Reviewer: Philipa Coughlan
Publisher: Columbia University Press May 2021
ISBN: 978-0-231196178 PB
Russian literature has a well established classical history. It is good to read this contemporary powerful and distinctive writer’s work in a valuable collection of poetry and prose.
Born in 1972, Stepanova came of age amid all the upheaval of the post-Soviet 90s and has only more recently been translated into English. She also earlier this year finalised her family memoir, ‘In Memory of Memory’ a work of ambitious (500 pages +) which has a haunting significance about her life. Brought up as an only child in a Moscow apartment with her parents, grandparents and even a great-grand mother, Maria soaked in all their life experiences, photos, and collected items into a tortured book where she needed to reveal every minute piece of life that surrounded her.
This collection includes ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’ with an excellent introduction by translator Sasha Dugdale which really highlights the poet’s influences and the broad range of myths, folk tales, and psalms and even includes references to TS Eliot and Rudyard Kipling. Aptly I read this during the week of November’s Remembrance Day because her poetry often reflects on conflict and war- here excerpts show those images:
‘say the word that don’t belong
put it on and march along
forget the old and step anew
and the world will march with you’
Guilt, survival and the past are constant themes of many of the essays and often refer to snippets from notebooks or from writers old and new. There are reflections on a children’s fairy tale or the work of Vladimir Nabokov in the essay ‘What Alice Found There’ itself maybe a reconstruction of the classic children’s story (often seen as an adult themed read) of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Referring to Alisa Poret’s notebooks of 1902 we read:
‘the cute things someone’s children said, and endless stories about cats and dogs….only makes sense to the storyteller.’
Even pop songs are referred to in short more modern rhymes but still with a backdrop of the severity and violence of the Russian regime. As well as poetry and prose Maria has founded a major platform for independent journalism – a dangerous move under Putin’s regime perhaps? She hints at the population of her country still often living in fear but she herself is doing her very best and with style and bravery to put on paper words that reflect the challenges and emotional battles of her homeland. On a personal level I particularly liked ‘The Bride’ from ‘Songs of the Northern Southerners,’ showing vulnerability and love and the teenage realities of peer pressure and a scary world around you.
I liked the challenge of this book as I had never really read any modern Russian poets and am encouraged to seek out her other work. A name to watch. Book groups may not find the style easy but to read the notes and background gives a good insight into contemporary Russia today and the creativity behind such writers as Stepanova.