“The Petrov Poems” by Lesley Lebkowicz reviewed by Linda Weste
The Petrov Poems
by Lesley Lebkowicz
Pitt Street Poetry, 2013
Reviewed by LINDA WESTE
Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems is a verse novel that keeps its offerings close to its chest: at eighty pages the volume is slim and unassuming, its cover inconspicuous. While this reserve accords with its theme of espionage, nevertheless its subject — the defection of the Petrovs, an “escapade which rocked the sleepy town of Canberra in April 1954” (Jacket blurb) — ensures there is more to this verse novel than its appearance suggests.
The Petrov Poems required “massive amounts of research,” Lebkowicz acknowledges (Interview). Not only did she spend many hours accessing documents, including ASIO files, in the National Archives and the National Library, she spoke with Canberra people about their memories, and “walked around the Embassy, the Petrovs’ house and the Hotel Kingston”, until, she adds, “the details infiltrated the poems” (Interview).
The material was abundant, Lebkowicz recalls: “the Petrovs’ lives were choc-a-bloc with material made for a novel” (Interview). Lebkowicz has been mindful to ensure the content is accessible rather than overwhelming; the verse novel comprises four sections of interlinked poems in chronological order, and much of the narrative backstory and plot is in place by the end of Part I. The historical details are re-presented in a credible story world.
Initially Lebkowicz intended to write the story from the point of view of Evdokia Petrova and the other women involved (Madame Ollier, a diplomat; the air hostess, Joyce Bull). In order to do this, she had to know about Vladimir Petrov as well, and before long, she acknowledges, “I realised he was a gift” (Interview), though not exactly the stereotypical spy — “bumbling” is the term Lebkowicz assigns him. Nevertheless Lebkowicz wanted to convey Vladimir Petrov and Evdokia Petrova “as people, not as spies” whose “dilemmas were human and often heart-rending” (Interview). Her approach to speech and thought representation was “to take the reader in as close as possible to the Petrovs” (Interview). Lebkowicz states she chose “the intimate forms of their names (Volodya and Dusya) and gave a lot of their interior lives, especially Dusya’s”, but resisted first-person mode, realising that omniscient third-person narration in past tense would allow the overview she required (Interview).
How Lebkowicz embodies the Soviet diplomat-spy is often visceral, evoking a corpulent Volodya: “his fingers white slugs on the saucer”; “softness has long fled / his mind” (4). In ‘Blood II’, however, his body and mind dissemble along with future plans:
Each drink had laid down errant cells
in the dark of his arteries. They came loose and sidled
along networks that threaded his body.
His blood struggled.
His heart laboured.
A clot jammed the flow in his brain
and then nothing worked. Now words richochet
and can’t find the path to his tongue. (79)
The poem ‘Disintegration’ iterates the unstoppable advance of mortality: Volodya, post stroke, has lost his memory. When Dusya visits him in the nursing home, he does not recognise her: “No more strangers he yells. I want my wife” (80). It is poignant but moreover ironic treatment that Lebkowicz aims for in The Petrov Poems, and achieves. There is paradox, too, in this narrative of political asylum, in contrasting the metaphors of life networks as “a kind of containment” (78), and of ‘the body as a prison’ (79) with ‘the body needing shelter’.
If there’s a predominant poetic form in The Petrov Poems, Lebkowicz believes “it is probably the sonnet — but not the formal sonnet of earlier centuries. No end-stopped rhyme, though generally fourteen lines and a volta of sorts” (Interview). What may vex readers expecting a more prominent poetic template is this verse novel’s stylistic preference for description over trope. That is not to say that personification, simile, metaphor, are not present. Rather, poetic elements are muted, and the poetic narrative is naturalised and accessible: “Water flirts with the boats.” (3); “…the letters she types / skitter over her desk like dry chaff.” (78)
Why many poems are expository, more focused on describing narrative space and the narrative events taking place, than on elaboration, is in part, attributable to the need for narrative momentum. Fewer poetic embellishments, in Lebkowicz’s design, “keep the pace fairly fast” (Interview). The emphasis on description is also instrumental for spatial and temporal presentation. Description is a discourse strategy for the disclosure of spatial information (Ryan 2014), a means to convey “the physically existing environment in which characters live and move” (Buchholz and Jahn 2005).
The emphasis on description, therefore, is a concession to narrative ends; effective for reconstructing the temporal sequence of the events of the Petrov’s defection. This stylistic foregrounding of space and time is evident in the titles or subtitles of poems, for example, ‘Inside the Embassy I’; ‘Volodya crashes on the way to meet Mme Ollier in Cooma. 25 December 1953’; ‘Petrov and Richards meet in a car behind the Kingston Hotel. 26 March 1954.’; ‘Bialoguski’s flat, Point Piper, 19 March 1954’ and ‘Flight from Mascot to Darwin, 19 April 1954’.
Yet the emphasis on description extends the textual spatiality of The Petrov Poems beyond its setting, that of mid-twentieth-century Canberra, Australia, and also beyond its spatial frames — those separate locations where events transpire: the ship Orcades; the Russian Club; the ASIO office; the Embassy; Government House; Bialoguski’s flat; in a car behind Kingston Hotel; the airport; the safe house and the nursing home — to encompass story space, “the space relevant to the plot, as mapped by the actions and thoughts of the characters (which) consists of all the spatial frames plus all the locations mentioned by the text that are not the scene of actually occurring events” (Ryan 8).
The story space can then also incorporate Russia, Stockholm and the valley about which Dusya Petrova dreamed, “where almost-twin girls/took milk from a cow” (79); the labour camp where her husband was taken and died; and the “big room in Moscow” (17) where she and first husband, Román, lived together “with Román’s books on the shelves above the bed” (17). Story space in The Petrov Poems also maps the places about which Volodya Petrov thinks: Sinkiang, the autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China, and one of the province’s largest cities; Yarkand, the ancient city on the Silk Road, once a major transport hub and centre of moneylending and trade; the village of Volodya’s family house; the USSR; the farm he was raised on; Moscow; the countries of Canada and Japan from which other agents defect; and the farm he imagines himself living on, sometime in the future.
The narrative unfolds without a single specific reference to the Cold War, nevertheless it becomes possible to convey Cold War divisions. Readers envision the frontier “to prevent communism from gaining ground in the region” imagined by the 1954 formulation of the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation — formed between the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines — as they bring further spatial information — narrative (or story) world space — to the text on “the basis of cultural knowledge and real world experience” (Ryan 2014).
Lebkowicz, an accomplished poet, wrote The Petrov Poems without “a conscious model” although she had read other verse novels — by Dorothy Porter, Judy Johnson, Geoff Page and Vikram Seth. The act of writing The Petrov Poems was to affirm Lebkowicz’s enthusiasm for the verse novel: “It’s a powerful form —flexible and compelling” she asserts (Interview). The publication of The Petrov Poems by one of Australia’s small poetry presses, Pitt Street Poetry, consolidates Lebkowicz’s previous credits, a book of poetry and a short story collection.
Readers who regularly engage with the verse novel form, come to know its infinite variety.
The Petrov Poems is one of a growing number of verse novels internationally that narrativise historical material. The Petrov Poems does so without ostentation, yet its approach to its subject, at once compassionate and penetrating, arises from careful research, and ensures a worthy contribution.
Buchholz, Sabine and Manfred Jahn.“Space.” In: Herman. D et al. (eds): Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 2008 : 551–54.
Lebkowicz, Lesley. Interview by Linda Weste, 6 July 2014.
—. The Petrov Poems. Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2013.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Space”. In: Hühn, Peter et al. (eds.): the living handbook of narratology. Hamburg: Hamburg University. [view date:1 July 2014]
“Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), 1954”, Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, United States Department of State. [view date:1 July 2014]
LINDA WESTE is a poet, editor and teacher of creative writing who researches poetic and narrative interplay.