Published 21st March 2024. Available for pre-order.
The outbreak of Covid-19 cut short Maria Stepanova's stay in Cambridge. Back in Russia, she spent the ensuing months in a state of torpor - the world had withdrawn from her, time had "gone numb". When she awoke from this state, she began to read Ovid, and the shock of the pandemic dissolved into the voices and metaphors of an epochal experience.
Her book-length poem Holy Winter 20/21, written in a frenzy of poetic inspiration, speaks of winter and war, of banishment and exile, of social isolation and existential abandonment. Stepanova finds sublime imagery for the process of falling silent, interweaving love letters and travelogues, Chinese verse and Danish fairy tales into a polyphonic evocation of frozen and slowly thawing time. Following her previous book of poetry, War of the Beasts and the Animals - in part a response to the Donbas conflict - her book's title is even more prophetic now, echoing a famous patriotic Soviet song from 1941, 'a holy war is underway'.
Born in 1972, Maria Stepanova - as poet and essayist - was a highly influential figure for many years in Moscow's cosmopolitan literary scene until its suppression along with civil liberties and dissent under Putin's latter-day reign of terror. Her first prose work In Memory of Memory established her internationally as one of the most important intellectual voices of contemporary Russia. Her poetry, which here echoes verses by Pushkin and Lermontov, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, is not hermetic.
She takes in the confusing signals from social networks and the media, opening herself up to the voices of kindred poets like Sylvia Plath, Inger Christensen and Anne Carson. She has moreover mastered modern poetry's rich repertoire of forms and moves effortlessly between the linguistic and traditional spaces of Russian, European and transatlantic literature. In her prose, Stepanova searches for the essence of the moment in the maelstrom of historical time.
As an essayist, she traces the reactions of her critical consciousness; taken together, her politically alert commentaries form a chronicle of the troubled present.