If There is Something to Desire: One Hundred Poems
The question isn’t whether poetry can be translated, the question is whether American readers can get past a cover design that recalls the cover of Fiona Apple’s album “When the pawn…” Vera Pavlova’s poetry appears in two of the excellent international anthologies that have appeared in the past few years, both Prufer and Miller’s well-made New European Poets and in Bunimovitch and Kates’s Contemporary Russian Poetry. It made no impression on me in either book.
It’s not Pavlova’s fault; her poems get to the point quickly. The second poem in this collection of 100 poems begins, “My parents were virgins. / At twenty-two, even then it was unusual.” The poem serves as an introduction to Pavlova’s sense of humor as a kind of parallelism:
It was scary for them to make me.
It was weird for them to make me.
It was painful for them to make me.
It was funny for them to make me.
And I absorbed:
Life is scary.
Life is weird.
Life is painful.
Life is very funny.
Pavlova is all of the above. It’s fair to observe that the excerpt above is on the thin side. It’s also a direct descendant of the passage in Mayakovsky’s “A Cloud in Trousers” where he counts the hours he sits waiting for his love, and for this echo I let the slightness slide.
In isolation, her shockingest lines, “May I erase with my lips / your exclamation point?” may sound like a blooper from Austin Powers, but in the poem it appears to be a tender moment from a lucky marriage, not aggressive seduction kitsch. Some will be put off by the instant appeal to sexuality, and many will find her too cute in places (“I walk the tightrope. / A kid on each arm / for balance”). I’m not sure. Despite the eagerness to please there’s still a necessary indifference here, what Pavlova calls a “dose of contempt” necessary to maintain dignity under adverse conditions:
you cannot flip a woman on her back
to make her flounder like a turtle,
to make the heartless fool realize:
she cannot flip back on her own.
In the three to eight lines of a typical Pavlova poem, she takes a loaded and universal scene—the couple in bed, the mother nursing, the poet in front of the page—and plays it like a game of chance: Sometimes it will end in exclamations of joy, sometimes in ellipses of knowing loneliness, sometimes in irritable question marks. I don’t imagine I’ll be rereading this book indefinitely, but I know I like this much of its emulation of life: that despite the uncertainty of the outcome, the odds favor the house. And as at a casino, everywhere you turn there are new opportunities to lose yourself, emphasis on lose downplayed:
Why is the word yes so brief?
It should be
so that you could not decide in an instant to say it,
so that upon reflection you could stop
in the middle of saying it.
Her fastest starts are her most persuasive: “No love? Let us make it!” There’s more here of Mary Barnard’s versions of Sappho, their clarity and turns of spirit, than the mystic sing-alongs of the various Englishers of Rilke or Rumi. The details she chooses to fill out her frameworks have the strange offhandedness of life seen sideways:
A beast in winter,
a plant in spring,
an insect in summer,
a bird in autumn.
The rest of the time I am a woman.
I like the feeling of being an insect in the summer, then of feeding on that insect in the fall before flying away. I don’t think I’d ever been conscious of those feelings before reading this poem, and in exchange for that new experience I accept how flat that last line almost is. I don’t even mind the blandly obvious poems that pop up here and there—new feelings are rare.
New feelings have to look a little like old ones not to be rejected out of hand, and Pavolva’s poems look like poems, each very much a formal occasion, as governed by convention as a four-panel comic strip. The eight-liners, for example, usually break up into four two-line sentences. I imagine younger Russian poets are already playing a version of Garfield-Without-Garfield with her work, recombining the opening gambit of one of her poems with shuffled middles and ends of others; she’s that reliable, formally. As usual, though, the joke would be on these imaginary younger poets: what one finds in poem after poem is that there is no lyric-I that feels as good to inhabit as the one in love with the imaginary-You. “The first kiss in the morning / tastes like the first kiss on Earth.”
Poetry is famously easy at daybreak, though. If there’s a crisis in how to read Pavlova, it’s that without the grit of specific difficulties and satisfactions, her allusions to the frustrations and victories of life and love might come off as a mere simulation. Though reality effects abound, there’s very little here by way of proof-of-life aside from a stray mention of the Chechen war. This isn’t as serious an objection as it sounds, though. (Imagine saying William Carlos Williams didn’t have enough dust bowl drifters in his work, or that O’Hara forgot New York labored under skyscrapers.) What matters in the lyric moment is that an intense feeling come through quickly and arrestingly. Pavlova hands off the goods in a few lines time after time: “May the summer last / as a prison term / of farewell delights, / caresses on the doorstep.” It’s not a perfect poem in English but as crystallizations of romantic longing go, that ambivalent happy trapped feeling looks genuine from here.
I want to affirm that it’s ok to be wary of translation. Consider what in the movie business can be called the Miramax effect, where fundamentally un-alien American cultural productions are dressed up as good-for-you imports.
If only I knew from what tongue
your I love you has been translated,
if I could find the original,
consult the dictionary
to be sure the rendition is exact:
the translator is not at fault!
Her translator seems only partly aware how crucial it is that she never sound like a book we’ve already read, or an old movie for that matter—she has to sound exactly like herself, not at first like an aristocrat and then like an immigrant, neither tabula rasa nor fantasy, and if possible never like an American poet. Seymour acquits himself well enough. There are a few flat-out wrong-sounding poems (“But the customs fellow did not speak / a word of ancient Greek”) but mainly it survives, the illusion that Pavlova speaks something like plain American which cats and dogs can read.
It would be a mistake to leave the reader with the impression that the important thing about Pavlova’s poetry is that her language approaches transparency or that she manages her persona to bewitch the reader. Not guilty on all counts. It would also be unfair to let allowances for translation lead to an overstatement of her accomplishments. But there are not many American poets risking as much on such small lyric moments, and almost none who will let the moments fall however they may. As a Russophile O’Hara put it in Personism, they do may. Pavlova is worth a look for that alone.