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A review of 'F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry'

Cover of 'F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry'
Image adapted from front and back covers of ‘F Letter.’

F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry

F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry

ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse

Isolarii Pres 2020, 253 pages, $15.00 ISBN 978-1735075013

Russia’s new feminist poetry has so fully arrived in the US as to be featured in Time magazine, but that interest from a mainstream publication does not mean that this remarkable work is anodyne or safe. This work can be fierce, hilarious, tender, and sexy. It stretches the boundaries of the poetic, not least when the poets ironically ask, as Stanislava Mogileva puts it in her “Song,” whether the poetry is sufficiently feminist, sufficiently activist, or too personal, too simple, too frivolous, too intense.

The anthology F Letter was conceived by Galina Rymbu, who has led the effort to bring feminist and queer theory to a whole new generation of poets and activists through a seminar she initiated in 2017 and through an online journal, both called F Letter (in Russian, F Pis’mo). Rymbu’s introduction recounts the history and parameters of this work. Her clear-headed prose makes palpable the boldness of this work in challenging the authoritarian turn in Russian politics and in calling out the homophobic, misogynistic, and ethnically divisive aspects of its laws, rhetoric, and daily practices.

The poems are presented in both Russian and English in this tiny volume. And I do mean tiny: F Letter is smaller than your hand. The translations are impressive, wrestling with the challenge of the poems’ charged and slangy language. Translators and poets seem well-matched, and in addition to that of the editors, the work of Alex Karsavin, Helena Kernan, Kit Eginton, Valzhyna Mort, and Kevin M.F. Platt leaves one hoping that each of them will translate more poems by these poets. Only two of them are more widely available to read in English, in books published in 2020: Galina Rymbu’s Life in Space (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Lida Yusupova’s The Scar We Know (Cicada Press).

The explosive potential of what’s here is named directly in the work of poet Oksana Vasyakina:

I often imagine that instead of books I’m hauling
I store it specifically for the secret terrorist organization
of women and children struggling against patriarchy [1]

Vasyakina’s poem “Wind of Fury” fills out the affective picture of that struggle (it is available online in a riveting translation by Joan Brooks). Readers will understand from it why Vasyakina writes:

someone once told me
that a poem is a pure thing that doesn’t have a single unnecessary word

no I think

a poem
is a place you lick raw that’s what a poem is (149)

The poems in F Letter are licked raw for different reasons. In Rymbu’s long poem “Summer. Gates of the Body,” she takes that underlying identification with an animal in a domestic direction:

sometimes it seems that my hands are swift tiny paws:
they launder, wash, cook, move things from place to place (203)

Rymbu rewrites one of the oldest tropes for the poet’s craft: the hand that writes the poem we read. These hands have picked up the more tactile attentiveness of the animal, alert to the textures and resistances of being itself. Multiple poems in this book reimagine the injuries of that experience, in what Daria Serenko calls “the brutal routine” where “b is for bestiary” (61).

F Letter ends with Rymbu’s poem “My Vagina,” which generated a nearly overwhelming controversy when it was first posted to Facebook; there were hundreds of comments. Many poets rose to Rymbu’s defense, some creating poem responses of their own. They reminded readers that the poem originated to support the body-positive feminism of artist-activist Yulia Tsvetkova, whose persecution is directly mentioned in “My Vagina.” But a portion of the comments, including from some other poets, were so demeaning that Rymbu used them to create a new poem, “Great Russian Literature.”[2] Quoting, mocking, and challenging the public discourse that maintains a socially stratified and violent culture is a strong feature of Russian feminist poetry, seen especially in the work of Lida Yusupova, whose work opens F Letter. The disarming, then harrowing account of acquaintance rape in her “Mateyuk” ends with dozens of repetitions of the phrase “this isn’t right” (57–59). Yusupova honed a skill in using rhythmic repetition in her documentary poems Sentences (Prigovory).[3] There is also a nearly documentary quality in Egana Djabbarova’s haunting poem “we are all the Khachaturian sisters,” which takes as its title the hashtag for protesting the arrest and trial of two sisters who killed their abusive father. Djabbarova’s poem begins with reproaches meant to keep girls in line: “say hello / it won’t hurt you, / put on a dress, sit up straight” (79), and it incorporates repetitively in Azeri and Turkish two phrases that grasp at consolation.

Djabbarova’s poem, like those of Yusupova, Serenko, Elena Kostyleva, and Elena Georgievskaya, resists the culture of violence her poem describes, reducing it, in effect, to what Yulia Podlubnova calls “patriarch powder” (181). There is considerable linguistic pleasure spread across F Letter, and the facing original Russian lets readers who know the language see how the translators brilliantly render challenging poems. Lolita Agamalova’s splendid poem “Dilige, et quod vis fac” even subtly plays across languages: the Latin “fac” acquires an echo of English “fuck” — which names the poem’s pervasive activity (as the poet writes, “even the reading of Plotinus, Porphyry, or Proclus, makes her think of fucking” [67]).

Agamalova’s explicit and philosophical language offers a vivid contrast to the joys of Ekaterina Simonova’s poem, which begins:

There’s not much time left:
In twenty years, no one will imagine
I might have sex. (171)

 The ruefulness of those lines does not last. Simonova tempers her customary irony as the poem drifts toward a lovely description of two women, longtime lovers, settling in for the night.

Before bed one of them flicks through Instagram;
Half of the people she follows are dead. The second one dabs
Cream on her hands, covered in liver spots, then, complaining
About the pain in her back and neck, about
How lately she gets cramp in her legs at night,
Takes the phone from the other woman,
Lays her head on her right shoulder, slips her hand
Underneath her pajamas, the main thing is not to tell anyone about this.
For thirty years now it’s been something no one must know,
Because such things just aren’t supposed to happen. (173–75)

Simonova debunks both the taboo of lesbian sex and the expectation that sexual pleasure is reserved for the young.

F Letter itself resists any thought that this radical feminist poetry might be penned only by Russia’s youngest poets. They are included here, but we also get to read poets who have been writing for several decades, and who are changing in interesting ways. Feminist poetry has burst onto the Russian scene sporadically in the past, and Rymbu’s introduction rightly mentions the important work of Marina Temkina and the late Anna Alchuk. One of Stanislava Mogileva’s arch-questions in “Song” is whether her poem is “already free” (159). This whole volume answers with a resounding yes, letting a dozen poets show us what it feels like to step out, as Mogileva writes, “into the open field” (165) and feel poetry’s “emancipatory effect” (163).

1. Oksana Vasyakina, in F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Ainsley Morse (Isolarii Press, 2020), 133.

2. Not yet translated, the poem can be read in Rymbu’s Facebook post July 3, 2020. It also appears in print in her book Ty — budushchee (Moscow: Tsentr Voznesenkogo, 2021).

3. Many poems from that sequence are included in the bilingual volume The Scar We Know, ed. Ainsley Morse (New York: Cicada Press, 2021).