Ugly Duckling Presse

Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad
Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

Polina Barskova & Gennady Gor & Dmitry Maksimov & Sergey Rudakov & Vladimir Sterligov & Pavel Zaltsman

Poetry | $18 $15
Fall 2016
Out of Stock"In a world gone mad, the refusal of conventional sense
was a conceptual necessity."
This anthology presents a group of writers and a literary phenomenon that has been unknown even to Russian readers for 70 years, obfuscated by historical amnesia. Gennady Gor, Pavel Zaltsman, Dmitry Maksimov, Sergey Rudakov, and Vladimir Sterligov, wrote these works in 1942, during the most severe winter of the Nazi Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). In striking contrast to state-sanctioned, heroic "Blockade" poetry in which the stoic body of the exemplary citizen triumphs over death, the poems gathered here show the Siege individual (blokadnik) as a weak and desperate incarnation of Job. These poets wrote in situ about the famine disease, madness, cannibalism, and prostitution around them—subjects so tabooed in those most-Soviet times that they would never think of publishing. Moreover, the formal ambition and macabre avant-gardism of this uncanny body of work match its horrific content, giving birth to a "poor" language which alone could reflect the depth of suffering and psychological destruction experienced by victims of that historical disaster.

Polina Barskova, a Russian-language poet and scholar of the Siege, edited this volume from archival materials. The book includes an introduction by Barskova and an afterword by renowned literary critic Ilya Kukulin. The poems and supplementary materials were translated by Anand Dibble, Ben Felker-Quinn, Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, Rebekah Smith, Charles Swank, Jason Wagner, and Matvei Yankelevich.

Written in the Dark was named Best Literary Translation into English for 2017 by AATSEEL (Association of American Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages).

Excerpt ˇ


Here a horse laughed on and time bounded,
The river entered the buildings.
Here papa was mama
And mama was mooing.
Suddenly the janitor exits,
He goes left.
He holds logs.
He shoves time on with his foot,
He kicks the years,
He throws the sleeping ones into the window.
The men sit
And eat soap.
They drink Neva water,
Gulping grass after...
A young woman pisses standing
There, where not long ago she strolled.
There, where empty spring roves,
Where spring roams.

[Gennady Gor, trans. Ben Felker-Quinn, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Matvei Yankelevich]

Close ˆ

About the Author

Gennady Gor
Gennady Gor (1907-1981), born in a tsarist prison, belonged to the avant-garde circles of Leningrad in the 1930s, but was ostracized for his “formalist” novel The Cow. After the Siege and his return from evacuation in Alma-Ata, he became a well-known scholar, collector of the art of Northern ethnicities, and science fiction writer. He was renowned in Leningrad as an art historian and young writers’ mentor.
Dmitry Maksimov
Dmitry Maksimov (1904-1987), was a renowned philologist and specialist of early twentieth-century Russian poetry. As a young poet, he discussed his works with Nikolay Zabolotsky and Konstantin Vaginov, writers close to the OBERIU circle. At the end of his life, he published in Switzerland his only book of poetry under the pseudonym Ignaty Karamov.
Sergey Rudakov
Sergey Rudakov (1909-1944), was a philologist and poet and friend of Osip Mandelstam during his Voronezh exile. After spending the Siege winter in Leningrad, he died in action. He was a friend and relative of Konstantin Vaginov.
Vladimir Sterligov
Vladimir Sterligov (1904-1973), was an artist in the circle of Kazimir Malevich, one of the leaders of the Leningrad avant-garde. He was a close friend of the leaders of OBERIU, Daniil Kharms and Aleksandr Vvedensky, the latter whose son he baptized.
Pavel Zaltsman
Pavel Zaltsman (1912-1985), an artist, belonged to the circle of Pavel Filonov, one of the leaders of the Leningrad avant-garde. He spent most of his life working for film studios, first in Leningrad, then in Alma-Ata.

About the Editor

Polina Barskova
Polina Barskova, associate professor of Russian literature at Hampshire College (MA), received her B.A. from St. Petersburg State University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. Her scholarly publications include articles on Nabokov, the Bakhtin brothers, early Soviet film, and the aestheticization of historical trauma; namely, the Siege of Leningrad. She is the author of six books of poetry and one book of prose in Russian, and three books in English: This Lamentable City (Tupelo Press), The Zoo in Winter (Melville House), and Relocations (Zephyr Press).

Other Contributors

Advance Praise

The texts collected here represent a remarkable, stunning discovery. This is not only because the unofficial, deskdrawer poems in this book were hidden and unknown until quite recently. Their survival was extremely improbable, and their transmission here is something of a miracle. These poems push modernist verse in new directions. —Emily Van Buskirk, Rutgers University
In a world gone mad—over one million perishing in the Nazi siege of Leningrad—the refusal of conventional sense was a conceptual necessity. Written in the Dark is full of wit, gallows humor, and mordant courage, with overlays of Surrealism, Futurism, Acmeism, Symbolism, and the absurd. Grappling with a fate that defies logic, poetry becomes a necessary measure against the dark, like the sparks from two sticks of wood, creating a fire that warms even in an apocalypse.—Charles Bernstein, U. of Pennsylvania
…Written in the Dark embodies the pain and loss of an era that few historical and literary works achieve. Each act of writing feels deliberate, questioning its function within the larger strife of the time.—Alex Niemi, Exchanges Literary Journal
Those interested in Russian literature, particularly the Russian pre-war avant-garde, will be fascinated with Written in the Dark. Ugly Duckling Presse has done a great service by bringing us these historical poems—which unfortunately remain all too timely.—John Bradley, Rain Taxi
Barskova brings to Western light a startling selection of long-hidden poems… These heirs to the Russian avant-garde brutally rend Pushkin’s fairytale verses, the sing-song march of Soviet children’s literature, and even the Russian language itself… —Publisher's Weekly
Reading about someone else’s trauma, poem after poem, page after page, can dull our senses. But these poets shock us anew with each line, making sure we remain alive to the horror… The new language creates new meaning both for those who wrote these poems and, perhaps even more importantly, for us, who may put that meaning to good use, drawing lessons from what has transpired.—Piotr Florczyk, LA Review of Books