Poetry review by Louise Waller
by Vladislav Nekliaev (Vlanes)
University of Queensland Press
UQP Poetry Series 2011
The following review of Another Babylon by Louise Waller includes an 'Introduction from the Launch Speech' by Jena Woodhouse
Introduction by Jena Woodhouse
I first encountered Vlanes and his poetry in Athens, Greece, at readings hosted by the Compendium Bookshop in the city centre. His poetic gifts were apparent to those who heard him read then, including Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke, the doyenne of contemporary Greek poetry, and, like Vlanes, an acclaimed translator of poetry. (She has translated Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin into Modern Greek -- no mean feat -- and Vlanes has translated two of her longer poems into Russian.)
It was while he was living in Athens that Vlanes wrote his first poems in English. In true Russian fashion (dare I say?), these were not baby steps but a quantum leap: a wreath of fourteen interwoven sonnets. He is a poet who seeks challenges, raising the bar on himself repeatedly, only to surpass his own aspirations. From comments he has made, I understand that Vlanes is ambitious for poetry itself, testing and extending the limits of what poetry is and can become – in more than one language.
I find it extraordinary that someone who composes such compelling and accomplished poems in English as this award-winning collection, Another Babylon, did not actually set foot in an English-speaking country until he had passed his thirtieth year, and had first come into regular contact with native speakers of English only shortly prior to that.
Here I might add that Vlanes’s aptitude for language and languages includes Latin and Ancient Greek, in which he consistently scored sevens while completing a degree in Classics at the University of Queensland. As anyone who has attempted to learn another language knows, it takes a high degree of application as well as aptitude to attain the level of flexibility and creativity that Vlanes has demonstrated, not only in English, but also in a number of other languages, ancient and modern, which he continues to study.
Although we are here to celebrate the launch of Another Babylon, a brief digression at this point will perhaps give some indication of the personal, poetic and cultural context that has played a role in the creation of this luminous array of poems.
Among the innate poetic qualities reflected in these texts are the power of the imagination, that personal time-traveller; an awareness and attitude that bring to the level of linguistic consciousness what others may not readily perceive; and a sensibility that reflects on and delights in all manner of phenomena, evoking in poem after poem a nuanced world, discovered and created.
Apart from these gifts, there is a prodigious capacity for work: for taking pains and tackling projects of daunting magnitude, where no effort is too great or too prolonged, no detail too small to merit patient attention. This may be a Russian characteristic, or perhaps a cultural attitude, as well as an individual trait. In Vlanes’s case it is manifest in several large-scale projects he has completed or is presently completing. These include the translation of the hundred and three sonnets comprising Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s House of Life into strict Russian sonnet form, as part of a PhD in translation studies conferred by the University of Queensland in 2007. Rossetti's House of Life in Russian, with extensive commentaries, was subsequently published in Moscow in 2009. Vlanes has also translated all eighty of the erotic poems of Konstantinos Kavafis (Cavafy) from a hybrid form of Greek into the equivalent Russian for a forthcoming publication, and he is currently engaged in the Herculean task of translating all Euripides’ extant plays from Ancient Greek into Russian. In addition to complete Russian versions of Alcestis, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis, The Bacchae, and Helena, this work has resulted in the reconstruction, from a few surviving fragments, of an entire Euripides play, the Phaethon, in both Russian and English blank verse. It is worth noting, too, that Vlanes has recently completed a collection of original sonnets in English, inspired by the work of the 16th-century Portuguese poet, Camoens. These projects have all been undertaken voluntarily, with passion, commitment, and rigorous self-discipline. In the process, Vlanes has absorbed cultural and literary influences that leave tantalising traces in his own poetry.
On the one hand, there is the intense and prolonged effort, the arduous preparation for the task of translating and interpreting, which has served Vlanes so well as a poet by building a formidable range of skills and flexibility across a number of languages – notably Russian, English, Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin, and, most recently, Portuguese. An intimate awareness of the value and specific gravity, the subtleties and potential of every particle of language he works with, has become second nature to him; as have the exponential acquisition and enrichment of linguistic resources.
On the other hand, there is a seemingly boundless inner freedom and fearlessness of spirit that inspire and infuse Vlanes’s work. He has observed that the poems sometimes come to him, often in their entirety, in his sleep or early in the morning, when he is in a state of receptivity. It is obvious that he works on his texts, but they are never forced into being. The poems arrive fully fledged, as it were, presumably from a level of consciousness which delivers them intact. It is not so much that he is in the poems; rather that the poems are in him. This manner of creative advent has been described as a Mozartian mode of composition, as opposed to Beethoven’s laborious processes, although Vlanes prefers Beethoven and Bach to Mozart, and is himself an accomplished musician on piano and harpsichord.
The sense of inner freedom the texts of Another Babylon evince is attended by a high degree of what has been termed, in a Russian context, ‘emotional logic’, and given outward form by an unerring awareness of craftsmanship and sensitivity to language.
Vlanes has commented on the gravitational tensions that give a poem cohesion in an interview with Louise Waller, published in foam:e, issue 8: 'A poem ought to be held together by something, tighter and tighter, to the brink of imploding, be it rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, meter, strict sequences of thought and imagery, etc.'
These qualities and strengths are noticeable even in a poem as brief as 'Mother Tiamat':
while Time, her hungry cub,
bites off a piece
now of the fruit's crimson
now of her vermilion
as the goddess smiles
to sample absence.
Commenting on what motivates him to write poetry, Vlanes has said he sees it as a process of inner evolution, a means to awakening, a quest for self-discovery, a pathway to finding one’s true identity, and it can also be an act of redemption. For him, it is an aspiring towards continual growth, a private and contemplative activity that is nonetheless enriched when others are able to partake of the poems.
One of my favourite poems from Another Babylon is 'Horses of the Sun', with its echoes and nuances of Greek myth and epic and the heroic age of any culture. Glinting with the grandeur and awe of antiquity, its allusive resonances seem, paradoxically, striking in their freshness, their modernity:
The unyoked Sun's horses
wander on the land,
their manes entangled
in wild pear trees,
their hooves sunk
in rain-swollen clay.
They can't eat this bitter grass,
they can't drink
this heavy water,
they neigh and neigh…
Their manes, combed by shining hands,
are caught in wild pear trees,
their hooves, washed in gold-rimmed basins,
are smeared with clay.
each eye like a polished mirror
filled with time and sky,
each mane like the curved harp
of a beheaded player.
Vlanes has made it clear that he believes the degree of talent a poet possesses is unimportant. To quote him: ‘If a person has sincerely chosen the path of poetry and sincerely pursues it, it is equally important, in personal terms, regardless of whether that person is a genius or of modest ability.’ While this attitude points to an integrity of intention, it also reminds me of traditional Russian attitudes to the arts, where purity of intention and purpose are implicit to creativity.
The poems of Another Babylon have travelled far, transiting languages, cultures, millennia. Even in the poet’s own life experience, there are names to conjure with – places where he lived before migrating first to Athens, then Brisbane. Born in Astrakhan, whose name means ‘Star of the Khan’ – a confluence of peoples, cultures and tongues located near the Volga estuary and the Caspian Sea -- Vlanes (whose given name, incidentally -- Vladislav -- derives from old Slavonic and means ‘possessor of glory’) spent the years of his schooling in Kazakhstan, not far from where spacecraft are launched, bound for the International Space Station and, in the past, the Moon. His first university, the University of the Urals, is in Ekaterinburg -- named for the Empress Catherine the Great -- where the last Romanov Tsar and his family were executed; and as a postgraduate he attended the University of St Petersburg, a city with legendary status in Russian history and literature.
While hesitant to apply the principles of viticulture to the cultivation of poets and poetry, I tend to think that culture and language, the traces of history that hover in the ether of a given place, as well as the physical elements of a locality (and here I invoke Hippocrates on airs, waters, earth) must play some part in the formation of an individual sensibility.
However, it is in language that a poet ultimately seeks and finds a home. Clearly, Vlanes the poet has more than one place of abode, and has achieved in English what many native speakers could not. As another Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, expressed it: 'A poet draws language from afar;/ language draws a poet far.'
Whether Vlanes could or would have produced Another Babylon if he’d been born and raised in Brisbane, Queensland, where he currently lives, is debatable and probably irrelevant, but this is where these poems came into being, and we are fortunate and privileged to be able to enjoy them in our own time, place and language.
Review by Louise Waller
It is not surprising that this collection caught the attention of judges and went on to win the 2010 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. Vlanes's Another Babylon is a remarkable first collection. A more accomplished collection than would normally be expected for a first book of poems, even from a poet as mature and confident as Vlanes, (pronounced as a two-syllable word (Vlah-nes)) appears to be. It is stating the obvious, I think, to say that Vlanes is an erudite and gifted linguist. His interests and academic pursuits make him something of a specialist in areas of a certain poetic tradition.
Vlanes's poems do not shy away from considerations that echo romantic lyric poetry. He seems to be entirely free of any angst with regard to making his work fit the favoured or current literary agendas. The cadence and musicality, the imaginative structure and sensitivity of expression in this collection reference a poetry from a more robust literary landscape. Sadly, many people in our slightly homogenized western culture do not read poetry. Even more alarming, many poets do not read the poetry of other cultures, or read widely from the poetry of their own culture. Quite often, poets read only the poetry of those in a small circle, in which they are themselves included. I remember a well traveled friend (herself a gifted linguist and poet) describing to me how one could hop on a bus or train in many of the European countries to see ordinary people reading poetry as casually, as comfortably, as they would read a newspaper or a popular cultural journal. It is from these traditions or lack thereof, that a people and their poets will differ.
I am glad I don't have your portrait,
I am glad you're not locked inside
a bird-legged pitcher's glazy tide
or a patinated statuette.
I am glad your blood does not
coagulate into a perpetual sunset
as you stretch your distant bronze hand,
too distinct, easy to forget.
(from I am glad I don't have your portrait p. 54)
The poems of Another Babylon although fresh and energized, affirm a tradition uniquely European in flavour and dimension. Vlanes was born and educated in Russia, subsequently moving to Greece and then to Australia where he completed further academic studies, including several diverse literary projects, some of which are ongoing. Brisbane, Queensland is the place where he now resides. I cannot imagine an Australian born poet writing so confidently with similar concepts or having the heart and the self belief to manage the delicate balancing act a collection such as this one requires. It is not easy to write well, in what will be considered by some, as a formal and more conservative approach towards contemporary poetry in the 21st century. Yet, not only are these poems well written and sensitive to a past tradition and poetic practice, they are crackling with individual contemporary resonance.
The collection is arranged as a journal of days, of dreams and stories, that mirror experiences of the people and gods from the Mesopotamian and Greek mythologies. Notes at the end of the collection provide brief and general definitions of the Sumerian and Babylonian words and names used in the poems, with names for the gods' more human counterparts being used by the poet for specific instances reflecting the gods in aspects both subtle and of a kind. Like most of the myths that survive the ages throughout diverse cultures and times - many are inspired by real persons or are a combination of the real and imagined; the deities and people. The collection features characters such as Inanna/Eanna, Ishtar, Tiamat, Utu, Shamash and others. Gods that cross all mythic renditions; the sun god, the god of the nether world, goddess of fertility, the gods and goddesses of love and war.
The historical Babylon (the area now known as Iraq) suffered innumerable sieges, captures and calamities resulting in the ultimate fall in 539 B.C. and most of the primary historical information about Babylon disappears from about 10 B.C. Some of the biblical renditions align spookily with what is now thought to be historical fact. Babylon existed as a sophisticated civilization, which had, like all other great civilizations, specific myths and gods to guide its people through their unexplained existence and experience. In the poem Like the King of Babylon with six stanzas of four lines each, Vlanes opens with; Like the King of Babylon/who sits on the throne,/his massive crown/suspended on two chains// and concludes with; My neck would break/if either chain gave an inch -/one of them has a weak link,/I don't know which.
In pondering the meaning implied by the title of this collection, I felt lines like these suggested that it is not 'Another Babylon' that has come again, or that we are living in times similar to that great civilization, destined for an inevitable fall; rather, that this is 'Another (kind of) Babylon' entirely, a personal one which the poet explores. Some of the poems can be read, almost as dreams he awakens from;
By the time I get up, my Babylon is essentially complete,
all it needs is a sense of mortality. There must be a limit
even to my Babylon, for limitless life is the same
as death, so I close my eyelids from time to time
and cast brief nights over hot rooftops and lion-face ledges:
it is not really death, but it is the best I can manage.
(last stanza of title poem and the final poem in the collection, Another Babylon p. 112)
Vlanes uses as epigraph for the collection, a phrase from A Reliquia (The Relic) by Eca de Queiroz, translated from Portuguese as: 'All the antiquity of the surrounding things permeated me, reshaped my being, I, too, was one of the ancients.' Reading the poems, it is this epigraph as reminder, that encourages the reader to consider the very human voice and experience that journeys (under the guise of the gods and goddesses and their world) into the events and situations portrayed in Another Babylon. The poet offers insights, likely drawn from historical facts, his own experience, imagination and intellectual reasoning. The result is a collection of poems that contain an emotional convergence with the mythic and historical fictions acting as the collection's protagonists and settings.
The past is passively alert,
it listens to each sigh and word,
but the hand taken is always cold.
Faces and events
are all compressed,
like a black fist, inside your chest.
(from The past p.101)
The collection opens with the poem Crab (p.1) which is also one of my favourites and was first published in foam:e 7 (2010) along with Loaf of bread (p.66). When I first read these poems, I was charmed and intrigued. They were certainly different to many of the other poems submitted for publication in that particular year. They were also very difficult to frame within that contemporary field, as by both degree and style, the poems seemed to run against the tide of the other poetry under consideration. The poems were slightly mysterious without any deliberate striving for complexity. They posed questions and addressed issues which appeared to be further reaching than the subject and content of the poems at first suggested. I felt that the poems were charged with subterranean meanings, electrified even. Reading them again, situated in context alongside the other poems in Another Babylon allows me, as a reader, a deeper consideration of them against the whole. The poems are no less intriguing or interesting now and they still resonate with a multitude of meanings.
Vlanes appears to conjure the poems in this collection into a very particular existence. There are no surplus sentiments or burdensome lines, nor any careless lack of attention to craft (not that I could find) in the poems within the collection. It is likely that the poems have been very well attended by the author, prior to editorial considerations. Most of the poems are one or two pages in length. Mostly, the poems consist of short lines and set stanzas. Given his academic and linguistic abilities, (as referenced in the introduction above by Jena Woodhouse) one expects a competent collection. The poems in Another Babylon are much more than competent. The collection is alive with moments of pure artistry which dazzle.
Many people write poetry, not so many of them allow themselves to experience a relationship with their poetry that eschews what it ought to be, thus allowing the work to contain elements of surprise and substance that might not be readily explained. Nor do many poets strive to write poetry as sensuously and disarmingly as the poems in Another Babylon are written;
A human weaves his wings
from mist and snow,
grey wings, with subdued resplendence
and ashen glow.
They keep him above the dust
and below the crushing lips of stars,
not too light to be forgotten,
not too dark to become a burden.
(from Wings p. 59)
I hope that Vlanes can continue to pursue an interest in writing poetry in English. Within this collection there is a form of embedded sadness, a foreboding of tragedy and loss. The poems examine a loosening interior landscape. Considering the title, it is likely that this is a deliberate intention. But if I remember correctly, from some of my own reading elsewhere, even Inanna indulged in a yeast beverage from time to time, perhaps as a light distraction from so much god-being. The intensity of the poems, read collectively, can be difficult for a reader to contain in one sitting. There are few light distractions in these poems. There are however, sublime moments of love, tenderness and sensitivity to the human condition, often deftly underplayed. In the poem The load of heaven the poet feels the load on his shoulders, accepting he cannot fly, thinks about the gods 'and demons rolling/in the pungent hay of afternoon rays,' he realises ...'how much weight,/how much effort/it takes heaven/to keep me down.' and finishes the poem exquisitely, with the final three line stanza;
And when I kiss
your moth-like fluttering eyelids,
it nearly fails.
(from The load of heaven p.45/46)
Vlanes engages with the allure of the gods in us, and likewise, the allure of our humanity in them. Many of these poems reference death, the fact that we do not live forever, however much we might wish to do so, we end. And so too, the gods we make to explain ourselves, end. In Another Babylon Vlanes has certainly delivered a rich and potent poetry. He writes with an innate simplicity and understanding, in language used so imaginatively, "to the syntax of my veins and wrinkles", that it can be easy to forget how difficult it is to achieve such clarity of vision, "I'll be complete and written,/ready for my head to read'.