The spirits must write.
Paper, a break in cloud.
At the start there was a fire.
Ink caked, disintegrated.
It is first heard through a cup pressed to a wall.
Maybe I am imagining a different country
A lie pulls a scarf from my mouth.
It has never been proven that such a world exists.
Two epigraphs open Susan Steudel’s first book. The first is Punin’s idea of a new Russian theatre, one shaped by truly original plays instead of academic pedantry. It’s followed by a nearly meaningless sentence by Lisa Robertson, where the past tense is the focal point: ‘There were so many things that didn’t exist.’ It’s as if she’s saying that in the present, original creativity is the primary challenge of the artist. The tone is determined and grave throughout. There are poems with a natural spawn of images like Don Domanski’s poetry, whilst Steudel plays with other devices, such as the acrostic poem, alliteration and consonance, and some more experimental techniques where her originality peaks.
Following this page are two pages titled ‘Sound List’, containing a Melville-like layout of foreign words. There are Russian words, their translations, then the same Slavic-character words then their romanizations. The sound list is nearly a poem in itself. Офис, машина, ресторан, метро, мотоцикла, пневматицеская дрель, рок-концерт (ofic/office, mashina/machine, restaran/restaurant, metro/metro, mototsikla/motorcycle, pnevmatitseskaya drel’/pneumatic drill, rok-kontsert/rock concert). The language begins natural enough (‘leaf’, ‘quiet library’, ‘soft whisper’) then gets political and industrial. The majority of the words are industrial nouns. Раскать грома is the crescendo of the list, fourth from the bottom as the last natural image among the words: she translates it as ‘Thunderclap’ but is more literally ‘roll of thunder’, and the verb in question sounds a bit to me like рассказать, ‘to tell’. It provides the final echo of a more idyllic poetry which precedes the fracas of modern poetry.
Enough white space for contemplation.
To take a non-partisan view, an insult to those who died.
The picture captures movement beyond terminus.
A woman suggests if not for Revolution, World War II would not have happened.
There is talk of taking down the mausoleum.
Destroyed culture, almost utterly.
After glasnost the grandmothers refused to hear, they had given their lives.
‘But the earth beneath me hummed.’¹
¹Akhmatova, ‘Poem Without a Hero,’ 1942.
A book focussing on Lenin’s Russia most often through the Russian politicians and artists of the preceding and contemporaneous era, Steudel has made a creation more than worthy for a première. The struggle with any book of poems which focusses on a specific culture, differing in time or in language, (in her poetry, both) is how to connect the readers to the topic. All the principle context is provided within the verses or notes. Beyond the creative portrayal of Lenin’s Russia, there are philosophic elements, talk of love, and a handful of unrelated artists. A country where revolution is so fervently and furtively opposed by its artists is made slightly easier to relate with because of the Occupy movement and its ideology. But Steudel is capable of drawing in the reader without compromising the unique history of Russia by pandering to those who would not be interested.
The Acmeist quality of efficient language that is inherent in Russian is translated into her English-language poetry. She removes the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ whenever possible, where, for instance, it could making the second line in the poem above slightly more correct syntactically. In other poems, Steudel’s language takes on hybrid aspects of Russian by making consonance with consonants that in Russian are different pronunciations of the same letter (b as p, d as t, g as k.) Her rusophilia is extensive and efficacious.
The poem above is terse and potent. The first line, ‘Enough white space for contemplation,’ is a creative policy Steudel follows throughout the book. At one section towards the end, there is a poem under the title ‘Prekrasnyi¹’ translated as ‘beautiful’ in a footnote, followed by a poem titled ‘beautiful¹’ whose footnote is a prose copy of the previous poem. The effect is that there is a page with the largest gap possible, between the title and the poem, losing its line breaks by being turned into a prose footnote. The coda of this poem is the wonderful expression ‘Eavesdropping / my heart machines a voice.’
The finale of the book is the experiment in writing a new theatre, something that Canadian writers are definitely talented with. Like contemporary poets in the region, Leigh Kotsilidis and Micah Ling, Steudel writes in a theatrical style that is quite minimally formatted. The drama is in the grammatical tension. The Acmeism of Gumilev is acknowledged and influential in Steudel’s attempt to write a different type of play. The section titled ‘Scenes’ contains the most lyrical and most volatile expressions in the book. I can’t help but see the montage of images as perfectly fitting for a cinematic adaptation of her poetry, despite it being intended as theatre.
[Scene X. Red Berries]
A tree opens, unshuttered.
A tree opens like a matryoshka.
One girl inside the next,
smaller and smaller she goes.
It’s simple to say I was twenty, I was eighteen.
A yellow phoenix stirring on the red fabric.
But there is the tree, bright as limes,
and the pure call of glass owls.
A flutter or snag.
Wings beating in the salmonberries.
Babies mouths scentless and milked.
Domes, striped shells. Parcels
of lilac before they bloom.
Woven blankets. Shadows of these.
Hand over hand. A cup that held roses.
It’s easy to say I was fifteen.
A yellow bird feeding on the red berries.
The mind’s gaps in understanding her poetry become filled by the adoration of her creativity, of her sense of purpose, of her perfect tone, intellectual and expressive. It’s my hope that her first book’s quality is not merely a product beginner’s luck, or else her next collection will have great difficulty in succeeding the talent displayed in New Theatre.