A Voice (Introduction)

Selected Poems.



I was first introduced to the poetry of Anzhelina Polonskaya in 1999.  We were organizing a poetry festival at Northwestern University that was to feature poets from three countries (Russia, Poland, and Slovenia) and from three generations.  Having invited Andrei Voznesensky to take part as a member of the older generation, we asked him to recommend a poet of the youngest generation.  He proposed Polonskaya, who had recently returned to Moscow from a two-year stint working as an ice dancer in Central and South America for a traveling Russian troupe. 


When Polonskaya’s poems arrived, I discovered that her background and subsequent career choice were not her only unusual features.  The poems themselves were extremely surprising and revealed a unique and highly independent artistic voice.  Unlike the majority of Russian poets, Polonskaya did not receive a classical literary education.  Rather, her poetry comes almost exclusively out of her own experience and, even more important, out of her own thoughts.  This is not to say that Polonskaya is uneducated.  She has read widely in Russian (Brodsky, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Mayakovsky being particularly important), in Anglo-American and in Spanish poetry.  Nevertheless, her lack of literary education has allowed her to be far freer in her relationship with previous poets than is the case with many of her contemporaries, who frequently seem to be engaged in a hermetically sealed dialogue with the tradition.  Thus, while one can find echoes of the diction of other poets in her work, her poetry lacks the typical self-consciousness of those poets who are more immediately aware of the weight of literary tradition.  Polonskaya consciously guards her outsider status, choosing to live not in Moscow itself, but in the little town of Malakhovka, some thirty miles from the center of the city, a peaceful enclave far from the daily squabbles of Moscow literary life. 


Polonskaya was born in Malakhovka. She published her first collection of poetry My Heavenly Torch in 1993.  This was followed by a second book, entitled simply Poems in 1998.  A third collection The Sky Through a Private’s Eye was published in 1999, and her most recent collection, A Voice, appeared in 2002.  The poems in this first English-language book-length collection are drawn from Polonskaya’s two most recent books, but I have chosen not to present them chronologically (as Polonskaya almost always dates her poems, however, the reader can recreate the chronology of the composition should he or she so desire).  Rather, the poems are grouped in three loose thematic sections entitled “Portraits,” “Elegies,” and “Times, Places, Moods.” 


The collection opens, however, with the title poem, “A Voice,” and an examination of this poem is a good place to begin in order to appreciate Polonskaya’s poetics.


A Voice


A voice bouncing off boarded-up windows, a quivering voice

within walls like well-driven nails.

A throaty voice, as of a caged dove,

groping through deaf darkness into bunches of hanging fingers. 


Through them, through the air heated by snow,

torn apart like fabric, like flesh that has known the scalpel.

How silent it is!  Either a hot flash on the cheek

or simply snowflakes melting and rolling down like tears.


That voice!  Free, unmaimed by wheels, not pursued,

edgy, floating beneath  the damp stone vaults,

remarked only by the lightning glances of parishioners

who will remain in this blue twilight, today or tomorrow.


Like so many of Polonskaya’s poems, this one presents, in extremely terse and condensed form, a mysterious narrative.  Through the point of view of a of a watchful, sympathetic yet just slightly ironic authorial voice we see a scene that burns itself into our consciousness, while yet remaining mysterious.  A number of thematic concerns that will reappear frequently in Polonskaya’s poetry are apparent here: a fascination with desolate places, with a complex synaesthesia of sound, sight, touch and smell, the omnipresence of maimed bodies and death.  Polonskaya’s favorite tropes are here as well: complex, original extended metaphors, ellipsis (in this and in much else her poetry clearly builds on the tradition of Marina Tsvetaeva).  The frequent presence of ellipsis in her work frequently makes it quite challenging to read, but it also makes each poem an adventure in following the complex logic of the poetic “I.”  Of course, it also presents a serious problem for the translator, who must avoid filling in the ellipsis in a bid to make the translation more accessible than the original. 

Also typical in this poem is what is absent—any overt relationship with the tradition as well as any trace of humor.  The latter is by no means surprising.  Russian poetry has traditionally taken itself very seriously, and in this Polonskaya is in no way an exception.  The former, however, is quite unusual.  After all, as my colleague Ilya Kutik has put it, Russian poetry is a “citational epic”  in which each poet tends to build by referring liberally to his or her predecessors.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, however, and Polonskaya is one of them. 

Finally, this poem also displays one other feature of her narrative technique: an almost Chekhovian tendency to use the final line or lines of the poem to provide  unexpected but extremely effective closure.  Here it is in the introduction of the parishioners, who register the voice’s presence even as we recognize that their own mortality has been prefigured in the sound that is doomed to die away.  We see a similar technique for example, at the end of the first poem in the “Portraits” section, “The Monk and the Child.”  That narrative, which had focused on the plight of a poor monk in the provinces (Polonskaya manages to capture the desolate and hopeless feeling of provincial Russia with more clarity than any poet of recent memory), ends with the riveting and disturbing image of the abandoned child, who by now has taken on uncannily adult traits, staring at the monk “out of the corner of his eye.” 

Although all the poems in this collection are lyrics and Polonskaya has never written any poem longer than a page, many of her poems nevertheless have an epic feeling to them.  This is true even in some of her elegies.  A fine example of this is the poem “Saga” that I have chosen to begin the section entitled “Elegies.”


Ages passed before our time: heretics blazed on pyres,

balsam wafted through rooms, shop counters

stank of gutted fish and of shirts’ salty sweat.

Even then the moon was sugary, as if the closed blinds

in stifling silken rooms had squeezed a slice of lemon.

Inside were portraits and screens, and the moist gray walls

had eyes, like people.  What do I care! Children

took over from exhausted women, and so it went, until…


We suddenly discovered the sun, and we were vouchsafed white stones

and a dusky and wild body.  You had to take it

to elicit groans with your blows.  You took it, removed it from the world,

but a gray cooing dove was able to cross the ocean.

Some day a woman’s hands will send me glass planes,

cubes wrapped in chains, where your head will float

in a bitter brew steeped with oak bark and basil…


Fools! If you believe, then believe—you’ll have time ‘til you reach heaven

to recall the happy hours you spent

gossiping with neighbors over a cup of mocha,

while I, in the midst of a warm valley between two lonely hills,

tended and caressed that sleeping profile, asleep like a tired nomad.



Like so many of Polonskaya’s best poems, this one provides both a series of striking images and a story.  From the very title, of course, we can expect a story, but this is no saga in any conventional sense of the word.  It begins with an evocation of history, but the history evoked is more of the “one damned thing after another” type than any specific nation’s story.  The love story that forms the basis of the elegy begins only in the second stanza as a sudden eruption, a clear break with the endless repetitions of the first stanza into a new kind of historical time in which events are apparently unique.  For whatever reason, however, the narrator’s ahistorical happiness cannot last, and now she expects to receive her lover’s head, presumably severed from his body for having preferred history to domesticity.  The final stanza returns to the narrator who recalls her own lost paradise, figured again in the head of the beloved, that same lost head that can return only after it has been violently removed from its body. 

            The themes of death, desolation, and mutilation, so prevalent in all of Polonskaya’s poetry, come together most forcefully in her war poems.  While not directly alluding to the bloody conflict taking place today between Russians and Chechens, it does seem that her military poems are influenced by her political views.  Perhaps the strongest of these poems is the one that begins the section “Times, Places, Moods” entitled “A Bar, Soldiers, and Death.”  In its grotesque and powerful evocation of conflict filtered through a vision of the inside of a bar just outside the battle zone, this poem is almost Goyesque.  Within the poem, the conflict is between a song, which is traditionally a symbol of hope, and death herself.  The two are fighting for the life of the soldier, who sleeps unknowingly his head on the bar.  The final quatrain, is horrifying in its simplicity and in its implied future violence.


Toward dawn, when things quiet down, the song flutters up to a branch.

Death, however, wakes up even earlier and gets there first.

Having donned a linen shroud over her tattered clothes,

she waits by the door, patient and ashamed, like a nurse.


I have chosen to close the collection with a poem that, in a way, forms a bookend with “A Voice.”  “The Gale” presents the tautest and most terrifying of all of Polonskaya’s miniature narratives. 


00.15. Water in the hold. The deck rocks.

We sail. A taut wire of legs,

We bespatter the walls.


00.45 We’re sinking.  The anchor glows

like a farewell star. Wind rasps, the crew cries,

The sea sucks the Great Bear.


00.53 The storm laid the blueness of its hands

on the heeling boat.  Called for help,

No answer. Nothing lasts forever.


From a sinking ship, a voice is released.  There is no response and all hands, presumably, go down with the ship.  What remains is the trace of the voice in the form of a poem, perhaps the only thing that remains after us “today or tomorrow.”


Andrew Wachtel







© A. Polonskaya

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