Poetry Book Society Translation Choice
War of the Beasts and the Animals is Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s first full English-language collection. Stepanova is one of Russia’s most innovative and exciting poets and thinkers, and founding editor of Colta.ru, an independent arts and cultural website which has been compared to Huffington Post in its status and importance. Immensely high-profile in Russia for many years, recognition in the West has followed the publication of her documentary novel In Memory of Memory, first in German translation in 2018 and now with Sasha Dugdale's English translation – published by Fitzcarraldo – shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021.
War of the Beasts and the Animals includes her recent long poems of conflict ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and Animals’, written during the Donbas conflict, as well as a third long poem ‘The Body Returns’, commissioned by Hay International Festival in 2018 to commemorate the Centenary of the First World War. In all three long poems Stepanova’s assured and experimental use of form, her modernist appropriation of poetic texts from around the world and her constant consideration of the way that culture, memory and contemporary life are interwoven make her work both pleasurable and deeply necessary.
This collection also includes two sequences of poems from her 2015 collection Kireevsky: sequences of ‘weird’ ballads and songs, subtly changed folk and popular songs and poems which combine historical lyricism and a contemporary understanding of the effects of conflict and trauma. Stepanova uses the ready forms of ballads and songs, but alters them, so they almost appear to be refracted in moonlit water. The forms seem recognisable, but the words are oddly fragmented and suggestive, they weave together well-known refrains of songs, apparently familiar images, subtle half-nods to films and music.
‘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
‘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
‘...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]
'The collection opens with two long poems; ‘Spolia’ and ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’. Similar in form, they are both chaotic and deeply layered. In both poems, Stepanova sifts through language, culture and identity in an attempt to make sense of them all. She reaches no conclusions, but something fascinating is revealed in the attempt. In her poetry, Russia is a country torn apart and remade line by line, a patchwork of truth, myth and dogma stitched together with shreds of memory.' - Ellie Julings, DURA (Dundee University Review of the Arts)
‘The slipperiness of history and the improvisational quality of historical thinking are hallmarks of her work, which will likely resonate with new audiences in the United States, riven by racism and culture war skirmishes, and in a Britain still reeling from Brexit.’ – Jennifer Wilson, Poetry magazine [on Maria Stepanova]
'With the publication of three of her books in English this year, Stepanova is finally receiving the attention she deserves in the Anglophone world. Subtle and erudite in its treatment of politics and history, her work is a much-needed antidote to the crude depictions of Russia that have filled the English-language media in recent years... Stepanova produced two long poems—‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’ and ‘Spolia’—that explore war and peace, public and private memory, and the violent fragmentation of language and attempts to salvage it. Figures, scenes, and places from Russian and Soviet history lurch in and out of long panning shots: the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, the legendary drowned city of Kitezh, the triumphant frescoes of the Moscow Metro. Together, the poems offer an unparalleled depiction of the flattening of time and violent instrumentalization of history and language in contemporary Russia.’ - Sophie Pinkham, Harper’s Magazine
'... Dugdale has channelled a force of nature into English. War of the Beasts and the Animals is pure energy, dynamic and unstoppable, a call to protest by an emotional archivist. Entrenched in mythology and folksong, supported by research with a political message, with Tolstoy, Mayakovski, Whitman, and T.S. Eliot simmering below, what arises is a swirling collage of images that scroll past lightning fast with the reader left crawling around on the floor looking their lost dropped jaw.... If you want to relive that moment when you first discovered Akhmatova, Ginsberg, Angelou, Silverstein, or Plath—that sense of inner revolution, that lift of possibility, that melody which keeps evil away—read Stepanova, because the next generations will.' - DM O'Connor, RHINO
'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
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