In the Eye of the Storm: What Poems Written in January are Silent about

A review by Selina Taisengirova

Translated by Alyona Timofeyeva

Qantar and The Limits of Silence are two collections of poems by Kazakhstani authors who were at the heart of the tragic January events that claimed numerous lives of ordinary people. The Limits of Silence came out on the Dox platform almost in the wake of what happened, and Qantar in the February issue of the magazine “LiTTERAtura”.

In many ways, these collections are similar. The authors are the most notable Kazakh poets who write and publish in Russian and Kazakh. Many of them are represented in both publications. But there is also an important difference: the texts in the “LiTTERAtura” were written during the days of Bloody January, when residents of Kazakhstan were were compelled to shelter at home without communication and Internet, while people were being killed on the streets. The selection on the Dox for the most part includes works by the same authors written much earlier, when it was difficult to imagine that something like that could happen in our country. 

At the same time, an unintended, and therefore even more reliable connection arises between the events of the past and the present, between both publications. There is a thread that stretches from the present back in time, and each author has touched it in his or her own way. For example, Ksenia Rogozhnikova:

they say
loving kindness
has flooded our entire country
go ahead now
to wish yourself
to ask for forgiveness
from your enemy
--"The Limits of Silence"

light-and-sound grenades
traffic lights off
the crowd that walks
down the middle of the street
in the streets of the city
  -- "Qantar", also in full here.

Or, from Irina Gumyrkina:

Only where it's thin--there the fragile ice cracks,
the thread falls apart, and all sound is silenced:
life comes to a stop just like a broken clock.

- "The Limits of Silence"

And it's scary, Lord, it's so scary: 
there's no way to escape this left. 
The tower stands black on the square, 
snow falls to the ground dead. 

- "Qantar"

In my opinion, this connection is especially evident in the two texts that become each collection’s respective centers of gravity. The first is the poem by Yedilbek Duysen “1782 KM” translated by Anuar Duysenbinov, which gave the name to the whole collection “The Limits of Silence”:

an ancient
tentative hope
turned into patience
and perished
somewhere in the limits
of silence... see your nightmare's shadow in daylight when you look over your shoulder and think: 

look, we are all riding one dandelion head
through the heart of the storm
clasping at seed stems

The second is Zair Asim’s poem “We are Silence” in Qantar:

we want to have wishes but it's as if we're not there
we are as out of reach as the dead
it is unbearable this silence...
...we are an empty space
we are the silence

Are there limits to silence, are we there when there is no hope, can we shout over the storm when silence is unbearable? On a physical, emotional and mental level, these texts create probably the most accurate sense of what is happening to people in a situation of global cataclysm in which Kazakhstan finds itself.

At the same time, we see in these collections living notes from shelter or hideaway, reminiscent of  Anne Frank’s diary entries or Sartre’s “No exit”, where “hell turns out to be an ordinary room in which three sinners are locked up forever.” And if the family of Anne Frank was locked up and cut off from the whole world because of the persecution of the Nazis, can we consider the similar predicament of Almaty’s residents truly coincidental? Or are the coincidences not accidental, and life itself throws us secret clues?

Interestingly, there are more than twenty authors in these two collections, and they are all completely different – by age, by self-identification and national affiliation, by the language they think in, and the environment in which they exist. But if you look at the poems written before the January events, then they are all united by the understanding that something has gone seriously wrong at the global level in our country and our life, and the sense of foreboding is overwhelming. of what is coming is insurmountable.

So Aurelia Akmullayeva deconstructs Kazakhstan’s national anthem to compares the hackneyed messages about the eternal Kazakh land and independence with a tranquilizer injection. Its frequent use leads to an overdose and early death, like happened with many stars who are in the sad circle of the “Club 27”. Oral Arukenova paints Kazakhstan’s “end of the world” as cyclical and endlessly repetitive: “here in the middle world without changes, akyr zaman becomes permanent.” And Victoria Rusakova sees her homeland as a mother who has had no milk in her breasts for a thousand years and whose children are fed the same mixture Aurelia calls a tranquilizer injection.

Returning to the “Diary of Anne Frank”: just as in the notes of this ordinary girl, in many texts of the Qantar collection, written directly during the rampant war outside the windows, we see a lot of everyday, completely ordinary and such human details:

my eight-year-old
writes in her journal: 
"We have a war here now
and must stay at home,
but the neighborhood store
is already restocked
with bread 
and potatoes"
- Ksenia Rogozhnikova

The DVD player 
and disks we got down from the shelf
but couldn't find the right
cables -
those movies still rock
- Aleksei Shvabauer

I will hold your hand,
so that you can sleep, 
and you, please, hold my hand, 
so that I can sleep
- Vadim Dergachev

Probably, it is this simple, patient and unpretentious humanity that allows us to hold on in terrible circumstances, that gives us the very hope for which we search in vain in political figures, social movements, and promising reforms. We are constantly losing in the information and political war, becoming victims or tools in someone’s hands. But for now, while remaining completely different, we look at unshakable things in the same way – we will not be the losers in this war.

Selina Taisengirova was born in Almaty, graduated from KazNPU named after Abay. Majored in Russian language and literature. Graduate of Pavel Bannikov Poetry Seminar in the Open Literary School of Almaty (2017-2018). Editor of the criticism and journalism section in the literary magazine “Dactyl”. The author of poetic collections published on “Polutona” and in “Dactyl” magazine. Finalist of the Metajournal literary award in the nomination “Poem of the Year” (2021). Entered the prize list of the Russian literary prize “Poetry” (2021).

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