Barbara Heldt (essay date summer 1989)
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.)