- Bengt Jangfeldt theguardian.com
Regina Derieva, who has died aged 64 of heart failure, was a poet, who in her best poems achieved that true metaphysical quality which, according to TS Eliot, is the alloy of thought and poetry at a very high temperature.
Of Russian poets born in the Soviet era, the first to speak seriously about metaphysics was Joseph Brodsky, in whose poetry
this alloy occurs quite often. Brodsky called Derieva “a great poet”, stressing that her poems are hers “only by name, only by her craft”.
“The real authorship belongs here to poetry itself, to freedom itself. I have not met anything similar for a long time, neither among my fellow countrymen nor among English-speaking poets.”
Born in Odessa, Derieva grew up in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, in a Jewish home marked by Marxism and militant atheism. Only as an adult, disappointed with the Russian Orthodox church, did she turn, under the influence of GK Chesterton, Eliot and the Russian thinker Piotr Chaadayev, to Catholicism.
Her first poem was published in 1965 and her first collection in 1978. However, because of the character of her poetry Derieva had great difficulties getting her work published in the USSR. In 1991 she emigrated, with her husband, Alexander, whom she had married in 1977, and son, Denis, to Israel, where she was denied citizenship since she was a practising Catholic. In 1999 she moved to Sweden, where she lived until her death. In the west she could at last publish freely and several collections saw the light of day, both in Russian and other languages. She had three collections published in English, most recently Corinthian Copper (2011).
To say that I knew Derieva would be wrong. I translated her poetry into Swedish, and helped her to get Swedish citizenship, and we met on several occasions, though rarely in the last few years. Her means of communication was not through personal contact, but through poetry. According to her husband, I was one of the few people she ever confided in; her main interlocutor was God.
Her faith derived its nourishment from a pessimism so radical that it could be overcome only by the strongest of beliefs. Derieva’s world, wrote the Lithuanian poet and essayist Tomas Venclova, is a world “moved away from God a great distance, such a distance that perhaps even God cannot easily overcome it”. It is, said Venclova, a “concentration camp zone, where space is turned into emptiness, and time turned into disappearance”.
Other writers had been there before her. But Russian poets such as Brodsky or Derieva mobilise furiously against the feeling of being abandoned by God, Derieva through her paradoxical faith in God in spite of His absence. “Silence is God’s answer,” says one poem.
And in another one can hear the echo of Tertullian’s Credo quia absurdum – I believe since it is absurd: “Lacking even paper / I write on my heart / turned inside out. /That is why it squeaks / at night like the earth’s axis / that turns me face to face / with the impossible.”
Derieva is survived by her son and her husband Alexander Deriev, the publisher of Ars Intepres, an international literary journal in Sweden.