My Vagina

the state, my parents, gynecologists, strange men

Ellen Carpenter, Study for a Portal. 2018, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Galina Rymbu’s poem “My Vagina” was written in response to the case of Yulia Tsvetkova, an activist from the remote Russian city of Komsomolsk-na-Amure who is facing up to six years in prison for “disseminating pornography.” The pornography in question turns out to be body-positive images of women posted on the Russian social media platform VKontakte on a page titled Vagina Monologues, in reference to Eve Ensler’s play. Tsvetkova has also been charged under Russia’s infamous 2013 law prohibiting the public promotion of LGBTQ lives to minors. Responses to the prosecution of Tsvetkova among the Russian activist and artistic community have included an exhibit of visual art relating to women’s bodies and sexuality, as well as an online poetry marathon—for which Rymbu wrote this poem.

Tsvetkova’s case illustrates key peculiarities of Russian political and public life. Until the end of the 2000s, it appeared that tolerance towards non-heteronormative lives—decriminalized following the fall of the USSR—was steadily, although unevenly, on the rise. Yet in the context of the political uproar and opposition protests that accompanied Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, official political positions took a sharp turn towards social conservatism. So-called “gay propaganda” was banned in 2013. The prosecution of Pussy Riot for their “Punk Prayer” in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior (to which Rymbu alludes) and the subsequent international outrage it caused placed LGBTQ and feminist activism center stage in the drama of Russian politics and culture. Activism and activists became a favorite target of pro-Putin discourse, a wedge issue used to portray “traditional” Russian society as threatened by “anti-Russian” actors within and—with an eye to increased European social tolerance—without.

The tendency for LGBTQ and feminist positions to stand in for political opposition in general is plain in the Tsvetkova affair: As she explains in interviews, her troubles with the powers-that-be began with her attempts to organize an activist art festival. Following the official prohibition of this event, she was subjected to continuous police harassment. They were already out to get her. That her eventual criminal prosecution focused on her posts to the Vagina Monologues page, however, only reveals Russian officialdom’s continued fixation on the “threat” posed by LGBTQ and feminist issues.

The story of the braiding together of culture, LGBTQ and feminist activism, and politics in Russia doesn’t stop there. Since publication of Rymbu’s poem in support of Tsvetkova, discussion of “whether the vagina is a legitimate subject for poetry” has gone viral in Russian social media, including much sadly predictable ugliness, but also startlingly retrograde statements from otherwise “liberal-minded” voices. On Facebook, one highly respected liberal poet of an older generation recognized Rymbu as a “good poet,” but explained that reading the word “vagina” evoked “the smell of chlorine and formaldehyde, like from a morgue.” By the word “penetration,” he continued, “I began to feel nauseous.” The post elicited 37 shares and 300 comments, including a number from other leading Russian literary voices. Many of them took the level of discourse down several more notches. Apparently, in Russian public life, one doesn’t have to be a Putin supporter to be disturbed at the prospect of gender equality and tolerance.

The translation presented here is forthcoming in F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry, edited by Ainsley Morse, Eugene Ostashevsky, and Galina Rymbu, from isolarii, fall 2020.

—Kevin M.F. Platt

On May 17, 2013, to music by Semantic Hallucinations,
a son came out of my vagina,
and then the placenta, which the midwife held like a butcher,
weighing it in her hands. The doctor placed my son at my breast
(at that point I still didn’t know his name)
and said, “Your son.” And immediately my son peed all over my breasts and stomach,
and the world became my vagina, my son, his burning stream,
his wet, warm head, my empty

Then they stitched up my vagina;
it changed shape. Became narrow and constricted,
a vagina-prison, vagina-wound. I was wearing
white compression stockings—all bloody—
a cheap red wrap-dress, bought at the Chinese market, and on it—
two women, holding the crowns of trees,
and beasts, holding the women.

With no underwear, no support, with tangled hair
post-op I walked along the maternity hospital’s sunny hallway
to collect my son. I picked him up and thought:
his fingers look like little gummy worms.

Now my vagina is a burrow
for your little brown beast with its big red head.
Where he slips in once in a while to gather strength. It’s a furrow
for your tender tongue, for your thin, strong fingers, resembling
last century’s writing instruments.

Now my vagina is contracting and next to it, a little higher, my clitoris is swelling;
it looks like a little bead and it’s wrapped in a delicate
folded hood, which sometimes can be pulled back
under a blind rain of light touches.
Go ahead . . . Careful . . .

When I was 13, I tried to push a summer
cucumber into it: I wanted to understand what sex was.
I didn’t know back then that it’s not just
penetration. I often looked at my clitoris with the little
broken mirror that papa used for shaving.
I was dry wood that burned
stronger every day.

I lived in а world of assigned reading, where everything is viewed with the male gaze,
in the world of gangfights and stairwells crammed with sweaty
guys in black jackets and tattered boots. I loved squatting on my haunches, loved
tight jeans, pressing against my clitoris
and big lips.

I didn’t know then that everyone had an interest in my vagina:
the state, my parents, gynecologists, strange men,
Orthodox priests with epaulets under their robes
and women’s blood on their robes,
employers, anti-extremism agents, the military, fascists, immigration cops,
banks, conservative critics of “depraved lifestyles,”
patriotic cultural figures, appropriators of traditional values,
washed down with brandy.

Blood comes from my vagina once a month
and then my beloved goes to the store for pads
(I like the thin ones, with chamomile scent).
Sometimes the blood spills out in clots that look like
the round helmets of little astronauts.
My menstrual cosmos in miniature: the womb planet,
egg comets, swollen vulva as milky galaxy.
Sometimes the blood pours like vodka
from the special narrow neck of a souvenir bottle.
Sometimes there’s no blood.

I like to have sex during my period;
my whole body gets super-sensitive.
I love it when your penis is covered with my blood,
and love to imagine that you’re also on your period,
that salty, warm blood is dripping from the little hole
in your glans.

I love it when your hands are sticky with my blood,
when it dries on your nails and ragged cuticles,
love to feel my womb pulsing in my belly,
like a second heart, my breasts swelling and getting warm,
like milk is about to pour out of them.
I’ll let you drink it, love, it will pour over your face,
your tender pink nipples (almost like a girl’s),
wetting the fuzz on your chest,
neck, your tummy, where,
in my dreams, you might someday carry our daughter.

I love when you talk about my vagina
and when we discuss it together,
while you sit on top of me
in my t-shirt and the green earrings
that I gave you;
love it when you lightly slap against my lips.

It’s so good you’re not doing it in Russia,
where they want to send Yulia Tsvetkova to prison for delicate images of vaginas
where my girlfriends are afraid to kiss in the street,
where Katia and I would lie forever on the rug after school
over at her place touching one another, turning into a single
salty sea, and then
were scared to talk about it.

They call our vaginas and vulvas pussies,
but mine is less like a pussy than a decorative, domestic mouse—
small, furry, and restless.

Will it die before its time?
Will it die in a cage?

Once I was touching my mouse during a university lecture,
touching it in an empty bus crawling through the night city
from the factories to the concrete-block housing, from the cemeteries to the shopping centers.
I was touching it behind the garages, one fall morning,
sitting on a rusty pipe,

touching it in the ambulance taking me
for the operation, and touching it after the operation
when I had a catheter in my urethra, and when blood trickled from my urethra,

touching it when my belly was huge, in the stifling
maternity ward,
when I peed in a jar at the polyclinic,
when I was peeing and crying at night in the old dacha garden,
full of crickets and night moths,
when I peed right in my pants on the Irtysh Embankment
for the fun of it, when I was peeing on the snow
by the factory entrance checkpoint,
when I peed in the dorm in my son’s potty,
when I was peeing after drinking beer at the Culture Park while nearby
cops were creeping around
was touching it in the summer woods while I was covered with insects,
embraced by trees.

I touched it after I accidentally cut my lips and clitoris with a razor,
after fighting with a boyfriend and after
the forensic medical examination,
after the trip to the oncology center and after
the arrest, at the rental apartment,
after the protest on Bolotnaya Square
and after the protest on the Field of Mars.

Touched it while reading Nicholas of Cusa,
while reading Gastev,
Ernst Bloch,
Alain Badiou’s Ethics,
Ise monogatari,
the physics textbook,
an anthology of German poetry

(I took them by storm!).

I touched my mouse when I was crying and wanted to leave you,
touched it when I was crying and wanted a child from you,
touched it, sitting on your face,
and touched it when my face was pressed
to your dark groin,
and just while looking in your eyes.

And all the same I still don’t know it, don’t understand it completely,
my mouse,
it scares me, throws me off balance.

But I like to think it politically—
it winds things up, rocks the dance floor of old ideas
gives hope in the absence of new
methods of activism.

To make revolution with the vagina.
To make freedom with oneself.

I think, well, maybe the vagina will bring down this state for real,
drive out the illegitimate president,
disband the government,
abolish the army, taxes on the poor,
the FSB as a structure of utterly vile power and oppression,
deal with the police,
with conservatism and revanchism,
dismantle unjust trials, free
the political prisoners,
make putrid Russian nationalism impossible,
the humiliation of the oppressed, fabricated cases,
will fucking shatter oligarchy and patriarchy,
paralyze troops deployed in other states—
farther and farther:
crush militarism with the cunt!

My vagina is love, history and politics.
My politics is the body, the everyday, affect.
My world is a vagina. I am a vagina. And I bear peace.
Yet for some I am a dangerous vagina,
a fighting vagina. That is my monologue.

—Translated from the Russian by Kevin M.F. Platt

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