Although Yuri Gagarin is referred to only once in Piotr Gwiazda’s poetry collection Gagarin Street, the Soviet astronaut and icon remains in nearby orbit throughout. Again and again Gwiazda returns to the disintegration of seemingly permanent things, whether they be cultural symbols, empires, relationships, selves, etc. And in today’s post-Soviet lexicon what has Gagarin come to represent if not this type of dissolution?
A few decades ago his name was plastered to hundreds, if not thousands, of topographical landmarks behind the Iron Curtain, including a street in a Polish town where Gwiazda grew up. That era expired along with the Soviet Union, and fifteen years afterwards the name is well along in the process of being effaced.
Such an aggressive drive to extricate certain figures from the cultural landscape, Gwiazda suggests throughout Gagarin Street, is endemic to the ethos of the conqueror. With roots in a country that was batted around like a ping-pong ball between imperial conquerors for centuries, Gwiazda points a delicate eye to the cannibalization of one culture by another, depicting the acute societal malaise that can arise as a result. Significantly, the censure here isn’t against Russia or any other famous subjugator of old, but rather against present-day America, that self-proclaimed beacon of Democracy and freedom, where the vast bulk of Gagarin Street takes place. The life evoked is largely frustrated and paralyzed, buoyed just above drowning by the search that continues despite the nullity. Scattered throughout are attempts to find a unifying thread to existence to overcome the troubled past and vapid present and give hope to the future. But by the end no destination’s reached, and it’s unclear if any ever will be.
Before Gwiazda ventures into life in America, he revisits his abandoned homeland in the collection’s title poem. There he learns that monuments have been “rededicated, / old heroes buried, still older ones brought back from the dead.” Amid the upheaval, his childhood street has been given a new name, which leads him to ruminate on the source for its old one.
This one … makes you pause for a moment
after his lonely voyage in spinning Vostok,
after his tumble from orbit,
his fifty-fifty chance of survival.
After all, he was our hero.
Through Gagarin, Gwiazda fixes on our tenuous attitude to signification and the hypocrisy emanating from the phenomenon of cultural amnesia. After investing objects or figures with meaning, we let them go with a mere change in the winds: “I suppose that’s how history is made / or unmade. Nothing is certain till it becomes history and then is unmade.” With such an unstable bedrock on which to establish a heritage, Gwiazda is left with a gnawing sense of absence: “I’ve been carrying / this city in my pocket for so many years and today – / look: a hole.”
Yuri Gagarin, left. Photo credit: NASA.
Attempts to fill in this void permeate the poems that follow, though it becomes increasingly clear no act of mind or use of language can accomplish the task. Perhaps for this reason Gagarin Street maintains a conflicted and somber tone, reminiscent of works by classic Slavic writers like Conrad and Tolstoy. The latter crops up, significantly, in the poem “July”. Having just moved to an unnamed East Coast city, the narrator spies – beneath the tranquil surface – disheartening signs of the cruelty of the greater world. The “cool halls of churches, museums, libraries” are offset by inklings of the war in Iraq, suicide bombings and corporate scandals. The references to violence and corruption culminate in the forest fires that engulfed western states in the summer of 2003, which, in the context, carry an almost symbolic gravity: “In the West, half of America was on fire.” Amid this ineffably charged atmosphere, Gwiazda survives “on bread and Tolstoy.” Recalling both his origins in Eastern Europe and an era when literature had greater cultural import, the mention of salvation-seeking Tolstoy underpins the poem’s moral suggestiveness and expresses a desire to reinvest the mundane landscape with a literary vitality.
Although Gwiazda refers reverently to famous writers and thinkers like Tolstoy, such moments seem a byproduct or side note in a larger quest for verbal significance. In “Epiphany”, the narrator depicts his sense of liberation on missing the commuter train to work. Although he is relieved to escape, for a moment, the “barbaric routine” his life has fallen into, the event’s real impact lies elsewhere; his epiphany leads him to
words unrehearsed, untouched,
spoken with certainty, faith. Words simple and human,
just when I thought I couldn’t go on, couldn’t speak again.
Placing such import on lexical signs, Gwiazda seeks an alternative to the deadened and over-wrought language of today’s world. To this end, many of his lines ring with the inscrutable wisdom of old-world proverbs. In “The Stream”, the speaker recalls a bridge from which he used to peer down into a stream that went “from nowhere to Nowhere” – and that has since dried up. The second and final stanza of the short poem contains the moral of the story:
Always keep the keys to your former apartments.
Charity is a form of unrequited love.
You can’t drown twice in the same river.
Every step is a bridge. Sad people live longer.
Such discordant words of wisdom are a recurring motif throughout the collection. Simultaneously mordant and ironic, they offer a means of countering the protracted pointlessness of living. Or at least Gwiazda seems to hope as much: “My visitors talk to me in headlines. / I reply with absurd proverbs,” he admits at one point.
Gagarin Street shies away from being a strict moral treatise or an existential harangue, and seems to fall somewhere in between. At one end it’s bound by straightforward social criticism and a dismissive view of contemporary Western culture, and at the other end by one person’s complex, unsettled, even guilt-ridden relation to the past. “I tried to write it down: / how I abandoned the sinking ship, washed up on the indifferent shore,” Gwiazda says revealingly in the opening poem. It should also be noted, in contrast to his well-examined aversion to Capitalism, Gwiazda spends comparatively little time critiquing – either positively or negatively – the Communist system that bore him. Nor, curiously, does he expound on the tenuous position Poland held in that political superstructure. However, poems like “Avenue of the Conquered” and “Letter of Denunciation” evoke, if obliquely, the police state of the Soviet Union and his own country’s grim history caught in the crossfire of larger powers. At the very least, he places America in the long line of conquering cultures of the past.
Although Gwiazda consistently seeks a way out of the knot of culture he entered after “the little empire fifty kilometers away fell,” he struggles to overcome his nagging cynicism. “(T)hey promised happiness / we got life / to save in a bank account / and even then we received too much of it.” While such proclamations are undoubtedly sincere, they can also feel trite. The same is the case with Gwiazda’s philosophical quandaries. In “Eternity, Etc.”, the narrator is consumed with big philosophical questions. He asks how
to tell a black hole from just any hole?
And where does eternity fit (which scientists call infinity)?
If I believe in the Big Bang, do I also believe in the First Cause?
And that theory about parallel worlds …
This abstract musing is eventually curtailed by mundane reality: “What again was my question? Well, these are all big questions – / something to think about when lifting weights at the gym.” Although Gwiazda is expressing the universal travail of aging and letting go one’s youthful fantasies, his means of doing so – juxtaposing generic philosophy with superficial daily upkeep – seems contrived and simplistic, and for this reason unconvincing.
Luckily, while Gwiazda spends a fair amount of time discussing philosophy’s place – or absence – in day-to-day life, the issues of identity and human interaction gradually come to dominate. The most poignant moments of Gagarin Street show an individual doing all he can just to hold himself together and get through the petty trials and tribulations of the day. The battle for a coherent identity comes into clear relief in his poems about love – which, not incidentally, contain some of Gwiazda’s most earnest writing. “I’m not ashamed to call it (love) by name, / although I am ashamed not to have any defense against it,” the narrator confesses in “The Refugee”. Love’s menacing face brings out the narrator’s inner refugee and causes him to flee to the company of other refugees like himself. This escapist pattern leads him to wonder, “Have I ever loved?” To which he answers “I don’t know” and then admits, “My past is still at large.” While our various tools of communication may be flawed, connection is still possible, Gwiazda suggests, through glimpsing others’ vacancies. At the end of “The Refugee” the narrator fixes on his partner’s “faithless, faultless body.” Pondering the familiarity it has for him, he is both comforted and threatened, but by the end he arrives at their commonality. His partner’s “nakedness” is “instantly recognizable, like my own.”
Yet, while there are moments when true connection is just on the horizon, consummation remains elusive. In “Ordinary Night” a woman lies alone on her bed racked by a sense of entrapment. Comparing herself to a fish “in a poison lake,” she tries to make sense of her day by assembling it “into a hundred piece puzzle.” Release comes in the form of a “glimmering door” appearing “far at the vacant border.” A naked body – which the woman may or may not be imagining – appears through the door and falls on the woman “like a miracle waterfall.” But this union of bodies is immediately questioned. “Miracle? Waterfall?” Gwiazda asks, before making an evocative comparison:
When ghosts, right off the subway,
step as wild men in the water, the tongue will quit with a blush:
speech will lose its speech, words will commit suicide,
and no one will catch on tape what blissfully transpires
in the lake of a purest eye.
This passage shows Gwiazda at his best. Through rich imagery, complex metaphors, and vigorous wording, he achieves a striking lyrical force and comes close to creating a vital language of his own. And along with its raw suggestive power, the passage encompasses many of Gagarin Street’s central threads: bodies devoid of life exchange land for water in the hopes of revitalizing their primitive natures, but language, try as it might, can’t capture it and shouldn’t try. And yet here, as everywhere in Gagarin Street, crossing physical borders brings no ultimate rescue. Right when Gwiazda leads us to this climax of simultaneous physical and verbal abandon – captured, ironically, by language – he undercuts it, reflecting back to that acknowledged master of raw verbal emotiveness, Walt Whitman, and taking a line from perhaps his most sensual and communal of poems, “Song of Myself”: “This is a story of / twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome … ” When Whitman speaks the italicized words, he is offering the poet’s embracing hand as a means of fending off loneliness and nullity; Gwiazda, in contrast, leaves his characters dangling in half-fledged transformation. Even the woman’s “curled-up white cat” lies on a bed “dreaming of catlessness.” And the poem ends with a final comment on the peculiar nature of self-change: “where never is always, old ways are newer.” One way or another – perhaps through cultural uprooting, heartache, or simply growing older – we are plucked from communal time and set on our own course, with no clear way back. Gwiazda suggests that on such lonely and uncertain ground, “old ways” may be the only reliable vehicle to regenerate new connections.
The examination of love culminates in the poem “Four Songs”, in which the relations of a husband and wife are shown in constant flux. During a night that “has no doors” the two “clasp each other,” but come morning, they “wake up apart.” A child has cropped up to complicate their communion: it “almost starts to bite.” In response, “I poke your eyes out when you sleep” and “you put rat poison in my lunch.” The lovers make up by “making love” and swear “never to be adults again.” Although some descriptions here smack of cliché, at the poem’s conclusion Gwiazda connects this scenario to his greater vision of a world weighted down by mystifying relationships that language is unable to smooth out or elucidate. “We live in silence with a human throat / inside this human house with human walls.” As in earlier poems, no clarification of “human” is provided, but the repeated use of this lightning-rod term is telling, as it gives rise to – at least for a short moment in Gagarin Street’s largely misanthropic world – a hopeful belief in deeper interpersonal connections and a commitment to them in the face of the confusion and self-doubt they can give rise to.
But this is about as upbeat as Gwiazda gets as regards the potential for human contact. While he evidently sees some refuge in intimate love and familial bonds, it’s unclear if he believes these small life-rafts can ultimately save one from the greater deluge of a fickle and corrupting society. This frustration with the outside world comes to a head in the final poem “Pictures at an Exhibition”. As the poem opens, the speaker warily admits that life didn’t turn out as expected; instead of aspiring to “hog headlines” or “invent some gizmo,” he now settles for a second-rate existence. “Cheap novels, B movies, / Mussorgsky – that’s my life now, or what’s left of it, / which had always seemed a prelude to something, a sort of test.” The transformation is most apparent in his attitude to social activism. He no longer sends “letters with spit in them / to eunuch senators” or writes “manifestos on the walls of public bathrooms.” This bleak depiction deflects the notions of individual aspiration and self-cohesion developed at length in the preceding poems. The presumed arc of a successful active life comes suddenly undone, but instead of despair, the result is a feeling of liberation.
A freeing from the drive to define is perhaps what Gwiazda’s really after in Gagarin Street. In the finale of “Pictures at an Exhibition” – and thus of the volume as a whole – he practically abandons language altogether, presenting a series of terse and unembellished verbal descriptions of a film montage meant to show us “what’s around the corner.” Despite the foreboding introduction to the imagined film, the images end up being playful and piquant, giving a flavor of the intrinsic absurdity and wide possibility of life. We see, among other scenes, a “fleet of cannibals” invading the “coast of Canada,” a “rumor control office” raided by “anarchists,” and a “crackpot scientist” plotting with “a madcap cleric.” This wild rush of imagery ends on a soft and sentimental note, with “a lean rat” eating from a “child’s palm.” These two creatures could stand as symbols for any number of things – old Europe resuscitated by young America, an emaciated immigrant finding sustenance and acceptance in a foreign land, a disillusioned writer nourished by literature, or just two vastly different creatures stumbling on unexpected fellow-feeling. Whatever the case, there’s something vulgarly affecting about the scene; oozing with sentiment, it could be a frame straight from a Social Realist movie. It’s unclear, however, whether Gwiazda embraces this kind of portrayal as a genuine expression of the “humanism” he supports or if he’s ironically poking fun at such attempts to spark and manipulate emotion.
Ultimately, the answer to that question is of secondary concern, as Gwiazda’s social, political, and philosophical musings end up being the weakest part of Gagarin Street, threatening to diminish the volume’s more incisive examinations of self and individual struggling. To make a far-flung comparison, in the novella “Beast in the Jungle” Henry James tackles the issue of being consumed by one’s belief in a special personal destiny – the exact type of personal destiny Gwiazda is himself grappling with in Gagarin Street. In James’ story, the blindsided protagonist dies just as he lets his delusions of grandeur go. At the moment of death, real life can finally begin, for the world is no longer smothered under the weight of a narrow, self-centered worldview. Although James is famously concerned with the workings of the individual mind over society’s greater ills, his window into people’s thought processes can function as potent social criticism, as it leaves the reader to ponder the ways our conceptions limit life’s breadth and damage those closest to us. Gwiazda evokes a character more three-dimensional than James’ caricatured protagonist, and the topical issues he focuses on are undeniably the very ones many of us distress over everyday. But the incessant drilling home of his specific worldly concerns grows repetitive and tiring and after a while borders on griping.
Although Gwiazda often fails to merge his editorial vision with his poetry, his most vital passages rise organically through his compelling use of language, his depictions of fraught interactions, and his resonant examination of the deep and long-term effects of one of the past century’s most wrenching events – the Soviet Union’s fall. By evoking the struggle to function in the confines of an alien world while nursing internal vacancies from the tumultuous past, he shows how that supposedly defeated culture lives on – which brings us back to Yuri Gagarin and the vast cultural landscape his heroic image, for a short time, overlaid. Suggesting that one conqueror has simply supplanted another, Gwiazda goes a ways in showing that the lost Gagarin Street of his childhood stretches into the present despite attempts to cover it over. The effect of this realization is sobering and somber and leads to the most potent social censure the volume offers. In “Pictures at an Exhibition”, Gwiazda describes what’s left to hope for after life’s disappointments, here using his biting irony to exemplary effect:
The future isn’t what it was. (I’ve read that somewhere.)
Think of it as an enormous blank, a sort of dream:
the more you color it with victims’ blood,
the bigger it gets.
While filling in the lines of a victim who must live on as his origins fall away, Gagarin Street shows us that much remains indistinct in that ever growing blank. But if – as Gwiazda attests in his most hopeful moments – vacancy is the mother of creation, that blank may yet yield new life, or at least something human.
Ivan Weiss has worked as a staff reporter and editor at a variety of publications covering literary, cultural and political issues. He is currently writing fiction and studying filmmaking in New York.