Russian Poetry Finds a Prodigy in 12-Year-Old Nika Turbina
Listening to Nika Turbina recite her poetry can be a little frightening. Fists clenched before her, her gaze raised to some inspiration in the middle distance, she declaims in a voice that seems preternaturally large for her slim, pubescent body.
Heavy are my verses—
I will carry them up to the crag,
The resting place.
I will fall face down in the weeds,
Tears will not do.
I will rend my strophe—
The verse will burst out crying.
Pain cuts into my palm—
The day's bitter taste turns
All to words.
Weighty stuff, especially considering that the poet, now 12, wrote those lines when she was only 8 years old. "Poetry has no age," declares the pretty, serious-minded Turbina. "I write for all people." Turbina published her first book, First Draft, with an introduction by Soviet super-bard Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in 1984, and an LP of her recitations has sold 30,000 copies in the Soviet Union. Translations of First Draft have been published in France and Italy, and a British edition is in the works. The book has won Italy's Golden Lion of Venice for poetry.
Such literary success is already familiar to Turbina, who extemporized her first complete poem at age 4, according to her divorced mother, Maya, a graphic artist, but the child was a prodigy long before that. At 8 months, she was speaking in a vocabulary that included 20 English words. She then lapsed into almost total silence until age 2, when she suddenly became completely conversational in Russian. Instead of talking, however, little Nika preferred to sing whatever she wanted to say. Rather than stifle this behavior, her parents decided to sing back. When Nika was 3, her pronouncements began to take poetic form, and her mother started writing them down.
Turbina was discovered at 6 by writer Yulian Semyonov, who lives part of the year in her hometown of Yalta. He read her verses, he says, called the editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda and told him, "Listen, there's a real Russian poet living in Yalta." A correspondent was sent to interview Turbina and came away appropriately astonished. "It's hard to explain Nika," says Semyonov. "An easy life, but difficult poetry."
Turbina's talent sets her apart from her classmates in school, where she has skipped ahead a grade. "At first you don't know how to talk to her, as a child or as an adult," says Soviet émigré Lilia Todd, who once visited Nika and her mother for a week. "She was about 10 years old then, and she already had a kind of womanly character." Yet, adds Todd, Nika could abruptly shift into a playful, childlike mood. She studies the piano and her favorite subject is mathematics, which she sees as akin to verse. "Poetry and mathematics are one," she says. "When I say that my poems are close to mathematics, I don't have in mind calculation. I have in view expansiveness, that peace, a sensation I try to re-create."
Her thoughts come in rushing spates, broken by pauses during which she massages her brow with her forefingers, as if to escape scrutiny behind her hand for a moment. In a country whose taxi drivers can quote Pushkin and whose most popular poets can fill football stadiums for readings from their works, Turbina will receive more and more attention as the years go by. Poetry has more power in the Soviet Union than in any other nation in the world. Which means that this serious little girl is likely someday to have an enormous influence. "Why do I suffer?" she asks. "Because I live. The world is not full of color. Somewhere people are being killed, somewhere children are dying, and with my poems, I want to help remove the blocks that currently divide the world."
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