Friday, October 31, 2008

Cossacks and Bandits

Katia Kapovich's latest collection - Cossacks and Bandits (Salt Publishing, 2008) - continues the appealing lyrical narrative style of her earlier Gogol in Rome. The two collections trace a shifting focus, from émigré to immigrant, from memories of Russia to observations of the United States. There's more of the present in the new book, and not only in the references to JPEGs and, but in the reservoir of experience from which the poems are drawn. The juxtaposition of two narratives in the poem 'The Bells' where the sequiturs aren't quite clear achieves a stronger effect than some of the simpler more direct pieces; but the simpler lyrical pieces are very appealing and have something of the affable clarity that you might find in the work of, say, Hugo Williams, although the content is quite different. There are the slight dislocations of language: "now you must rebuild the whole structure / out of the rabble in your mind" ... should that 'rabble' perhaps be 'rubble'? A blending of words possibly stemming from the absence of a short u sound in Russian? Or the odd strange article: "An obnoxious driver of the orange Porsche / changing lanes like a pigeon hops branches" ... here a pleasant enough insight is cut through by what seems like a wrong article, giving a strange electrostatic charge to the lines. But of course Kapovich is deeply aware of the ambiguities around the linguistic position of the immigrant, and the possible advantages its outsider status can confer upon a poet. In the poem 'Tutor' she recounts a story of teaching a Russian kid with some language and learning difficulties some basic English, managing to go as far as basic statements such as 'The sky is blue. The grass is green. The paper is white.' The poem ends with what could be a metaphor for the language trick of poetry:

The next thing I knew, he was dating an American girl.
"Anton, my goodness, how did that happen?"
He looked at me seriously. "I told her, 'Look! The sky is blue!
The grass is green! The paper is white! What is your name?'"

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