Sunday, January 12, 2020

Poem366: “Blue Birds and Red Horses” by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young

Blue Birds and Red Horses by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young

Blue Birds and Red Horses by Inna Kabysh, translated by Katherine E. Young, Toad Press, 2018

I traveled to Russia this snowy Sunday morning as I read the chapbook Blue Birds and Red Horses, poems of Inna Kabysh, in translation by Katherine E. Young.

Kabysh is a Russian-language poet, though I couldn’t pin down exactly where she lives. I did locate some information: She is a former schoolteacher, born in 1963, and is the author of seven books of poetry.

Young’s translations of Kabysh cast the poet’s work in a naturalistic light. They feature a ragged right edge, with very long and very short lines appearing side by side, and direct language that suits the bold first-person voices found her. Kabysh’s poems, here, at least, a longer ones, and they tend to read as frantic observations, as if an awful discovery is being made in real time. The result was kind of nerve-wracking for me; I felt very wound up as I raced to see what was going to happen. After a few collections that invite the reader to luxuriate and to chew on the subject, this collection felt like a shot of adrenaline. I appreciate the difference—and Kabysh’s poems really do offer a nice departure from my normal poetic fare.

There are only five poems in the chapbook, and they begin with the striking “Cat and Mouse,” in which a young child is abandoned by her mother to live with her grandmother, but does not feel unlucky. “Look what fell from the sky for you,” the grandmother tells her upon reading the news that the mother has decided to leave the country. This is a poem of marvelous detail, and it includes quick dialogue that pushes the narrative along to its lovely ending.

“Shine On, Shine On, My Star,” the second poem in the book, features a young couple in school:

   We sat in fur coats and felt boots,
   and the teacher in mittens
   wrote out on the board:
   “What I Want To Be When I Grow Up.”
   And Lyoshka wrote:
   “Hell Driver.”
   And I sighed and wrote
   that I wanted to be a poet.
   And all the others—astronauts.

In the course of the poem, the speaker loses her love, presumably to death, but she imagines his return:

   And so everything would be okay,
   and we’d get married.
   And he’d smile his Gagarin smile
   at me
   because, in point of fact,
   he wanted
   to be an astronaut
   more than anyone.

It’s a gripping and tender love story, told with uncommonly forthright honesty.

The book ends with the poem “Children’s Resurrection Day,” about the afterlife for aborted children—and these are children, instead of embryos, because they have beds and clothes and speak a language. In a surprising turn, the janitor in the poem helps the children to dig toward their resurrection:

   And then he hit the shovel on something made of iron,
   opened the lid above his head
   and, pulling himself up by his hands, crawled out—
   and pulled us out.

It was a surprise to me when the janitor’s long digging resulted in a thunk above his head, and another when it was revealed that the tunnel opened into Children’s World, which sounded like a fantastical paradise of toys until I read the book’s notes, which explained that this was a Moscow shopping destination for children’s goods during the Soviet era.

It’s healthy to look outside of ourselves a bit, and through these careful translations of Katherine E. Young, I was able to do just that for a morning.

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