Katia Kapovich’s verse is jugular, operatic. Hers is a tome of upheaval and disparity told through the metrics of song with disarming sincerity. In her first English-language collection, let it be said Kapovich, a bi-lingual poet who writes in both English and Russian, has created an eye/ear rarity: a musical documentary about the continental divides — ideological, political, economic, and social — that split west from east, and cut Europe’s sensibilities in half so that the collective and individual identities of entire peoples were determined by the iron curtain and its dichotomizing influences.
In the poem ‘Moscow — Berlin,’ Kapovich describes what it is like to arrive not just at location, but at location separated from itself, and so details, geographically, amputation.
We arrived in Berlin at night;
its eastern half, which I had just crossed,
lay immersed in a lucid darkness,
while West Berlin was flooded with light (9).
It’s a stanza made for the ear. ‘Night’ occurs three lines directly above ‘light.’ ‘Night’ and ‘light’ combine to make a simple child-like rhyme, innocent of political (and poetic) pretense. The significance of the rhyme, once the mind processes it (‘ight,’ which sounds a bit like the German ‘ich,” or, loosely translated, ‘I’) is more complex, and subliminal. The double ‘ight’ projects a harsher syllabic that echos auditorily the hyper-militaristic line-drawing of nation and heritage bisected on maps by Soviet and German authority.
The brilliance of Kapovich’s passage — and I would argue this is the case for virtually all the pieces in the book — is neither simplicity nor the meticulousness with which she orders sound to comment on order, though both are worth arguing for. It is that the work is ambitious and idealistic — ‘Romantic’ with a capital ‘R,’ yes, but more gritty, and photojournalistic. Even when the content is sobering, and the form (perhaps paralleling Politburo strictness to formality and code) necessarily rigid, Kapovich’s voice is defiant, playfully humming among the disaffected chants of the familiar dissidents and the rants of the ideologues some of us under-40 Americans were academically coerced into canonizing as Russian literature. Alienation, thematically, underlies the work of a lot, if not most, revered Soviet and post-Soviet writers, Kapovich among them. The difference is her tone is lighter, in weight, and also in the sense that it stimulates sight, is bright even when speaking of marginalization and its peripheries of aches.
Kapovich follows one of the more Fantastic authors of the canon, poetically recounting Ukranian-born Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s travels to Rome, Jerusalem, and New York. Gogol’s works are largely considered masterpieces — in any language — because of the way he pans Czarist rule and its autocratic institutions using supernatural imagery, satire, and other practices to outwit the censor. He was religious, according to Russian poet and scholar Dmitry Merezhkovsky’s seminal essay ‘Gogol and the Devil,’ some thought fanatically so , and was prone to burning chunks of his own books in fits of despondency over how political camps might use his works to secularly proselytize their own platforms. Kapovich treats Gogol more like a documentary subject than Byronic revolutionary or condemned hero, and the effect is a reduced, humanized Gogol with lower-case, normal flaws as opposed to Gogol-of-the-Ideologically-Grandiose ones more often critically deconstructed and analyzed.
In ‘Gogol in Rome,’ the title poem, we meet the Gogol who ‘steals bits of furniture and parts of the domestic atmosphere,’ whose mother ‘freaked whenever she received one of his strange and ambiguous letters,’ who received ‘enemas,’ who complains about the cold Italian weather (3). Though he is odd and a little irritating, he is also a regular person, insecure on the road to his own self-destructive emigration. Kapovich’s portrait of Gogol is an intimate and wrenching one of palpable hubris — that of a man whimpering in the anti-climatic typicalness of his own ‘only human’ existence. His ‘leave’ of himself is unexpectedly literal. He is bled to death by leeches, and though the means of his departure is, for our time, exotic, the gripe he makes about the Italian landscape (‘It’s cold in Italy, it’s dark!’) before dying is one to which anyone who has ‘settled’ can relate.
Though the title ‘A Farewell to Russian Symbolism’ indicates, topically anyway, a more academic poem about Russian poetry, Kapovich’s focus is on not on the expected images of the Fantastic, but on the neglected, overlooked images of the pedestrian. Cunningly, she memorializes symbolic, thus poetic, reasoning by privileging real scene and concrete object above the abstract ideals they might represent; yet in using scene and object to ‘represent’ such illogic, pays simultaneous homage to one of the most lyrically antithetical figures of symbolic practice. Echoing Russian poet Anna Akhmatova’s clarity and directness, Kapovich’s narrator, ‘sitting on the porch with a book,’ notes
Another bench is taken up
by three lit teachers visiting from Saratov.
They smoke Parliaments and talk
in low conspiring tones
of ‘she who is no longer there’ (12).
The ‘she,’ I assume, is Akhmatova, whom the poem is in memory of, and, so I also assume, dedicated to. Akhmatova’s ‘Requiem,’ broadly a lyrical criticism of Stalin’s regime and its now well-documented horrors (in part inspired by having to watch her son spend the better part of his young adult life in its gulags) is a classic. Kapovich’s homage is to Akhmatova specifically, and to her universal influence figuratively. She uses Akhmatova’s physical absence (she died in 1966) to re-establish her presence; in so doing, she eulogizes both Akhmatova (‘she who is not there’) and, with a wink and metonymic reference to ‘parliaments’ up in smoke, the ultimately futile legislative attempts of Stalin and his literary commandants to manipulate any writings or renderings deemed unfavorable to the state, and to silence, exile, and obliterate their writers and renderers (as an aside, in attempt to secure her son’s release, Akhmatova finally resorted to praising Stalin, in verse, to no avail).
Any criticism of Stalin’s government, if it can be called that, had to be accomplished cleverly, usually via the employ of recognizably disguised fictive agents like parable, metaphor, metonymy, satire, and song, thus the farewell to Russian symbolism Kapovich bids is also a kind of tongue-and-cheek farewell to ‘real equivalents.’ The argument isn’t that poetic representation is dead, or futile — though Kapovich uses the aforementioned literary devices sparingly, and, when she does, with skill and import — it’s that representation of any kind is an act of translation, of language, idea, tone, and motivation that requires interpretation, which means someone must determine, usually for someone else, meaning and significance. And if one entity determines meaning and significance for another, then any decision made based on that meaning or significance is potentially one made with the scales tipped toward the agenda of whom or whatever has determining power or influence. It’s a fascinating dynamic, and one that recurs in a number of pieces in the book (though this isn’t, by any means, the only dynamic in those pieces) best demonstrated in ‘Privacy,’ in which Kapovich explores the tricky subjectivity of ordinary sign-reading.
The old Victorian house wears black curtains
mourning the deceased owner. We open the gate
held together by a rusty bar, and in the driveway
stumble on a heap of old Sunday Times
wrapped in blue plastic.
Death animates the most inanimate objects.
‘No trespassing’ sounds like ‘Be my guest!’ (48).
The house, personified by the character of the deceased occupant, is poetically representative of death, of course, but, more interestingly, of transgression. The dead, typically, do not need to read their newspapers — ostensibly this is why they let them pile-up on driveways, assuming perhaps the ‘alive,’ who can be notoriously indecisive, will know what to do with them. To do anything means physical territory must be trespassed into, and metaphysical barriers crossed. Before we act, Kapovich reminds us that these and all barriers, whether moral, spiritual, practical, political, or physical, are not arbitrarily erected, though we may not always agree with the reasoning behind their erections, or, necessarily, ever be able to navigate them. Barriers are real. They are not ambiguous so much as spectral — the remains of something that was, once upon a time, alive and actual.
In the above stanza, the question is ‘where is the line?’ Kapovich — the exclamation point makes me think happily — doesn’t answer it, at least not directly, and the negative command joined with the welcoming declarative as linked by ‘and’ suggests the closest thing anyone who finds herself in front of, or behind one is to laugh, and accept the impossibility of ever finding where it lie.
 Maguire, Robert. Ed. Gogol from the Twentieth Century. Princeton, 1976
Nicole Mauro has published poems in numerous journals, including 580 Split, Skanky Possum, Mungo vs. Ranger, Outlet, Syllogism, Milk, and Big Bridge; recent poems have appeared in Jacket, HOW2, and The Argotist. Her chapbook in homage to New York School poets, Odes, was published in 2003 (Sardines Press). She is currently at work on a series about raptors titled Prey. She teaches rhetoric and writing at The University of San Francisco, and lives in the Bay Area with her daughter, Nina, and husband, Patrick.