Review by D.E. Zuccone,
writer and educator, Vice President of Public Poetry
(Houston, June 2019)
In a volume of poems a reader leans on the surety of the voice and the location to draw forward into the meaning and emotion. Desert Candles presents a collection of poems that feels more as if the reader is pursuing a fractious voice, tumbling through a hallucinatory disappearing world, and constantly demanding spiritual attention.
Ms. Petrova’s ‘Desert’ world is an unbalanced scalene triangulating amid an inconstantly leaving her ravaged Ukraine, a random lotus trek through a decadent Europe and an ironic alien integration of American suburban domesticity. It’s a travelogue through a man-made Purgatory without a prospect of a Heaven, only motion and momentary respite.
As a volume Desert Candles reads like a recitation of Coleridge’s “Xanadau” in a burning hospital recalled in the Home Depot parking lot. There are no reliable landmarks, therefore nothing is allowed to be insignificant, but no single vernacular lends a comfortable linguistic coherence to this eroding world. In place of a mother tongue is the corrected language of misapprehension, a second language of desperate commerce…the one we all use to make promises with ourselves.
These poems open in the desert at Big Bend, a wilderness preserve, one of the imaginary borders of negation of the nature of things. A “panicky roadrunner” gives way to “Pumpjacks. Pumpjacks. Pumpjacks” alluding to a Beat vision of a country that exists only a fading form. The volume turns to the violent trauma of isolation, the speaker trains for Tai Chi, does chin ups, meets war veterans and discusses James Jones. In the section’s final poem “Rooms by the Sea” the poet concludes “Rooms by the sea… The ocean will suffice// when many dreams that mattered will cease.” The section that began with desert dust ends with an ekphrastic interpretation of Edward Hopper, America’s great figurative painter of disillusionment, depicting his ‘jumping off place’, trapezoids and open door to a choppy sea. Petrova’s summative phrasing is both romantic and awkward, the reader is given a reflective image and an unsettling construction with a provisional future tense of cease that may mean respite or death or both. These are poems of overwhelming passion, of overwhelming experiences, war, exile, parental love and loss, politics, vocation, death. They carry with them a righteous confusion we often associate with youth but find throughout life. Such events occur and a friend suffers with the disease of passion and the response is our best diplomatic truisms of empathy or irony. There is nothing to do, but you must do something, and it won’t change the love, or loss, or loneliness...you must cross your own desert.
The next section, Rondo, employs a musical form of near repetitions to invent a dialect of perseverative disintegration.” My native language, I can’t bury you…” it’s a language resurrected from details of a youth betrayed by circumstance that pursue the poet like an addict’s guilt. It’s a wave tossed language immigrants and refugees know acutely but confounds all of us. Words change meaning, items lose definition, not due to region or vocabulary, but through the force of experience we are nearly drowning in. It’s not a language, but the violent power of the impulse to speak. In this rondo words return transformed by their passage, a turtle on post means goodbye, buttered bread acceptance of doom, holidays celebrate diminishment. These scenes become her language of re-definition through erasure, immigrations, occupational re-assignments, deprivation, travel, friends, family and all with their etymologies in the loneliness beneath events. Each poem develops its musical variations on the ironic theme of the respite of oblivion juxtaposed with mundane items, art, and destruction. In “Peace” dancers enjoy the same discotheque but will go to war on opposite sides. Her family described as brave victims, “softening the crash”, “something slippery that had escaped your attention tripped you”, given fractured time “such moments happen so seldom” of joy. The speaker reveals “I learned English with subtitles in movies borrowed at the local British Council: American Beauty…” It’s English but carrying a private sense of cynicism and ever immanent violence. Poems speak in anecdotes, bits of Internet conversation, vignettes, Rachmaninov, Coldplay, kitchenettes, Chagall, a mother’s coffin, Bruegel, a leatherette jacket, Barber, vacations, a polka dotted mattress, La Traviata, the love she should have had but was stolen, and coal mines collide as linguistic fragments adrift in an artifice anchored by peculiar mendacities of Houston and the lexicon of isolation.
This first third of the volume appears to be in the key but as the reader begins to anticipate poems based in the proclaimed manifest of failed politics, exile and art. Desert Candles gently changes to a diminished minor key and discusses the vulnerability of love in two nearly elegiac sections, “Distance” and “The Curious Music”. The first is an affectionate after-conversation dedicated to her husband in the style of revisions and additions to self-conversations insomniacs and shy people carry on after events, trying to re-fit themselves back into an apologetic. In these two sections, the speaker struggles to change alien to familiar, but finds instead a familiar, a more lyric ghost who instead of moaning, nervously chats. “The older I get the more comfortable I become// with poems by Bukowski and James Wright.” Beneath these poems lurk distances, the unspoken distances another person might explore in therapy, medications, and scotch. Here we find the poet’s voice modulated by the torpor of American tranquility. It slogs through Kroger, Yankee Candles, Willie Nelson, Formica, Cheerios, chalupas, lawn spinners, Garnier hair dye, pop tarts, a panoply of sundry items and hot glues them together as the opening poem “Intimate America” declares “this is my late-night America”. Here poems slow jog through a suburb of domestic dark inertia. A softer tenor sweeps along the veneer of a shadow world decorated with “angels, butterflies, ducklings, relaxing, tabby cats, sweetness, Let it Be, Blessed.” This largo interlude ends in “Hurricane Rhapsody” describing the storm that threatens the tone of lyric domesticity with a genuine flood.
As in the epic journey, an escape from disaster often leads, not to salvation, but more pilgrimage and transformative descent. “Chaim’s Rabbit” becomes an allegro episodic travelogue through the indulgences of the world. The lessons are decadent, sophisticated and erotic. It begins scented with Opium, sings drunken fados, travels ”metal-free, empty pocketed”, dances on Nijinsky’s grave… smokes cigarettes in Venice, savors Louis Malle films, critiques art passing Les Deux Maggots, wanders as a flaneuse in Paris. Here, as perhaps in no other section, does the poet seem as carefree and present; the past has been transformed into the life of art. Not souvenirs, décor, or counterpoint, but direct engagement. In “Etude” she imagines an Art/Rock archetype of decadence, Nico, as her mentor. But her stay in the Land of Lotus Eaters is distracted by a recorded fragment of a folksong, “My language skipped on her vinyl…” and the poet climbs heart-conjoined into a “Tree of Songs”.
The final two sections of the volume Dawn Priestess and Seraphim change the tone to a kind of ether and transcendent revision. “To become self-luminous…” “Mirror Writing” begins the hymns of the conjoined heart twin. The private world that had been rooted and water logged rises freed of gravity and time. The speaker dissolves into Siqueiros’ painted peasants, Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag”, The Curious Music, rivers “Nile, Danube, Mississippi---“, then from the Whitmanesque swirl, the poems turn to Medieval transmutation, Bread, Wine, Crete, Greece, Savannah, Sears, Amsterdam and concludes by entering a triptych of Hieronymus Bosch. The final section comes as a miscellany of spiritualized but somewhat random connections to friends and art, installations, Mueck sculptures, a Roman sarcophagus, and ends with a compendium of reconciliation and toasts to singers and singing.
It is an exhausting volume to read and comprehend, but each poem is pleasurable and self-contained.
Review by D.E. Zuccone,
writer and educator, Vice President of Public Poetry
(Houston, June 2015)
Since the Moderns we have cultivated a fascination with gliding over impossible surfaces. The poet John Ashbery describes this movement as a realization that: the present moment may be one of an eternal series of moments, all of which will resemble it because, in some ways, they are the present, and won’t in other ways, because the present will be the past by that time. The poetry of Elina Petrova presents a private emotional constant that withstands collapse by engaging mythologies of motion. With the kind of hyper-realistic grace that comes while watching figures present the illusion of distant speed or magnified slow motion, Petrova’s poems solicit a literary courage that moves between lyric and elegiac verse.
Aching Miracle is filled with images of unresolved motion. Titles like “Green Boots,” “Tibetan Slippers,” “The Farther Shore,” and an ekphrastic section entitled “Jogs at Rice Gallery” prepare the reader for a vehicle of enforced travel. This is not to imply that her work is a travelogue without contemplation, but that for all its geographical references — Texas, Louisiana bayous, Savannah, Donetsk, Lithuania, Gothenburg, and Nottingham, the Caribbean, Sinai, and Rome — readers will not find their discoveries on the Ukrainian Steppes or the Spanish Steps. Rather, as the volume progresses, the only landmark is a poet’s voice in combat with loss and infatuated with the ironies of language.
We are given glimpses of a world linked and reeling in intimate collisions and abandonments: “Tiny people waved from porches of marshmallow / -roofed cottages to a train passing the Alps” (Worry Doll); “The world span — / the No-One’s-Rose, a kaleidoscope / juggling with petal-splinters” (Tonality); “... his violin in the velvety sheath / with a sniper’s rifle” (Maestro); a collision of J.M. Barrie, Patti Smith, and downtown Houston becomes “Fire, what have I done to you?” (Flatland); “... to the empty Ferris wheel / Shrouded with snow, black coal of waste banks” (Black Swans); “... but the gravestone could be one that Sherman’s troops/ muddled up with drunken mischief” (Weddings of Bluffton, Cemeteries of Savannah); “... where Vikings won some battle, / at stuporous seniors slowly pushing walkers” (Reticent Saga); “The world buzzes like a remote toll road / or a wasp trying to get inside a light bulb” (Solar Winds); “Light / Shadow. Mozart’s Adagio” (Road Chant for a Mechanical Doll); “Hidden life in puddles. He erases” (Mudman Running); “Ry Cooder’s blues with a knife pressed on the string” (To Texas and Beyond). Throughout the volume the tropes of poetic language become juxtaposed with details of war, cultural vagrancy, and the reticent intransigence of existence.
“Road Chant for a Mechanical Doll” explores a barnacled surface of mobility at freeway speed. The poem reveals a moment of self-recognitionamid annoyingly slow traffic, Christian symbology, and the speaker’s own eye appears as the Egyptian Eye of Horus in her rear view mirror, “... the Dodge in front / (swim, Ichthus, support the troops) / To the right, in the mirror, a focused eye/ squints / goggles — swings of mascara.” These are not traffic coincidences, but miniature moments that the poet constantly travels into and out of, but never through. The poem interweaves Mozart with the internally rhymed “Light / shadow. Mozart’s Adagio,” a line that functions as a soothing psalm (the 23rd) asthe poem resolves in the speaker’s dissolution, “I am a stranger in my own family. / I am a sister to any stranger / when I’m needed. am i needed?” The poem creates intimacy with the mechanics of grammar, the deft imagery of blinks, squints, goggles, sun-mills, and a phrase of Mozart to build, as the title implies, a mechanical doll. But it’s a peculiar doll. This automaton is hardly a device designed to allow little princesses to sleep and dream pleasantly. Rather it moves itself with rapidity that belies the thousand intricate sprockets, starts and stops, but presents a quick trembling illusion of human motion bound to a somatic musical splinter. Its meaning is only found through the illusion of motion. Similarly in “Kyoto Dolls”: “In my bedroom mirror are two black-haired Kyoto dolls.” The reader finds the intimacy of the speaker’s bedroom haunted by the astonishing travels of twin dolls through Guadalcanal, an Eric Satie jazz version of Grand Central Station, a film noir cowboy movie, movie themes, and metempsychosis of wounded cats, all temporarily resolved when the speaker puts down her rucksack next to an unnamed “you” and announces it’s time “to go home,” and this brief domestication is enjambed with “In the mirror.” Nothing rests for more than an instant in these poems.
In Aching Miracle the poems become a singular album of impossibly complicated travel. Memory brings loss, domestic felicity is in an inescapable fun house, and uncontrollable conflict is everywhere. In “At 3:00 A.M. Triptych — Easter Bukowski,” the poet, tested by insomnia, collapses images from her war-ridden hometown with the same day’s images of a picturesque roadside near Dallas, and finds cynical wisdom of denial from Charles Bukowski. In the war-inspired “Donetsk Shortly” found earlier in the book, a young girl in glasses seems a thief, but instead slips money in a one-armed war veteran’s pocket, “It’s nothing. Buy a bouquet / for your Valentine.”
In the gorgeous “Zefiro Torna,” the speaker watching a film of a merciful murder contemplates love causing vulnerability — “coalified branches” and “creased gasp for breath,” but she tipsily sings along with Monteverdi’s madrigal, an ode to the gentle wind of the west, whosefresh breath brings back spring inspirations and the revival of love. She evokes the mighty Zephyr who knows the world of the living and the Underworld, but whose return brings back the courage to love: “Love is the water we must pay for,” whose return once again celebrates life like Botticelli’s Primavera.
In the closing poem “Glow,” the poet reminds us, “What makes us human is not even eloquence, / but the sculpting of time in memories, / an invisible impulse developing its glow.” She ends with the line, “light years between the stars,” a unit of speed abbreviating distance, not time. The poetry of this volume offers its salvation in the poet’s refusal to surrender to a fleeting world she finds she can neither restrain nor integrate into — rather, she speaks to us passing, crafting her language to appear as intimate as a conversation with a stranger on a plane. We forget we are strangers.
Elina Petrova’s first volume of poems in English is as beautiful as watching a figure skater smoothly execute axel jumps and death spirals and then viewing a slow motion projection of the constant jarring and collisions of those sharpened blades appearing to glide.
Review by Jeff Santosuosso,
Editor of Panoplyzyne
(Pensacola, October 2015)
These are poems of self and the cosmos, of physics and metaphysics, of life in the Ukraine and the US, of chemical bonds written on paper, activating the brain, igniting the mind.
To hear Petrova speak in her accented English, articulate and soft, measured and painstaking, is to hear only a small part of her voice, aspiring and worldly, aching for the universal. Therein lies the theme, the books’ binding, the poet’s voice.
One after the other, Petrova’s poems lay things side by side, in adjacency and juxtaposition, indelibly lodged in one voice. She speaks of the violence of war, thrust upon her hometown, her friends, and family; her exodus to the US; trying to make a whole, gathering the shattered pieces of her chronology. Every poem includes an I, the same I, aware of it all, bewildered and overwhelmed, seeking union, seeking unity. The poems are filled with the near and the far, present and past, painful and joyful, musical and atonal, the great works of the world, the wretchedness of destruction.
But this is no copout, no childish sobbing, no immature plea. She echoes a bit of Hegel, searching for, striving for synthesis out of the thesis and antithesis that colors her world.
Petrova examines self-awareness and revelation, undeniably finding herself in an atomic world, an elemental world, thrust into the physics of the universe. The Swan Nebula on the cover ushers us in. The first lines of the first poem, “Polyphony,” set the tone. “All that unites us is a chronicle of rays/and its mistranslations.” Unity, sunlight, distance, distortion, interpretation. Off we go. It’s not an easy place to live, but it’s her world, our world. From Donetsk to Houston and beyond, she can’t avoid these disruptions, dislocations, disassociations. The entire theme is of unity, of self, for an aspiring voice between two lands, between the elemental and the celestial. How to reconcile them, how to unify them? She yearns not only to find and place herself, but also to find and place the world.
The volume is peppered with pop references, classical art and artists, an array of global villages. Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithful, Patti Smith, Coltrane, Pink Floyd, Hank Williams, Woody Allen, Moby, and Led Zeppelin; Mozart, Horowitz, Michelangelo, Paganini, Rimbaud, Tesla, Bach, Woolf, Dvorak, Gogol, and Verdi; Kyoto, Guatemala, Bosnia, London, Lithuania, the Rocky Mountains, Hollywood, Route 66, Monterrey, Kiev, Prague, and Savannah. It’s dizzying. It’s life.
ACHING MIRACLE is not light reading. Invest in it as you would your own life. Petrova shares hers, a place where we can each find ourselves. From distances light years away to the intimacy of our own hearts, this artful book embraces it all.