“Paper-thin Skin” by Aigerim Tazhi


Aigerim Tazhi is a Kazakh poet whose writings will impress you and move you, a new and exciting voice which, thanks to the work of James Kates, a distinguished translator of Russian, can now finally be heard in English. It goes without saying that the literature of  Central Asia and the newly-independent countries of the former Soviet Union needs to be better-known, and this slim volume is a fine contribution to it.

Tazhi was born in 1981 and has so far published only one book of poetry (2004), although she has won a number of literary prizes both at home and in Russia, as well as having her works translated into several European languages. She was born when Kazakhstan was still part of the Soviet Union and writes her poems in Russian, although, as she says, “I did not choose the Russian language … it’s just the language I’ve spoken since childhood.”. It did prove useful, however, as writing in Russian obviously reaches a much larger audience than Kazakh. Nor, refreshingly enough, is Tazhi an overtly “political” poet: we hear nothing about Soviet rule in Kazakhstan, although one poem does mention a “playground mushroom”. referring to a structure common to Soviet-era playgrounds.


Paper-Thin Skin, Aigerim Tazhi, J Kates (trans) (Zephyr, May 2019)
Paper-Thin Skin, Aigerim Tazhi, J Kates (trans) (Zephyr, May 2019)

One of the most attractive aspects of Tazhi’s writing is noticeable right from the outset, and that is the relative absence of an “I” observer in the poems, as Kates observes, thus “making her own persona not the center of attention, but the center of perception.” There is, of course, a point of view in the poems, but it moves around, and is concerned with what is actually observed rather than who is doing the observing. The poet does not bombard us, as so many contemporary poets tend to do, with the supposed complexities and sensitivities of her own mind. The opening poem gives us a series of striking images connected with a traveler who is depicted “Walking like a camel.” He has “hands carved from wood” and “A dead viper in his breast,/ a rope with fangs.” This poem gives the collection its title; the nameless traveler is perhaps a poet, as he has “Paper-thin skin translucent,” and “letters shine through his forehead.” It’s a mysterious vignette which becomes clearer as the traveler approaches the observer and reader.

Tazhi’s poems are all untitled, which means that the reader can go in any direction and is not pointed to any kind of theme by either the poet or the editor. “Perhaps [poetry] exists,” the translator quotes her as saying in an interview, “so that people can stop and look around.” What people see depends on how they look around. Tazhi’s own subject-matter is largely determined by her surroundings, but at the same time she tells us:


I strain to listen for an imagined world:
one that absorbs music from the outside
and will not preserve the borders
of an internal country.


These lines clearly illustrate her own words from an interview: “I like to observe the world around me,” she says, “then I think again about what is happening around and inside me, and what lives around me.” It’s the “music from outside” which produces the poems: the “music from inside.” Hence we have close observation of external objects and events, such as the weary traveler or


Creaking floors.
Shutters tightly boarded.
Forgotten reservoirs turned into swamps


which have prompted “Music in the heart gnawing and gnawing.” The imagery employed here is concrete, visible—what it prompts, however, is an internal response. There are always touches of the external in Tazhi’s poems, a sort of grounding from which she takes off:


I overheard a conversation in the park
came up to a withered old plum tree
And hid my face in its crown.


And in the poem featuring the “playground mushroom” we find that


a man-shapeshifter has fallen asleep,
half of him wolf


under the structure. This juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical fluctuates in this poem; the shapeshifter may look like a werewolf (and his persecuted for that), but what he likes best, we are told (Tazhi’s italics), is “to drink tea at home and to sleep in a corner/ under an old blanket listening to conversation.” That would make him feel “as if they had commuted his sentence.


The “imagined world”, however, does not up all of Tazhi’s poetic time. There are poems of intense poignancy dealing with simple human situations such as family alienation, perhaps what she calls the “music in the heart, gnawing and gnawing.” For example, a mother lovingly


hides the name-tag, the teeth, the first hair
of her son


under “a German chocolate-box”, but when he pays her his usual dutiful birthday visit,


she pours the cup of tea only half full
so he won’t stay long.


Why are they alienated? Is the mother hurt by something her son did (or didn’t do), or did she somehow not like the fact that he grew up? Perhaps she’s annoyed at the “bouquet of cheap flowers” he brings? Readers are left to fill in the answers.

In another poem, the narrator expresses her disgust at having to choose a “beautiful” live crab to eat for dinner, which to her seems a very strange way to set a pleasant atmosphere, as the animal will be


cooked alive
as part of a holiday romance in onion lace


the result being what she calls “a preposterous dinner”. In yet another poem we are presented with a simple vignette of ordinary life, the imagery crafted to lead us into progressively smaller details and then a refocus to a human being:


In the house a window
In the window a pot
In the pot a twig
A drowsy woman is knitting booties


But then, “inside her a fish swims without air,” a striking metaphor for an unborn child—yet “she is content.” As the poem continues, we are shown a turbulent world outside, with noise and “dark news from the bright box.” However, none of this can stop the miracle of new life, although we have a marked irony in “the inevitable boy,” offset by “A girl will do as well.” What matters to Tazhi is the idea of renewal, “… and somewhere everyday life turned into a miracle,” as she puts it in another poem. This is what Tazhi’s poetry does best. Hers is a voice that needs to be heard again and again.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.