I don’t like poetry as a genre. There. I’ve said it. So sue me. I don’t get it. Moreover, I live in Norwich, where you’re served poetry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And snacks. And yet there are rare – and therefore precious, delectable – occasions when I come across poetry that fills me with unadulterated joy and all-round nourishment. Poetry I admire, poems that touch me deeply, poems that have the colourful, deep fires of an Ethiopian opal. Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood and Other Poems is a collection of them.
The book is an anthology of original poems, ballads, villanelles and Onegin stanzas by Dralyuk, and includes a section with his translations of works by other twentieth-century émigrés (‘Russian Hollywood’), including two by Vladimir Dukelsky, better known to us as Vernon Duke.
Formed and inspired by his own background as a Jewish immigrant from Odesa during the Soviet era, My Hollywood and Other Poems is a moving tribute to the Russophones who made Los Angeles their home, and a bitter-sweet bow to the city that took them in. Countless people from every continent came seeking their dreams in glittering Los Angeles. Some found them; others were disappointed. Now the city is a little the worse for wear, somewhat faded, like many of those dreams.
This much is clear: the good old days have passed. [...] Sit here all night, if you can bear the grime— watch people come and go, but you will see no women in black shed tears for Valentino. (from ‘My Hollywood: a Triptych’)
This disappointment is all the more poignant because it is often laced with humour. The sense of displacement is never expressed as a lament but as a quip, an off-the-cuff remark. The more it hurts, the more you laugh about it. Funny, how strange life can be.
In certain rooms I lived like momentary noise. In others I took pains to make myself perceived. In some I was the creak to be more felt than heard— linoleum’s absurd and personal mystique. (from ‘Notation’)
Dralyuk’s verses have extraordinary musicality. Their rhythm is light-footed, like the tap of Astaire – and is as uncompromisingly precise. They are lyrical without ever being maudlin. Nostalgic but never self-pitying. They are subtle, playfully wistful, poignantly evocative. And elegant, always.
His translations of the five poets in the ‘Russian Hollywood’ section are so natural, you wouldn’t know they were originally written in anything else but English. In an interview with Arkansas International (as quoted by Lisa Russ Spaar in her review in On the Seawall, 12 April 2022), Dralyuk states:
‘I have always, from the very start, approached poetic translation as the writing of poetry, full stop. […] For as long as I’m translating a poem, I take on a consciousness that could have given rise to the original. I don’t become the human being who wrote the original, of course, but I step into some version of that person’s mind – the version contained in, or hinted at, or perhaps constructed by the poem in front of me.’
It is this sensitivity, this empathy, that gives Dralyuk’s translations their freshness and authenticity.
Part of what makes My Hollywood and Other Poems so unique is the multiculturalism you sense between the lines. The words are in one language – English – but the sensibilities suggest layers of additional cultures. Being an émigré goes hand-in-hand with being a polyglot, and when you think in more than one language, the textures, philosophies and experiences of all your languages inevitably add their flavour to and enrich the apparently monolingual text. Inevitably – and thankfully: because the result becomes incontestably original. And so My Hollywood and Other Poems is a jewel that is only one of its kind.
Take it from someone who is hard to please where poetry is concerned: buy it. You’ll treasure it always.
Reviewed by Katherine Gregor
MY HOLLYWOOD AND OTHER POEMS
by Boris Dralyuk
published by John Dry Books (April 2022)
July 2022 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.
Read Katherine Gregor’s interview with Boris Dralyuk.
Katherine Gregor grew up in Italy and France before going to university in England. She has been a theatrical agent, press agent, teacher and one or two other things before becoming a literary translator from Italian, French and, on occasion, Russian. She also writes original material and is currently working on a non-fiction book.
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