No. 10 - 11


A review by James McConalogue             
 _________________The Sum Total of Violations:
poetry grasping at humanity, freedom and mortality ___________________________

Regina Derieva. The Sum Total of Violations
(Translated by Daniel Weissbort). Arc Publications, 2009.
ISBN: 978-1906570101 

Not so long ago, during a snowy February house-bound weekend, I 
happened to stumble upon an opinion article in the Sunday newspapers 
by the exceptional ex-broadcaster, Joan Bakewell, claiming “in what are 
seen as troubled times, poetry remains untouched by such transient 
matters” – transient matters being the “trappings of worldly things”. 
I found it peculiar at that time that Regina Derieva’s latest poetry 
collection, The Sum Total of Violations, should drop through my door 
with its covers enclosing pages on the transience of life itself, on the 
ontology of human beings trapped inside their encountering of time and
mortality as it presses upon them, the poetic study by a Russian poet 
expressing cognitions and insights on life, the end of life, death and 
existence as lived out in the ‘trappings of worldly things’.

In her new collection, Russian-born Derieva has moulded a fine collection,
rich in threads of free-thinking verse layered with a Christian playfulness,
a brutally mortal philosophy of existential time ever-concerned with 
inevitable death, and grounded uncomfortably in a poetic self-expressive
freedom from authoritarian Russian isolationism and yet ultimately, 
providing lines which appeal to a common humanity. It left me thinking 
most ironically – perhaps the greatest living Western poet today is not 
in fact any of the elitist European academicians that so often spring to 
mind, but a free-verse practitioner, a woman, a Russian … 

… And a Christian poet. The presence of the Christian story and symbols
are such that when Tomas Venclova introduces the collection he insists 
that “Derieva is, first and foremost, a Christian poet, a worthy heir to the 
long line of metaphysical poets, be they English, French or Russian.” It is
worth bearing in mind that the religiosity is not intense, nor as misplaced 
as critics might sometimes suggest since she finds a fair equilibrium, even 
a comical balance, in introducing Christian images into a contemporary 
first person narrative. The way in which this is achieved might surprise 
some British poets accustomed to either romantic atheistic verse on the 
one hand or on the other hand, for example, Pauline Stainer’s subtle use 
of Biblical characters or moments underpinning myths of the modern 
world. In the ten-part ‘ArchangelEngland’, the archangels appear 
personified on a journey from London to Brighton – Raphael as a “jolly 
travelling companion” wearing a tweed jacket, Michael a “protector 
against evil” and Gabriel, a “dispatcher of good news.” Whilst the 
personal framework appears to be devoutly Christian, she finds room for
self-mockery in the treatment of religious character, preserving a free-
thinking humour throughout: “Only ten or so commandments / Did men 
receive from God. / A lot more they thought up for themselves / So as not
to have to obey the first ten.”  (Reduced World, p. 153) But there is also
context to the author’s Christianity.
Much of the everyday religious and political upheaval experienced by 
Regina Derieva during her life explains the themes and methods devised 
for her poems. Born in Odessa, Ukraine, in 1949, Derieva spent form 1965 
until 1991 living and working in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. A practising poet
since the age of 15, whilst graduating in the university studies of music,
Russian philology and literature, her first books were heavily censured 
by the Soviet authorities. Interestingly, following requests from others, 
she later became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. It was later 
in 1990 that she was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and only 
later that she left Russia, eventually settling in Sweden (after an unsettling
period in Israel). It would be crass to suggest that such upheaval ends 
with any poetic self-torture devices since it is clear, as Joseph Brodsky 
once wrote of Derieva’s work, “The real authors here are poetry and 
freedom themselves.” The free-thinking imagination set in vers libre is 
refreshing, a cognitive poet of propositions, at last free from the 
contemporary poetry of super-linguistic dialogues and academic codes 
of unappealing, overly-deconstructed language in contemporary poetry. 
It is uplifting also, then, that her approach represents, in her own 
words, the “…utter freedom of silence”; the references to discourse and
quotations are scarce. And it is the freedom that remains important to 
Derieva’s work.
When I first encountered Derieva’s work a few years ago (certainly, I am 
a latecomer), I was attracted to her underlying fatalism and the philosophy 
of time and mortality in which progress and death are perceived as ever-
threatening. It invokes W. H. Auden’s reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 
and his poetry: rooted in history, the subject must experience the limits of 
her own mortality. Back then, I insisted in Gregor Milne’s Projected Letters
that the poems often critically addressed a progressive concept of time, 
from which one must pull oneself from and even leave behind in order to 
salvage the humanity of the person. I even dared to attempt to replicate 
that style a few years ago in my own collection, Starry Dandelion Night
The reference to the “wild wind” appeared to be that of time, as progress, dragging the individual through time. It is posed against humanity since the
wild wind clearly prevents one from becoming a human being: “I should 
remember I am a human being/ But the wild wind prevents me.” (Derieva, 
At the Intersection  – N.B. this is not in the new collection). 
The comparisons with Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of 
History, in his own poetic expressions on the angel of history, run 
through my mind: the inner tensions of progress, symbolised as the wind 
in that poem, pull the individual from the human situation in which they are
capable of living. The oppression of time and progress continues to play 
out everywhere in this collection. The phrase “Time oppresses Brodsky”
(p. 17) says it all: time is a closet enemy from which the individual must 
pull herself and shape her existence. 
So, two sorts of thoughts come to mind in reading Derieva’s most recent 
collection – one, the real freedom of verse and two, the fatigued 
contemplation of life inching easily towards death. The freedom of verse is
obvious, largely accentuated by the childhood simplicity of its language, 
imagery and playful humour. The expression of fatigue in relation to death 
is less apparent but always present. Time is persistently pushing itself 
through life – “Time, which I once had plenty of, / has shoved me onto an 
express.” (‘On the Nature of Desire’, p.37). Again, in the poem ‘Grasp’, 
“Life is an inn, / where you spend one night only / and in the morning / they
find you dead.” (‘Grasp’, p.111) Life is the battle being lost against the 
rollercoaster of time. The passing is not mere existential commentary or an 
intense Heideggerian summing of being-in-time because interestingly, for 
Derieva, resolution of existing sits somewhere nearer to God. Some sort of 
soul survives the impressions of decay: “Death can hardly hinder the soul / 
which is not subject to decay, / and is impotent, in any case, / if you look 
upon God’s countenance.” (‘Mea Maxima Culpa’, p.21).  There is a sense 
of religious optimism and transcendence coupled with humility that makes 
the collection a refreshing break from the immediate unfettered egoism of 
many modern metropolitan poetry scenes. In sum: well worth a read.




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