London Grip Poetry Review – Maria Stepanova



Poetry review – HOLY WINTER 20/21: Colin Pink explores Sasha Dugdale’s translation of Maria Stepanova’s powerful book length poem


Holy Winter 20/21
Maria Stepanova (trans Sasha Dugdale)
Bloodaxe, 2024
ISBN 978-1-78037-695-0

Maria Stepanova is an important Russian poet, editor and critic. This latest translation of her work by her regular translator, Sasha Dugdale, is a book length poem written during the Covid-19 pandemic. It reminded me strongly of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. Like The Waste Land it captures the mood of a particular apprehensive time; for Eliot it was the 1920s, when he was struggling with a nervous breakdown, while for Stepanova it is the 2020s. Both works play with multiple voices, weaving different narrative threads together, and both contain a complex array of quotations and references to other works of literature, folk stories and myth. They are both a demanding and rewarding read that repays ones attention and becomes more thought provoking the more one thinks about it.

The book opens with a jaunty rhythm:

What a winter towering in the yards
Like an oak
Like a stump
Like a shrine

Airborne particles of frost-ash
Tiny cavalry officers
Circling the guilty head
Diving on its very dome

Time for hibernation

As an undone corpse subsides where it is slain;
Inexorable as the gathering pace of a train
Lie then, where you are laid
For the rules are already made.

That opening sequence, with its ‘Like an/oak/stump/shrine’ reminded me strongly of the repartee between Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; but soon the tone of this long poem will change and keep changing again and again. Of course, ‘the rules are already made’ but they are made to be broken.

Soon Stepanova is speaking in the voice of Publius Ovidius Naso (known as Ovid) lamenting his exile to one of the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire at Tomis on the Black Sea, now part of Romania: ‘The Greek spoken here is as cracked as a biscuit in your pocket / No one speaks Latin, and that’s probably for the best.’ Later, he confesses, while thinking of Rome and his wife that:

… instead my thoughts return shamefully to my works
And how they have broken my life apart
And I wonder if anyone still reads you, my poor little books.

Suffering through the winter he tries to learn the local languages:

Is a season, always the same one: cold
And eternal snowfall and the breadth of Thrace
And many many watery leagues,
In icy winter the fish live under a crust
And so do I. I close my mouth in the darkness
And hold my own tongue, I have two more now to choose from:
Getic and Sarmatian, both newly acquired.
In neither do I wish to dip a toe.

One of the principal themes of Holy Winter 20/21 is the poet in exile; Ovid (exiled in AD 8 by the Emperor Augustus) is a presiding spirit in this book, but there are also allusions to Dante (exiled in 1302 by the Florentine Black Glueph faction) and Mandelstam (exiled in 1934 by Stalin). Maria Stepanova, a vocal critic of Vladimir Putin, is herself now in exile, so we have a series of conjunctions of tyrants and poets.

In other sections Stepanova adopts the voices of figures from Classical mythology such as Ariadne, Penelope, Dido and Io. She combines imagery from mythological accounts of war and conflict with modern day imagery:

Lights out. The girls disperse to their tents
Clean their weapons, check their ammo:
All in order. You ask how I am
I’m battle ready.
No point in crying over spilt milk
Or a pierced shield, of a life suspended
Like a plush monkey on a string
Jigging up and down, back and forth.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Stepanova said: ‘In a mental theatre, a single person plays all the parts.’ And one very much feels, on reading this book, that one is entering Stepanova’s ‘mental theatre’; the experience is something like looking through a kaleidoscope because the arrangement of voices and narratives keeps shifting, switching and returning, so that it is both disorientating and thrilling.

One striking narrative thread that keeps recurring in the book is a folk tale, based on an account of the sixteenth century Dutch explorer Willem Berentsz’s ship becoming stranded by ice near the Russian arctic island of Novaya Zemlya (referred to in the poem as Nova Zembla). While stranded for the winter the crew discover that it is so cold that sound freezes:

After much perplexity, I found that our words froze in the air before they could reach 
the ears of the persons to whom they were spoken. I was soon confirmed in this conjecture,
when, upon the increase of the cold, the whole company grew dumb, or rather deaf. For 
every man was sensible, as we afterwards found, that he spoke as well as ever, but the sounds
no sooner took air than they were condensed and  lost. It was now a miserable spectacle to
see us nodding and gaping at one another, every man talking, and no man heard.

This tall tale functions as an effective metaphor for so many things. One thinks of social media, where everyone is talking but few people are listening; of the poetry world where so many people are writing poetry but there are so few readers of poetry. Above all, it makes me think of censorship, how words are frozen, prevented from reaching an audience in so many places, not least Russia.

Later, in the book, we have a passage describing the effects when a thaw sets in:

At length, upon a turn of wind, the air about us began to thaw. Our cabin was immediately 
filled with a dry clattering sound, which I afterwards found to be the crackling of consonants 
that broke above our heads … these were soon followed by syllables and short words, and at 
length by entire sentences … so that we now heard everything that had been spoken during 
the whole three weeks that we had been silent.

One is reminded of the delay in the reception of work by dissident writers, whose banned books are often published many years after they were written. I’m also reminded of the frozen nature of the printed words in a poetry book. It often seems to me that these words are buried alive inside the book, waiting for the voice of a reader to bring them back to life.

A previous long poem by Stepanova was titled Spolia, which refers to the building practice of constructing new buildings by removing and re-employing architectural elements from previous buildings, as when Roman columns are incorporated into a medieval building; and this process of ‘spolia’, in Stepanova’s case re-using words to make new narratives, is a distinctive feature of her poetic technique but also, of course, an essential way in which language itself evolves and transforms over time. Here is Stepanova, using some ‘spolia’ from Dante’s Divine Comedy:

The plot always thickens in winter
All roads lead right to it.
A thirty-five year old Italian man
Lost in a dark wood
Meets a magic helper
As is customary in a fairy tale
But all the same he descends lower and lower
Soaking up all he sees like a sponge
Until he arrives in that place where everything freezes
Even the sponge.

Indeed, these days, many of us feel like a frozen sponge, lost in a dark wood, in need of magic help, as the world is immersed in ceaseless conflicts. As I hope I’ve suggested, Holy Winter 20/21 is a powerful book for today that re-uses tales from Ovid, Pushkin, Mandelstam, Baron Munchausen, Dante and Homer’s The Odyssey; (and I’m sure many others I have failed to notice) to construct a quirky edifice that resounds to themes of exile, absolutism, conflict and mortality; and above all, perhaps, the endurance of the human spirit in the face of all those terrifying things.