April 27, 2012
by Kevin Murphy
April is just about out the door, and going with it is National Poetry Month. I’m sure it’s a very small number of people that actually care about poetry month. Hell, I love poetry and for the most part don’t care. It’s a gimmick, after all. Used as a way to spark conversation, maybe some fledgling interest in an art form that’s supposedly been on the verge of irrelevance for, well, always. Not that having a month celebrating poetry is a bad thing. Gimmicks are good in this cold hard world of ours. It’s just that the whole concept of encouraging people to read poetry comes off as a hard sell. Seems to me the only people who talk and care about National Poetry Month are the same people who care about poetry the whole year through.
Or maybe non-poetry types really like this whole month-long celebration thing? Maybe poetry needs cynics and ambassadors alike? Okay, sure. Let’s talk poetry. More specifically, let’s talk Polina Barskova.
Widely considered the best Russian poet of her generation, finalist for the prestigious Andrei Bely Award, and Melville House author to boot, Barskova drops word-bombs and smiles while looking over her beautiful wreckage. She’s smart, lovely, funny, and, of course, has a way with language.
Check out this video of her reading at Mocha Mayas in Massachusetts last year.
Melville House published Barskova’s The Zoo in Winter in 2011. While steeped in Russian and classical culture, Barskova’s work remains unmistakably contemporary, at once classic and edgy – always fresh, new and even startling. Here’s the collection’s title poem:
The Zoo in Winter
Ravaged brothers ravaged
Is this heart of mine.
I am sprouting cabbage
In this heart of mine.
And parsley that is tart,
Parsnips that are sweet.
Don’t cry, little Punch Doll —
No one is at fault.
Here, a lemur wags his elbows
Shakes his shoulders,
Runs up the branches jostling his hips.
He’s a ringer for Nijinksky with his childlike face.
Shamed and abashed, he glances at your father’s face.
Your father, who holds by the hand
Something sharp and magical
He no longer knows its name
But he feels its warmth
(Indifferent, enormous, waning)
He looks up and reads on the clouds
Like the count on a baseball scoreboard
In a stadium: “She’s so much.
The day was. Not me.”
You are foreshortened tortured hemmed
As with the fur spoiled by the father’s senselessness.
He seems a whale, which hides amidst the depths
From motley babbling fish.
In his motion — slowed and lengthened —
There’s something of the motion of stones
In the seething bright-black waters of March
Beneath the windows of the Philosophy Department (Pliny, spleen).
Your father is weightless and mighty —
The timorous Latin
Of the eternally rushing-off psychiatrist
No, it will not catch up with him.
Your father now holds Frosya by the hand. The hand —
She be memory’s last stop
Before it swims off into the abyss.
The palm wraps round the night trains of remembrance,
Proust’s soggy little madeleines,
And VN’s Dobuzhinskii caves.
And Frosya’s wooly head
Is pressed against the tender web of veins,
Stretched out across the father’s ruin
Like a sweet lover’s furrow.
The hand. To hand. He walks into the room, where I sit without light,
As if I’m Heracles, ensnared with Admetus,
Hoping to save someone, yet lingering.
And mumbles: “I’m still. How cold. Give me that.”
And grasps my hand in a despairing handful,
The sweaty palm — awakened, warmed,
Blooms, nearly, like a stump on a spring day,
What’s astonishing — your father doesn’t know
Who I am, in that room looking after him,
Judging about him,
Yes, and in general, himself. Druid and asteroid,
He moves in darkness,
He moves towards me,
So as to freeze above me, and for a long time warm my hands
In the comfortless silence of his haggard rooms.
Since he has long ago forgotten all our names,
Let him give names to us: Madness and Death.