Writing trauma in silence and stillness

A review of 'Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad'

This sign on a Leningrad blockade reads: “During air-raids this side of the street is more dangerous.” Photo by Ninaras, via Wikimedia Commons.

Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Pavel Zaltsman
ed. Polina Barskova

Ugly Duckling Presse 2016, 160 pages, $18.00 ISBN 978-1937027575

From September 1941 to January 1944, as Nazi forces brutally besieged the Russian city of Leningrad, five writers tried to make sense of the chaos swirling around them while they remained trapped in their own city. The works of these Russian writers — Gennady Gor, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, Vladimir Sterligov, and Pavel Zaltsman — make up the collection Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad. Written in the Dark is, in its simplest form, a work of siege poetry: it grapples with the questions that forced stagnation demands. What does it mean to be stuck, motionless, as war rages around you? Does anything remain of life when life itself is no longer recognizable? The collection, here translated into English for the first time, brings together poems from the siege, none of which have been published before in any language, due to Soviet suppression of testimonies that negatively portray the Russian experience of the siege.

To read these poems is to watch a film reel of each poet’s nightmares. Everyday atrocities of the siege are recapitulated in poetry that is at once gruesome and beautiful. Just like in nightmares, the poetry often delves into the realm of the bizarre:                        

Here a horse laughed on and time bounded,
The river entered the buildings.
Here papa was mama
And mama was mooing.[1]                                                   

As editor Polina Barskova notes in her introduction, surrealism was in vogue within the artistic community these writers occupied at the time. With these poems, however, surrealist moments lose their clout — in a world where the baseline of reality has been obliterated, a “mooing” mother barely gets a second thought.

Nevertheless, there is something exhilarating about the surrealism in these poems. These surreal spaces are by definition uncontrollable — there is no order, no law, no sense of expectation. But they are the poets’ to mold and create. In seizing ownership over these small, individual pieces of madness, Gor and the rest reclaim the power they lack over the recognizable world around them. These departures into the surreal protect them from the writer’s perpetual quest to understand the world around him or herself — in a sense, these moments are acts of self-forgiveness in a time when the world becomes too cruel to fathom.

Not all of the visions these poets have of new worlds are surreal — many of the visions are powerful because they tiptoe so closely on the edge of reality. In an untitled poem from his notebook, Gennady Gor imagines waking up lying next to his dead wife. The poem cascades between horror and documentary; divisions between life and death bleed into each other. His vision opens: “I lie together with my wife, the two of us in the apartment.” As the poem progresses, we realize that Gor is dreaming it all, and he eventually rises out of his vision at the poem’s conclusion.

A skeleton
And I, the two, the three of us, we are flowing, rushing.
There’s no apartment either.
Just the lamp, now going out, now burning,
And the janitor sleeping, incessantly burbling. (47)

The imagined apartment is gone, and we are left with a simple room. Here we also see tension between motion and stagnation. Motion, it seems for Gor, is relegated to the poetic world of the real — he uses “flowing, “rushing,” “burning,” and “burbling” to describe his emergence from a dream state and the world to which he wakes up. Stagnation, on the other hand, is associated with the dream world through the existence of the skeleton, a signifier of motionless finality. Given that for Gor and his fellow poets, stagnation is the reality they face, through this excerpt we can see the poetic dream world blending with his lived reality. The question then becomes: if Gor’s lived reality is stagnation, why is the poetic scene of reality marked by motion? Perhaps this is a result of Gor’s surrealism: the dream world, because of its surreal stagnation, comes closer to his lived reality than his writing about reality itself does. 

And so, in Written in the Dark, dreams are the revelations of reality. These poems must be read if we want to understand what trauma does to the human mind — these poets show us that suffering permeates even our subconscious. Not everyone can retreat into their mind and create an imagined haven. Just as the outside world for these poets is dissolving all boundaries between real life, fiction, and hell, the separation between one’s own mind and the realm of reality outside it has also fallen. But perhaps in a world of siege and of stagnation, where pain and death are expected, our mind craves suffering, if only to escape the torture of anticipation. As Vladimir Sterligov writes, only through death can he become “king”:                        

But I am king. In a white shirt
I lie, towering in consciousness,
And soar my flag of pale-blue body (103)

Maybe sometimes, the pain of death is more appealing than the purgatory of life.

Because of their surrealism, and the fact that we are reading them as translations, these poems are submerged in various layers of interpretive meaning. Just as the difficult surrealism of the poems can obscure their message, so do the uncertain meanings of individual words, given that we are reading them through translation. Furthermore, like the five Russian poets, there are five translators of the collection: Barskova herself, and her former students Anand Dibble, Ben Felker-Quinn, Charles Swan, and Jason Wagner. The collection then becomes a choral performance of ten voices, all merging together to present the surreal and devastating world of the Leningrad siege.

Although through Barskova’s archival efforts and the contributions of the multiple translators this world is available to us now, for many years the poets’ notebooks sat untouched, tucked away in archives and drawers. As Barskova mentions in her introduction, Gor’s grandson, “as in some Romantic tale,” only discovered “the yellowed notebook” of his grandfather’s poems in 1981 when cleaning out Gor’s desk after his death (11). Because these five poets’ disturbing poems did not fit the Soviet regime’s idealized narrative of the Siege — that it was “a Soviet Troy” and that all its citizens happily rallied behind the noble cause — none of the poets, except for Maximov, were ever able to see their poems published or even circulated outside of their desk drawer (10).

Yet despite the fact that these were poems written “for the drawer,” the poems feel desperate for communication with someone, whether alive or dead, real or imagined. As Sergey Rudakov writes in an untitled poem:

But it is not ruled out that we shall meet —
Flouting the earthly law of gravity —
The dead that pass in the far far away,
In pairs, and arm in arm, through traffic. (85)

In this stunning stanza, Rudakov — who did not survive the siege — gives us a heartbreaking confusion of syntax. “We” in the first line can apply to Rudakov and his reader, or it could be an appositive for “the dead” in the third line. Rudakov either states that “we shall meet the dead” or “we, the dead, shall meet.” In his poem’s conclusion, therefore, Rudakov extends the blurring between life and death out to his reader — just like himself and the other four poets, we are equally “the dead” and the living who desperately want to speak with them. In reading the private words and thoughts of these poets, we are pulled into 1942 Leningrad. What was screaming then, and has remained silent for the past seventy years, now speaks. Their time is our time too.             

1. Gennady Gor, in Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad, ed. Polina Barskova (New York: Ugly Duckling Press, 2016), 33.