Reports of Grave Foreboding

Oksana Vasyakina
I am very glad to have this opportunity to present Lida Yusupova’s poems to the American reading public. For me, and I’m sure, for the vast majority of young Russian poetesses and poets today, her work has been and remains extremely important. I follow her publications and provided illustrations for the long poem “the center for gender problems” (first published in F-pismo*), and when Lida comes to Moscow I help arrange readings for her. But most often, I am in communication with her and her poetry in my own work.
I first encountered her poems totally randomly, about ten years ago; the first poem I read was “In Memory of Smitty.” I was struck by the tenderness with which Yusupova treats her characters, as well as the tone she uses for talking about them and with them. For Russian readers, Yusupova’s poems—shot through with foreign names—can come across as exotic, or at times as almost literal translations of English-language poetry. The sound of her poems seems so “American”—and this is unsurprising considering how long Yusupova has lived in Toronto and Belize. Sometimes it even seems like she is describing a world that looks nothing like the Russian one. Is this true? The brutality that Yusupova writes about is not exclusive to the reality that she is describing. Russia really is a country of blind and wordless brutality. And yes, Yusupova’s later cycles narrate the world of the Russian court system, with all of its innate unwieldiness and stagnancy. And they narrate the violence that happened to her here [in Russia] and that continues to happen today with other women and men.
I spent a while trying to formulate the core principle of Yusupova’s poetics, and to say that she writes about violence would be too reductive. Yusupova writes neither the action nor the enduring—she writes the condition, the circumstance. She writes the proximity of catastrophe, and this proximity is both chronological and geographical. Thus, in her poem about saxifrage, Constable S. G. Clay walks over red moss and does not know that it is blood. Thus in “The Finch” she sees the scar on the neck of her foster son and does not know that it is a trace of a suicide attempt and a sign of his impending death. Thus she hurries to the Center for Gender Problems in order “to meet lesbians and feminists” and does not know that she will find love there. Thus the text of a hate-crime murder verdict does not know that its protagonist was gruesomely murdered, experiencing horror and pain (see “Verdicts”). But these texts all feel these things. Yusupova’s poems are reports of heavy, grave foreboding. And the signs the world uses to point toward catastrophe are impossible to read if you don’t know the objective truth, but then, it’s impossible to believe in truth because what has happened is so unthinkable.
Yusupova’s language aims to turn into what it describes; it aims to be methodical and objective. And it ends up disappointed in its own inability to be objective. Hers is a language of disappointment and entrancement. But it is also a language of the vital quest for ways to express experience. This is particularly evident in the “Verdicts” cycle, which was compiled from actual texts of court verdicts. I’d compare these long poems to operas, such is their high degree of drama and pathos, and Lida actually wrote “Patchwork Quilt” as the libretto to an opera. Yusupova teases multivalent words out of these legal documents and shows the sheer horror of how utterly incommensurate the language of the document is with the story it tells. The document’s language rounds off and equalizes all the events of a human life, and Yusupova shows just how devastating this equalization is. At the same time, she herself approaches the language of the report, and in “Mateyuk” we hear the metallic clanking of a dulled and emotionless recounting. This clanking is destroyed by the last words in the poem—“this isn’t right” repeated dozens of times—and this phrase serves to cancel out the dry, detailed recounting of what happened, and at the same time, on the phonetic level, conveys the blunt movement of non-consensual sex. Thus through repetition but not recapitulation, real experience—terrible and defying comprehension and articulation—bursts through to us.
The protagonists do not see and do not know, but they feel; language is blind but comes out into the light, because it knows where things are moving. Empathy is one of the most important elements of Yusupova’s poetics. Everyone who encounters her poems feels in them not only the horror of looming tragedy, but also love.
* F-pismo [F-writing] (also translated as F-letter in e.g. the title of a recent anthology of Russian-language feminist poetry) is an internet-based feminist writing collective, which also hosts live sessions in St. Petersburg.

Lida Yusupova, The Scar We Know
New York, NY: Cicada Press, 2020
ISBN 978-0-9910420-8-1