Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Displaced Female Voice: Poetry of Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

The Displaced Female Voice: Poetry of Natalya Gorbanevskaya

Article excerpt


Words will not become heavens,

as wood is not to be made of grass.1

Natalya Gorbanevskaya was displaced from her home when she was sent to a Soviet psychiatric hospital for dissident activities in 1969 (Gorbanevskaya xiii). During this period, artists who were critical of the state frequently faced persecution by authorities. For example, following the rise of Stalinism, fellow Russian poet Anna Ahmatova was censored and her first husband executed; another renowned female Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, committed suicide following the execution of her husband and the starvation of her daughter in a state orphanage. Gorbanevskaya was born in 1936, and she passed away in 2013. She was a translator, a dissident and a civil-rights activist who became known in the West after a 1968 Moscow protest against the state's crushing of the Prague Spring. Kolla summarises:

Poet, editor, and translator, young Gorbanevskaya first commanded the attention of the government with the publication of her highly controversial poems in Soviet periodicals. However, it was not until Gorbanevskaya's participation in a demonstration condemning the USSR's 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and the subsequent publication of a book on the subject that Soviet authorities promptly arrested her.2

As were some other artists in this social context, she was separated from her own domestic environment and even her freedom. Following her release, she was 'expelled from the Soviet Union, taking up residence in Paris' (Gorbanevskaya xiii). From Paris, Gorbanevskaya contributed to the paper Russkaya mysl ' (Russian Thought), and thus remained engaged with her Russian identity; however, she was not able or allowed to take up residence in Russia again and remained displaced from her homeland. Therefore, the poet can be seen to have experienced two distinct, forced displacements: one from her own home when she was sent to the psychiatric hospital, and another when she was ejected from her home country, Russia. The loss of her geographical home, and her status as an expatriate, can be understood as a quite complete displacement of Gorbanevskaya by the patriarchal system.

Gorbanevskaya's poems demonstrate a focus on displacement, trauma, and Russian identity from a particularly female perspective; this mirrors her biographical experience. Perhaps she is the most known and visible female poet in the Soviet civil-rights movement, since Gorbanevskaya's writings express her belief in human rights, and in human freedom. As a female poet and mother, Gorbanevskaya experienced significant trauma at the hands of the Soviet state, and this trauma is connected to displacement as she was taken away from her home and committed to a psychiatric hospital as a form of prison sentence. After being expelled from the Soviet Union and making Paris her home, Gorbanevskaya was examined by French psychiatrists who declared her mentally healthy; they indicated that her confinement in the psychiatric hospital had been for political rather than medical reasons.3 The poet remained officially stateless for three decades after moving to Paris; eventually, in 2005, she was granted Polish citizenship. Her displacement from Russia was clearly not only geographical, but also cultural and in some ways linguistic - Gorbanevskaya had worked as a Polish translator, then lived in France among French-speaking culture while writing poetry in Russian. This article seeks to reveal how displacement forms and informs Gorbanevskaya's poetic voice and style.

Ambivalence, Oppression, and Poetic Elements

Overall, Gorbanevskaya's poetic style and voice are often quite spare. Her poems tend to be relatively short, and the lines within each stanza are likewise often short. It is not uncommon for a line of poetry in Gorbanevskaya's work to comprise between two and five words; she wrote many eight-line poems - although in translation some of the ' eight-liners' contain more than eight lines of text. …

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