Mirrors, Pictures, and Tropes: Ol’ga Sedakova and Ivan Ždanov

Stephanie Sandler, Harvard University

Many poets use mirrors as images in poems that are essentially acts of self-portraiture, but two contemporary Russian poets subtly change this formula. Ol’ga Sedakova (b. 1948) typically has someone else look into a mirror, creating ironic third-person lyrics. Access to interior worlds marks the pathway of many of Sedakova’s poems, and the distances traveled often grow vast, allowing the inner spaces of spirituality and subjectivity to mirror the cosmic enormity of a world divinely ordered. These journeys emerge less as leaps in movement than as stilled concentrations of thought; the visual arts provide helpful analogies to her creative process. Sedakova has rightly become known for her luminosity of surface, but a surprise of her mirror poems is their recurrent flash of darkness wherein spiritual truth and insights into the origins of poetry may be glimpsed.

Ivan Ždanov (b. 1948) has much in common with Sedakova (both have been called “metarealists”), including the larger metaphysical concern for the meaning of being, but his world holds a more dynamic, quickly changing landscape and he is more likely to layer the relationship between portraiture and mirroring. Depth plays a crucial role in his metaphors, which can portend psychological depth, but he is as elusive in his acts of self-creation as is Sedakova ­ he equals her talent for deflection, for a poetics where the reader’s gaze is repeatedly sent just off to the side. Ždanov piles metaphors on thickly, impeding the exchange of glances between subject and mirror, or between reader and poem. A secondary aim of this paper, in fact, is to claim that Ždanov’s enigmatic way with metaphor comes of his reliance on metonymy, which can be seen with special clarity in his poems about mirrors.

This paper concentrates on Ždanov’s “Portret otca” (first published 1979) and Sedakova’s “Ženščina u zerkala” (part of “Tri zerkala,” 1978), although it makes reference to other poems, among them “Voda v glazax ne tonet – priznak grusti,” “Melejut zerkala, i kukol’nye teni,” and “Oda vetru” by Ždanov, and “Elegija smokovnicy” (dedicated to Ždanov, as is her “Vesna”), “Zerkalo,” “Staruški,” and “Legenda šestaja” by Sedakova. Some subtexts are identified, including Pasternak’s “Zerkalo.” My approach to these poems is largely textual, building on Mixail Gasparov’s writings on semantic aureoles and Paul de Man’s on rhetorical figures. I also draw on theoretical work by Susan Stewart (on nocturnal poetry), Murray Krieger and W. J. T. Mitchell (on ekphrasis), Roman Jakobson and Charles Lock (on metaphor and metonymy), and Jacques Lacan (on mirrors and the construction of identity). The goals are two: to develop ways to read these two difficult, important poets together, thus to further our understanding of contemporary Russian poetry; and to study a salient instance of the visual turn in contemporary poetry.