Friday, August 19, 2011

The Zoo in Winter by Polina Barskova

The Zoo in Winter by Polina Barskova is a collection of selected poems, translated for the first time into English, written by a woman commonly regarded as the finest Russian poet under the age of forty working today. The Zoo in Winter contains excerpts from four of Barskova's collections, as well as a section dedicated to her newer work.

The first portion of the collection poems from the collection A Squeamish Race (1993), though lovely, was unfortunately not something I was really able to probe for deeper meaning because my lack of knowledge regarding all the literary references used. Yet even if I had to Google who Laertes was (a character in Shakespeare's play Hamlet by the way, and one of many who are featured in the collection) I was able to appreciate the beauty of lines, in the poem "Farewell to Laertes":
"Death's a reliable cell
     We'll wind up there together."
This was the case with almost every poem from this portion, "Farewell to Polonius", Polonius is another character in Hamlet, which I certainly need to read, Barskova begins with the stanza:
 "I still recall the eyes: two cooled sores on a cooling body.
Still see the fluttering of those short-fingered hands:
The agony of junkyard pigeons.
Behind him crawled the interlacing shades of
Those swallowed by the quenchless Chronos."
What a lovely way to say how time swallows us up without mercy, passes without hesitation. Even without any understanding of Shakespeare at all, I think that is an undeniably beautiful turn of phrase. Still, I will certainly have to reread this section in the future after picking up Hamlet, as I am sure there will be many more layers revealed once I do.

The second collection included is Evridei and Orphica (2000) features a poem, "Anaximenes" after the philosopher (thank you Google) among many other literary references I am sure I missed. The poems from this portion have a sort of dark humor to them, almost as if the narrator is laughing at themselves, and not in an entirely pleasant way. The final poem, "Reflection" epitomized this for me and it ends with the stanza:
"Head thrown back, you laughed, forgetting why.
Your laugh bounced like a ball among shadows.
And I, hugging you, watched as into the chasm,
We go. And the futher, the deeper, the darker the lacquer." 
The next collection excerpted was published only a year later, Arias (2001) and begins with "She Will Never Come in From the Cold", a sort of twisted fairytale about masters and frogs and adulterers, in which she paints an unattractive view of herself, writing:
"let's begin with health
my body seems to me a frosting
a meringue as a sweet-toothed-Gallomanic would say with a grin
pudgy and blinding-white on the outside
it's filled with hay-dust"
The poems from the collection have a slightly mystical and earthy feel to them, "Happiness" involves transmogrifying into a pot made of clay, while "Pottery/Poetry" draws comparisons between the two arts, or "The craft that I choose and the craft that choose me", in which "clay grows like a tumor on a blameless body." Prince Charming makes an appearance in "Madre Selva" while Tarzan and Little red Riding Hood show up in "A Baboon's Widow", resulting in poems I found to be more approachable in that the literary references appeared mostly to be ones which are slightly more well-known.

The last collection The Zoo in Winter draws from is Brazilian Scenes (2005) in which the reader truly feels like they have visited Brazil thanks to Barskova's sharp and insightful details, her rich and intricate language in the long title poem, "Brazilian Scenes". These poems focus on human and sometimes ordinary, yet unique, moments, a wedding dress before a wedding in "I Examine My Wedding Dress", "Verses About That Time I Washed Eric's Hair and Foam Got in His Ear", and a baby being comforted by the piano in "Chopin."

The final, and by far the longest, section in The Zoo in Winter contains New Poems (2005-2009). This last and most recent chapter is, in terms of number of pages, nearly half the book. The title poem, "The Zoo in Winter" is quiet and odd, using images of cabbage and parnish and lemurs and whales, but in a way that is both puzzling and beautiful. One of my favourites was "Turner", a poem full of fishy metaphors, part grotesque ("And out of them sticks tufts of sea grass / As from the armpits of a dead old woman.") and part sharp beauty ("Be evil silver of the unseen swarms of fish.")

Many of Barskova's poems are unsettling in a way, she has an abstract ability to confront human emotion, an uncanny way of showing their darkest underbelly. In "Love Verses About Pro-Motion" she writes:
"What should I say about life?
Such a tiny little thing,
But so painful and swollen."
It is from this slightly damaged beauty the Barskova constructs her finest work. There are many literary and mythical references- by now I had pretty much gotten used to them, the mix of fairytale and classic literature- Thumbelina in "Assimilation",  I.S. Turgenev in "Winter Tales", Persephone in "Kidnapping". Some of these retellings reminded me slightly of Transformations by Anne Sexton or The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy. Hecate appears in "Verses of Winter Gone By From Henry VI", where she writes:
"The face of love: it is unstable, it is evil.
Its features flame from underneath a layer
Of pride, lust, ignorance, and vanities."
When Barskova turns her mind to the twisted intricacies of life, the result is beautiful turns of phrase and thoughtful metaphors. There were many poems in The Zoo in Winter that simply didn't work for me, and this is probably because I didn't grasp the many literary references present in them, but for those looking for layered meaning and willing to probe below the surface there is much to find in the collection.

Release Date:  March 24th 2011
Pages: 176
Buy the Book
Source: Netgalley

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