Vera Pavlova (b. 1963) has published over a dozen collections of poems in Russian. She came rather late to poetry. In her youth, she studied music and began writing poetry in her early 20s while she was in the maternity ward after giving birth to her first child. Her first collection of poems in English (translated by her husband, Steven Seymour), If There Is Something To Desire, was published earlier this year, and several of her poems were published in the January 2010 issue of Poetry.
In English translation, Pavlova’s poems are distinctive in form and tone. They are typically very brief, usually untitled, with a gently sardonic tone. In one poem, she reflects on the difficulty her parents, both virgins at marriage, had in making her:
It was scary for them to make me.
It was weird for them to make me.
It was painful for them to make me.
It was funny for them to make me.
And I absorbed:
Life is scary.
Life is weird.
Life is painful.
Life is very funny.
She learned those lessons well. Her poetry is weird, painful, and often humorous.
A number of her poems are love poems to her husband. She deals with large issues, but does so so quietly that an inattentive reader may miss the seriousness of the theme. In one example,
I am in love, hence free to live
by heart, to improvise caresses.
A soul is light when full,
heavy when vacuous.
My soul is light. She is not afraid
to dance the agony alone,
for I was born wearing your shirt,
will come from the dead with that shirt on.
Pavlova links being and freedom: “I am . . . hence free,” and the experience that binds being and freedom is the experience of love. The translation neatly captures the connection with the doubly alliterative “in love . . . to live.” Contrary to cynics of all ages, Pavlova asserts that love is not bondage but liberation—a liberation that sets the lover free to live. The one liberated by love is freed to live “by heart” and to “improvise caresses.” “By heart” contrasts implicitly with “by rote” or “by the book.” Love implants itself in the heart, and therefore liberates the lover for spontaneous, innovative action. Genuine lovers are free to ignore other objects of love, free to follow the dictates of the heart because the heart is directed toward something definite.
For Pavlova, love breaks through what appears to be a commonsensical opposition of spontaneity and limit. “Follow your heart” is paralyzing advice to someone whose heart is dazzled by every passing beauty, but to one whose heart is fixed on a singular beloved, the counsel makes much more sense. Someone in love is free to act spontaneously without fearing that spontaneity will collapse into arbitrariness because love is tied to its object.
As the poem continues, “heart” modulates into “soul,” and Pavlova introduces a paradox of soul and body. When our bodies are full—of food, drink, pain—they are heavy, weighed down. Vacuous bodies are light bodies. Souls, by contrast, are not weighed down by being full; rather, they are liberated to be light, airy, ethereal. In the poem, of course, the fullness of the soul is the fullness of love. Love doesn’t weigh down the soul, but fills it to soar.
With an almost imperceptible shift, Pavlova turns to the persistence of love beyond death. The “agony” of the solo dance is the agony of separation of lovers. Even death, however, doesn’t weigh down the loving soul. In a typically homey image, she imagines her husband’s shirt as both her swaddling clothes and the robe of her resurrected body. From birth to death, and beyond, she is free to love him.
“Love is stronger than death” is not a bad way to summarize that little poem. And the same theme is developed with an even lighter, more humorous touch in this:
When the very last grief
deadens all our pain,
I will follow you there
on the very next train,
not because I lack strength
to ponder the end result,
but maybe you forgot to bring
pills, a necktie, razor blades . . .
The love that persists beyond death is not the titanic suicidal love of a Romeo or a Tristan, but a practical, helpful love—a love that helps with the luggage.
Critics have complained that for all her talk of agony and death, there is so little specificity in Pavlova’s poem, so little content to the anguish, that her poems buy their airiness rather cheaply. There’s probably something to that, but that does not detract from the pleasure of her delightfully accessible poems.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. This article was first published in Credenda/Agenda.
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