two: Inna Lisnianskaya, Far from Sodom

I was given this collection of poetry for Christmas last year, after it was recommended to me than none other than Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. So the fact that I’ve only finally finished reading it this week tells you a little bit about how I got on with it (i.e. not terribly well).

Really, my problem with it was that I didn’t feel as though I understood very much of it; I found it all rather oblique. I’m happy to admit that this is quite possibly my weakness, rather than that of the poetry, as I came to Far from Sodom from a position of complete ignorance, knowing very little about Inna Lisnianskaya and having read no Russian poetry before (and only very little Russian literature in general). And I’m not averse to poetry that makes you work hard (having complained a little last week that I found Rapture a little too easy/literal in places). But really, a lot of it was lost on me I think.

Here’s a little biographical information about Lisnianskaya:

Inna Lisnianskaya was born in Baku, in 1928. Her first publication was in 1948 and her first collection of poetry appeared in 1957. In 1960 Lisnianskaya moved to Moscow; several more books were published. After her participation in the Metropol Almanach, in 1979, her books were published only abroad (France and USA). In recent years she has published several more collections and appears regularly in all the leading Russian literary periodicals. Lisnianskaya was married to the poet Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin – Семен Израилевич Липкин (he died on March 2003, aged 91). (From Modern Poetry in Translation 20: Contemporary Russian Women Poets)

Far from Sodom is a selection that includes poems from the period 1967-2003, which perhaps makes it slightly less coherent, as a whole, than a usual collection would be. Despite feeling confused by much of it, I was moved by a number of poems: ‘No sweet oblivion’, ‘The dress’, ‘Christmas Eve’, ‘Lord, give him the strength’, ‘Destiny unwound its skein’ and ‘Do not cremate me after life’. There’s a real sweetness mixed in with some quite raw writing that really got under my skin, and some of the poems reminded me a little of Elaine Feinstein (who introduces Far From Sodom, and whose Talking to the Dead I wrote a little about here). Perhaps my favourite is ‘Will we recall’, which stayed lodged in my mind in the year-long gap between first picking up the book at the beginning of 2007 and finally finishing it this week:-

Will we recall
A few years hence
That winter’s light
Was melodious,

That the earth can hear
The glassy ‘lah’,
Through sleet and snow,
Of Bethlehem’s star?

And in a few years
Will we recall
In a silvery hour
The peel of dawn?

[To M. Petrovykh, 1972]

Far from Sodom, Inna Lisnianskaya (translated by Daniel Weissbort) (Arc Publications, 2005)

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