Translated poetry seldom finds its way into this column. It is too high risk: there is the probability the original voice will seem muffled or will not travel. But an exception has to be made for Maria Stepanova, born in Moscow and a leading voice in post-Soviet culture: poet, journalist, publisher and force for press freedom (founding editor of Colta.ru, an online independent site) who has been showered with prizes in Russia but has not, until now, been much known here. She is translated by Sasha Dugdale, a poet herself, whose imaginative instincts serve her tirelessly. Having said this, a sense that we might be playing Russian whispers (I don’t speak the language) cannot be altogether avoided if only because, as Dugdale explains in her introduction, there is much in Stepanova’s challenging writing that does not translate at all. And yet it has been Dugdale’s remarkable project to give Stepanova a parallel life by dextrously furnishing her modernist poems with English examples.
It is essential to read War of the Beasts and the Animals alongside its companion work, the richly absorbing “documentary novel” In Memory of Memory (just nominated for the International Booker prize). Stepanova scrutinises the memorialising drive of writers and artists: Proust, Mandelstam, Susan Sontag, Joseph Cornell, WG Sebald, Charlotte Salomon – the book is, in part, a Jewish history. Yet she has a simultaneous regard for oblivion, for not recording, for the right to vanish definitively. Holocaust photographs, she argues, need protecting from their audiences. Her writing exists on an edge between an avid pursuit of the past and an acknowledgment of the eventual meaninglessness of memorialising. There is a sense that she might, at any point, be tempted into silence. She writes eloquently about modern technology’s influence on memory, about the wantonly comprehensive record digital photography makes possible – its images persisting into an unwanted immortality. By contrast, she salvages piercingly personal material, including letters from “Lyodik”, her grandfather’s cousin, killed in 1942 in the siege of Leningrad.
Stepanova recently remarked on the affinity poetry has with military imagery. Her own poetry is a literary battlefield. The title poem is a commentary on the Donbass conflict in Ukraine, yet Dugdale recruits from English literature and folk stories (Keats, TS Eliot, This Little Piggy Went to Market) to create an intense hybrid, a work of art in its own right.
Stepanova’s poetry is porous. Were it a fabric, it would be complete with rents through which darkness – and truth – might leak. She reminds us it is detrimental when poetry is daintily ringfenced. Spolia, about the spoils of war, touches on the uselessness of inert tradition:
offers no resistance
its kiss is loveless, it lies motionless
she’s the sort you’d lift on to a chair
read us the poem about wandering lonely
She’s the sort who once made a good Soviet translator.
Stepanova is a powerhouse. Her scornful wit is bracing and, throughout, the reader is on a switchback: you never know what waits around the next bend.
In In Memory of Memory, she describes the contents of her late aunt’s Moscow apartment – devalued by death. Elsewhere, she hopes for a key to her own past, to “the door to a secret corridor in our old apartment”. And in her concluding poem, The Body Returns (commemorating the centenary of the first world war), she envisages poetry as an apartment emptied:
And now what to do
The room is shining
The room is cleaned to its bones, its marrow, must write itself, no one writes to anyone.
Oblivion beckons again.
War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Bloodaxe (£12). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, is published by Fitzcarraldo (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
A verse from The Body Returns (2018)
Poetry, a many-eyed absurd
Nature of manymouths
Found in many bodies at the same time
Having lived in many other bodies before that
And now lying in confinement
Like something about to be born