Elena Shvarts Criticism - Essay

Barbara Heldt (essay date summer 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Heldt, Barbara. “The Poetry of Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 63, no. 3 (summer 1989): 381-83.

[In the following essay, Heldt provides a thematic and stylistic overview of Shvarts poetry.]

She does not fit any category and would not know how to begin to try and fit in. Unlike most of Russian literature, her works are in no way politicized. The fact that much of her poetry is religious seems as natural as if she had grown up in a religious country (and, in a sense, she has), but her theology is a far cry from Orthodoxy both capitalized and uncapitalized—it stems from something deeply personal. Such feminine voices as hers have rarely been canonized by any church; indeed, they have been called blasphemous. Perhaps she is a descendant of the Gnostics, or of one of the Russian heretical sects stamped out long ago, but not quite.

Elena Shvarts has defied poetic norms as well; in the history of Russian poetics, this is close to heresy. The conventions of Russian poetry incorporate a system of laws as strict as the more patriarchal ones of state and church. Her verse forms are irregular, not shocking to those of us used to poetry in English, but unusual for poetry in Russian.

Official acceptance is just now coming to Shvarts, bringing both bother and benefit. Having remained all her life in the Soviet Union, in the Leningrad/Petersburg atmosphere of a bygone intelligentsia who know and support each other in the teeth of well-subsidized official writing, she has, though never published officially, had an audience of the best and closest kind. Her informal network knows her poetry well. Recently they and others have heard her read (in the first week of December 1988) in the packed main hall of the Leningrad Writers Union (to which she has never been admitted). She has invitations to appear on television, and she took her first trip abroad this February, to a poetry festival in London. In a resonant voice she now reads her Lavinia cycle in a small theater in Leningrad. Having lived all her life with her mother and grandmother, she now has her own apartment.

Finally, a small selection of her poems is being printed by the Leningrad publisher Sovetski Pisatel (Soviet Writer). The principles of selection were interesting: the editors wanted poems that were the most formally regular, and Shvarts was advised to include “nothing physiological.” She thought that might be the personal taste of the editor, but I believe that anything too “female” has long been taboo in Russian/Soviet literature. Sometimes, self-censorship prevailing, Russian women simply do not write that way; but when they do mention female bodies or desires, even under glasnost', we learn they are advised not to—this (not religion) being the last censorship barrier.

Shvarts mocks the whole tradition of the woman poet's body in poetry in her 1975 poem “The Invisible Hunter,” published in very few copies in the semiofficial 1985 collection Krug. The speaker imagines that her entire value is perhaps in her skin, which is covered in birthmarks forming various patterns, which she compares to heavenly constellations, a sheet of music, a palimpsest. These patternings might have special significance as a curiosity, but “Does the sable, the mink, and the squirrel / Know its pelt's value in dollars?” Being human, however, she can read the signs and does not know where to hide.

The value of poetry as original as Shvarts's will never really be determined by the market, but her name certainly deserves wider currency, and has for some years. One deservedly successful Soviet poet, Bella Akhmadulina, has several times spoken out in the press for the publication of Elena Shvarts's work. So far, however, it has been broken up into small collections in different presses, unarranged by the poet herself, and in the Soviet Writer edition only parts of cycles (except for “Black Easter”) appear. Shvarts often writes a poėma or poetic cycle, frequently connecting the separate poems in the cycle with a speaker from another time and place. Since the city of Leningrad clearly stands as another time/place, all her writing seems to flesh out the outlines of this short autobiography in prose she wrote at my request last December:

I was born in Leningrad, in 1948, in the “Egyptian building” with pharaohs standing at the entrance and the god of writing on the gates. In the form of a bird. So there was nothing else for me to do but submit to his power and write, which I began to do around the age of seven, with poetry coming later, at thirteen. I was a poor student and constantly found myself in a state of war with the teachers. Then for a year I studied at the Philological Faculty of the University, but everything there was just like school, and I moved on to the Theatrical Institute as an external student. I graduated—why, I don't know—I'm an autodidact, so my knowledge is wide but superficial. The only things that have ever really interested me are poetry and theology, separately and together. My first two published poems were in the newspaper of Tartu University in 1973, and until 1983 nothing else was published in my own country; but any time now my first little book will be coming out here. Starting in 1978, though, a lot has been published in émigré journals, and then three books came out; two collections of poetry, one with Russica in New York, and one in Paris with Beseda; and a novel in verse (sort of) with Ardis Publishers about the mad nun Lavinia.

This tone of the casual inevitability of things seems to constitute a vastly more attractive poetic mask than that worn by the posing male poets of Russia, who prophesy to a world outside with heavy traditions of truth-telling unknown in that world.

Shvarts's poetic voice is full of humorous irony unknown to those weighty rhetoricians, but not unknown to women's poetry in general. Even an early poem like her 1974 “Burliuk” mocks her futurist predecessor in tones that blend the virtuoso modernist with the eighteenth-century satiric ode, addressing its...

(The entire section is 2550 words.)

Darra Goldstein (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldstein, Darra. “The Heartfelt Poetry of Elena Shvarts.” In Fruits of Her Plume: Essays on Contemporary Russian Women's Culture, edited by Helen Goscilo, pp. 239-50. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1993.

[In the following essay, Goldstein commends the spirituality and sensuality found in Shvarts's poetry.]

The world of the unseen, with its spirits and demons, takes on nearly tangible form in the verse of the St. Petersburg poet Elena Shvarts. In visions both playful and somber Shvarts conveys a spirituality that derives from intense exploration of the self. Self-exploration is an attempt at purification—or “circumcision,” as she terms it.1 But...

(The entire section is 3050 words.)

Michael Molnar (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Molnar, Michael. “Introduction.” In ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems, by Elena Shvarts, pp. 9-13. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1993.

[In the following essay, Molnar underlines the influence of Shvarts's hometown of St. Petersburg on her poetry.]

St Petersburg was founded in 1703; it is therefore newer than New York, yet it is a city uniquely riddled and obsessed with history. Not just its own, or even only Russian history, but also that of Europe and the Ancient World. This is partly an effect of its neoclassical architecture—its Greek columns and colonnades, the Roman perspectives down straight streets, the Dutch or Venetian views across water,...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)

Philip Ramp (review date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Ramp, Philip. “Review of Selected Poems by Attilio Bertolucci and ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems by Elena Shvarts.” Critical Survey 6, no. 3 (1994): 392-96.

[In the following review, Ramp praises the verse in ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems as measured yet invigorating.]

The poetry of Elena Shvarts is about as far removed from the world of Attilio Bertolucci as it is possible to get. She is speaking of a ‘city laid out like a carcass / In the grip of savage anguish’. This city is, of course, St Petersberg—Petrograd—Leningrad—but it is also the great, dark, turbulent ‘soul’ of Russia we are all so familiar with from Russian...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)

Catriona Kelly (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kelly, Catriona. “Elena Shvarts (1948-).” In A History of Russian Women's Writing, 1820-1992, pp. 411-22. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1994.

[In the following essay, Kelly discusses the defining characteristics of Shvarts's poetry, viewing her verse as a successful combination of physical and metaphysical concerns.]

Though Elena Shvarts had not published a collection in Russia until 1990, poetry readings and Western publications had established her reputation long before that as one of the most boldly imaginative and accomplished young Russian poets. Born in Leningrad, she had an education there which, by comparison with the well-marked paths...

(The entire section is 4796 words.)

Marjorie L. Hoover (review date winter 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hoover, Marjorie L. “Review of ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 69, no. 1 (winter 1995): 174.

[In the following review of ‘Paradise’: Selected Poems, Hoover contends that Shvarts is “a keen observer of everyday reality down to its dirty depths.”]

The poet Elena Shvarts puts her title [‘Paradise’: Selected Poems] in inverted commas both to quote Peter the Great's name for the capital he wrested from sea marshes and to set off her own modern St. Petersburger's ironic attitude toward that city. Shvarts praises and blames more extravagantly in the poem “The Dump”; she calls the city...

(The entire section is 608 words.)

David MacFadyen (review date winter 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: MacFadyen, David. “Review of Zapadno-vostochnyi veter, by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 161-62.

[In the following review, MacFadyen argues that synthesis is the unifying theme of Shvarts's oeuvre and the poems in Zapadno-vostochnyi veter.]

To talk of Elena Shvarts as the most commanding female voice in contemporary Russian poetry is not to risk much. She was born forty-nine years ago in Leningrad, and while remaining outside Soviet institutions of both higher learning and professional literature, she garnered increasing respect through the medium of samizdat. Now long since projected into the relative security...

(The entire section is 1235 words.)

Stephanie Sandler (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Cultural Memory and Self-Expression in a Poem by Elena Shvarts.” In Reading Russian Poetry, edited by Stephanie Sandler, pp. 256-69. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Sandler examines “the literary precedents, linguistic texture, thematic interconnections, psychological slant, and religious underpinnings of Shvarts's poem ‘Kindergarten After Thirty Years’.”]

Among contemporary Russian poets, Elena Shvarts stands out as a powerful voice that bespeaks fragility, a formerly underground poet who addresses the central concerns of her culture. Her short lyric poems and longer cycles range widely...

(The entire section is 8279 words.)

Stephanie Sandler (essay date 1999)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Elena Shvarts.” In Russian Women Writers, Vol. 2, edited by Christine D. Tomei, pp. 1459-464. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Sandler considers the religious, historical and corporeal themes in Shvarts's work.]

Elena Andreevna Shvarts was born 17 May 1948 in Leningrad. She is a prolific, compelling contemporary poet whose work mixes the skepticism of postmodern sensibilities with the haunted primitivism of ancient Slavic folk belief. Standard biographical accounts seem unusually inept when it comes to this poet. Shvarts has been quite private about her own life experiences and has never written what...

(The entire section is 2826 words.)

Stephanie Sandler (review date spring 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sandler, Stephanie. “Review of Dikopis' poslednego vremeni, by Elena Shvarts.” World Literature Today 76, no. 2 (spring 2002): 224-25.

[In the following review, Sandler examines themes of grief and loss in the poems of Dikopis' poslednego vremeni.]

After the scorching poems of Solo na raskalennoĭ trube (Solo on a White-Hot Trumpet; 1998), Elena Shvarts has begun a quest for an understanding of writing itself, and of the time of writing, if we are to take seriously the metaphors behind the titles of these her two most recent books of poetry. In Dikopis' poslednego vremeni (Wild Writing of the Recent Past) she wonders how,...

(The entire section is 1333 words.)