Brief Reviews

Olga Sedakova – Old Songs [Review]

Old SongsParadox in Poem-Form


A Review of

Old Songs
Olga Sedakova

Martha M. F. Kelly, translator
Paperback: Slant Books, 2023

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Reviewed by Shea Tuttle

My thirteen-year-old is a sufferer of what she and I have deemed SHS: squishy heart syndrome. She’s the kind of empath who sees a broken pencil on the floor in the middle school hallway and feels sad for it. In the summer before sixth grade, when the backpack she’d selected online arrived, I could tell she didn’t like it. “It’s okay,” I told her. “We can return it and get one you’ll really love.” “You don’t understand, Mom,” she explained through tears. “If I send it back, it will feel rejected.” God help her; she heads to high school next year.

Midway through Olga Sedakova’s Old Songs, I penciled “SHS!” at the top of a poem titled “9. Vision.” “[W]hy am I sorry for every last one?” the poem asks. “For the beasts—because they’re beasts, / for the water—because it flows, / for the evil man—since he’s unhappy, / and for myself—because I’m a fool” (39). Another poem late in the collection asks, “Why does the heart moan so?” and “What howls in the breast like a blizzard?” The poem closes, “If you could just cry—some way cry out / how sorry you feel for this splendid earth!” (61).

Kelly writes in her translator’s introduction that Sedokova emerged as a poet in the mid-1970s in what was then the Soviet Union. At that time, Kelly explains, “people were no longer executed for speaking out; but frank discussion took place only in relatively sheltered circles….For many, it was a time of hopelessness and suffocation” (ix). Kelly writes, “Into this context spoke a tender voice with uncommon authority…” Sedakova wrote most of the poems in this collection between 1980 and 1982 in what Kelly terms a “late-Soviet urban space,” and she notes that she’s writing her introduction to this translation in 2022, “with Russia destroying Ukrainian infrastructure as winter approaches” (xiii). Whether in the years of Sedakova’s emergence or during these days as she “is horrified by what her country is doing to a nation some of her oldest friends and closest collaborators call home,” Sedakova’s work speaks into times of conflict and change with vulnerability, insistence, paradox, and deep memory.

Sedakova’s deeply felt poetry is peppered with delicious tensions: feeling sorry for the earth though it is splendid (61), happiness and unhappiness at once (5), a path both desolate and passionate (45), understanding yet not understanding (33). These pairings are less dichotomies than paradoxes, less either/or than both/and, though one at a time may flash into view.

A poem titled “10. House” says, “We’ll build ourselves two tall houses: / one of gold and one of gloom, / and both will sound like the sea” (41). There are two houses, yet the poem’s title is singular: this is one house. Gold and gloom are together, in the world and in Sedakova’s poetry.

Indeed, the paradox in “The Return” of understanding yet not understanding was my experience of reading much of the collection. It sometimes felt—in the best way—like walking through fog: fresh and fecund and beautiful, surrounding clouds reliably giving way to the clarity of what is near, sometimes suddenly, while keeping farther realities out of view.


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Sedakova’s work has a natural sensibility that calls Mary Oliver to mind; her engagement with mystery and the divine evoke Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. Old Songs, as the title suggests, draws often on scriptural myth– “myth” not in the sense of illusion but in the deep sense, that of meaning-making story. Adam, Noah, Rachel; Mary, Elizabeth, Lazarus; Epiphany and Christmas; Lord, Savior, God and God Almighty. But these do not read as “Christian poems.” They read instead as fertile wanderings into mysteries like life and death, happiness and unhappiness, meaning and meaninglessness. “In every word, you’ll find a road,” she writes in “12. Conclusion” (45). She resists serene answers, like in the aptly titled “8. Objection,” where a seemingly wise old woman says, “It’s good and warm on God’s green earth. / Like peas cradled in their pods, / we curl up in God’s palms.” The poem’s narrator responds internally: “I nodded, but in my mind, I said, / ‘Be quiet, you stupid old woman. / There’s more than you know that goes on’” (17).

Many of Sedakova’s poems include or suggest dialogue, though it’s often unclear who is speaking. Her grandmother is one presence; the section titled “Second Notebook” is dedicated to her, and “Third Notebook” is in her memory. Most often, the speakers are somewhat blurred, and one can easily and pleasantly wander/wonder through the poem’s voices. As in the poem about the (un)wise woman, it’s not always clear who is “right”; it is generally clear that’s not the point.

A few of the poems, or parts of poems, read as prayers. My favorite closes this way:

Change me into a cut gem,
and lose me from your ring
in the desert sand. 

And let it lie there in peace,
not inwardly or outwardly,
but everywhere, like a mystery.

And no one would ever see it,
just the light inside and the light outside.

 And the light, it plays like children,
wee children and tame beasts.

(“9. Request,” 19)

Shea Tuttle

Shea Tuttle is the author of Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, co-author with Michael G. Long of Phyllis Frye and the Fight for Transgender Rights, and co-editor of two collections on faith and justice. Her essays and poetry have appeared at The New York Times Magazine, Bitch Media, Image, The Toast, and other outlets. She holds an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Shea lives in Virginia with her family. Find her online at SheaTuttle.com

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