Russian Doll, Teika Marija Smits
Indigo Dreams, 2021 £6.00
Power of a single, central image
That Russian Doll of the pamphlet’s title sits at the centre of this strikingly simple seeming sequence. The group is divided into two halves: ‘Daughter-doll / Doll-daughter’ and ‘Mother-doll / Doll-mother’. The poems in the first half chart the poet’s childhood, as daughter to her two parents; those in the second chart her experience of motherhood, to her two children.
The Russian doll image recurs, and is used potently to underline stress, grief and change. In the first part, there are striking themes. A glamorous ‘Muscovite mother’ to a shyer daughter. In ‘Shades of Red’ the mother, ‘Once an actress’, who ‘knew how to make an entrance’ would arrive late and loud, ‘Striking in fuchsia’, to her daughter’s ‘school performance’:
I’d glow crimson
and turn into the smallest
version of myself —
the littlest Russian doll,
the one most easily lost
There’s a ‘best friend’, ‘Anne Marie’, who runs like a winner, but obviously has a much more vulnerable self inside, and ends tragically in an ‘open coffin’.
This childhood is also shaped by the early loss of the poet’s father. ‘Matryoshka’ is ‘scattered’. Some of the dolls
shut tight, permanently locked in grief,
others ripped apart, heads rolling
at their feet.
And ‘The littlest doll’ grows
To all eyes an adult, within, a child.
The second half of the pamphlet charts motherhood. It starts in pregnancy, in ‘Making Heartroom’:
She homes the house guest come to stay
within her womb, which grows each day
I like the especially short poem, ‘Treasure’. Its narrator splits open, we hear, ‘the matryoshka — / pop pop pop pop pop’ and then:
the baby doll rests snug in her palms.
This seems like restitution. And mother love — with its ‘no elastic limits’ from ‘Hooke’s Law’ — proves so. Although, of course, in the end, there’s also wear and tear. The penultimate poem is ‘Russian Doll’, which starts: ‘I am heavy with the hopes / of my younger selves’.
And so this pamphlet itself is rather like its central image — that Russian doll — as it works to unite separate parts, poems, selves.