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Review: The Sum Total of Violations, by Regina Derieva

The Sum Total of Violations is the second substantial collection of Regina Derieva's poetry in English. The previous American publication Regina Derieva: Alien Matter: New and Selected Poems, translated by various hands (New York: Spuyten Duyvil), appeared in 2006. It contained a more or less chronological selection of her poems dating back to 1978.

In the Translator's Preface to this edition, Daniel Weissbort notes that it is Derieva's recent work that he finds particularly sympathetic. Thus readers can assume that this selection contains mainly later poems, although only two poems are supplied with dates. Derieve was brought up and lived most of her life in Kazakhstan, in its industrial capital Karaganda. In the Soviet era, some labour camps were situated in that remote region. The poems in Part 1 of the collection clearly reflect her feelings and attitudes toward that life.

In 1991 she was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church. Derieva was also a member of the Union of Soviet Writers. However, the new religious motifs in her poetry could not appeal to official Soviet ideology and soon afterwards she emigrated to Israel with her husband.

Derieva's life in some respects is not untypical of that of other Russian poets. Because of her religion, life in Israel was not much happier than it had been in the Soviet Union. Similarly to the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who was rejected both at home and in the country of her emigration, Derieva was refused Israeli citizenship and only in 1999 was allowed to leave for Sweden. The years in Israel sharpened her sense of alienation and estrangement, which can be seen in such poems as There was no need to learn the language, Estrangement, From under Aesop's Constellation and many others in this collection. At the same time she developed a sense of curiosity about the way people live in other countries, which is quite vividly reflected in such narrative poems as Archangelengland ('Archangeloanglia' in Russian sounds better), Point of Expansion, and others. Her poetry became more metaphysical and epigrammatic. It is also very sincere (this is typical of Russian poetry in general). Derieva writes both rhymed verse and free verse usually using a stanzaic arrangement for her poems. These two qualities may make her poetry sound a little old-fashioned for the English reader.

Daniel Weissbort's choice of poems reflects his principle that one should translate only those works with which one feels affinity, which seem 'close' and 'speak directly to' him as the translator. He also directly admits that his method of translation is close reading and whenever possible a more or less literal rendering of the original. This is understandable if we remember Weissbort's experience of translating Brodsky, which he described in the amazing and deeply thought-through book From Russian with Love - Joseph Brodsky in English (Anvil). It seems that in case of Derieva this method works well for the translator. Some poems sound very good in English (From under Aesop's Constellation, for example). Some are inevitably inferior to the original (Prime Colours). Some poems from Reduced World seem almost better in translation.

In this highly personal selection, Daniel Weissbort has created a voice for Derieva in English, which is probably the most important task of all.