Upon seeing Vera Pavlova’s flowing brown hair, red glasses and black and white polka dot skirt, one may doubt that this seemingly ordinary woman is one of Russia’s famous contemporary poets. But then her lips part, words spill forth, and she destroys that illusion.
In a lilting voice she recites one of her untitled poems. “Teeth dull, veins collapsed, / heels worn down. / We are young as long as / our parents are young. / Dry is the riverbed where milk and honey, / white and amber, had run. / In the hospital, comb your mother’s hair, / clip the yellow nails.” And the world stops. Her listeners sit in a trance, transported to that rare universe where time and space collapse, thought and action fuse, and even everyday activities take on a new meaning.
This was the experience of those who strolled through the glass doors of the Newhouse Center of the Humanities last Wednesday for Pavlova’s reading. This event, hosted by the Russian department, commemorated the 200th anniversary of the famous 18th century Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov’s birth.
Pavlova presented her poems in an intriguing format that captivated the audience. In true Russian style, she created a deck of printed cards of her poems and allowed each listener to take one at random. Similar to the popular Tarot card game, the poem written on the card drawn represented the person’s future. After the cards were read, Pavlova told the audience to place them inside a book and revisit our predictions after ten years to see if they came true.
Pavlova recited the Russian portion of the card before listening to the audience member read the English translation. Listeners in the audience enjoyed the poignant readings, laughing and gasping at irregular intervals. History professor Nina Tumarkin gave the best reading of the English translation and received a copy of Pavlova’s “If There is Something to Desire: a Copy of 100 Poems.”
Afterwards, Pavlova answered the audience’s questions mostly in Russian, while Russian Professor Alla Epsteyn translated her replies. When asked about Russian poets who influenced her work, Pavlova discussed Lermontov, Alexander Pushkin and especially Mikhail Kuzmin. She views Pushkin in particular as a sort of spouse since she intimately knows his poetry, virtues and vices.
Anyone who hears enough of Pavlova’s poetry will be struck by its versatility. In a mere hour, the poet recited poems about an exuberant couple posting their wedding on Youtube, a woman dejectedly watching her husband smoke cigarettes, a man bidding his wife goodbye as he answers the bugle’s call and even a man deciding to buy panties for his girlfriend. Her poetry evokes imagery ranging from crashing waves and Odysseus’ clothing to the limbs of a drowsy child. The length of her poems also varies from a single sentence to a lengthy paragraph.
Pavlova’s poetry also contains many predictable elements. Her poems are written in rhyming Russian, contain an intimate tone and were translated into English by her late husband and translator, Steven Seymour. Due to the nature of Russian grammatical endings, many words rhyme with each other and allow poets wide avenues for poetic exprssion. This freedom in word choice and the richness of the Russian language enables Pavlova to explore her many topics with the depth and breadth she does.
Pavlova’s poignant poems have found other homes beyond the conventional bookshelf. Her works have been published in The New York Times and The New Yorker and have been plastered in the New York City and Los Angeles public transportation systems. Her poetry has been published in twenty languages in the span of twenty years.
Her esteemed career began in the most unlikely of places: a maternity ward.
“Another poet came into being / when I saw the life of life, / the death of death: / the child I had birthed. / That was my beginning: / blood burning the groin, / the soul soaring, the baby wailing / in the arms of a nurse.” These were the first words of poetry Pavlova penned.
Pavlova thus became a poet in the same moment she became a twenty year-old mother. For her, poetry and giving birth have become synonymous since both acts are means for achieving satisfaction and a sense of inner peace. Composing music has given her similar benefits, and she uses the same organic process in creating both art forms.
Pavlova has touched thousands of people in the United States and abroad with her poetry. Although the poet is originally from Moscow, the Russian government believes her work corrupts Russian youth because of its unconventional themes and does not let her write in her own country. Her supportive American audience enables her to continue with her brilliant work and find inspiration for her poetry.
Photo by Soojin Jeong ’17, Photography Editor