Just after the Soviet Union collapsed, my family hosted a member of an exchange group visiting our small New Hampshire town from the nascent Russian Federation. His name was Vladimir. I don’t remember anything about him except that he was good at darts and he loved grocery shopping. We must have taken him to Shop’n’Save every other day to pick out a new variety of juice.
I hadn’t thought about Vladimir in years, and then I came across these lines in Jehanne Dubrow’s Red Army Red, from the poem “Bag ‘N Save”:
… We walk the aisles
of twenty kinds of paper towels, the display
of Reynolds plastic wrap, the perfect smiles
that gleam from every tube of crest. We’re lost.
Dubrow’s sonnet evokes an indulgent sense of awe I now recognize in my memories of Vladimir and his friends, overwhelmed by possibilities yet reveling in being overwhelmed, like someone finding satisfaction even in a stomach ache after a long anticipated meal. I was just a little kid when he visited, but Dubrow’s poem helped flesh out a character I could only vaguely recall.
For me, this was the most powerful aspect of Red Army Red, giving a shape, an expression, in some cases even a whole gangly adolescent body, to a not so distant chapter in history. If you have any memories of the last days of the Cold War and what that meant, no matter how young you might have been then–or if your family never hosted a shopping addict from Russia–you’ll find powerful echoes in Dubrow’s personal history in verse that help make history personal.
Red Army Red charts the speaker’s path from a childhood behind the Iron Curtain to an adolescence in the U.S. The first section, titled “Cold War,” focuses primarily on the speaker being the child of diplomats. Poems like “Aubade” and “Fancy” convey the day-to-day loneliness of a young girl with important parents, while “Photograph of My Father With Lech Walesa” suggests a sense of being a part of larger narratives, if only a small, incidental part. The title of the second section, “Velvet Revolution,” becomes a metaphor coming of age. Poems like “Five-Year Plan” and “A Samizdat History of the Body” make political drama of puberty, and the speaker throws herself into early, mystifying attempts at love. “Bag ‘N Save” is the transitional poem into the final section, “Laissez-faire,” and, true to its name, this last section contains the book’s most freewheeling poems and also those most focused on capitalism and consumerism.
Each section has its hits, like “Bag ‘N Save,” “Water Through a Hand,” or “Wiretap,” a prose poem about conversation between two teenage girls being monitored by secret police: “… the receivers pressed like shells again their ears, each voice the other’s ocean. And in between the spilling out of words, the click-click-click of a machine recording all their treasures–coral lips they wore in school, the boy with azure eyes.”
Dubrow’s language is always precise and concrete, and though she traffics in political ideas, she never settles for political abstraction, focusing instead on shelves being empty or full, on fashion choices, foods, or physical sensations.
My only complaint about the poetry I found here was that in some cases I wanted more of it. Poems like “Grunge” set a conceit in motion, in this case, a personal transformation, (“Ugly is the new beautiful, my best friend said,”) and ended on a line or image that left me feeling unfulfilled, (“our mouths a shade / of oil slick”), waiting for one more turn or complication.
In the end, the best poems here along with the collection’s conceptual coherence far outweigh its minor and sporadic disappointments. This is smart, personal work, touchingly rendered for an audience who enjoys history, politics, pop culture, and romance as much as poetry.
Similar reads:Stateside: Poems by Jehanne Dubrow, The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems, trans. by Paul Schmidt, and Collected Body by Valzhyna Mort.