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A Fireproof Box

Unlike much poetry in translation that seems to lose its flavor and to blend together into the bland, uniform “translated” voice, Christopher Mattison’s translation of Gleb Shulpyakov retains his unique voice and undeniable cultural heritage. Some poems emphasize his foreignness, with references to Russian history and culture, such as, on page 17, when the poem references “Suvorov’s infantry,” “beards from Vladimir,” and the phrase “From Moscow to Podolsk no Pasternak could find / the way through such weather.” Leaving in these cultural markers adds an air of authenticity and believability to the work, and, most importantly, ensures the preservation of the poet’s original voice.

Unlike much poetry in translation that seems to lose its flavor and to blend together into the bland, uniform “translated” voice, Christopher Mattison’s translation of Gleb Shulpyakov retains his unique voice and undeniable cultural heritage. Some poems emphasize his foreignness, with references to Russian history and culture, such as, on page 17, when the poem references “Suvorov’s infantry,” “beards from Vladimir,” and the phrase “From Moscow to Podolsk no Pasternak could find / the way through such weather.” Leaving in these cultural markers adds an air of authenticity and believability to the work, and, most importantly, ensures the preservation of the poet’s original voice.

Shulpyakov speaks to the reader as a close familiar, a confidant:

A spring wind blowing for three days
snow turns black as an old chalkboard.
Smoke curls out from pipes to the north
floating endlessly, covering versts.

You’ve noticed that everything in March seems drawn
out and cold, even the windows begin to narrow.
What are these—pines? No, my dear, more aspens.
Puddles around you freeze waiting for the bus.

The tone draws you in from the cold Russian winter. He refers to your mutual friends and well-known places—Natasha and Sand Street, in this poem—and to your shared experiences. He allows the reader to eavesdrop on conversations, including dialogue in poems such as the section “Cherries” and “Djemma El-Fna.” Though, as an American reader, his references and experiences are foreign to me, the author affectively creates an atmosphere with which any reader can identify.

The images and metaphors used in this collection are often surprising, and strange in the way a poem should be strange; in the second section of “Cherries,” for example, Shulpyakov describes the beautiful day as “the sea flowed into the sky” and a mosque that “still shone, / like an éclair against a backdrop / of port cranes.” A Fireproof Box makes the unfamiliar familiar and the strange becomes the everyday.

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