“Paper-Thin Skin,” by Aigerim Tazhi. Translated from the Russian by J. Kates. Zephyr Press, 2019.
Aigerim Tazhi is a Kazakhstani poet writing in Russian. “Paper-Thin Skin” is her second book of poems, separated from her first by sixteen years. She was born in 1981.
Skin, human skin, is paper thin. The poems in “Paper-Thin Skin” are thinner than paper. They are as thin as possible. Sheer-thin skin. Chiffon-thin. Tissue-paper thin. But skin is a cover, permeable, yet solid enough to hold everything back, creating a within, an inside. We see through the skin. Lines, veins. The title of this collection of 70 poems comes from line twelve of the thirteen line first poem:
“Your name? Say the word out loud.
A furrowed face. The angle of the sun shifts.
Paper-thin skin translucent,
letters shine through the forehead.”
Among the many striking characteristics of Tazhi’s poetry is her use of the poetic line. The line in poetry is perhaps the most important element. The poetic line, not a sentence, not a fragment, can run on (enjambment is popular) but it ends unexpectedly and unrepentantly and may or may not seem to comment on what came before or foreshadow what’s to come next. Yet, if the key characteristic of Tazhi’s poetic line is that each line seems complete, with or without punctuation or enjambment, it also fits perfectly into what becomes a poetic emergent form, where the whole is unpredicted by any of its individual parts. The line is not necessarily a sentence. The line may be a breath, an image, dependent on neither subject nor predicate, nor any particular part of speech.
Sentence fragments are permissible, often preferred. Still, that’s not to say a line of Tazhi’s poetry can’t be a sentence, and it often is, a simple sentence, too:
“Rain ran over a keyboard of leaves.” (23)
The perfect sentence fragment creates tension, a waiting:
“A face intersected by the damp line
of a drop hanging off the tip of a nose.” (23)
That eight line poem, which begins “Rain ran over…” – each line is a container of some kind for water. Each line is its own poem that contributes to a narrative of an infusion in rain. Wetness ensues. We get wet reading.
The poems are all untitled. And short. The book is divided into three parts: “I” runs from page 2 through 47 and contains 23 poems, the longest of which is 17 lines; “II” runs from page 51 through 95 and includes 23 poems, the longest of which is 18 lines; “III” runs from page 98 through 145, contains 24 poems, the longest, 20 lines. The English version of each poem is on the right hand facing page (recto), the Russian on the left (verso). Each two page section is headed with 3 asterisks above the Russian version. No single poems run beyond one page, in Russian or English. There being no titles to any of the poems, the Table of Contents lists the poems by page number and first lines, Russian above English. Thus the first lines may be called titles, but the Russian version titles are all surrounded by quotation marks, not so the English, while the Russian titles in the Table of Contents all end with an ellipsis of three dots, not found in the English – but the poem on 44/45 begins with an ellipsis, both the Russian and the English version:
“… and somewhere everyday life turned into a miracle”
And in that poem we see the characteristics used throughout the book come together in a halting narrative of observation and description. It seems this poem, like all the others, must be read at least twice in order to see the emergence perform itself. The poem appears, line by line, observes ordinary objects, then disappears:
“…and somewhere everyday life turned into a miracle
a dragonfly summer stock still
grows waterlilies in a shrinking pond
though i don’t need to, i’m going there”
We think we may need poetry, but we don’t. But we want poetry, just as we want ordinary things. And we prefer those things observed in the miracle of the vernacular. The speaker visits what appears to be a vacant house abandoned:
“i look at: was the blind swinging? no”
She’s apparently been to the house before, but not in the house. She gets close:
“the same teddy bear still lies
or that’s not it on the dusty piano
from over here i can not see for sure”
Another example containing Tazhi’s methods (of line use, non-sequential narrative, jumping juxtaposition, image and observation and description) is found in the poem on page 21. Again, each line is its own container, but we’re not sure of what until we reach the bottom. And we are waiting for something to unfold. Examples of containers are shown. Is the woman pregnant, her “own womb” also a container? What does this poem contain?
“In the house a window
In the window a pot
In the pot a twig
A drowsy woman is knitting booties
Inside her a fish swims without air
But she is content
She smiles as if to her own womb
At shouts in the street
At broken lights
At dark news from the bright box
The woman waits for the inevitable boy
A girl will do as well”
The poems occupy their own places, become ordinary things. We may not comprehend a poem any more than we understand a star, a man, a city, a sky. Seldom are there outside references; not much leads out of the poem. Nothing high tech, nor much of any technology mentioned. No games, no cell phones; there are few distractions. The punctuation is spare, inconsistent poem to poem. The sentence structure is simple, the syntax uncomplicated except where the lines un-rule against one another, seemingly randomly placed until the whole is perceived. The language is imagistic, descriptive, observant. Things have names. The poems are short and lyrical, patient yet somehow apprehensive, short takes on things: an electronic cigarette; city; flashlight; animals; fish. People, but without names (there’s a “Jimmy” on page 73, an “Ariadne” on page 101). Very few proper nouns. Not much sense of specific place – what place we might be in seems sparse, things carefully arranged to appear random. We could be anywhere; we are in the poem. The motion is from one observation to another – looking around a room. Small, daily violence; for example, where a cat takes a bird on page 83. Colors. A travel holiday that ends with a slide show back home (85). The slide show is not the trip. It is something else. A poem, maybe.
We get little feel of a popular culture. There is very little prosaic connective tissue. That is poetry. Snow, wind. Music of machines (83). Birds, apple, the dead, crab dinner. Anecdotal surprise. There is humor, maybe irony:
“She pours the cup of tea only half full
so he won’t stay long.” (75)
“She” the mother of the grown “he” who comes to visit, “weary,” on his mom’s birthday.
Always looking. Binoculars “distort” what the peeping poet sees (13). And you will have to have lived in an old building to get this:
“and somebody knocks in the night
rhythmically, like a god of radiators.”
At once, two-fold observations, the one literal, the other metaphorical. Named things and their actions: trees wake up; wind smells; shade shakes; insect dances; cat strangles…mouse (7).
“Paper-Thin Skin” is a self-contained world of poetry. Sheer poetry. Some attitude presents, but it’s not angry, nothing seems to blame. At the same time, we are in a city, a particular place at a particular time. We watch things and people come and go. Some can do neither:
“we prop our fat heads on our hands
saddled up at night again for matins pack-animals
we drag our barges arks years captivity of the city
harnessed tied to posts by our beards
forgotten and left to suffer forever” (133)
There’s no self-pity. The poems are realistic:
“Don’t take one last breath – nothing to breathe here.
In vain they say that country air cures.
Campfire smoke burns your nostrils.
it alters all outlines. Look closely.
Cut asters wilt in heaps.
A gardener uproots a linden
that never blossomed, not once.” (57)
We may prefer the city to the country, the high-rise to the cottage, wherever we find the angel:
“first a flood and finally a fly-boy
people looking for the exit in honeycombs of high-rises
the cross of an antenna catches the sky broadcasts
an angel sits on a satellite waving its wings” (135)
For readers wanting to learn what poetry is, or can be, what’s possible, this is one of the books.
Of course there’s the matter of poetry in translation. Never mind. Kates has the ear and pen for it. And, in his introduction, he explains that he worked closely with Aigerim Tazhi on the translations. And her work has, Kates says, been translated into several other languages. Of Russian, Kates quotes Tazhi as saying, “I did not choose the Russian language, did not evaluate it in terms of its attractiveness. It’s just the language that I’ve spoken since childhood” (xiv). Kates explains that it’s been difficult for writers from Kazakhstan to get attention, particularly hard for women writers, but that is changing. Kates quotes Tazhi from an interview she did for the Kazakhstani Forbes Magazine:
“I like to observe the world around me, then I think again about what is happening around and inside me, where I live, and what lives around me. In general, poems are ciphers an attentive reader picks up keys to, codes penetrating deeper and deeper into what is essential, gradually revealing each new layer of meanings….Perhaps [poetry] exists just so that a person can stop, look around” (xvi).
Perhaps this feeling for turning ordinary observation into words and lines in poems that reveal the astounding lends itself more readily to translation than a more abstract, philosophical, or ideological approach to poetry does. There’s no need to attempt to constrain any kind of poetic effort. We look forward to reading all kinds of new poems. But in Aigerim Tazhi’s poetry, we may find the marvelous that drew us to poetry to begin with.
Joe Linker is the QMT poetry editor from April, 2019, taking over from Erik Kennedy, Queen Mob’s second poetry editor, from May, 2015, who followed Laura A. Warman.