Home » Reviews » War of the Beasts and The Animals, Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, Bloodaxe, 2021

War of the Beasts and The Animals, Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale, Bloodaxe, 2021

Reviewed by Jude Rosen

This is the first translation of the prominent and popular Russian poet Maria Stepanova’s poetry  into English, by the poet Sasha Dugdale, for Bloodaxe, and also coincides with the publication of her significantly titled memoir, In Memory of Memory (Fitzcarraldo, 2021). Although the Introduction identifies the  poems as responses to the war in the Donbas region between Russia and the Ukraine, that war is barely mentioned explicitly in the poems, which question the way collective memory particularly of the First and Second World Wars has been used to glorify and abstract war, shaping and distorting the language for nationalist political ends.


In Spolia – which refers to the spoils of war and also the practice of reusing architectural fragments in new buildings – the impact of war and abuse of language for national aggrandisement cause the poet to feel a void, an inability to write in the first person: ‘I’m a bagel I’m a bagel says the speaker-without-an-I’. (p.21) That has echoes of David Bowie’s last album I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar  as he faced up to his impending death. For Stepanova it is the loss of the ability to speak autonomously, from her personal subjectivity. She alludes to the Russian Symbolist woman poet Dmitrieva, who took on the literary mask of Cherubina Gabriak to be able to speak under a more socially acceptable guise: ‘Say Look! A Bone is stuck in your Throat / But the bone is red lipped gabriak.’ (p.23)


The literary historical allusion sets her in a line of female poets who have been unable to speak openly in their own name. This accounts for the absence of her own voice from her poems and use of others’ voices and multilayered uncited quotations, although this is, since Eliot, a hallmark of modernism, and with post-modernism, an increasingly wide range of incongruent registers, disparate voices, mixing popular song, vernacular speech, dialects, lyric, satirical, surreal and Gothic images and jingles.


The poet gives a double-edged voice to the criticism of the lack of her personal articulation and individuality:


always over-stylising

like she’s dressing a corpse

where’s her inimitable intonation

the breath catching in her throat

the individual stamp

recognizable from a single note

(the work of an engineer and not of a poet)       (p.24-25)


The last line is probably a tribute to her mother who wanted to be a poet but because of the anti-Semitic political climate at that time became an engineer instead. But she retorts robustly to this inner criticism:  ‘enough, I said, I’m prigov / you prigs can fuck off’. Dmitri Prigov, being a conceptual artist who crossed genres, shape-shifted and eluded the regime at the same time as he sent it up. Perhaps this is the guise of Stepanova as a trickster, playfully and astutely hiding her quotations and – as she herself says after a cluster of allusions to Whitman, Charlotte Mew, Edmund Lear, Wilfrid Owen and Larkin – ‘(she loves embedding quotes because / she can’ t be without love)’. (p.26)


In Spolia the impact of the Second World War and Soviet and post Soviet abuse of that history by twisting the language are uppermost. Stepanova punctures the heroic rhetoric of the grandiose imagery of the Soviet metro where Greek gods meet Soviet man and technology. Likewise she refuses, through childish wordplay, to play tit-for-tat the catcalling game by using the epithet ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse against the independence movement in the Ukraine by the Putin regime:


Fascist, fattish, fetish

flatfish, flippery, facetious

 but the air knows we’re not of them

none of you or us    (p.28)


Stepanova conjures up incongruous lists for comic and shock purposes: jet planes and ‘tanks on parade with heavy paunches’ alternate with romantic images, ‘scented buds of white acacia/crinkle-edged paper poppies’ and surreal images of horror, ‘heads/on poles’. (p.32)


The most affecting list is in the simple spare language of photographic captions from 1943, of those who lived in a street within the poet’s childhood memory:


nurse                (made it to Berlin)


seventeen year old nanny


shoeshiner from the next stairwell


geologist recently released from his second sentence




vasya (who?) from solyanka street


woman from local health inspectorate


twenty year old lyodnik killed in action


his father a volunteer, bombed troop train


his mother who lived right up until death


a little girl will remember all this


and pushkin  pushkin of course.     (p.36-37)


These simple deft lines restore a personal element to memory, naming and recognizing the people of her street– their jobs, sometimes their age, the injury, imprisonment or death done to them, in contrast to the official depersonalized rhetoric.


Another moving form Stepanova uses is lament – fittingly voiced by a crippled man – to the country’s nationalist obsession with surveillance and control:


so what bounds Russia said the crippled man

you know very well what bounds it, said the crippled man

and every span of her earth

and every step in her dust

is a step towards border control

across no man’s land

and the sky drawn up close

all the better to gape  


An inanimate part of nature  – here the sky – bears witness, open-mouthed, to unaccountable power. This lament allows Stepanova to enter the spaces of absence and speak of herself as me:


holes and dugouts and pores

through the skin of the country, these doors

through which passers-by

may not descend unauthorized

not a tear duct, nor a shallow well

but a mine in every hole

a deep long shaft to where the canary me is held aloft     (p.38)


Holes and voids punctuate the collection, sometimes making it difficult to discern or grasp leaps in tone or the interconnections between fragments. But the gaps alluded to are real absences and displacements–in the lists of the dead, missing or deported, documented by the photographer:



and trans-ition  trans-lates the space anew

(where corpses lie alongside the quick)

trans-humans transhumance

ex-isled  con-sumers

jesters  creatives



(great-grandfather grigory with his two hands

factory machine will chew off the right hand, but later,

great-grandfather whose face I never saw)

gawpers and gazers, proceeding arm-in-arm

and jews unassigned  scattered

(we-jews)        (p.35)


Again Stepanova makes an appearance here as part of ‘we’, as part of a group – of displaced Jews.


The title long poem, War of the Beasts and Animals speaks in lethean tongues, (p.45) with only a single direct reference to the war between Russia and Ukraine (p.57), often with surreal horror in  rhymed quatrains and half rhymed riffs:



gypsies – dead

hussars – defunct

dusk now falls

colour shrunk


pitter patter

across the heart

sputter spatter

on the tablecloth      (p.56)


There is a page of sentence and word fragments, ‘we    no     ger    man’, in columns where the syllables move round making eery new combinations: ‘ no    man   we’;  and the innovative translation: 


spoke         n         word

rush           an        bear

mel            o          dies.’     (p.58)


Despite being a hyper modernist/post-modernist work, Stepanova uses a lot of rhyme, often to comi-tragic effect, sometimes drawing on nursery rhyme, lullaby, ballad or jingles. Sometimes this makes for effective fairytale and fable about the war – how Mother Courage figures survive:


and mother demeter mithering in the muck

and anguish of the fields

hears from below: mother fuck

yet the sky might be brightening, or so it feels


and mother hecate comes out for a smoke

from the backstreet

from the foul black streets from the pecking fowl

the puddles of spilt milk     (p.62)


This section is suddenly rudely interrupted with a snatch of voice from the big brother house – a step too far outside of the image-field of war that culturally jarred – not least as it was followed by quotations from the Psalms.


Long poems as ambitious as these, especially in translation, raise many aesthetic and cultural questions as well as political ones. The form of the collection reflects Stepanova’s belief in the ‘internal fragmentation of the language’ under pressure of war. Dugdale argues that ‘All these fragments, when placed side by side, illuminate the development of a culture and mythology, by emphasizing the motley nature of language’. (p.12) However, this leaves open the question of how the fragments are interconnected to make the poem. In The War of the Beasts and Animals the fragmentation mirrors the fragmentary nature of memory, aided by looking at photographs and recalling and foregrounding personally significant and symbolically resonant incidents, pasted together in what feels a somewhat haphazard or even random manner. The links between images and between sections of these two long poems do not always produce a montage effect – a new third element – but create instead a rather impressionistic confusion especially where pronouns change suddenly and we are propelled into someone else’s voice or a different perspective without any subject. In parts asterisks are used which indicate awareness of the disparate character of the whole but they underline the separateness rather than the connection.


An oddity of the collection is why women poets are treated so differently from the men. With the exception of her fellow poet friends, Anna Glazova and Polina Barskova, Stepanova re-enacts the effacing of the names of women poets. In The War of the Beasts and Animals, Pushkin appears a number of times and his poems The Miller and Shoemaker are explicitly cited; the male Symbolist poet, Blok appears in Spolia, yet the Symbolist woman poet, Dmitrieva is not named except through her cover name gabriak, without a capital letter. (p.23)


In The Body Returns, a poem which reverses the alphabet to mirror the process of resurrecting the dead, again the women poets are not named:

Y            So speaks poetry, the poetry that lives in a women’s body in Canada, in English

                           So she speaks: once cleared the room writes itself     (p.109)


– an oblique reference to Ann Carson.


U           Poetry, speaking Danish, lying under the earth, female     (p.110)


– another riddle that is only resolved at the end of the poem when we come to A.  


R          Under the level winter sky says another

 From the same Canada, and lying in someone’s earth –   


 Since September 1922 her germinating body

 Must have brought forth fruit: under the level sky

                         I saw a thousand Christs go by.      (p.111)


The latter is a direct quotation from the poem Marching Men by Marjorie Pickthall, a British Canadian poet of the First World War – again without reference to her name in the poem or even in a footnote. The only footnote in the whole book is on the last page when it comes to final section A, as she quotes in the Danish: ‘the dead can be so dead / that no-one can see they exist’ from Inger Christiansen’s poem Action, which explains the riddle under U. There seems no political reason to create tortuous euphemisms for the reader to guess at their identity but the effect is to sideline these women’s voices.  


Such a culturally ambitious work throws up myriad difficulties for the translator especially with such disparate forms and breadth of sources. Having grown up in a culture of censorship and realised her complicity in the corruption of language, it is understandable that Stepanova devises ambivalent and externalised voices, and draws on multiple allusions, but it is also a strategy that is unsettling for the reader who senses a reference but may not know the source or recall it and has to look it up, or forgo it to maintain the momentum of the poem in their mind. This poses a greater dilemma for the translator. Although Sasha Dugdale’s introductory essay is illuminating, it gives a generic overview. For the reader in translation, the poems in this collection would have been enormously enhanced by footnotes referencing Russian literary and political history and language use unfamiliar to an English-speaking poetry audience. This would be consistent with contemporary modernist practice especially as the references are so prolific and diffuse. It would not only have helped to bridge the cultural gap between a Russian and British audience but helped the reader to hear and receive these poems as more than the sum of their fragmentary parts.



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