Blizzard Over Bosphorous

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A Fire-Proof Box is a porous work, languages overlapped, breathing, an English translation that manages to capture the icy weight of classically “Russian” sensibilities.

When I was in college, I took a couple different Russian literature courses—covering both contemporary and classic novels. They were all taught by the same man: a born-and-raised Muscovite, a man who had witnessed the fall of the Soviet Union. He’d take us out drinking after class. And at the bar, loosened up by booze and the kind of excitement that comes from discussing Platonov four hours in a row, he’d vaguely discuss the books of poetry he’d published in Russia before immigrating to the States. They sounded beautiful: architecturally structured, lyrical. But none of his students had ever seen these books. They’d never been translated, he said. Why not? we’d ask. Because, he said, it is impossible.

He explained to us that the Russian language is, and these are his words, “six times more expressive” than English. If the poems he penned in his native tongue were to be shoehorned into the graceless confines of our blunt language, it would destroy all of their beauty. They would mean nothing, he said. He seemed both proud and saddened by this—emotions that echoed the characters in the novels he taught.

So how do I approach the task of reviewing a book of poems written in Russian? The answer is that I can’t—not really. Critically, I’m out of my depth no matter how much research I do, how much Russian literature and poetry I study. And after reading A Fire-Proof Box, a collection of poems by Novaya Yunost’s poetry editor, Gleb Shulpyakov, the best I can do is say that the translation, performed by Christopher Mattison, feels very much alive in its flexing of language, neither shoehorned nor graceless. A Fire-Proof Box is a porous work, languages overlapped, breathing, an English translation that manages to capture the icy weight of classically “Russian” sensibilities.

Take, for example, this excerpt from the book’s first section, “Flick:”

A quiet little village with a mournful puddle
in its square, where the tyrant’s monument
stretches his arms towards a better world
though this better world is no longer affordable,

in an ancient little town, with the tolling of cans
and plaster rustling in the wind—
“What are you, prima?”—“No, Doña Ana,
widowed on the stage.”

The deceased, fitted in boots, carried
down the street with feet pointing to paradise:
“Listen, do you believe in omens?”
“I believe, but don’t really understand them…”

In his introduction to A Fire-Proof Box, poet Evgeny Rein writes of what Brodsky termed “slow reading.” He elaborates: “I believe what he meant was that an increased degree of attention—compared to other forms of art—is required of the poetic text.” There is a real ease to Shulpyakov’s poems, and so the temptation to skim over their surface is constantly looming, at the line break, the page break. A quick reading would only serve to detract from the rich detail on display. Just look at the shimmering imagery and textural descriptors of the following excerpt, from the collection of poems, “Acorn:”

a damp flag on a great wall,
blizzard over bosphorous and sea vessels
wail in the dark like gypsies,—
a golden bracelet from the sea floor
stolen in a harborside dive
jangles somewhere in the silence
among turbans gone white from the snow
as if praying for souls that will never sleep
in this marble grove of etched tulips

But carefully chosen images and beautifully rendered gleam are only half of what makes A Fire-Proof Box a rewarding read. There is a continuum at work here. In the poems that make up this book, one finds many allusions to great artists. There are writers, painters, composers. Pushkin, Blok, Kafka, Cezanne, Vermeer, Shostakovich.

In the book’s centerpiece, “Cherries,” Shulpyakov’s narrative stand-in details a summer spent in a dacha outside of Moscow, the pained consciousness of working on a play beneath the ever-present shadow of Chekov.

That summer at the dacha I wrote a play
(it was another’s, not my idea
to write a play; a theater
had commissioned a drama from another life).
Something from the classical genre: love and the seaside.
And a pistol must be feared near the finale.

The pistol of Shulpyakov’s poem misfires—and this feels pre-determined in the way that history, in retrospect, feels pre-determined. I’m reminded of military leaders ordering their troops into battle, all the while knowing it is a lost cause. And yet the courage remains. The knowledge that the decisions we make are the right decisions. A Fire-Proof Box is a serious book of poetry—and I mean that in the most complimentary way. Its gravity never felt lost on me, despite the intimidating nature of the Russian language. This is a book for readers who love to read—for attentive readers—and those who don’t shy away from the bitter taste of cherries.

David Peak's most recent book is The River Through the Trees. His blog is He lives in Chicago. More from this author →