I studied quite a bit of poetry in college, but the main poet I’ve read and thought about deeply outside of that context I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of: Anna Prismanova.
I discovered her almost at random in an anthology of Russian women writers of the early twentieth century. Suddenly, in a sea of dead-serious declamations about love and nature, I found this poem trying to be funny and at the least succeeding in being clever, and I wanted to learn more. I discovered that I liked her a lot of Prismanova’s work, which has a reputation for being difficult and for stressing the bizarre and grotesque, and while neither she nor I are actually into nonstop humor (or, frankly, very good at it), the humor in that first poem accurately reflected a thoughtful and playful distance from emotion that appeals to me greatly.
Born in Latvia in 1892 to a Jewish dermatologist who specialized in leprosy, she moved to Moscow with her family when Latvia declared independence during the Russian revolution. In the 1920s, she and her two sisters climbed on top of a moving cart to escape the nightmare that was Communist Russia, and she eventually landed in Paris, where she found a thriving community of emigre poets and met her husband, poet Alexander Ginger.
Prismanova received modest recognition during her own time (she died in 1960) but has been largely forgotten since. Only a few of her poems have been translated into English, and I hope to translate and publish more. I dream of publishing a book of her work.
This all leads up to the question “Why should anyone care?”
My most confident answer to that is, “She’s interesting.” Socially (she was a woman, she was physically unattractive in her own estimation and socially isolated, she resisted the role of housewife that life thrust on her, her father and maybe her mother were Jewish), for the purpose of staring at (I still don’t understand a lot of her poetry, but when pieces click into place and I do understand, I’m usually delighted), and aesthetically (she had some beautiful lines, and also some fascinatingly un-beautiful ones).
On the other hand… I often find myself wondering, “Is she any good?”
There are arguments to be had that she’s not good.
Few academics talk about her. Her language can feel diffuse and stuffy. She can be moralistic and sentimental without going much deeper. She has a tendency to name things by long, only marginally clever circumlocutions. Many of her poems are complex, but they also can be stupidly abstract, and, when I approach them on the wrong day, don’t seem complex enough on enough levels (for instance, she was not a formal innovator; most of her work is in rhymed iambic pentameter). Her more complex poems are almost unintelligible, at least to me, which some would also deem a fault (I hesitate to do so; lots of Wallace Stevens was also almost unintelligible to me until explained, and, as I said, when I have discovered Prismanova’s more obscure meanings, I have usually been delighted.)
She also makes the occasional grammatical mistake. (No one knows whether this is on purpose, but I personally kind of hope it’s not, because there’s something pretty neat about the idea that technical mastery of a language is not necessary to secure one a place on the edge of the canon. I say this also because I have bright friends who have trouble with grammar–and experience with terribly written work that fascinates me in a way that most technically adequate work doesn’t begin to approach.)
I have a hard time isolating what I love about her work–her allegorical depth, the web of references she builds among her poems, her beautiful and odd natural imagery, and, as I said, her playfulness all play a part–but her poem “Brother and Sister” (Брат и сестра), in which she describes how “Two faces–a brother’s and a sister’s/ live in a single house of bone,” epitomizes those things. My favorite stanza in it (possibly my favorite stanza from the ~half of her oeuvre I’ve read) regards the “sister”:
Like autumn — in a golden branch,
like a bird in a spider web,
she lives in my dreams —
in them she is both sacrifice and priestess.