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from the May 2021 issue

“The Scar We Know” Shows How Lida Yusupova Shaped Russian Feminist Poetry

Reviewed by Josephine von Zitzewitz

With an unflinching gaze at physical and sexual violence, abundant profanity and a disregard for meter and rhyme, the poems in this collection expose the gruesome routine of gender hierarchy in a society that has turned the shoring up of patriarchal structures into government policy.

Russian feminist poetry arrived in English with three seminal publications in 2020/21: the much-debated bilingual anthology F-Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry (Isolarii, ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse), featuring twelve poets, including Lida Yusupova; Rymbu’s Life in Space (Ugly Duckling Presse); and now Yusupova’s The Scar we Know, which includes sizable excerpts from three of her Russian collections. And it is Yusupova—hailing from Leningrad but now living in Canada and Belize, and significantly older than most of her peers—who has shaped the poetics of this new brand of feminist poetry, both formally and semantically. She popularized the movement’s trademark long, free verse narrative poems with their run-on lines and documentary aesthetic. She moved the body, in abundant physiological detail, into focus. And she defined violence as a dominant subject.  

The collection Dead Dad (2016) contains Yusupova’s best-known poems. Although many are written in the first person and seem autobiographical, they are not lyrical. The collection’s dynamic hinges on the association between Ron Mueck’s eponymous, hyperrealistic sculpture––which graces the cover of the Russian edition and inspired the first poem––and the indignity of the heroine’s father’s death in a hospice, detailed in “using an in” and “dad makes his move.” The poems explore disturbing facets of the human psyche in a montage of precisely and unemotionally observed snippets: a little girl voices suicidal fantasies, a woman’s death in a house fire triggers vicious gossip, the dying father spits profanities during his final moments, the heroine’s first lesbian lover is transformed into a Putin-loving nationalist clamoring for traditional family values, a woman raped by a man she considered safe company tries to present a sanitized version of the story to herself, and an uncomfortable sexual encounter between the heroine, who was persuaded to help a conscript lose his virginity, ends in nobody’s ecstasy but  

I had his dead cock in my mouth Koka kept saying suck it suck it don’t stop […] in a mean voice full of despair and impending doom eight months later he was killed in Afghanistan.

Yusupova’s observations exhibit finely tuned psychological insight. In the cycle “Verdicts,” she takes her documentary ambition one step further. The “Verdicts” are found poems, composed of excerpts from real court rulings in violent crime cases, which Yusupova collected from Russian legal websites. At the Festival of Feminist Writing in early March, Yusupova explained that her approach aims to give voiceless victim a voice. In “as well as a red-haired girl named Irina,” Irina’s killer claims it was her who harassed him for sex and that he had to keep her off himself. His statement documents his lie:

he became angry

and shoved Irina away from him

and this made her lose her balance

and she fell into the water, face down

Rather than noticing the incongruity of a push to the chest and the victim landing face down in water behind her, the judge emphasizes “the immorality of the victim’s behavior.” His words become the poem’s refrain, highlighting the absurdity of the defendant’s version––if the reader has the necessary sensibility, because the poet does not provide commentary.

Indeed, the insistent repetition of key phrases is one of Yusupova’s most common, and most effective, poetic devices. In spite of their formal looseness, her poems are tightly wrought artworks; they are poems first and documents second. The devastating impact of her montage technique is evident in a verdict-poem hinging on the interplay of harrowing facts presented in dry legal language (“he took a wooden stick and thrust it with force into her vagina,” “then he withdrew this stick on it were G.’s intestines”), and the judge’s finding that “the vagina is not a vital organ,” which informed his decision to convict the accused of “grievous bodily harm leading to death through negligence” rather than murder although his actions resulted in “the death of the victim.” Yusupova’s presentation makes the reader feel queasy in a way reading the court document would not, and queasiness is an appropriate response, toward the crime itself as well as to the verdict. Art is supposed to make us feel.

The English part of the The Scar We Know––the book, importantly, is bilingual, making it attractive to readers who want to see Yusupova’s poetry in the original––is the work of a stellar team of translators. Younger translators who are closely involved with the contemporary Russian literary scene, such as Ainsley Morse, Hilah Kohen, and Madeline Kinkel, have done the bulk, but established scholars who have been studying and translating women’s poetry for years, such as Stephanie Sandler and Sibelan Forrester, also contributed. Yusupova’s poems translate fluently into English. Paradoxically, their taboo-breaking qualities––the unflinching gaze at physical and sexual violence, the abundant use of profanity and, in formal terms, the disregard for rhyme, meter, and even line breaks, features that remain common to much poetry written in Russian––are less remarkable in English.

In her introductory essay, editor Ainsley Morse calls Yusupova’s work “civic poetry” that advocates for social change. Yusupova confirms that “the point of feminism is the practical defense of women’s rights. What does feminist poetry mean then? Poetry written by feminists (and on any topic) or poetry expressing feminism (and it must be by women)? I think the latter.” She is evidently aware of the political power of the current she has helped shape. Yes, gender-based violence is ubiquitous, as is homophobia. This is perhaps the reason why Yusupova’s poems are semantically at home in the Anglophone context, too. But feminism is such an important force in Russia today because sexuality is so much more politicized there. With its focus on violence, contemporary feminist poetry exposes how hierarchy works in a society that has turned the shoring up of patriarchal structures into government policy, through legislation criminalizing the open display of LGBTQ behavior, the decriminalization of domestic violence in the name of family values, and ultimately the militarism that has gripped many strata of society. Where the law of the strongest has become the law of the land, the political implication of feminism is far greater than mere advocacy for legal equality.

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