Translator's Note: A Gray Day
Elena Shvarts may have been the most remarkable Russian poet of her generation. A few years younger than Joseph Brodsky, she was more prolific, with a ferocious will to live and to create. She had his deep internalization of Russia’s huge poetic inheritance, as well as his improbable inner freedom. She moved among traditional forms and styles fearlessly, and she invented her own rhythms (Shvarts is best known among Russian poets for her unerring ability to mix rhythms in a single poem). Unusual for poets of her era, she could write with ease about God, about faith and failures of faith; that encounter with the divine is felt in both poems printed here. She felt the greatest affinity for Dostoyevsky, and in her poetry one finds the equivalent of his outsized personalities, as well as his sense of history, destiny, and the challenge of belief. She had Dostoyevsky’s appetite for putting all of human experience, its beauty as well as its ugliness, into language.
Shvarts seemed compelled to write of a poet’s place in the cosmos, yet many of her poems were small. The brevity can be extreme, as in “I was thinking: God has abandoned me.” This poem first appeared in a volume whose Russian title means “Wild writing of the recent past” (Dikopis’ poslednego vremeni, 2001), and it was dedicated to the memory of the poet’s mother, Dina Shvarts. Because of that dedication, the word toska, in the final line, is translated as “grief,” although it can also mean longing, or anguish. “A Gray Day” is a poem from Pesnia ptitsy na dne morskom (Birdsong on the Seabed, 1995). Birdsong on the Seabed is also the title of a volume of excellent translations by Sasha Dugdale, published by Bloodaxe in 2008. Shvarts loved improbable collocations, like birds calling out from the ocean’s deep, and so her beloved Leningrad/St. Petersburg was ever imperial and historic, degraded and Soviet. In her work, it is reborn as a city of stone and debris, of flowing rivers and gardens gone wild. She died in St. Petersburg of cancer, in March, 2010.—ss