Natalya Gorbanevskaya will be best known to some as the activist to whom Joan Baez dedicated her song ‘Natalia‘. Part of the Soviet dissident movement, Gorbanevskaya was arrested in 1969 and interred in a Soviet psychiatric prison for several years. Though the work by no means relies on it, some knowledge of Gorbanevskaya’s life helps inform her spare, powerful poems and this volume of translations by Daniel Weissbort provides an accessible introduction to both her work and life – useful historical notes are offered unobtrusively throughout.
In these Selected Poems, the beautiful and the brutal are dangerous bedfellows. Political landscapes are often described through tender evocations of weather: coming rain or “the indomitable wind / over this absurd, wide world”, the place where “an icy wind / chills the bright surface of a well.” In an extract from ‘Seaboard’ (1956-1966), the poet describes facing death with equanimity:
I lay my head on the scrubbed block
As on a lover’s shoulder.
It seems glib to talk about the elegance within these bleak poems, because that suggests their starkness needs to be dressed up. Not so. Gorbanevskaya often spares us nothing. Take the short poem ‘Autobiographical’:
They gave the fool free rein, gave the rascal freedom
And he beats his free head on a wall.
The reader can’t help shuddering with recognition. Often, in fact, the beauty in Gorbanevskaya’s work seems to make it all the more devastating. Even her less overtly political poems shiver with quiet menace, like the intriguing ‘Unfinished poem’, written in 1965 (and arranged in translation as a sonnet). We find an unnamed person wandering a town in which
Night has erased the year,
The age from the building’s facades,
The town, bleak as an allotment,
But also like the Ark…
In the chill of dawn, things begin to return to their familiar shapes until finally:
You come to yourself, weeping,
On the bridge, over the Yauza river.
There’s a clarity in the work that reminded me of Japanese Death Poetry, written from the urge to distil the world just one last time. It’s this that gives the poems what Daniel Weissbort describes in his introduction as a ‘strange depth’.
I won’t say too much about the political context and content of these poems, because others far better qualified to discuss Soviet history have done so elsewhere (the book includes a fascinating interview with the poet by Valentina Polukhina, rightly placed at the end of the volume, after the poems themselves). Instead, what fascinated me most about Gorbanevskaya’s work was its relationship to the way our brains work. In these poems, there’s a preoccupation with the relationship between truth and fabrication. In an extract from ‘Alien Stones’ (1979-82) we’re told ‘this truth is a lie’:
This truth, I insist on,
Don’t, don’t believe it,
Don’t test it, with a knife pinning
Its tender throat to the wall.
Elsewhere “singing is like lying”, art is both sincere and insincere.
Neuroscientists like Benjamin Libet have suggested that our experience of time is something of an illusion: in short, memory is not a process of retrieval, but of reconstruction. When we try to ‘recall’ a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don’t call up the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we alter it (all the time remaining genuinely convinced of the ‘truth’ of our memories).
Gorbanevskaya’s work is full of re-written memories, implied stories, developed until we’re not quite sure where they started from. Her work isn’t indecisive, it’s a recognition of the true nature of memory, as in this extract from ‘Last Poems of the Last Century’, where the narrator occupies a strange hinterland:
My hands not holding the pen
My evenings not well-illuminated,
My midnights neither bright nor warm…
This no-man’s land, Gorbanevskaya recognises, is the real territory of human experience. Her poems draw the reader into that experience and invite us to be lost there, for as long as we want.
Helen Mort won a Foyle’s Young Poet Award on five occasions and received an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. After two pamphlets with tall-lighthouse press, a third pamphlet, ‘Lie of the Land’, was published by the Wordsworth Trust last year. Her first full collection, ‘Division Street’, will be published in 2013 by Chatto & Windus.
Selected Poems by Natalya Gorbanevskaya is published by Carcanet Press, 2011, £12.95
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