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Emerging Foreign Poets #1: Marianna Geyde

The first in a series of articles in which the Judge discusses some of the most interesting young poets writing in languages other than English. Today’s candidate comes from Russia.

Born in Moscow in 1980, Marianna Geyde is yet another entry in the apparently endless list of precocious Russian writers, from Irina Denezhkina to Alina Vituchnovskaja. I’m going to introduce her by turning straight to the opening of one of her poems. It has no title, and the translation is my own:

may my hand be crumbled, like Sunday bread,
in twelve and two phalanxes, ordered
five by five with shields carved from bone,
and may all remain this way, until peace comes and
my bread once more turns into my hand.

I’ve singled out this stanza because it demonstrates, I think, the biblical economy of her language. When I say ‘biblical,’ I am not referring to the taste of her imagery (or, not just). It’s easy to say that the first and last line recall Christ’s miraculous crumbling of the bread-loaves, reversing the roles of hand and bread (and by extension, agent and object). It’s also obvious that the line ‘and may all remain this way, until peace comes’ is alike to biblical verse in both syntax and style, including the opening with the conjunction ‘and.’ What I mean, over and above all of this, is her ability to charge very simple words with profound symbolic meaning, and then sustain that charge throughout.

The resonance between the first and last line, which seem to attract and repel each other magnetically, containing the rest of the stanza within their field, leaves room for a great deal of interpretation. The ‘hand’ is metonymic for the poet’s agency, and the mutation into ‘Sunday bread’ (meaning festive bread) suggests the same agency’s surrender into a sacred order which is at once religious, cultural, and historical (even domestic, as bread has special connotations of hospitality in Russia). The term ‘Sunday’ recalls Christian traditions (mass, for instance), but it also has teleological implications as the last day of the week, and thus the last step of the cycle. So surrendering the ‘hand’ into the bread of Sunday may refer to the hand’s ultimate destination – the agent (and its actions) ending their journey in sublimation with an historical identity. Read this way, the extract is biblical even without being Christian (there are, note well, no explicit references to Christianity anywhere in the poem), in the sense that its choice of words suggests great richness of meaning without imposing any specific reading on the receptor. In fact, the whole point of the term ‘bread’ may be its polyfunctionality, turning the mysterious, alchemic last stanza (with the return to the concept of the cycle), into an equally sophisticated open end. The bread is turned back into the hand (or at least takes its role, as the word притворится means to transform but also to pretend, to act), returning harmony between agent and object, poet and Christ, present and myth. I shall refrain from bringing the whole central part of the stanza (much less the whole poem) into the discussion as well, but hopefully the brightness and conceptual fertility of Geyde’s work has been aptly exposed.

Geyde is not, of course, the only artist to deploy this type of intertextual sensitivity. Even restraining our search to her own country we find other poets engaging with mytho-theological themes (Olga Grebennikova, for example). But she is the only one I have encountered who can execute it with such technical simplicity. The stanza above includes no erudite references to saints or historical events or past writers, of the type we so commonly find in modern and contemporary poetry. There is no recondite vocabulary at all. And the turn of phrase is a simple one, which lends itself to being followed serenely.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that she is in any way bland, or unwilling to play games with words – the two lines immediately following our extract are as follows:

you, palm-tree branch on the palm,
palm on the palm and palm-tree branch,

Here the playfulness of the verse doesn’t cloud the symbolic richness (again) of the words themselves. The lines suggest a sort of subjectivity falling into itself, as the palm holds itself and also the ‘branching’ of itself, and then turns back into the branch. This convolution is staged in a relationship between flesh and plant which seems to involve the idea of nature, even while suggesting that nature may itself be a construct held in the ‘palm.’ It is also expressed rather musically, though this aspect of the verse goes beyond my powers of translation.

Having introduced Geyde’s verse in this article, I feel I should add – on the run – a note on another poet. Readers who are a little familiar with contemporary Russian poetry may ask themselves why, when choosing to introduce a representative from that country, I should have turned to Marianna Geyde when the most obvious choice is Boris Ryzhy. The latter, born in 1974, was a geophysicist from the Urals, apparently even a member of a number of geological expeditions to the North. Published in magazines by the age of twenty, he hung himself at twenty-seven and left behind a disordered collection of brilliant, candid and utterly heart-breaking poems. His reputation as one of Russia’s greatest contemporary poets is already considerable.

The reason I chose to write about someone other than Ryzhy is that he probably doesn’t need it – a film about his life has already been made, and his legend seems to be growing every year. If a selection of his work were to appear in English within the next decade, I would be the last to be surprised. Marianna Geyde, on the other hand, is a young poet of extraordinary promise who could remain anonymous for many decades if no-one takes the bother to research her (and possibly translate her works). And while Ryzhy’s verse is poignant precisely because it is relatively straightforward, Geyde instead develops this dense apocalyptic symbolism along the lines of Blake or Rimbaud that could provoke endless readings and debates. The only cause of complaint, really, is that her work is so infuriatingly difficult to find. Of the half-dozen poems that I have managed to put my hands on, none suggests that her oeuvre as a whole may be weaker than that selection, but that can only be ascertained if someone translates her books of verse, and maybe bothers to publish them in the UK. Anyone willing to give it a go?

Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #2 is going to be next Wednesday.


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