In Their Own Words

F-Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, ed. Galina Rymbu, Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse 

we are all the Khachaturian sisters

terrified little girls
they tell us: say hello,
it won’t hurt you,
put on a dress, sit up straight,
behave modestly,
act like a lady
rule number three hundred and eighty eight:
you are the mirror of your ancestors, the greatest shame of your people,
the dying tongue of those at the feast,
there on the beach, where women are always clothed
and men are exposed, indecent,
the enormous black waves wail,
a cry rips from the chest of a heavenly god
Allah rǝhmǝt elǝsin
kolay gelsin don’t hurt me

Mekhti earns 50 manats an hour,
gasps from asthma in a stifling car
20 days awaiting trial for prostitution
4 beds between 17
beatings without end and violent movements
your father — your sin, Mekhti, you are your father’s sin,
the rotting fruit of the Garden of Eden,
don’t, stop it, no, please don’t hurt me

Malika rejoices, dances, gathers
gulps down her tenth glass of wine,
it’s only proper for a sham wedding,
the last lifeboat in the immense ocean
a hole gapes in her chest and from the depths you can hear
Allah rǝhmǝt elǝsin
kolay gelsin and wailing don’t hurt me
for kids the most terrifying thing is a police sergeant
who paces the room in filthy shoes
a wasp stinger jutting from his back
a bloody mess everywhere, an axe,
a kitchen table overturned
a woman clasping her own knees
repeats without end don’t hurt me

I’ll take away your pain, your sorrow, bitter grief,
you can’t wash away the sea salt from your shoulders, Bakhar,
wounds stretch along an earthly path of loss
three ribs, a collar bone, a toe,
fragile, discovered anew,
please, God, don’t hurt me, I’m begging you,
the place where there’s always water: cold, cloudy, like rakı,
one heart was left and another buried
beneath the hands of a man,
who drank like the devil,
beneath a butcher's block chopped in two
beneath the sound of broken bones
Allah rǝhmǝt elǝsin
kolay gelsin and wailing don’t hurt me

come here and greet them all in turn:
grandmother, mother, sister,
friend, stranger, colleague,
waif, girl, woman,
like a fragile treasure,
like delicate leaves of Caucasian boxwood,
reaching for the sun in the breeze,
like fine lines of cord hung with clothes
above the slightly dampened tarmac
wash away the gashes, the slashes, the scratches,
the burns, the holes from knives and guns,
don’t hurt any of us ever again
for all eternity

—Egana Djabbarova, translated from the Russian by Helena Kernan

"Allah rǝhmǝt elǝsin" is Azeri for rest in peace and "kolay gelsin" is Turkish for take it easy.

Reprinted with permission from F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry (isolarii, 2020).

F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry collects the work of a dozen women poets and feminist and LGBTQ+ activists associated with the Russian online platform F pis’mo. Galina Rymbu, its founder and co-editor, picked the poems and, after insistent requests by the English-language editors (us), added two of her own pieces. Rymbu is an exceptionally talented, deep-thinking, protean, and romantic poet who is rapidly acquiring a major international profile; she has recently received political-refugee status in Ukraine. Most other poets in the anthology live in Russia. Their work, indisputably controversial and groundbreaking in the Russian context, also has a lot to offer for poets and activists in the US. Wait, make that: unfortunately may soon have even more to offer for poets and activists in the US.

The F Letter
anthology collects politically influential poems, such as the work of Lida Yusupova, inspirational for the Russian internet wave of #metoo discussions, Egana Djabbarova’s poem in support of the Khachaturian sisters’ case, or Galina Rymbu’s “My Vagina,” an explosive work in support of the activist Yulia Tsvetkova, whose childlike body-positive cartoons resulted in pornography charges. It also features the complex, meditative and stunning long poem by Oksana Vasyakina occasioned by the death of her father, a truck driver, of AIDS; the intense and philosophical love poetry of Lolita Agamalova, and a lot of other pieces that (we think) are among the most powerful poetic work created by Russian-speakers today.

What does it mean to be radical? It means to go to the root, radix. The root of our experience in the world is the body. The body, weirdly enough, has been a relatively uncharted territory for poetry. Dante takes three days to get through hell without eating, drinking or going to the bathroom. It’s not a trick everyone can pull off—and pretending you can is a fundamental distortion of human experience. Feminist and LGBTQ+ poetry in this book is meticulously concerned with embodiment: the poems directly embed bodies into social life, they talk about physical bodies as cohering into a social body, and as parts of the social body. Bodies and what they do—eat, fuck, shine, decline—become the intersection of political, cultural, social, and economic languages, and this lets the body be a powerful site of resistance.

We worked very closely with our varied and talented translation team. Apart from ourselves, our translators included the multilingual Belorusian-American poet Valzhyna Mort, Alex Karsavin, editor at Homintern magazine, Kit Eginton, editor of the Hypocrite Reader, Kevin M. F. Platt, founder of the Russian-American translation seminar Your Language My Ear, and Helena Kernan, first laureate of the Pushkin House translation residency for work with Rymbu. It also seems fitting that F-Letter is the second tiny book in a new series of “islands,” defined on the isolarii website as “points of orientation, mapping a scattered community that spans continents and disciplines. To represent a world of many worlds, not a globe.”

—Eugene Ostashevsky and Ainsley Morse
Berlin / Norwich

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