Andrei Sen-Senkov’s Anatomical Theater (In the Grip of Strange Thoughts), trans. by Ainsley Morse and Peter Golub

photoOn the back cover of Anatomical Theater, author Andrei Sen-Senkov writes:

            Poems live inside me—tiny, naked, formless. They have to be dressed before they can                                  be dragged outside. Everything I collect, all these little ribbons, bits and pieces—it’s all                                 articles of clothing for poems.

Written in slim stanzas and short prose chunks—each vastly different from the others—Sen-Senkov’s poems do feel like tiny living creatures, each highly individualized, dressed in scraps. Throughout this newly translated collection of poems, from traditional Russian fairy tales to a Kraftwerk concert to soccer balls and grains of sugar, the subjects of Sen-Senkov’s poems each take on vivid stories of their own.  Sen-Senkov’s mind works like a hummingbird. The poems feel quick, lavishly detailed, intimate, untethered.  They move like carefully constructed miniatures of people and objects into which Sen-Senkov has blown life and set spinning across the books’ pages.

Stepping into this world feels both disorienting and thrilling.  This thrill partly results from Sen-Senkov’s generosity as a poet. Like a curator, he offers his readers histories, daily routines, drifting, complex thoughts, and collections of images and item which often feel deeply personal. We follow Sen-Senkov through the complicated urban streets of Moscow, engaging in an exciting struggle to keep up with his wheeling imagination as he processes his observations and thoughts.

Born in 1968 in what is now Tajikistan, Sen-Senkov currently lives in Moscow.  Similar to his poems, his life also contains multiple layers; he works as a gynecologist, is one of Russia’s most respected contemporary poets, has published over ten books of poetry and prose, and has worked with other artists to create collaborative work with visual poetry and music.

Like kites, Sen-Senkov’s poems are both pleasingly comprehensible and impossible to hold on to—rings of cigarette smoke lead to meditations on aureoles, Chinese good luck coins, and the earth (67).  Sen-Senkov’s strange associations surface in his series “Perfect Day,” composed of brief, dense prose poems:

A bit of crumpled light turns up in the communal basket.  Here among these

                        paper odds and ends, it is nearly an angel. It shines a little, flies a little, and

                        saves no one. (85)


A heart beating is the faint footfalls of a creature marking its territory with a

                        red smell. (89)

or even stranger and more fantastical—the fairytale juxtaposition of a lunar eclipse and a gingerbread house:

              The lunar eclipse that no one noticed is offended. Quietly spiteful, it is doing

                        what the gingerbread house might have done had it gone unnoticed by a fat,

                        glutted, grotesque Hansel and Gretel. (85)

The subjects of Sen-Senkov’s poems become diverse characters deeply entrenched in their urban setting.  Objects which we might see in passing while commuting on the subway—such as crumpled trash, light—or might not see at all—our beating hearts, a lunar eclipse—find recognition and narratives of their own within Anatomical Theater. They are lost, suffering from some unnamed oppression, “quietly spiteful,” and yet also swinging wildly with an almost manic, wonderful freedom and refusal to remain any one thing.  As in “Perfect Day,” they are nearly angels,  “sav[ing] no one.”

Also exhibiting this freedom and oppression is a series of poems entitled “Independent Tea Films,” in which Sen-Senkov describes various kinds of tea, assigning them each mini stories:

Tie Guan In: “The Iron Goddess of Mercy” is a premium variety of oolong, Rich and                                                yellow in color, this tea produces a fragrant orchid-like aroma when steeped; the tea

                        is floral, often giving off a rich, almost metallic, sweet aftertaste.              

                        “A Normal Workday for the Tie Guan In:”

   she works in a

                        small greenhouse

                        where edible flowers grow

                        for the European market

                        her task

                        is to control the plants’

                        water intake


                        she likes

                        to trick the plants

                        her Chinese, multi-colored

                        patients on a drip


                        she always knows

                        that they will

                        be pierced by

                        German, Dutch, Swedish

                        Christian deaths (9)

Within this poem and others in the series, the layers of narrative and associations are so densely piled,we forget the poem is originally describing a tea.  Here lies the poem’s power to convey both freedom as well as suffering. Within the dark absurdity of globalization and international markets surfaces a kind of rebelliousness. The “she” of the poem becomes ambiguous, signifying both the tea and a female character within the tea’s story. The poem and its subjects maintain their freedom by refusing to hold still for us, to give a singular meaning.

The books ends with a section of poems titled “Anatomical Theater,” each devoted to different body organs.  An anatomical theater was traditionally used to teach anatomy at universities of the late 16th to early 19th centuries.  The theater was usually a kind of amphitheater with a space in the center for a table on which to perform dissections, surrounded by circular tiers where students could stand to observe.  In the “Anatomical Theater” series, Sen-Senkov creates a surreal interpretation of this exact scene.  These particular poems—as well as the book as a whole—become a kind of creative museum to objects, such as various kinds of tea or body organs, each carefully preserved and on display within careful stanzas which give each object new meaning and reverence.

“Anatomical Theater,” “Independent Tea Films” and “Perfect Day” demonstrate one of Sen-Senkov’s greatest gifts as a writer—his imagination. His seemingly fragmented poems depicting microcosms of objects and their histories—imagined or otherwise—reveal not the world as we see it, but its cracks and seams which we often ignore.  After shining a light on these seams, Sen-Senkov then beckons us closer, reaches his fingers into them, and pries them apart to reveal even more intricate, stranger worlds.

The book’s title—Anatomical Theater (In the Grip of Strange Thoughts)—fits these fast-paced, yet painstakingly painted meditations perfectly. His work mirrors what it is to be a complex modern human  constantly bombarded with history, both ancient and recent, information, globalization. To be a human made of flesh and organs within the memory of old fairytales and the daily pulse of modern technology. If Sen-Senkov’s work is political, it’s political without judgement, political because the world is political in its organizations of power, because daily lives are political in their austerity, both elements  which his work closely examines.  Sen-Senkov’s Anatomical Theater is a celebration of 21st century living, in all its contradictory interdependence and isolation.

Buy it from Zephyr Press: $16

Originally from Portland, Oregon and recently a traveling teacher, Ansley Clark is now an MFA candidate at University of Colorado Boulder where she also teaches creative writing.  She has poems published in Spork and Cirque and can be found here:

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