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literature

The Seminar and the Last Night

Shvarts has become for me an important poet.

In her 1990 poem the Russian poet Elena Shvarts imagined the last night on earth. She looked to the skies and saw the stars driven mad into a crazed dancing of the triumphant stars. All the reordering of the firmament meant nothing, nought but the destruction of all order (“созездий нет, гармонии конец”, “the constellations are over, harmony is finished”). When the poet looked to the world she lived in she saw on Earth “all hope lies in corpses.”

The poem ended with an ambiguous urging for the forces of life to prevail, to overcome this ending. The forces of life must prevail, we must believe, even if we know we are bound to earth and bound for death. These are the limitations of the mere living, who cannot aspire to the astral dancing of the stars.

The poem is an imagining of the apocalypse, and how we might respond in the face of the immediacy of the event. Such an apocalypse was perhaps not a distant thought in Russia in 1990. Some might wish to dance with the stars in artistic triumph; others might wish to fall and submit; and others, summoned by the final stanza of the poem, defy the end by clinging to Earth and Life.

The living must outlive this night,

Be wedded to trees, laugh with the bird.

Forces of Life, you are beyond help.

Shvarts, “The Last Night” (1990) in Birdsong on the Seabed, p. 34-35

Shvarts (1948-2010) was a Russian poet based in St Petersburg. She went largely unpublished during the Soviet years, and created a personal symbolic world filled with symbols from St. Petersburg, a version of Orthodox faith, and classical learning. She made her living translating plays, and published in samizdat until 1984, and then achieved wider acclaim including in the West.

During the Soviet years she participated in the Leningrad Religious-Philosophical Seminar. This seminar was active in the 1970s and provided a place where nonconformist intellectuals gathered “to find meaning beyond the broken promises of a Soviet Utopia” (Janjic, “Leningrad’s religious-philosophical seminar: A place of encounter between text and mission”, thesis, 2015.

Shvarts has become for me an important poet. She helps me learn Russian, and she helps me persist in these times that increasingly need a new Leningrad Seminar. Perhaps I will commence one. In the meantime…

Елена шварц, Горящий архив говорит спасиба.

By Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich writes poetry and many forms of prose - this blog, history, essays, fiction, briefings, even kind questioning tweets. His podcast - The Burning Archive - talks about all things history and culture from the unusual perspective of a very minor government official. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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