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The New Criterion

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- Harry Mount, the London Telegraph


June 2007

White on white

A review of Alien Matter: Selected Poems by Regina Derieva

by Tomas Venclova

On Regina Derieva's Alien Matter: Selected Poems.

Regina Derieva
Alien Matter: Selected Poems.
Spuyten Duyvil, 104 pages, $10

Regina Derieva is one of the outstanding writers of the contemporary Russian diaspora. Her books have already appeared in English, Swedish, Italian, and French. Her brilliant translations of Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton, Les Murray, and other celebrated poets contribute to her high poetic reputation. Last but not least, she is a profound essayist.

For all that, she has paid a high price. The words of Eugenio Montale, “It’s not possible to exaggerate,” taken by Derieva as an epigraph for her poem “At the Intersection,” would be an appropriate motto for her biography as well. For twenty-six years, she lived in Karaganda, perhaps the most dismal corner of the former Soviet Union—once the center of a vast prison camp universe, later just a gloomy industrial city. Having acquainted herself with Soviet mores better than anyone could wish to, she managed to emigrate. Her experience in Israel and Sweden was, in many respects, no less taxing. It intensified the sense of existential exile that has become her trademark.

This new book of Derieva’s poetry in translation presents only a sampling of her extensive work, which consists of at least twenty collections. Still, it is a gift for every connoisseur of poetry. The main tonality of her writing manages to combine extreme tension and minimalist technique. Derieva’s poems are, as a rule, concise, built on distant associations; she frequently—and successfully—employs a characteristic Russian device, namely the interplay of literary subtexts which serve as passwords for the initiated.

Derieva is, first and foremost, a Christian poet, a worthy heir to the long line of metaphysical poets, be they English, French, or Russian. Without inflated rhetoric or didacticism, her poems reach the very core of the Christian experience—a serious and fearless attitude towards life, suffering, and death. The imagery and syntax of the Gospels and the Prophets is, for her, a natural element—just as apocalyptic presentiments and mystical hope form the axis of her world outlook. She perceives atheism as a foreign language. Still, the religious vocabulary in Derieva’s writing is often juxtaposed with everyday slang and the intonations of prisoners’ songs. This is particularly true of her early poems which might be described as a metaphysics of the totalitarian world, with their constant symbolism of walls, barbed wire, lead poisoning, and torture. They describe a region where “war is forever going on.” The poetic word (and the divine Word) in this inferno “annoys the powers that be because it lives.” One discerns here an echo of Akhmatova’s “Requiem” and of Brodsky’s poetry. Looking for her kin, a reader may also think of Eliot.

Among Derieva’s poems written “in freedom’s air,” that is, in exile, “Winter Lectures for Terrorists” mercilessly destroys our habitual mythologies (without losing the Biblical and Christian perspective). “The Last Island,” a polyphonic work which incorporates the author’s Swedish experience, is also particularly striking. As before, poesis docta coexists there with an enviable sincerity and spontaneity. But Derieva’s later poetry strives for the inexpressible (“writing white on white”) even more strongly. The dialectic of despair and hope, of nothingness and everything, finds its embodiment in paradoxical statements which give a poetic dimension to ancient theological dilemmas. For the new place where she lives—to be precise, for her new poetics—Derieva has found an unforgettable formula: “It is a place where God is not a fact, but where the only fact is man standing before God.”

Regina Derieva is a master of two equally difficult poetic techniques—the traditional rhymed Russian verse (though her rhymes are often inexact, and words are sometimes broken at the end of the line), and vers libre. Not all of her seven translators in this volume attempt to reproduce this. Some of them were also at a loss when faced with Derieva’s multifaceted vocabulary. Still, the book successfully brings English speakers nearer to a powerful poet who always strives “upward, on lines of verse,” and who has justly said about herself: “If someone has forgotten what darkness is I’ll remind them, becoming a heavenly body.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 June 2007, on page 88

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