Poetry Book Society Translation Choice
The outbreak of Covid-19 cut short Maria Stepanova’s stay in Cambridge in 2020. Back in Russia, she spent the ensuing months in a state of torpor – the world had withdrawn from her, time had ‘gone numb’. When she awoke from this state, she began to read Ovid, and the shock of the pandemic dissolved into the voices and metaphors of an epochal experience.
Her book-length poem Holy Winter 20/21, written in a frenzy of poetic inspiration, speaks of winter and war, of banishment and exile, of social isolation and existential abandonment. Stepanova finds sublime imagery for the process of falling silent, interweaving love letters and travelogues, Chinese verse and Danish fairy tales into a polyphonic evocation of frozen and slowly thawing time.
Following her previous book of poetry, War of the Beasts and the Animals – in part a response to the Donbas conflict – her book’s title is even more prophetic now, echoing a famous patriotic Soviet song from 1941, ‘a holy war is underway’.
Born in 1972, Maria Stepanova – as poet and essayist – was a highly influential figure for many years in Moscow’s cosmopolitan literary scene until its suppression along with civil liberties and dissent under Putin’s latter-day reign of terror. Her first prose work In Memory of Memory established her internationally as one of the most important intellectual voices of contemporary Russia.
Her poetry, which here echoes verses by Pushkin and Lermontov, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, is not hermetic. She takes in the confusing signals from social networks and the media, opening herself up to the voices of kindred poets like Sylvia Plath, Inger Christensen and Anne Carson. She has moreover mastered modern poetry’s rich repertoire of forms and moves effortlessly between the linguistic and traditional spaces of Russian, European and transatlantic literature.
In her prose, Stepanova searches for the essence of the moment in the maelstrom of historical time. As an essayist, she traces the reactions of her critical consciousness; taken together, her politically alert commentaries form a chronicle of the troubled present.
From the reviews of War of the Beasts and the Animals:
'Wildly experimental, and yet movingly traditional. Ironic, and yet obsessed with spell-making. Full of allusions to various different canonical voices, and yet heart-wrenchingly direct. What, friends, is this? It’s that glorious thing: the poetry of Maria Stepanova.' – Ilya Kaminsky, Poetry Book Society Selector, on War of the Beasts and the Animals, his Translation Choice for Spring 2021
‘The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation has also done important work in shifting the gender imbalance, with Sasha Dugdale’s translation of Maria Stepanova, War of the Beasts and the Animals on the shortlist this year and surely likely to appear on many books of 2021 lists. I can only compare my experience of reading the title poem to that of reading ‘The Waste Land’ for the first time – it is so astonishing, and the effort that has gone into translating it immense. – Clare Pollard, Editor Modern Poetry in Translation, on the T S Eliot Prize website
‘Stepanova’s poetry is porous. Were it a fabric, it would be complete with rents through which darkness – and truth – might leak…. Stepanova is a powerhouse. Her scornful wit is bracing and, throughout, the reader is on a switchback: you never know what waits around the next bend.’ – Kate Kellaway, The Observer (on War of the Beasts and the Animals, her Poetry Book of the Month for April 2021)
‘Like T. S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, Stepanova allows a multitude of voices to speak through her lines… Poetry and the study of literature have potential to open borders between the living and the dead, and between cultures; to speak “as if respect, compassion, goodness have not lost their their meaning”.’ – Rachel Polonsky, Times Literary Supplement
'Translations of Russian poetry have been a force field in English for decades, and they are growing in number and visibility, rising to meet the challenge of bringing the remarkable work of contemporary Russian poets to new readers.To cite one striking example, involving a poet of difficulty and sheer brilliance comparable to that of Brodsky: we have seen a spate of spectacular translations of the prose and poetry of Maria Stepanova in the past year. Eugene Ostashevsky and Sasha Dugdale, among others, have found equivalent expressions, rhythmic arrangements and subtextual echoes patterned after but also sometimes departing from Stepanova’s Russian.' – Stephanie Sandler, Times Literary Supplement
‘Stepanova has long been a major force in Russian literature and now, with Sasha Dugdale’s translations of her prose, the International Booker-shortlisted In Memory of Memory, and poetry, War of the Beasts and the Animals, Anglophone readers are finally catching up.’ – Tom Jeffreys, The Guardian
‘...2021 is the year of Stepanova: in addition to In Memory of Memory, her poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals, and a collection of essays and poems titled The Voice Over, will also be published in English this year... Stepanova’s poetry collection War of the Beasts and the Animals was written in 2014 and 2015, during Russia’s conflict with Ukraine... What emerges is another archive of sorts, a home for language’s changing and motley complexion.’ – Matthew Janney, The Guardian [introducing his interview with Maria Stepanova]
‘Bloodaxe has brought out a selection of poems, War of the Beasts and the Animals, translated by Sasha Dugdale. It will take a while for readers in the UK to learn how to take in these poems, crowded as they are with different voices and types, dense with allusions to Russian life and culture past and present, as well as to wider European literature and history. At first encounter they seem sensuous, haunted, significant, ambitious.’ – Tessa Hadley, The Guardian
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