Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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Stowaway, Anatoly KudryavitskyThe jacket is predominantly dark blue in colour and features full illustration: sky and sea with the horizon about one third of the way up from the bottom, the sea calm, the sky dark blue (no clouds). To the left of centre, just above the horizon, is a large passenger balloon, decorated blue and red. The title of the pamphlet picks up the red in small caps right justified about a third of the way down the jacket. The author's name is in small white sans serif, also right justified, over the sea.

SurVision Books, 2018  £6.99

Contemporary work in the modernist tradition

Kudryavitsky, as the blurb of his pamphlet informs us, ‘is a Moscow-born poet and novelist, the grandson of an Irishman who ended up in Stalin’s GULAG’. Now living and working in Ireland, he is a former Samizdat author, blacklisted for writing and publishing dissident works in the Eastern bloc.

What’s most striking about his poetry, reading it for the first time, is how — despite the fact that it is contemporary — it seems to speak to an earlier Western modernist tradition. In both their style and concerns, the poems in Stowaway appear allied to the work of writers such as Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot.

Poems like ‘Hampstead Heath’, for example, are intense in their detail and imagery. Pages of an ‘abandoned book’

breathe, ingest shadows
of shame, surrealise themselves into readiness
for an editor’s red pencil.

This intensity calls to mind the lushness of Woolf in works such as ‘Kew Gardens’, where light, shade and colour come in ‘trembling irregular patches.’

As with Stevens, Kudryavitsky’s poems toy with absurdism as ‘insanity gambols / like an acrobat of agony’ (‘The Current Balance’). Like Eliot, his poetry is dense with references — to biblical figures, Nietzsche, Hans Bellmer, and others.

Most modernist of all, though, are the thematic preoccupations. Ever-present is a tension between abstraction and ‘reality’, a questioning of the existence of ‘Truth’. ‘A beam of light’ does not reveal objective truth, but ‘opinion’ (‘In the Shadow of the Nietzsche Monument’). A motif of unreliable eyes and poor vision features widely in this pamphlet: ‘our eyes are mirrors, they’ve / taught us nothing’ (‘Beasts of the Antipodes’).

There’s a constant grappling, too, with meaninglessness. Identities are fragmented, time unreliable. ‘Neutral?’ describes barns filled with ‘emptiness’ — ‘we won’t let anybody / empty our emptiness into theirs.

Perhaps what Stowaway’s modernist characteristics suggest are that a poet working today can still be disturbed, provoked and motivated by the same external factors as the Modernists of the last century. We still live with totalitarianism, a loss of certitude and an insecure world. We need poets who speak to this — which is what Kudryavitsky does.

Isabelle Thompson