Vera Pavlova's taut, often erotic poems probe the intensity of her feelings and murk of her interior life with ferocity: “Your arms are the sleeves of a straitjacket / A life vest to stay afloat.” That this poem is directed at her husband and translator, Steven Seymour, heightens the intimacy of “If There Is Something To Desire,” Pavlova’s first collection of poetry translated into English (Alfred A. Knopf). Pavlova is a best-selling poet in Russia (a bit of an oxymoron in America) and has an almost cult-like following. She is a devastating beauty; in interviews, she wears her vulnerability without appearing addled. Her talent and beauty has been passed on to two college-aged daughters, and they have been photographed as a trio in the pages of Russian Elle. On their website, Seymour appears like a ballast to sirens. On paper, he is deft, precise, loving and never precious. He has become Pavlova’s conduit to the English-speaking world.
At times, we wince with her as she revels in self-pity, “You will step out and get cigarettes and realize I have aged / Lord what a pitiful, tedious pantomime.” Other poems suggest she is composing words while still on her back, alone, after lovemaking. When the inevitability of certain solitude returns, she compares loneliness to a rapist. “Begged him / Do not fall asleep / But he did, and in the dark of the night loneliness took hold of me, like an incubus / Furious and rough was the onslaught of unchaste hands.”
Pavlova can’t help but beckon the spirit of Anna Akhmatova, whose early collections were also about love, jealousy, guilt and torment. Akhmatova, an epic beauty in her youth, wrote poems that were tight, short, and deceptively simple in their precise meter. Joseph Brodsky’s words about Akhmatova apply to Pavlova too: He once wrote that Russians learned Akhmatova’s poems by heart to help them weather the drama of their own life and their own history. This could be said of Pavlova today. Brodsky also wrote that Akhmatova wrote poems as if she was average, just like everyone else.
Pavlova’s persistently personal verse is spoken in the voice of everywoman: She invites her readers into her private world, at the same time reminding us that we are all sensuous creatures raging against loneliness and mortality. She documents her raging for us:
“The voice. The handwriting. The gait.
Maybe the smell of my hair.
That’s all. Go ahead, resurrect me.”
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