As Labyrinthine as the Streets of Moscow: Caroline Clark's Saying Yes in Russian

paul kavanagh

Saying Yes in Russian is a profound book of poetry. It could have been a ponderous and cumbrous Saying yes in Russianbook, but it is not. The poems are as delicate as the paper they are printed upon. The reader is taken on a linguistic journey full of splendor and illumination. It is travel without exhaustion, headaches, and confusion. The title poem is about how to say yes in Russian. A voyage worth taking, sometimes the simplest things produce the most rewarding feelings. It is as beautiful as Humbert Humbert’s instructions on how to pronounce Lolita. The poem is a didactic delight. The poet shows a language just as labyrinthine as the streets that make up Moscow, just as complicated as the people on the streets. The book is full of such poems. They are a joy to read, to explore, to ruminate upon; they show a poet in complete control.

Place the tip of your tongue

Against the roof of your mouth

Pressing the point just behind your teeth

Push up, jaw tough, eyes hard.

Make as if to say no, nyet 1,

What should have been an onerous task has been achieved with amazing delicacy. To look, listen, and record is a gargantuan endeavor. Sometimes it takes an outsider to paint the real. Alexis de Tocqueville comes to mind. This delicacy is achieved because Caroline Clark knows Russia 2. Her Russia is real. She has breathed Russia. Reading the poems, I found my Russia to be a simulacrum. My Russia was populated by Gogol’s madmen, Lermontov’s men of leisure, Dostoevskian women of the streets and Tolstoyian women willing to throw themselves before the train. My Russia was serfs and revolutionists. My Russia was Repin, not McDonald’s. Reading the poems, my quixotic Russia was the books on my shelf or the books fragmented and lingering in the dark recesses of my mind. I am still plagued by Kuprin’s women. Reading Saying Yes in Russian, I was presented with Modern Russia, not the Russia suspended somewhere in the 19th century. Caroline Clark presented me with a Russia I did not know, and I liked this. The poems are about real people, real cities, and real words. They are about now.

The Malchik 3 triptych alone is worth the price of the book.

You’ll wait two hours for a Big Mac next to Pushkin Square (take one home by train, divide it into four). 4

The Malchik triptych is filled with pathos and penury. How easily they could have fallen into the pit of the Dostoevskian cliché. However, they never do. They are poignant poems, but brimming with black humor. There is more than a hint of the gallows humor permeating the poems.

The future is fresh with Ariel, Persil, Pearl and Tide, heralds of change.5

Flashes of humor, caustic fireworks, and clever juxtapositions are ubiquitous; they pop on nearly every page. Never do the poems on the trajectory to the end swell, turn unruly, or lag through fatigue. Each poem contains equilibrium. They are seamless, flowing, and if there is a use of the bricolage, there are no hiccups, no jolts. The poems flow with ease. Moscow Honey Fair 6 is such a poem. In a blast of words, a poem made up of two lists, the words become fulgurations that illuminate the phenomenon that pure beauty can be found in the humdrum, in the mundane, in a word. In such a poem, the reader is placed within, never is the reader looking down. The reader is in the street, in the room, in the conversation, in the word.

Tram cables

settle neatly in peaks

spray newly

to recover in freshfall 7

There are moments when the poems touch the spirit of Thomas Hardy. They share the simplicity and the economy of Hardy’s poems. I am reminded of At Castle Boterel. Thomas Hardy composed, not wrote, but composed some beautiful poems, and Caroline Clark has achieved beauty, not some clever paradox where the ugly transcends to beauty. Saying Yes in Russian is a great achievement.

Saying Yes in Russian
By Caroline Clark
Agenda Poetry (June 29, 2012)
ISBN-13: 978-1908527042

1 Saying Yes in Russian. Pg. 45.
2 Caroline Clark is married to a Russian Gentleman and lived in Russia for a number of years.
3 Little boy.
4 Malchik of the Scrapheap. Pg. 17.
5 Malchik Smells the West. Pg. 19.
6 It would be a disservice to cut and paste.
7 Picked randomly: Snowfall. Pg. 32.



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