bilingual anthology aged seventeen, the only Russian-language book in the library.  With no other choice but him, it was a coincidence that we were brought together and perhaps I might not have ever discovered him otherwise.

Since that time I’ve read much more Russian poetry – the past few months, especially, it’s been just about all I’ve wanted to get my hands on – and I wonder if I were to read him now whether I too would think him just ‘very bad Mayakovsky’.  Yet I can’t dismiss things that were once important to me just because I ‘knew less’.  It was he who showed me that the structure of Russian could be beautiful – its form, I suppose, as well as its content.  I have always struggled with Russian grammar (though, revisiting it recently, I realised I’ve finally outgrown the Schaum’s I’ve dragged out every Easter since age fifteen – so I must have made some progress, at least!) and before I read him I only saw the genders and declensions and all the rest as things that ‘get in the way’ – an imposition, a restriction, something rigid and immovable to be obeyed.

It was Yevtushenko that made me look at these rules in a completely new and more positive way.  I wish I had a copy so that I could quote him, and because I haven’t read much of him since – but what about Закличание, for example, which begs to be recited?   What struck me most as I read him was his playfulness with sound, what he was able to evoke by using declensions to create rhymes. My favourite poetry is that with rhyme and rhythm and a strict metre, poetry that’s musical in its way when you read it aloud – and this is one way you can do this in Russian that in English we lack.  We have a book in English, or books, and that’s all.  But how many forms can книга take?  Or девочка, or город, or мост or anything else?  At least English nouns have a singular and a plural, but our adjectives are more limited still; we have sad and that’s it, but what else can печальный take on? Far from being a hindrance as I had previously seen it, grammar becomes a help and grants you greater freedoms.

I don’t want to get caught up in worrying about whether we ‘should’ follow the ‘rules’, but Yevtushenko showed me a way of operating within them to enrich poetry rather than restrict it; to create new sounds that fit well together, that are satisfying to recite, that sit well in your mouth.  I am no better at grammar now than I was at seventeen – it still doesn’t come naturally to me, and it’s beginning to seem like I’ll never understand verbs of motion –  but I can appreciate it now in a way I couldn’t before him.  If I must study it and if I must suffer (!), it becomes less arduous knowing that I might find beauty in it, also.