A bleak forecast: reviewing “To the Ashes” by Anzhelina Polonskaya3 min read
Russian poet Anzhelina Polonskaya’s journey to poetry is unusual, which makes her most recently translated poetry volume, To the Ashes, a true testament to the unorthodox relationship the poet has with language.
Born in 1977, Polonskaya spent her youth attending a school for athletically talented children with a focus on figure skating. Later, she spent years in Latin America as a lead dancer in an ice show. Observing her home country’s militarisation before her eyes, as both an insider and outsider, shaped her staunchly anti-war vision for the future, as revealed in her poetry. Polonskaya does not use a typical rhyme meter present in much of contemporary Russian poetry. Her lyrical style is more reminiscent of the Spanish language prose she spent much time reading and studying.
Polonskaya and translator Andrew Wachtel have formed an amazing bond as a result of their years working together. Wachtel first encountered Polonskaya’s work in 1999, while organizing the Three Lands, Three Generations poetry festival at Northwestern University, which brought poets from Poland, Russia, and Slovenia together along with translators and critics. Their previous collaboration Paul Klee’s Boat was published by Zephyr Press and received the Words on Borders Freedom Prize in 2016.
To the Ashes was never published in Russia due to censorship and safety concerns, which makes Wachtel’s translation the first time many of the poems in To the Ashes can be read. The poems are critical of Russia’s militarisation, echoing the themes in Paul Klee’s Boat. “To the Ashes” discusses the climbing death toll caused by the senseless wars, with no end in sight. “Lillies” is a poem about the silencing of everyday people in Russia, especially exiled writers. “The Berkut of Mezhigorie” examines corruption in authoritarian regimes and the suppression of dissidents.
As experienced as Wachtel is in translating Polonskaya’s work, he notes in the introduction that it is difficult to capture the elliptical sparseness of her speech: “If you are not careful, the English version will simply be flat and prosaic, because English wants more words and has trouble with too much ellipsis.”
The volume’s namesake poem “To the Ashes” contains a stanza that illustrates such complexity, and the English version illustrates how masterful Wachtel’s rendition is:
Our dead are everywhere –
in the trees, blossoms and fetes.
That same ash in their mouths
won’t let them wake from death.
И наши мёртвые повсюду –
в деревьях, в праздниках, в цветах.
От смерти не даёт очнуться
им тот же пепел на устах.
Beyond the morose tone, Wachtel has perfectly captured the rhythm of the original poem. For example, while the poem’s second line literally translates to “in trees, in holidays, in flowers,” Wachtel reassembles the sentence to “trees, blossoms and fetes,” which both captures the meaning and keeps a stress loyal to the original. His rework of the words reveals just how difficult it is to direct-translate Polonskaya’s colloquial constructions.
“Translating Polonskaya’s poetry is a bit like translating Chekov. At first glance it seems like it should not be too hard, but then it turns out to be so tricky to work with the terseness of the material that you sometimes wish there were more conventionally ‘difficult’ problems to solve,” says Wachtel.
Polonskaya’s feelings about Russia’s emphasis on war can be seen in her poem “Stone,” likely a homage to Osip Mandelstam’s poem of the same name:
why your indifference
to those who don’t believe in blood,
silent as the tomb?
хто бесчувствие твоё
тому, кто не верит крови,
молчащая через край?
Like Mandelstam, who was arrested during the 1930’s repression, Polonskaya received death threats for her poems of political dissent.
Regardless of whether you read these poems in the original Russian or the equally powerful English translation, To the Ashes is a sardonic yet necessary chronicle of the current times in Russia. Polonskaya’s lamentations on authoritarianism are particularly relevant today, given the ongoing Russian offensive in Ukraine.
Book details: Polonskaya, Anzhelina, To the Ashes: poems by Anzhelina Polonskaya / Translated from the Russian by Andrew Wachtel, 2019, Zephyr Press. Buy it here.