Mourning Before and After: Iskrenko, Švarc

Stephanie Sandler, Amherst College

Approaches to contemporary Russian (and not just Russian) poetry have typically separated avant-garde and form-breaking poets from those with more traditional themes and poetic forms. Nina Iskrenko well fits the mold of avant-garde poet, whereas Elena Švarc, while she cultivated an image as the bad girl of the Leningrad undergound, has mostly worked with the norms of post-Silver-Age Russian poetry. As a result, Švarc and Iskrenko would seem to have little in common beyond gender, a certain audacity in handling sexual themes, and an ability to command respect in the underground culture of their respective cities (Petersburg and Moscow). This paper will juxtapose their work concerning death. Iskrenko died at the young age of forty-three in 1995; her posthumously published collection O glavnom … (1999) records in mock-diary form her experiences in and out of the hospital. In 1998, Švarc lost her mother, also to cancer, and her 1998 collection Solo na raskalennoj trube is wholly devoted to absorbing and living with this loss.

These volumes of poetry offer new insights into both poets’ work and into a more general poetics of mourning and self-creation. For Iskrenko, whose poetics of the body had long been bold and prosaic, an unsentimental account of her hospital stays and her long process of depriving herself of food project a fearless self-image. But the grim comedy and stubborn repetitions of the volume, its nervous shifts from prose to poetry and back again, bespeak the overwhelming difficulty of Iskrenko’s experience; as a poet who had found ways to bring just about anything into verse, she was facing a challenge for which one has little preparation. Švarc, who had used theatrical metaphors and rhetorical impersonations since her earliest work, faces the terror of losing her mother in a relentless series of short poems where the metaphors keep changing but few masks appear for consolation. Both poets write, essentially, of self-loss (Iskrenko literally, of course, but also in necessarily indirect terms), which has long been seen as inherent to poems of mourning and valediction (for example, in Peter Sacks’s The English Elegy or Lawrence Lipking’s The Life of the Poet). But both poets make less of the mental event of loss than do traditional poets, and compensate by making more of the psychological and emotional experience.

Švarc’s earlier poems had rarely used the image of a child, but now the young child, infant, and even fetus apppear, creating narratives of rebirth. The solo played in this latest volume of poems sounds new but difficult to sustain notes in a poetic career that is far from over. Iskrenko, alas, died soon after finishing O glavnom, but the book is filled with the dynamic energies of one who has come to see herself almost entirely anew. Because much of her work remained unpublished at her death, readers have the illusion that she lives on, for much more of her work is yet to come.

Essays by Darra Goldstein, Vitaly Chernetsky, and others have begun to bring attention to the work of Švarc and Iskrenko, and reviewers and poets in the former Soviet Union have been writing about them both throughout the 1990s. The paper is not meant to break new conceptual ground in approaching their work, but rather to break an impasse that has separated the forms of avant-garde expression in contemporary culture, and to continue a process of thinking about the fate of Russian poetry in an age when poetry itself has seemed lost. Neither Švarc nor Iskrenko would urge us to mourn poetry, for even in these dark tomes they celebrate the possibilities of creativity.