|Katherine E. Young|
One of my most pleasurable poetry discoveries of recent months has been Katherine E.Young's collection, Day of the Border Guards (University of Arkansas Press, 2014), a book that addresses the author's long experience of living and working in the USSR and post-Soviet Russia. Katherine, who I was lucky enough to meet at a reading she gave in Cheltenham recently, is also an accomplished translator of Russian verse into English, and her deep knowledge of and love for Russian literary culture in particular are a hallmark of this collection. And yet the tone here is never academic; rather, the poems are constructed around the lived detail of everyday existence in Russia's past and present, closely observed, yet never exoticized. I have many personal favourites in the book, but Katherine has been kind enough to allow me to showcase the following poem.
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary. What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing. Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer’s chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish. On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.
Of 'Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts', Katherine writes:
Day of the BorderGuards are in some way connected to the years I lived and worked in the Soviet Union and then Russia. I started studying Russian because I wanted to be an astronaut and meet up with cosmonauts in space: I had this naïve, idealistic notion that meeting face-to-face with Soviet citizens could somehow help bridge the Cold War gap between America and the USSR. And, in fact, meeting Russians – all the peoples of the USSR – was illuminating, but not always in ways I’d expected. Quite often, Soviet citizens turned out to be just as mulish, obstinate, and unempathetic as Americans! Some of the most mulish and obstinate among them (with good reason, of course) were the dissidents and refuseniks whose lives had been twisted and ruined by the Soviet system: they could be even more strident in their anti-Soviet rhetoric than Americans. This was an uncomfortable discovery for me, because I instinctively distrust people who see the world in black and white. In later years, I’ve experienced a good deal of guilt for harboring such mixed feelings about the dissidents, for preferring moral ambiguity to moral certainty, for not fully understanding how much they suffered. But at the time, I found the very Soviet-ness of the USSR in all its strangeness, its casual cruelty, its cheerful stagnation, to be curiously compelling. This poem explores my fascination with Homo Sovieticus, particularly the generation of women who lost millions of potential mates in the Second World War, women who held the nation together from sheer force of will, almost completely uncredited (nor do they receive their due in my poem, I’m sorry to say). While the poem pays obvious homage to WH Auden, its final line comes from the nineteenth-century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s phrase “The earth sleeps in blue radiance…” from “Alone I set out on the road” [“Выхожу один я на дорогу”]. I discovered new meaning in Lermontov’s phrase when translating Inna Kabysh’s “Yuri Gagarinwas a great Russian poet”. Elsewhere Kabysh has written eloquently about the unimaginably difficult everyday existence of Soviet and Russian women, but her poem about Gagarin (the first human in space) speaks particularly to the kind of idealism and optimism felt by a young American girl who wanted more than anything to grow up and become a celestial ambassador.'
The American poets who get a hearing on this side of the Atlantic are few in number compared to the productivity of US poetry, and we often rely on UK publishers to act as gatekeepers, selecting for us the books we will engage with. Clearly, British poets and readers have much to gain by looking further afield in the US poetry scene. In that spirit, I can wholeheartedly recommend Katherine's book, which can be ordered inthe UK.