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  • Writer's pictureЗәуре Батаева

Бумажная кожа/Paper-Thin Skin

When last week I received my copy of «Бумажная кожа/Paper-Thin Skin», a bilingual book of poetry featuring the Russian-language poems of the young Kazakh poet Aigerim Tazhi (Айгерим Тажи) and their English translations by the American poet and translator James Kates, the first thing I noticed was that it was a beautiful object: on the outside, a soft, autumn-coloured cover and, inside, large cream-coloured pages that give ample room to the poems, the Russian original on the left-hand page and the English translation on the right-hand page. Because of its physical qualities, this book should also be of interest to readers who would like to read Tazhi's poems primarily in Russian.

«Бумажная кожа/Paper-Thin Skin» presents seventy poems by a relatively young and refreshingly humble Kazakh poet who has found original ways of expressing her views of the world. Tazhi's humility animates her verses in refreshing ways, as when, for example, she offers a description that could well be read as a low-key definition of her own poetic programme: «плыть я хочу по течению / мятым бумажным корабликом». Crumpled though her ego may be, and slow floating though her imagination may be, Tazhi usually manages to arrive at concrete objects, as is confirmed in the poem's last line: «к стокам истокам стихам». This last line is more than just word play: it evokes the wide spectrum of experiences, from nightmares to encounters with the natural sublime, that Tazhi aims to cover in her poems. The combination of humility and creative brilliance has always been the mark of a true artist.

There is no question that Tazhi's poems are original. They are not faint variations on the canonical poems of the past, but like any other poet, Tazhi has studied and absorbed the work of predecessors. To my mind, the influence of two poets stands out. Marina Tsvetaeva, with whom Tazhi shares not only a capacity for original expression but also, noticeably, a thematic interest in the porous membrane of the window, the device separating the introspective dream world of the poet from the massive objective world outside. And Robert Frost, from whom Tazhi has inherited her poetic persona, that is to say, a persona that is so impersonal that it is often present only indirectly, as an observer or as a dreamer.

And yet, Tazhi frequently teases the reader into thinking that some of the characters in the poems are versions or imitations of herself. To what extent these teases are true is, of course, impossible to find out; but sometimes they reveal patterns in the poetry, as when, for example, the poet offers the following image: «девушка засыпает с библией / просыпается с сонником». As soon as one considers this image to be an autoportrait, one also begins to understand why the religious images that are woven into the poet's dreamscapes carry no greater authority than any of the other images.

Tazhi is a sharp observer. When writing about an ageing mother who is unhappy at the neglect she has suffered from her adult son, the poet observes:

Когда приходит этот, уже мужчина,

с руками в венах, с букетом цветов дешевых,

она наливает чашку до половины,

Чтобы он поскорей ушел.

There are finely observed scenes throughout the book. The allusions to harsh weather, earthquakes, collapsing buildings and noxious particles in the air confirm the presence of a poet who is aware of the world outside her window.

Many of Tazhi's verses are tinged with anxiety, but they have a formal beauty that transforms the poet's propensity for melancholy into something more enjoyable or at least more bearable. Moreover, Tazhi is not afraid to lighten the general tenor of her poems with a dose of humour, as can be seen, for example, in her hyperbolic depiction of a professionally successful, twenty-first-century sea captain:

капитан с электронною папироскою

покоряет моря по подсказке лоцмана

переходит на уровень получает бонусы

крутит с яростью беспроводной штурвал

Tazhi's best poems have the power to surprise. The poem below, bringing together a wide range of memories and images, is a good example of how Tazhi manages to surprise, line by line, sometimes even word by word:

Окна направлены на восток. Лето бьëтся за занавесками. Пахнет подушка недавним сном, утром воскресным, детством.

Ключ повернулся в тугом замке.

Кто там пришëл и спешит разуться?

В тëплой пижаме, в одном носке

добежать к нему, не споткнуться.

The translations by James Kates are faithful to the rhythms and meanings of the original poems. Inevitably some of the poems' qualities are lost in translation. What is lost most noticeably is the focus on assonance and rhyme, which Tazhi's poems maintain throughout (even when they are written in free verse) and which imbues them with a greater playfulness than the English translations, while also ensuring that they conform to the traditional formal requirements of Russian-language poetry.

It should be noted that Tazhi has been recognized abroad as a Kazakh poet who is worth translating because she has talent, not because she has an influential sponsor. Tazhi's poems were chosen for translation because a small number of foreign readers, including Kates, had noticed that they were special and had begun to translate them, thus sowing the seeds for what would eventually become the book that has now been published by Zephyr Press (not a vanity press but a respected publisher of poetry). I can only hope that Tazhi will continue to receive support for the cultural work she is doing.

Подробнее (на русском):о-поэтике-айгерим-тажи
Толығырақ (қазақша):әйгерім-тәжінің-ақындығы-жайлы
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