Please allow this intimacy, dear reader, open to us your soul. It's counterintuitive: Sophia Parnok the poet is still very much a recovery project precisely because her work has been obscured by the thickets of literary history and biography. In reaction to Russian academic reticence and cultural taboos, the focus of western attention has been entirely on "the Russian Sappho," Tsvetaeva's erstwhile lover (1914-1916) exemplar par excellence of "women's poetry". To gain a less obstructed view of her work it is thus necessary to first clear these obstacles.
Born in 1885 into a secular Jewish pharmacist's family in Chekhov's detested birthplace, the provincial capital of Taganrog on the Azov sea; lost her mother (a doctor) at age six (dead after giving birth to twins;) on miserable terms with her stepmother (father remarried the children's German governess;) chronically ill with Grave's disease; began a musical education at the Geneva Conservatory, abandoned for lack of funds; moved to Petersburg, quickly dissolved marriage, converted to Orthodoxy in 1909; like Akhmatova dishonored her family by her chosen profession (both of the younger twins also became writers), began to publish poems under her own name (changed from Parnokh, she disliked the "kh" sound,) five collections between 1916 and 1928, and highly respected criticism under a male pseudonym (Andrey Polyanin; in 1923, first to identify the so-called "big four" - Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova, and Mandelstam;) in 1917 began work on an opera libretto finally performed in 1930; forbidden to publish after 1928, survived on income from her French translations. Vladislav Khodasevich, who had called her verse "masculine" (or as we in the west would say, "muscular,") paid her the following memorable tribute at her early death of a heart attack in 1933: "Numerous books were published by her, unknown to the wider public - so much the worse for the public." First made available in a Collected only in 1979 from Ardis Publishers; Sophia Parnok: the life and work of Russia's Sappho by Diana Lewis Burgina appeared in 1994.
I would say for myself that I have found Parnok's voice remarkably congenial, with its tone of longing and suffering, themes of perseverance in the face of long odds, the values of endurance and persistence. And I do find historical and biographical background a useful preliminary; successful translation, like the essential agency of reading itself, an act of empathy, requires us to step into Parnok's shoes. In her best work, there is an intensity of personal address and deep connection with the reader and the Muse, the almost painful pathos of our relationship to the eternal that is also to be found in observing nature. Though self-admittedly lacking the ambition of Akhmtova and Tsvetaeva, in her best work she achieves the tremendous grace of the first and the intensity of the second. The great Russian poet has always identified her fate with that of the Nation and of its people, and in this capacity Zinaida Gippius may lay claim to being next in line to the title of great Russian woman poet, but Parnok, in her intimate, small lyrics is not far behind, having carved out a domain all her own. She is a minor poet with sufficient skill and ambition to have been capable of developing into a major one.
The issue of the masculinity or femininity of Parnok's voice may be clarified in comparison of her work to that of Gippius. Both the poems and the criticism and activism of the latter is oriented to the outside world of events, to social aesthetics and politics, whereas Parnok's is directed entirely inward, even in her criticism. Not only the tone but also her sound values are "soft" in comparison to Gippius's strident consonances. What then did Khodasevich have in mind in his characterization of the "masculinity" of her lines? Acmeism, for example, has been characterized as "hard, concrete, muscular," even though Akhmatova was the movement's inspiration. Recent scholarship in gender studies has observed a certain tendency toward bi-sexualism, that is the poetic output of men associated with Symbolism had grown "softer" both in terms of aural values and emotional sensitivity and thus more feminine (Annensky, Blok, Bely, Kuzmin.) The obverse is that poetry by women migrated in to fill the void, becoming harsher-sounding and more aggressive in tone. Of course no agreement or precise definition is possible, and I suspect that Khodasevich simply meant that Parnok's lines are chiseled, as though carved from stone.