Borderless: Reviewing “Paper-thin Skin” by Aigerim Tazhi3 min read
Aigerim Tazhi is one of the most well-known Russian-speaking Kazakh poets today. Her work has been featured in prominent literary magazines and anthologies; and her poems have been translated into English, French, Dutch, Polish, German, Armenian, and Uzbek. Paper-thin Skin is her second poetry volume, containing side-by-side English translations by J. Kates.
Tazhi’s breakout poetry volume БОГ-О-СЛОВ (pronounced Bog-o-slov, translated to THEO-LOG-IAN, which could also be read as GOD O’ WORDS) propelled her into the international literary spotlight almost immediately. Entirely in Russian, БОГ-О-СЛОВ was published in 2004 and followed by numerous awards. Tazhi was a finalist for the International Debut Prize in Poetry in 2011, included in the prize list of the International Literary Poetry Award in 2019, and named a finalist of the International Literary Voloshin Contest in 2019.
Tazhi was born in 1981 in Aktyubinsk in the Soviet Union, now Aktobe, Kazakhstan. She writes and communicates with translator J. Kates primarily in Russian.
She’s frank about factors out of her control, like where she was born and what language she speaks. “I did not choose the Russian language,” she told fellow poet Philip Metres in a conversation in the now defunct Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. “I did not evaluate it in terms of its attractiveness. It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood.”
Like many in the post-communist space, Tazhi has a complex identity which often warrants an explanation. She is a static observer of the land around her. But the rules, customs, and cultures around her have shifted. Her poems tend to focus on nature because the cyclical nature of seasons is reliable and constant, seen in this poem for example:
The trees know it is early to wake up.
In the morning the world will be covered with snow.
A cold wind smelling of flowers
shakes the shade.
Деревья знают — просыпаться рано.
Наутро мир накроет слоем снега.
Холодный ветер с запахом цветочным
The colours and smells of natural cycles excite her. She chronicles the comforting sounds of the seasons in another:
Summer, organize a soundless holiday with a forest at night.
The mountains are silent today.
Лето, беззвучный праздник с лесом ночным устро
Горы молчат сегодня.
She is a emotional being and receptive to the metaphysical quality of the natural world:
I strain to listen for an imagined world:
one that absorbs music from the outside,
and will not preserve the borders
of an internal country.
Прислушаюсь к придуманному миру:
он впитывает музыку извне,
и внутренней стране
не уберечь границ.
Poet Timothy Walsh from the Rain Taxi Review writes that “In Tazhi’s [searingly] lucid poems, the reader is made to look at the world around them afresh—a world where artificial borders and nation-states have little relevance.” It brings the reader to reflect if Tazhi can exist outside of the influence of her geopolitical location. Can a poet with an intersectional identity exist outside of identity politics?
Tazhi herself has proclaimed that she can, and that she will:
Here I come in, sweeping away tracks, dodging through the streets,
And behind me, like a stupid movie, the whole city is falling apart.
Прихожу, заметая следы, петляя улицами,
А за мной, как в нелепом фильме, весь город рушится.
Tazhi’s poems reflect on memories of the outdoors that all people collectively share. Her poems are inviting and comforting for those who want to seek refuge from the geopolitics. At the same time, she addresses her existence in such an unapologetic manner that her words are an inspiration to those who have been rendered powerless by a big change.
Book details: Tazhi, Aigerim, Paper-Thin Skin: Poems by Aigerim Tazhi, Translated from the Russian by J. Kates, 2019, Zephyr Press. Buy it here.