There is a reason for these titles - well, there had to be, didn't there? They are not just eye-catchers. Shvarts is a visionary. Her titles are what her poems are, and often what they are is ecstatic. I see parallels in her work with that of William Blake, perhaps the main difference being that in hers the ecstasy predominates. Sasha Dugdale, the translator puts it this way in her useful and insightful introduction: In many of her poems the lyrical persona is in the grip of a spiritual vision: the writing is tense, racing, elliptical and maintains the super-observant detachment of the fevered mind. That will no doubt commend it to some, and just as surely deter others. Let me give an example, lest I encourage and deter the wrong ones!
Better to shed all fleshShvarts is a myth-maker extraordinaire. Religious myths, though the religion has more to do with poetic faiths than with organised or established ones. Another aspect in which she is, to my mind, very Blake-like.
And enter the dandelion
And with a simple breath
Be scattered far and wide.
We see this clearly in a poem like The Circulation of Time in the Body. It is a short poem, but typical of Shvarts being most extremely her true self. Here is the final verse.
And her forehead is a garden before dawn -
Look - dawn is breaking, the sun must rise.
But the back of her head is purple evening
And midnight is crawling up her spine.
Perhaps the main point which Dugdale seeks to establish is that Shvarts is a St Petersburg poet. The importance of this fact is that it refers to far more than the accident which is the geography of one's birth and childhood. The reference is really to the fact that Shvarts is steeped in the history, the traditions and the myths of St Petersburg. A granite city established by Peter the Great, it is, Dugdale points out, a symbol for man's uneasy relationship with natural forces. Primarily there is the River Neva forever threatening to flood and to overwhelm the city. Shvarts uses it to represent violence, even death. Then there are the marshes insisting down the years on their right to a regular supply of victims. For Shvarts, Dugdale points out, the river represents the struggle of order against chaos, light against darkness, reason against madness, civilisation against sheer brutishness. And in this she is representing nothing new to the world. She is following in the footsteps of those giants of St Petersburg: Pushkin, Gogol, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Dostoyevsky and others.
What Shvarts does wonderfully well is exemplified in the title poem: she conveys an ecstatic vision of the poet's true calling. I was going to write that it is a very un-English vision, but realised that I meant a very un-Western one, so I am resigned to the fact that it may not appeal to all - though my wish would be that this particular snippet of birdsong manages to break out of the narrow confines that poetry sometimes gets itself into. It deserves to have a very wide appeal indeed.Birdsong on the Seabed is an image of a poet-bird singing of the wonders of the land above to the dull witted and cold-blooded life of the seabed. They, however, do not wish to know. Like many others in the book it is a miraculous, almost fairytale poem:
Whirlpools softly spinning,The poem's final four lines ask the question that every poet, every artist, must ask at sometime, even though he only ask himself:
Oh, give in to the sea,
To the moon, the water, the grief
Circling, I am falling
To the algae-blanketed seam
The muffled war-like ring
Of bells draped in weed.
Bird slides under the waves
Bends them by force of its wings.
Is it worth singing where no one can hear
Unrolling trills on the bed?
I am waiting for you, I lean from the boat -
Bird, ascend to the depths.
Haiku # 11
A foot of snow
people panic buying.
Where now the Dunkirk spirit?