Eugene Ostashevsky at Music and Literature:
There is a lot of talk now, in the United States at least, about political poetry and even revolutionary poetry, and what these are, and how to write them. The discussants should consider the work of a young Russian poet, Galina Rymbu.
I first came across a poem of hers shortly after she posted it on LiveJournal, a social network popular in Russia, on February 27, 2014. It was the day that Russian troops started operating in Crimea, and several days after the victory of the Maidan Revolution in Kyiv and the tawdry close of the Sochi Olympics. Russian media fanned the flames of patriotic hysteria and the Kremlin was clearly going to exploit Maidan to crack down on domestic dissent.
It felt strange that a work of this artistic sophistication and power could be composed and posted on the Web simultaneously with the events it responded to. Its viewpoint was that of the minuscule and very young Russian Left—roughly the same political alignment as those of the poet-activist Kirill Medvedev and of Pussy Riot, to cite figures known to some Western readers. But the poetry was different. It was Big Poetry, very much grounded in tradition but also propelling it forward, into the terra incognita of the now. It’s been a while since I read a poem that felt so real.
That poem has since appeared in English translation by Jonathan Platt. It can be read here, the middle one, starting with “the dream is over, Lesbia, now it’s time for sorrow…” I want to talk about the Russian original a little, and then say a few things about the present publication of Rymbu’s work in Platt’s translation in Music & Literature.
It is hard to formulate to an English-speaking audience why the Lesbia poem spoke to me so personally. The practices and traditions it incorporates are either alien or have a different significance than in the US. In Russia the “Western” “classics” that Rymbu alludes to are associated with Enlightenment values, and are consequently politically anti-government. For various cultural reasons, self-publishing on the Internet carries no opprobrium: the point of poetry is not to bulk up the author’s résumé. A poem, if it’s good, belongs to everybody.