Jehanne Dubrow. Red Army Red. Triquarterly Books, 2012.
Jehanne Dubrow’s third full-length collection, Stateside (2010), sought to articulate the specific type of loneliness that haunts a person whose partner is militarily deployed. It is a book fixated on the external: family, war, military life. Now, in her follow-up, Red Army Red, we find ourselves carried from the external to the internal as Dubrow tackles themes of self, genealogy, and history. For much of the book we’re situated in Russia and Poland, where Dubrow interacts with major historical events in deeply personal ways.
Cold War, the first of three sections, introduces the author’s unique childhood as a child of American diplomats. Describing her early life in Poland, Dubrow writes in the poem “Chernobyl,” “We dreamed of glowing children, / their throats alive and cancerous, / their eyes like lighting in the dark.” This use of the collective “we” expresses the outrage, awe, and fear experienced by the entire international community in response to Ukraine’s 1986 nuclear power plant accident. Dubrow incorporates the incident into her own personal history. She insists that the national disaster weighs down on her parents as effectively as “family dinners, the evening news, / the dead voice of the dial tone.”
The strategy of situating the reader in a recognized moment of history, which many communities lay claim to, then focusing on the narrow, personal way the speaker experienced it, is the driving force behind this collection. For instance, the poem “Aubade” illustrates the iron rules of the Eastern Bloc, which Dubrow’s parents were obliged to obey. Rather than incur punishment for being out past curfew, her parents would sleep on couches at work, leaving the young speaker of the poem unable to “deny // the imprint of their absence, the way / my room was shadow and the ricochet / of light, hard sheets, green hours ticking by.” The world of Soviet-style strictures is reduced, here, from political history to shadow and light, perhaps because the child’s mind only understands, in this context, the binary relationship of dark and light. Darkness becomes the mysterious sociopolitical force creating absence and loneliness. The light of the next morning returns the family to its intact whole, displacing the child’s feelings of abandonment. This is the child’s grayless world abroad.
The sparseness and well-crafted lines of the poem “Aubade” catch the reader inside the tension of waiting—a tension Durbow also deftly explored in Stateside. It is well transposed within Red Army Red, yet it appears much more sparingly. The entire first section holds onto this power while leading the reader through numerous Eastern Bloc locales that consistently seem exotic to an average American reader; for example: “Imagine centuries of lunch, / centuries of the busboy’s doublet / stained with mead martinis” (“At the 600-Year-Old Restaurant”). Even within this catalogue poem, a collective Polish “we” exists, waiting for a return to the “normalcy” of post-Soviet life: “After the Russians, / dumplings grow heavy / with sadness, drown in sauce.” This particular moment exemplifies Dubrow’s deft and layered sense of the tension of waiting. While earlier poems (both in Stateside and Red Army Red) embraced the idea of waiting for the individual, at this point the waiting is collective.
If Cold War humanizes life in the Eastern Bloc, Velvet Revolution forces her to confront a world she might naturally shy away from. The titular poem of the section, “Velvet Revolution,” uses long vowel sounds at the end of lines to create an eeriness that contrasts with the child’s perspective of the earlier poems:
If she said I’m lonely,
her words were a curtain
over the dark of it.
And so she barely spoke.
Better to hold the peach,
not eating it, than feel
a pit against her teeth.
Apricots, plums, cherries
Of course, Dubrow echoes T.S. Eliot’s famous peach (“Do I dare?”). The woman in this poem would rather not grasp at future happiness because it might spoil in her stomach. The friction in these lines mirror the lack of hope associated with Poland before the Revolutions of 1989 that founded the democratic Poland recognized today. I held my breath during this section; this effect on the reader mirrors how Poland held in its own breath while the Soviet Army was stationed on its soil. At the same time, this poem speaks to those earlier sad, drowned dumplings, through which Dubrow set up her metaphor for spoiled food representing Polish society depleted or eroded by the USSR.
This food metaphor carries through the final section, as well. This section, Laissez-Faire, deals with the abundance that resulted from a post-communist system. The poem “Bag ‘N Save” uses the sonnet-form to associate ironically the complicated love Polish society has for its new grocery-store products: “We lose our families near the razor blades. / We lose ourselves watching a steak defrost / within the deli case, how it turns a shade.” Pop-culture abounds in this section, where readers recognize the use of familiar wares and merchandise. Yet, just like in Stateside, the speaker is left wanting. Though capitalism ensures that the people can now purchase as many things as they can afford, they cannot shed the previous feelings of denial nor the complex feeling of loss that surface: “Knock knock, we said, tapping the window / of the store / that closed ten years ago, / that trick of glass, transparent, and impassable” (“Before Pleasure”). This is the image that the reader is left with—impenetrable glass that the collective “we” cannot break through.
Jehanne Dubrow’s newest collection provides a unique, poetic glimpse into the transition of Eastern Bloc countries from Soviet-style communism to capitalism—as filtered through the observations and thoughts of an American growing up abroad. Most notably, Dubrow uses American jargon to speak to Americans about historical events they have not personally experienced. Overall, Red Army Red is a strikingly successful attempt to express an American view of the silence imposed on Poland during the long period of Soviet occupation.