“Other Shepherds” Nina Kossman (Poets & Traitors Press) – book review

“Other Shepherds” book cover

“Other Shepherds” is a collection of poems with translations from Marina Tsvetaeva, the title itself coming from one of Nina Kossman’s translations. Nina Kossman was born in Russia and is bilingual in Russian and English. Initially she wrote in Russian because ‘English was the language I had to use in the outside world—at school, in the city, etc. Instead, my poems sprang from the interior world, and at that age I resisted the outside world and created—possibly at the expense of a comfortable co-existence with my peers—a world of my own.’ The themes of alienation in Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems spoke to Kossman’s experience. It then made sense to write her poems as a response to Tsvetaeva’s. This approach is similar to Jonathan Davidson’s in “A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” (click title for my review).

Marina Tsvetaeva’s “A bad mother!” begins,

“A bad mother! —My ill fame
Grows and blossoms every day.
First the Sly One takes me to a feast,
Then my first-born’s forgotten for a quill…

Envying the empresses of fashion,
And the little dancer in her tights,
Over the crib I watch the years run by,
Not seeing that my milk is running out!”

And ends on the admonishment, “Make no mistake, my ill fame:/ —A bad mother but a faithful wife!” Motherhood and writing are incompatible. A mother’s desires are in conflict with a child’s needs. As the child blossoms, the mother’s milk dries up and she becomes redundant. Kossman’s “Flesh of my flesh” ends,

“Ghastly babies, like balding beasts,
like cubs of flowers that grab and wail,
the more you watch them the louder they cry—
idols their eyes,
gods their bodies,
their cribs—mausoleums of sin.

Ripple your own waters.
Rip off your own past.
Meek, weak, or plain gloomy,
swim in your own pus.

Sullen reflections
of hostile faces—

Flesh of my flesh?
Eye for an eye.
And tooth.”

There’s no ambivalence here, the babies are not cute and not destined to blossom. These imagined children suck the life out of their mother and are ultimately rejected. “Eye for an eye” suggests Biblical revenge but “tooth” suggests something more sinister.

Tsvetaeva writes of giving a present of an iron ring,

“Love itself clings, like a red-hot coal,
Then be silent and press to your lips
The iron ring on your dark finger.
Here’s a talisman against red lips,
Here’s the first link in your chain armor—
So that you’ll stand alone in the storm of days,
Like an oak—like God in his iron circle!”

It suggests the gift will outlive the love that gave it. It will reinforce and strengthen its recipient. Kossman’s gift is,

“the green of chestnuts
the white of carnations
the blue of the sea
which you shall not sail
the chestnuts have fallen
the carnations have wilted
the sea is a postcard
which you threw away”

This isn’t a gift of cheap, ugly iron that is a reminder of the love that prompted the gift, but a present of the world. Instead of being received in love, it is dismissed, rejected. It’s doubtful the relationship lasted. Whereas, in Tsvetaeva’s poem, the gift is a small memento of love that forges a stronger connection.

There’s a different view of relationships in Tsvetaeva’s “You wanted this”

“You wanted this. So. Alleluia.
I kiss the hand that strikes me.

I pull to my breast the hand that pushed my breast away.
Stunned, you will hear only silence.

So that later, with an indifferent smile, you’d say,
‘My woman grows tame.'”

Kossman’s response, “Teeth, bright in her sleep”,

“bland limbs of darkness
coil round her sleeping flesh,
its skin numb, cold,
like a husband’s voice
requesting an answer
from silence, his wife.”

The husband’s interest seems strongest when his wife is least responsive. Ironically, having tamed her, he can no longer get her interested in him or to respond to his needs: he wants an answer, she doesn’t give him one.

Tsvetaeva’s “Sahara”, creates a mystery, a man vanishes and is searched for,

“I grasped him death-tight,
Like passion and God.

Nameless, he vanished!
Won’t be found. Taken.
Deserts have no memory—
Thousands sleep in them.”

Kossman echoes that mystery,

“I am the bed of leaves he can never scorch,
not even with his eyes of fire.

I am the naked face of the flower; a cross.
He cannot escape by reaching me.

The god and the goal; the lover and the loved;
the pursuit and the flight, entwined.”

The journey is better than arrival. Arrival brings knowledge that replaces the anticipation of who someone might be, the possibilities that ignorance offers.

“Other Shepherds” is a dialogue between Kossman and Tsvetaeva, the former’s poems picking up images and themes covered in translation and playing with them to shape them into something new, in turn, offering a new way of looking at the translations. The approach is complementary, extending strands of alienation, exploration, self-discovery and how that self relates to others.

“Other Shepherds” is available from www.poets-traitors.com

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

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