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Breaking into Song — War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale

What is a dead song? A silent song? A song unsung, unheard, forgotten? In ‘The Body Returns’, the concluding poem of Maria Stepanova’s powerful, playful, ferociously vital collection, War of the Beasts and the Animals, the narrator invites us to ‘Break the frozen earth, touch the dead song.’ The dead press in through the lines of this long poem, written to commemorate the Centenary of the First World War; bodies broken up, bodies germinating; a swallow, dead, ‘Wings pressed tightly / Beak and claws drawn in’.

The dead fill the pages of Stepanova’s collection – soldiers, civilians, mothers, and sons; the dead in pieces; hands, limbs, ‘amino acids in soup / The smell of tears and sperm / And bonemeal and gloop’. But these poems are not just elegiac in tone – they are witty, shifting, at times dead-pan. They celebrate and give space to not only what remains, but to what persists, what will not go away; to those voices, songs, sounds, and rhythms – the ‘trip-trap’ of ‘iambs’, ‘chirrup’ of ‘tetrameters’, the ‘pitter patter’, the ‘sputter’ and snatches – that will not be forgotten (‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’).

Throughout the collection, Stepanova puts pressure on the lyric ‘I’. In ‘Spolia’, for instance, the ‘speaker-without-an-I’ is asked:

where’s your I, where is it hidden?
why do strangers speak for you
or are you speaking
in the voices of scolds and cowards

And in the same poem, a voice declares:

I am a recording device
trrrrrr chirr churr
bring a jug bring a jug

It is tempting to think of this as a description of the poet. And yet these poems do more than gather and record voices. As well as an extraordinary ear, brought vividly to life for English readers by Sasha Dugdale, there is a powerful shaping imagination at play which warps, breaks and remakes, bringing into new relation, new life, the sounds and voices it receives. The narrator of ‘A Body Returns’ explains how ‘parts of another’s body, which has lain here since another age / Together they make a new body’. This could be said of the collection as a whole, with its playful assemblages of folksong, poetry, snatches of ballad and conversation artfully recast. Over and over, the poems affirm vitality; here ‘[d]ead poetry speaks’, stutters, sings itself into life:

Body of poetry, you are strewn everywhere
Like fired plastic bullets,
That don’t decompose.
Up flies the word, you can’t catch it back

War of the Beasts and the Animals marks Stepanova’s commitment to the dead, to their songs and sounds, to the voices of those who will not be forgotten, despite the efforts of ‘power’ to erase and colonise and silence (‘Translator’s Foreword’). The two long poems that open the collection and form the basis of the 2015 volume Spolia, ‘Spolia’ and ‘The War of the Beast and the Animals’, take as their subject the ‘hot’ war in the Donbas Region of Ukraine. This was a war which, Stepanova explains, did not seem to touch the inhabitants of her own home city of Moscow, ‘basking in the carefree warmth’ in the summer of 2014. A war about which, as Dugdale points out in her foreword, the ‘Russian government remained silent’. ‘This silence was’, she explains, ‘a terrible cruelty, not least because it rendered those Russians who had suffered in the war voiceless.’

The word ‘Spolia’ is, as Dugdale notes, Latin for ‘the spoils of war’. But of course, it also suggests in English that which is spoiled or damaged, and both ‘The War of the Beasts and the Animals’ and ‘Spolia’ account for these deformations in broken forms, rhythms, warped allusions. Keats’s words from ‘To Autumn’, for instance, ‘To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells’ become grotesque, balanced between sinister and comical, as ‘gourd’ is transformed to ‘goats’ in ‘to swell the goats and plump the hazel shell’ (‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’). Familiar nursery rhyme darkens into a lament, but one which is tinged with an almost sardonic matter-of-factness:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
All the poets were full of woe
And nobody knew what to do.


A couple of pages later, Walt Whitman’s lyric:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

(‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’)

is artfully forgotten into new form:

when blossoms tum-ti-tum
for the last time the blossom
in the dooryard bloomed
the lilac in the dooryard bloomed


In these lines, what was mournful becomes strange; the ‘tum-ti-tum’ lends an almost comic bathos, puncturing the wistful lyricism of Whitman’s lines – before shifting into a darker key, which cuts short the continuity of the original, with its ‘ever-returning spring’, so that the lilac now blooms ‘for the last time’.

In ‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’, it is not only allusions that are deformed, but words themselves are broken apart, within and across the line:

The rhythm breaks and remakes words into new patterns and configurations. Again and again, Stepanova acknowledges what is lost, broken, destroyed or spoiled whilst also celebrating what is left – the fragments returned and repurposed in and out of the spoils of war. This art of deformation attests to Stepanova’s own experience of writing at a time when ‘the language she had hitherto used for poetry had been deformed by power and untruth’ (‘Translator’s Foreword’). Dugdale is uniquely alert and responsive to the forces of deformation, a word which is itself the title of her own powerfully unsettling collection (Deformations, Carcanet, 2020). In Deformations, she explores how trauma is deformed through – and itself deforms – myth and art. Part of what gives her translation its force is that it comes out of a creative, collaborative project; a conversation.

In Dugdale’s sensitive translation, the rich texture and framework of cultural reference and allusion Stepanova calls on is deftly transposed into English. The ‘scraps and tatters’ of Whitman, Rilke, and Celan are carried across and transformed. And where a snatch of Russian poetry or song might have been lost on an English reader, she skilfully transposes; a ‘pre-battle quote from Antony and Cleopatra’, for instance, ‘replaced a line from a Russian poem about lovers on the eve of a battle’ (‘Translator’s Forward’).

Eliot’s The Waste Land, alluded to on several occasions throughout War of the Beasts and the Animals, offers one model for evoking a world broken by war; and yet it is the triumph of this collection that while it calls on Eliot’s example, it does not succumb to his influence: it is not a collection of fragments ‘shored against my ruins’ but an exploration and enquiry into ruin itself and the life of fragments. For all the destructions of war, Stepanova insists on a relentlessly life affirming, powerfully rhythmical force which is both celebrated and performed on these pages. Dugdale brings that vitality, that rhythm, into life in English, drawing on what she describes in her foreword as the poems’ ‘pre-textual body’.

For Stepanova, Dugdale explains in the foreword, translation ‘enfolds the principal and theme’ of her longer works, which assert that ‘language and culture are translated and transported as fragments and re-used in new settings and to new ends.’ Dugdale’s compelling, musical translation with its powerful rhythmic drive and delicate shifts of register, allows us to hear that experience of translation at the heart of Stepanova’s collection; the range of voices, fragments, cadences, and songs transported and transformed in the poems. It invites us to understand that this very multiplicity is, for Stepanova, a celebration of resilience and an act of powerful resistance to that imposed silence and singularity in power’s attempt to ignore or stifle difference and dissent.

The poems in this collection are threaded through with common concerns and motifs, sharing a playfulness in the face of the deformations of militaristic power and untruth. Together, they explore what it is to write in the wake of what Stepanova describes as the ‘internal fragmentation of the language’ (‘Translator’s Foreword’). Shifting between registers, rhythms, and broken forms, the book feels like one long epic poem of splinters, voices, sounds, and songs emerging from the wreckage:

this little piggy went to market
and this little piggy froze to death
and the landowner put a gun to his head
and a black car came for the officer
the greek in odessa, the jew in warsaw
the callow young cavalryman
the soviet schoolboy
gastello the pilot
and all those who died in this land

(‘War of the Beasts and the Animals’)

War of the Beasts and the Animals insists, again and again, on the presence and persistence of the dead. It is fitting that, in its concluding poem, a swallow returns from earlier in the volume (‘o swallow, swallow, is it her?’). This returning bird recalls Eliot’s ‘O swallow, swallow’ in the final lines of The Waste Land, lines which themselves remember Ovid’s swallow, and also recall Tennyson’s lyric from The Princess, ‘O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South’, which itself carries an echo of Homer. At the end of the Odyssey, the sound of Odysseus’ bow is likened to the cry of a swallow, a sound which tells of migration and return. Stepanova’s buried swallow embodies the force and power of return:

And suddenly she heard a tiny flutter in the swallow’s breast:
A faint beat at first, but then louder and louder.
The swallow’s heart had started beating again.
The swallow wasn’t dead, merely stunned from the cold

The dead come back, but not to haunt these pages – they are material, visceral presences, unsettling yet affirming. Their voices and their songs survive, in pieces; their bodies, in fragments, return in new forms, like the ‘hand buried at Marne … buried at Narva … lying in the Galician wastes … The ash of a hand lying nowhere’; ‘All of this’, Stepanova assures us, ‘will return’ (‘The Body Returns’). The concluding line of the collection speaks to the relentless presence of the dead, a presence which is both reassuring and unnerving: ‘in what strange circumstances … we think they aren’t here’.

Mina Gorji was born in Tehran and lives in Cambridge. Her first collection art of escape, was published by Carcanet in 2020. She has written a study of John Clare’s poetry (LUP) and is an Associate Professor at the University of Cambridge.

War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Bloodaxe Books)

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