Anna Veprinska: A New Voice Comes to the City

Spirit Clenched by Anna Veprinska

 “We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.” Robert Kelly

for BW Powe

By J.S. Porter

Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz says that when a new poet arrives at the city’s gates, you need to drive a stake in the ground.  I drove a mental stake in my imagination when I first read Anna Veprinska: this is a poet I need to read more of, I need to be in touch with; she knows the weight and worth of words.  Her diction is spare, precise, and evocative.

I first read Veprinska in prose, a review of B.W. Powe’s The Charge in the Global Membrane with street art photos by Marshall Soules, then I read her in poetry. Like many poets, she is a strong prose writer.

Her principal prose work, a study of selected twentieth-century traumas from the Holocaust to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina and the accompanying poetry around trauma, makes for engaging and unsettling reading.  Her structural innovation is particularly striking in the book: The Unsaid; The Unhere; The Ungod.  “The un prefix gestures at reversal, unrest, and negation,” she writes. “This prefix invokes that which is absent, while the root words, ‘said,’ ‘here,’ and ‘god’ invoke that which is present.  The duality and tension between absence and presence mirror the duality and tension integral to empathetic dissonance.”

Anna Veprinska has read and internalized the work of many poets, not just the ones she writes about in her Empathy in Contemporary Poetry after Crisis (Rankine, Reznikoff, Szymborska, Celan, Brand, Clifton, Delbo, etc.). No one writes without ancestors, without spirit guides, who are present in one’s word-making.  Every poet’s voice gathers strength from the ancestral and contemporary voices of other poets.   In scholar-poet Anna Veprinska’s case, Emily Dickinson is her grandmother, and Paul Celan is her father.

Like Dickinson, she breaks stale words into freshness. Like Celan, she cuts language from habitual patterns and grooves.  She works by compression in her untitled poems, expressing a great deal with the fewest possible words.

Veprinska moves quickly, with lunges and leaps.  She sketches a scene: thin walls, neighbours. Then: “…illness/sieves/as water/through tea leaves.  Then the leap: “…We/ bequeath fever/and the fleshy/longing/of prayer.” The startling juxtaposition of fever and prayer lingers.

In the poem beginning with the word shame, Veprinska distills a dissertation into speed and physicality.

 

Shame

kneads

under

my knucklebones,

catches

in a fissure,

burrows in.

 

In another poem where the speaker is “Wombed” in an apartment with a plant, tea, and books, she begins to sweep.  “The couple/one floor below/welcomes/my caress.”  The image is funny and poignant, and wild – the smallest gesture by one person affects others.

Some poems move in and out of realism, surrealism, and what some Latin American critics call “magic realism,” as in the poem beginning with the word “Faces.”  The images are fresh and novel:  “Faces/wrinkle/like fork patterns/in mashed potatoes” or, here comes another leap, “sporadic lovers/who – after years/of fusing and fleeing -/marry in secret/in a garden/on a whim.”

Some poems leave me spellbound and in awe, as in this Celanesque utterance (see his “With wine and being lost”):

 

Hum

of your human,

de-goded:

a cantata

heavy

with ache –

hum and, hum and.

 

I haven’t given enough thought to our “de-goded” world, and how disenchantment may be related to the de-goding, a theme Nietzsche explored with great perspicacity a century ago.

In the poem directly following “Hum,” Veprinska once again finds unique images to surround movement:

 

As through corn

fields, we wade

through selves

leaved with fickleness,

furled

with hesitation,

spirit-clenched

 

this human homeland.

 

The natural world of cornfields and leaves is yoked with the emotional states of fickleness and hesitation as the reader wades through cornfields.

The last poem in Spirit-clenched, and the clenching for me simultaneously suggests a tightening and a springing, a release, brings to mind Emily Dickinson, with her empty spaces. “Each encounter/letrasets ghosts” the speaker ventures, and “Haunting/is an inner/job, a homing/pigeon.”  See Dickinson’s poem 407 beginning with the line “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.”

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reminds us that writers (poets) are not racehorses competing with each other, but workhorses, pulling, in common harness, the great cart of Literature.  When you read Spirit-clenched, mark the date on your calendar or drive a stake in the ground – a new voice, a new workhorse, has entered the city with a small but vital part of literature.


Anna Veprinska
Anna Veprinska

A University of Toronto note on the poet:

“Anna Veprinska joins the Department of History as an SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow. Her book Empathy in Contemporary Poetry after Crisis was published with Palgrave Macmillan in 2020 and is currently shortlisted for the MSA First Book Award. She has articles published in Contemporary Literature and The Bristol Journal of English Studies. She has also published the full-length poetry collection Sew with Butterflies (Steel Bananas) and the poetry chapbook Spirit-clenched (Gap Riot Press). She holds an SSHRC-funded Ph.D. in English from York University, where she won the Dissertation Prize, and a Master’s in English from the University of Oxford. She has taught courses at York University, Seneca College, and the Poetry School.”

A note on the publisher:

“Gap Riot Press publishes experimental, visual, innovative, and genre-blurring work by primarily Canadian poets that push the limits of poetry. Gap Riot Press is run collaboratively by women. Gap Riot Press is anarchist at its heart and communal by nature. Gap Riot Press manifests from the dire need for new voices not only in what we read and hear but in the very production and publication of poetic texts. Gap Riot Press introduces a new invasive species of poetics and production that is radical, intersectional, and speaks contrasting volumes. Gap Riot Press began and continues in conversation.”

Kate Siklosi and Dani Spinosa are the founding editors of the press.

Anna Veprinska, Spirit-clenched, Gap Riot Press, Toronto, 2020: Staple bound, 20 pages, available from the publisher for 10 dollars.

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