Seemingly Ordinary Diction: On Leonid Schwab’s “Everburning Pilot”

I USED TO THINK of the weirdly calm lyrics of Rae Armantrout as a uniquely American phenomenon, plausible only in a poetic lineage that runs through William Carlos Williams. But when I read the work of the Russian Leonid Schwab poet in Everburning Pilot — a bilingual volume edited by Alexander Spektor, Anton Tenser, and Sibelan Forrester, and translated by many hands — strange similarities rose off the page. In this flexible, fluent, disconcerting English, I saw how both Schwab and Armantrout strip away markers of “the poetic” in their very small texts, to similar results: we stare wide-eyed at seemingly ordinary diction as if it were a rebus. We don’t know how to put the pieces together and aren’t quite sure that reassembling them is the best way to proceed, so happy are we at the wild assortment before us.

Unlike the prolific Armantrout, Schwab has published a mere three books of poetry in Russian, and he’s a good bit younger. He was born in 1961 in the Belarusian city of Babruysk, was educated in Moscow, and has been living since 1990 in Israel. A number of remarkable contemporary Russian writers have made Israel their home, Gali-Dana Zinger and Linor Goralik among them. Each has reacted to the violence of life in that land in their own way. In Schwab’s case, the immediate political and humanitarian nightmare dissolves into a quasi-mythic state of conflict, confusion, and loss — especially loss. Surviving remnants of an imperial past that feels vaguely Russian turn up in tattered shreds. But the poems lack all before or after, as if any stabilizing sense of the past has long since disappeared.

What does provide a flicker of stability is the way Schwab very occasionally repeats names or odd epithets, or objects mostly out of place. We encounter more than one landing strip or gazebo or bushing with gunpowder in these poems. An unknown Kaminsky turns up from time to time, as do Manchuria and Chkalov (briefly the Soviet name for the city of Orenburg). But we never learn why, so in pulling out a few examples, as I am about to do, I am not so much depriving you of fully narrative context as asking you to look at the texts on their own, studying their puzzles for clues.

Consider these lines, from a poem dated 1992–1993, translated by Anton Tenser, Sibelan Forrester, and Alexander Spektor. I choose them because they include the book’s title:

Peacock feathers, like cords,
Hang blasphemously off of me,
Chicken feathers like ammunition belts,
Hang blasphemously off of me.

And I, an everburning pilot,
Lead out the exhausted people,
And neither peace nor battle
Can I foresee ahead.

Unusually for Schwab, this is part of a two-part poem, coming second after two other quatrains, so again I am giving you less to work with than the book will. But those opening stanzas do little to establish why we are reading about bird feathers, blasphemy, and war. They do, though, set the mood: a Bedouin stands by the sea, unable to utter a curse word that has brought tears to his eyes. That helps a bit, grounding the quoted quatrains in a sense of futility and transit, against a terrible backdrop of violence.

The epithet “everburning” should be the foreground. It is the word on which so much hangs. The stubborn refusal of a flame to be extinguished is like the refusal of a military pilot to stop leading exhausted civilians. The impulse to war seems to burn off its own energy, deprived of war’s events, whether battle or some negotiated peace. The poem’s images are also vivid, and they come as if from entirely disparate worlds — decorative headdress feathers, from the lowly chicken and from the beautiful peacock, hang at the waist as a marker of this inapt and dislocated sense of description. Stephanie Burt described Armantrout’s poems as dismantled and reassembled, and while what she had in mind was lyric form, those two actions, dismantling and reassembling, are remarkably useful in describing what happens to narrative in a Schwab poem. But do we really want to engage in reassembly? Better, perhaps, just to read the poem again. One more example, from 2005:

I fall on a wet drum
So much gold in the pockets of my sheepskin coat
The elder steps out dead and kind
A broken-beaked hawk is enthroned on the old man’s right arm

I am a saturated soldier
I’m carried by four orders

A formal approach can help unfurl the stories hiding in these six lines. We have four active verbs: to fall, to step out, to sit as if on a throne, and to carry. Three are neutral and uninteresting, as if the force of the narrative is elsewhere. But one of the verbs sticks out. The English “enthroned” is a very good way to render “vossedat’,” a verb of elevated style, suggesting biblical or regal contexts. The hawk enthroned in line four is landing from those climes, but its broken beak means that it has lost all threat as a bird of prey. The hawk is a diminished imperial emblem, not even an eagle, much less Russia’s emblematic two-headed eagle. The hawk has landed in a place that itself feels diminished, the arm of someone who is old, described a line earlier as “dead and kind.” And yet that descending hawk feels like a more exalted version of the lyric speaker, who had fallen in the first line on a “wet drum.” What could be worse? Well, to be even more waterlogged than the drum, to be a “saturated soldier,” carried off in the final two lines of the poem so completely that there is no final punctuation mark.

The narrative core in this little poem reads as an allegory of the end of potency, perhaps specifically of empire. That historical moment is all over Schwab’s poems. It is as if they are the broken-off pieces of some distant grand narrative, showing us concretely why Schwab exemplifies Russia’s New Epic Poetry, a term coined by Fyodor Svarovsky, himself a leading exponent of the mode. And there are similarities in the work of Maria Stepanova, author of this book’s eloquent introduction, and in the poetry of Boris Khersonsky, newly translated into English. But it’s only the shards of epic we find in Schwab’s short poems — the flash of armament here, a pocket full of gold there.

The page featuring “I fall on a wet drum” in Everburning Pilot has one more bit of information for us, a string of initials: “DC / AM / JM / LM / KP / AS / AT / YK.” These denote eight individuals: Daniil Cherkasskiy, Alex Moshkin, James McGavran, Luiza Moshkin, Kevin MF Platt, Alexander Spektor, Anton Tenser, and Yasha Klots. Such broadly collaborative work defines this volume. Not all the poems were touched by so many hands, but all have more than one set of initials, and you can see the result of conversations about lexicon, word order, stylistic registration, rhythm, and acoustic echoes throughout the book.

Among the affordances of Everburning Pilot, then, is a prompt for us to think about how excellent poetic translations — and these are truly excellent — happen. We most often think of translation as a solitary activity. The happy result is Aeschylus in the English of Robert Fagles, Dante rendered by Robert Hollander, Khlebnikov in the brilliant versions of Paul Schmidt. Poets can give us distinctive translations, like Mandelstam in Celan’s German or Christian Wiman’s English. But Wiman worked with Ilya Kaminsky, and for all the splendid singularity of these and many other examples, translation has always flourished in conversations, if only between poet and translator, whether or not they live at the same time. Those conversations have been facilitated in recent years by several institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, where Kevin Platt has hosted biennial gatherings called Your Language My Ear (YLME for short). I have myself enjoyed these workshops, although I missed the one in which Leonid Schwab was an invited guest. But I can recognize in that long string of initials a poem that was worked on at YLME, and I can well imagine the back and forth about every word, every line break.

This book also began in the Chicago Translation Workshop, created by Cherkasskiy, Spektor, and Tenser. The leadership of Spektor and Tenser then sustained the project as it became a book, as did the guiding spirit of Sibelan Forrester. All of this is recounted in the book’s translation notes, helping us to appreciate the labor and the love of translation that have brought Schwab’s mysterious little texts into English at last.

They are of our moment, but time stops in these poems — as Stepanova puts it in her introduction, the poem’s time is “bent into a circle, or, like the chorus of a song or a ballad, it repeats time after time in the duration of a changeless present.” These poems have an uncanny ability to step outside of linear time and into a temporality of their own making, a time of battle, of borders, of broken-beaked hawks. Those are not the makings of a Rae Armantrout poem, to conclude with the obvious: Schwab often takes us into darker and more dangerous terrain, but his poems will similarly long stay in the mind after their brief flash of words recedes, as we wonder which is the blasphemy: to wear feathers at the waist, or to mix the feathers of chicken and peacock.

¤

Stephanie Sandler is the Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Slavic Languages ​​and Literatures at Harvard University. Her works include Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (1989); Commemorating Pushkin: Russia’s Myth of a National Poet (2004); and, with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, and Mark Lipovetsky, A History of Russian Literature (2018).

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