Poem of the week: from War of the Beasts and the Animals by Maria Stepanova

War of the Beasts and the Animals


that night
over the field of battle
the nachtigall tells the nachtigall
nightingasps in disbelief

and in neighbouring places
bird tells bird passing
from beak to beak like a dead frog
the exact science:

earth’s caesura
between the stains of the sighted
between the mottled zone of streetlights
warmed by proximate life
and its answering beam

the sightlessness of moss on boughs
anxious flight

armoured vehicles
aimed at movement


no difference between first and second
patriotic or patriotic
great or pacific

all the same they fall
to the only the civil
where sunrise quivers in the cinders

draws out the spear-tips

mate eh mate
giss a light
says the dead to the dead
says the killed to the killer

Maria Stepanova is a Russian-Jewish writer, whose first full-length poetry collection in English, War of the Beasts and the Animals, is translated by Sasha Dugdale. It includes fragmented, interrogative sequences on themes of war, memory and reconciliation. The two sections chosen as this week’s poem are from the sequence that gives the collection its title. This work responds to the Russian revolution and the civil war, glances back at the medieval Lay of Igor’s Campaign, takes in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis and is painfully energised by a more recent and, for Stepanova, personally resonant conflict, that of Russia and Ukraine.

The poem preceding the chosen extracts ends with an imagined sexual encounter between “major petrov” and “major deyev”. Petrov and Deyev appear in a poem set during the “Great Patriotic War” against the Nazis, The Gunner’s Son, by the well-known Soviet poet KM Simonov. Stepanova ends her grief-stricken satire with “birds singing in the sycamore tree / major petrov fucks major deyev // in the coarse pockets of ploughed soil”.

This encounter is the subject of the nightingales’ gossip, “nachtigall” telling “nachtigall” and the resultant “nightingasps in disbelief”. While the birds pass on the story, it is no more significant a morsel of communication than “a dead frog”. The stanzas unfold to reveal bias and blindness: there are “the stains of the sighted” and the innocent lack of sight in the “natural world”. This innocence seems to be mirrored by war’s manmade machinery: “the sightlessness of moss on boughs / anxious flight // armoured vehicles / lenses / aimed at movement”.

Dugdale explains in her valuable introductory essay that the core of Stepanova’s war critique is the belief that “every war is a civil war”. She notes that this is particularly relevant to the conflict between the “brother nations”, Russia and Ukraine. Stepanova illustrates her philosophy in the assertion “no difference” followed by the shorthand list of wars, and expresses it in abbreviated form in “the only the civil”. What could be a step back into the abstract and general is transformed into a step forward, bringing us into the horrible physical desolation “where sunrise quivers in the cinders // draws out the spear-tips”. Perhaps there’s a faint echo here of Wilfred Owen’s poem Futility with its hopelessly hopeful first line, “Move him into the sun”.

The little snatch of dialogue between the dead soldiers, the “killed” and the “killer”, forms an intensely sad conclusion to this episode of the War of the Beasts and the Animals. As elsewhere in the collection, readers are jolted into a stark, fresh sense of the tragedy of war, thanks both to Stepanova’s vision and her willingness to trust Dugdale to produce English-language innovations of her own.

For those who can read Russian, the original text is reproduced below.


этой ночью
над полем военных действий
нахтигаль говорит с нахтигалью
соловея от непониманья

на соседних пространствах
птица птице из уст в уста
передает как лягушку
точное знанье:

земляная цезура
между зрячим и зрячим пятном
между крапчатой зоной огней
подогретых соседством жизни –
и ответным свеченьем

между ними слепоты древесного мхаперелеты томительные

наводящиеся на движенье


нету разницы между
первою и второй
отечественной и отечественной
великой и тихой

все равно они падают
на единственной, на гражданской
где заря в золе копошится

извлекает наконечники копий

леш а леш
огоньку бы
говорит убитому убитый
убитый говорит убивцу




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