The Scar We Know

i really wanted to meet lesbians and feminists

Reviewed by Rosa Simone McCann

Widely considered the founder of a new era of queer feminist poetry in Russia – one committed to the direct depiction of the realities of sexual and gender based violence – Lida Yusupova becomes newly accessible to English-speaking audiences with her with her first full length collection in English translation, The Scar We Know, published in 2020. The Scar We Know contains poems from three of Yusupova’s previously published Russian collections – Dead Dad, Verdicts, and Ritual C-4 – and involved many translators working in tandem: Siblean Forrester, Martha Kelly, Brendan Kiernan, Madeline Kinkel, Hilah Kohen, Ainsley Morse, Stephanie Sandler, Joseph Schlegel, and Bela Shayevich.

Her unflinching descriptions of physical – and importantly sexual – violence make Yusupova’s poetry remarkable in its Russian context, where it is rare to find explicit depictions of rape in print. In fact, reviewer Josephine von Zitzewitz claims that Yusupova’s radicality lies in her identification of “violence as a dominant subject.” Indeed, almost every poem in The Scar We Know touches upon some form of brutality, whether accidental, self-inflicted – as in the case of Dima’s self-harm and suicide in “the scar we’ve known about from the very beginning” – or the result of unequivocal hatred, as in the murders of Vitaly Igorevich and the unnamed victim G.

These last two characters, whose poems appear in Yusupova’s Verdicts Cycle, are murder victims victimized twice over: once by their respective killers, and a second time by the hideously unjust verdicts they received at the hands of the Russian Criminal Justice System. Yusupova lifts the language of the Verdicts poems directly from legal websites and publicized legal documents; all of the poems deal with “verdicts handed down in Russian courts between the years of 2010 and 2017.”

In light of this new English edition, however, the question remains: can Anglophone readers, experiencing Yusupova’s poetry in translation, truly appreciate Yusupova’s defiance of Russian tradition, a tradition largely founded on what editor and translator Ainsley Morse calls “a more cultivated discourse founded on formal subtlety and things left unsaid” ? Although the subject of rape remains taboo, American readers are more accustomed to representations of sexual violence in literature. Adrienne Rich’s “Rape,” for example, first published in the 70s, confronts head on the reality of state complicity in sexual violence.

Even in English, however, Yusupova’s poem “Mateyuk” cuts through the noise of translational protocol. In fact, the poem’s endless repetition – “это неправильно, это неправильно,” repeated ad infinitum – renders the language of the poem itself meaningless. Whether written in Russian or in English translation, Yusupova recreates a scene of sexual violence numbing in its universality; the recurrent sound and cadence of words, which, for poet Oksana Vasyakina, evoke “the blunt movement of non-consensual sex,” forbid detached or passive listenership. Here, Yusupova accomplishes an astonishing act of translingual communication.

Other acts of poetic rebellion on Yusupova’s part, conspicuous in their original context, are also buried in the process of translation. Many poems in the collection take place in Toronto, Canada or San Pedro, Belize, and in these instances, Yusupova must twist and stretch her Russian in order to encompass her North and Central American settings: Anglophone names and Western brands create punctures in the fabric of the language. Reading “obeah!” my mother encountered the word “oreo” written in Cyrillic for the first time. Ainsley Morse describes Yusupova’s poetry as “an experience of genuine defamiliarization… written in Russian but feeling somehow not Russian.”

As Morse admits, however, any English translation of these poems must necessarily sacrifice some measure of their disorienting quality. In English, words like “oreo” no longer appear incongruous, and the linguistic contortions necessary to adapt these words to Cyrillic are lost on Anglophone readers. Perhaps the experience Morse describes is best preserved in the poem “saxifrage ᐃᒡᓗᓕᒑᕐᔪᒃ,” in which Yusupova stolidly refuses to to translate or transliterate the words of the Inuit language Inuktitut. In other words, Yusupova’s poetry already constitutes an act of translation: the translation of far away worlds, some of them Anglophone, into Russian. Paradoxically, an English translation of these poems strips away one level of linguistic complexity, neutralizing the contrast between Russian and English which exists only in the


“saxifrage ᐃᒡᓗᓕᒑᕐᔪᒃ” makes for a jarring introduction to The Scar We Know. As I read through the rest of the collection, I wondered if the preservation of certain Cyrillic words in the English translation would have better preserved the sense of the original poetry. But while the name “Маргареты Агнессы Клэй” situated in the midst of a poem in English conveys the idea of a cultural transplant, it confuses more than it elucidates. Yusupova’s poetry incorporates foreign language, including English names and Western brands. By writing these words in Cyrillic, she halfway assimilates them, stretching the boundaries of what is recognizably Russian. The preservation of Cyrillic in English translation would confound Yusupova’s project, as the team of translators who collaborated to create the edition seem to understand. There is no easy way to recapture in English the linguistic dynamism contained in the word “орео.”

In spite of this translational difficulty, the Verdicts stand out in the collection as some of the only poems which really locate foreign readers in Russia specifically. Textual fragments like “City of  rasnogorsk” and “Russian Federation Criminal Code,” as well as Russian names – “prosecutor D.V. Kozlov” and “defendant A. A. Rodionov” – remind us that the violence depicted here belongs uniquely to Russia: in Vasyakina’s words a “country of blind and wordless brutality.”

Even Yusupova’s formal choices can’t escape a certain dilution as they appear in English. As Zitzewitz writes, Yusupova’s rejection of traditional rhymed and metered verse – “features that remains common to much poetry written in Russian” – make less of an impression on English readers. Only at times does Yusupova’s radical disregard for poetic form carry the weight it would have in a Russian context. We must return to the poem “Mateyuk,” in which text overflows the barriers of form entirely and, like water, which takes the shape of its container, fills the page with the single, endlessly repeated phrase “this isn’t right.”

As Ainsley Morse observes, Yusupova is “not just using Russian to describe foreign phenomena.” Instead, “these poems [are] those phenomena, they [make] them.” Nowhere is this more true than in “Mateyuk,” which in both form and content approaches a kind of transcultural universality that surpasses many of the translational difficulties associated with the resituation of Yusupova’s Russian poems in an Anglophone context. Perhaps, in fact, the final pages of “Mateyuk” ultimately require no translation; they speak of pain – and the circumstance of sexual violence – in every language.