Elena Ignatova was born in Leningrad in 1947. She became an artistic dissident with regard to the hopelessly compromised literary establishment, but never joined the more alienated literary “underground.” She published in samizdat until the appearance of her only officially recognized book, Teplaia zemliia (The Warm Earth) in 1989. In 1990, Ignatova and her family moved to Israel, where she has worked as a screenwriter of cultural documentaries.
Her poetry exists in a tense balance between her former life in Russia, particularly in the St. Petersburg that was Leningrad, and her subsequent life and its perspectives in Jerusalem. In the last decade it contrasts the new, ancient environs of Jerusalem, described as crystalline and thus distinct from St. Petersburg's characteristic granite, a more chaotically igneous material.
Ignatova says, “I am convinced that art is active: it can reflect the destruction of the world, of the historical connections of eras, of the human soul—or, on the contrary, can strengthen those connections. I have always wanted to write about the internal connection, the harmony of the world even in difficult times, about the connection of the past with our own fates, about Russia, about the connections of spaces: of the world of the Russian village, where I passed my childhood, of St. Petersburg and the Holy Land.”
Ignatova's work mobilizes remnants of old poetic solemnity, religious, official or even folk locutions, along with Soviet officialese and conversational vocabulary. Her earlier poetry tends to be formally looser and more experimental, but her mature work is much more classical. Thus, her distinctive voice feels familiar, or better, familial, to a reader who knows her predecessors: she consciously continues their tradition in this and other ways. Her work draws attention to the tragic disharmony between the way things are and the way they should be. Russian history flashes a dark side from the days of Prince Igor or the Mongol invasions, through the oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, to the Revolution, the Second World War, and beyond. Recent poems reflect current realities from Chernobyl to the current wars in Asia.
Poetry then is the “diving bell” of her title, protecting the poet as well as her readers in a hostile, often toxic environment. It becomes a source of values and ways to approach and understand experience, while still depicting the flaws and compromises of human beings who live in an imperfect world.
Sibelan Forrester translates from Russian, Serbian and Croatian. She is an associate professor of Russian in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures at Swarthmore College.
The Diving Bell, by Elena Ignatova
The Diving Bell
from Russian by Sibelan Forrester
ISBN 0-939010-85-2 (paper)
5¼ x 8
144 pages [bilingual Russian/English]