Friday, August 2, 2013

Joyce Kornblatt reads Lesley Lebkowicz's bold, original "The Petrov Poems"

Dusya at Mascot, April 19, 1954
She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
about her? The mass swells and jostles –
crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit –

she loses a shoe. She must limp.

Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.

The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink

through their clothes – sweat, fear,

rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
on one thing – her dead daughter’s fine hair or
a white cup, its tea warming her palm.

Is the very idea of a verse-novel exciting to you...or like being asked to read in a foreign language? We hope that many of you are adventurous readers because Joyce Kornblatt's review of Lesley Lebkowicz's new The Petrov Poems makes the idea as well as the content deeply enticing.
Petrov Poems is published by the newish, smallish, already-distinguished Pitt Street Poetry Press. Details follow Joyce's review. 

        Sometimes a fine poet rescues political scandal from the tabloids and the television soundbite. She reveals  the mythic power and psychological complexity in these public dramas.  From Homer’s ancient epics to [Canadian writer] Anne Carson’s contemporary re-tellings of Greek tragedy, these writers remind us of the complex human depths in the stories that media often reduce to mere surfaces.

Lesley Lebkowicz
        Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz has done just this with her wonderful verse-novel, The Petrov Poems.  In her spare and vivid voice, the married Soviet spies who defected to Australia in April 1954, emerge as haunted individuals shaped by forces they barely fathom. The choices they make, while consciously considered, also seem to be the result of an inexorable fate they cannot escape.  
     We suffer with them, the stolid Volodya and the stylish  Dusya, as the poems offer bright shards of insight into their lives.  ‘They had grown up in darkness,” we learn. Volodya ‘…had seen hundreds / shovelled into their graves,’  Dusya loses a brother and lover to the gulag, and ‘when her child died / her grief upended the world.’  The security they thought might be possible in the KGB proves to be a sham: 'Spies live under skies which offer no shelter.’
         Patriotism tested, loyalties scrambled, temptations impossible to resist:  Volodya succumbs to ASIO’s offer once he knows he cannot return home:  ‘…he carries his body / like a felon already condemned.’
"...the capacity for tenderness endures and redeems us"
           Dusya, too, reluctantly chooses the asylum that is also a punishment: her family remains in the Soviet Union where, she fears, they will pay for her choice.  Luckily, they survive—‘I have not killed my family,’ she consoles herself repeatedly.  In Dusya’s later years, her sister Tamara emigrates to Melbourne to be a companion to her soon-widowed sibling. And for Volodya, lost in the haze of dementia, ‘the past vanishes,’ his world reduced to a nursing home room while his wife ‘…cries in her loneliness.’  Supported by her sister, Dusya, the former spy and famous defector, understands that ‘everything to do with Tamara is precious,’ the blessings of ordinary life, relinquished for so long, at last bestowed. 
     In fewer than a hundred elegant pages, a spy drama yields its real treasure: beyond the machinations of nation-states, in spite of the the traumas of violence and loss, the capacity for tenderness endures and redeems us.  
      I loved The Petrov Poems for all the ways Lesley Lebkowicz inhabits the inner lives of Volodya and Dusya. She liberates them from stereotype and slogan.  Read this book and be reminded: every human heart is a masterpiece.

You can purchase this book in an e-version or as a paperback from Pitt Street Poetry. Readers in Sydney are also welcome to attend the Sydney launch on 15 August at Gleebooks, Glebe.

Joyce Kornblatt is one of our favourite reviewers. A novelist, essayist and teacher, she lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, after a lifetime teaching writing (and writing) in the USA.
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