Oscillations, Tensions and Drama: joanne burns launches ‘The Petrov Poems’ by Lesley Lebkowicz

The Petrov Poems by Lesley Lebkowicz. Pitt Street Poetry 2013. The Sydney launch of The Petrov Poems took place on 15 August at Gleebooks. joanne burns’ speech launched the collection on its way.

petrovLesley Lebkowicz’s verse novel The Petrov Poems is an accomplished achievement, in which her detailed historical research, and her poetic and narrative skills blend to create a compelling evocation of a dramatic and significant period in post-war Australian political history.

Among other elements, what makes this poem sequence so distinctive and individual is the way Lebkowicz takes the reader into the emotions and psyches of the two main protagonists, Volodya and Evdokia Petrov, who is called Dusya in the narrative.Throughout the unfolding of the external political narrative Lebkowicz tracks and intertwines the Petrovs’ fear, angst, and anguish especially in relation to Dusya.

The verse novel opens with their arrival in Sydney en route from Russia to take up their appointments at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1951, and concludes with the death of Volodya in 1990, and Dusya’s subsequent peaceful life with her sister Tamara. The novel is structured into 4 parts: Volodya defects; Dusya defects; the Petrovs at Palm Beach; the Petrovs in Melbourne. The Petrov Poems takes us way beyond the newspaper headlines, political shibboleths, and shadowy sensational photos of that period in the first half of the 1950s when the sound of the name ‘Petrov’ could make a child feel as if an unknown monster was at large in Australia.

Throughout the narrative Lebkowicz traces the oscillations, tensions, dramas in the Petrovs’ complex relationship. In the opening poem ‘Harbour’ Dusya assesses their relationship in an affirmative way as she stands on the deck of the ‘Orcades’ as it sails into Sydney Harbour –

‘Volodya had been a safe choice.
Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth……..’

But this opening poem is full of the shadows of their pasts in Russia – their successes, but more strongly the hardships, the harshness.This is expressed with grim succinctness – ‘When you’ve scrambled to survive/you know how to fear’. Fear is a powerful force in the Petrovs’ lives, and it stalks the atmosphere and texture of the narrative.

Now settled and working in Canberra Volodya considers the possibility of defecting. Beria, KGB chief [and his boss], is arrested in Russia following Stalin’s death. Petrov calculates his bleak chances in the poem ‘Sums’, via Lebkowicz’s lean, confronting, short lines –

Three months it took
from Stalin’s death
to Beria’s arrest
plus six more till his execution –
Volodya keeps doing the sums
and the answer
is always his death.’

The couple argue over the defection issue. Dusya is terrified that if she defects her family in Russia will be murdered. Volodya accuses her of spurning the Russian ambassador’s advances. Dusya’s fear for the fate of her family as a consequence of defection haunts her throughout the sequence. Volodya does however show some feeling for Dusya. During pre-defection meetings with ASIO’s deputy director, Richards, he is tempted with a brief display of $5,000 in cash. He does have the guts to say more than once ‘I fear for my wife’. At one stage he naively thinks if he leaves without telling Dusya, and takes nothing to implicate her, she will be protected. Particularly tender is Lebkowicz’s evocation of a moment on the night before Petrov plans to secretly defect. In the poem ‘Loss’ she writes –

‘He pads across the corridor to her room and opens a drawer.
Her soft things are slivers of loss
he can touch. He brings the silk to his face.’

This is a moment of love, delicate and riveting in the context of his marital infidelities.

We again see the strains in their relationship, after their defections. In the Palm Beach section things are not so palmy. In a savage moment Volodya sets the dog Jack onto his wife. But we also see her dependence on her husband. In short lines that show her frailty she asks – ‘But where would/she be/without Volodya?/Who could she/talk to?’ In this phase of the narrative Volodya angsts about the possibility of Dusya’s family being killed because of him. Later when they move to Melbourne the tension continues. In ‘At home in Bentleigh’ Lebkowicz writes alliteratively and figuratively –

‘Their fights split
the house.
Paint lifts from skirtings
like stolen documents.’

As already indicated Lebkowicz gives Volodya some depth as she probes under the surface. While we see him superficially as a drunk and a sexual philanderer, a prostitute consorter, and a not very good spy (Volodya thinks he is recruiting Bialoguski to be a spy but Bialoguski is already an ASIO agent! and Volodya gets nothing of substance through his meetings with Rose Marie Ollier from the French embassy), in ‘Glass I’, however, Lebkowicz intensifies his sense of failure in describing a scene where Divisek, a possible recruit doesn’t show up. We see Petrov’s strong emotions and tense state when he picks up a shard of broken glass and cuts his palm with it. Earlier in the poem Lebkowicz writes with sharp and gritty evocation – ‘Failure/follows him like iron torn from a roof and/rattled along the wind’. The circumstances of his mother’s death in Russia continue to haunt him – how he saw her dying in the family home, almost destroyed in the aftermath of the Revolution. The roof tiles are gone -‘his mother lay beneath a ceiling/of dead grass and dirt’.

During ASIO’s interrogations after his defection Volodya is deeply disturbed by what he has done, his betrayals. Lebkowicz writes graphically – ‘Fat maggots lodge/against the wall of his heart.’ in the poem ‘Maggots’. Volodya longed for a farm in Australia as a payment for his defection but this never happens. The images from his shrinking life in the final poems are grim and affecting. Through his work at Ilford processing film negatives his clothes get dirty. This dirt suggests a deeper darkness, an inner dark. Lebkowicz firmly writes in ‘The terrible dirt’ –

‘It gets trapped in his clothes
ground into his pores
and he comes home again –
black black black.’

The vividly emotive quality of Lebkowicz’s writing draws one into the dramatic intensity of Dusya’s feelings and anxieties, not only that her family in Russia might be killed. We also read of both her deep suffering over the loss of her first love Román, who is sent to a labour camp after being arrested by the secret police, and of the death of their child Irina. Two prose poems ‘Román I and II’ uncover the layers of feeling held almost subconsciously in her psyche and heart. The rhythmic force of the continuous flow of prose via conditional statements, repeated and slightly varied in the two texts, creates moments of poignancy. Here is a sampling of these:

– ‘….if Román had not been arrested.’

– ‘If she had known his skin every day.’

– ‘If they had raised Irina from her baby roundness to childhood and beyond.’

– ‘If Román had not been broken in a labour camp.’

– ‘If she had never married Volodya and come to Australia.’

– ‘If her sister Tamara could be here at her side…’

The passion she felt for Román is finely articulated in this trophe in ‘Román I’ –

‘Living with Román had been like walking along a winter street and arriving in fields of warm poppies.’

In ‘Imprisoned I’ when she is locked in a room in the Russian embassy after Volodya defects her pain is palpable, stark and visceral –

‘The dread grinds under her skin
and into her flesh. It makes her blood filthy.

When Dusya screams Lebkowicz writes “the noise is an animal”.

In a number of her most psychologically, and emotionally disturbing and disturbed moments in the sequence, the figure of a guardian angel appears and ameliorates the drama, like a gift. This angel figure was revealed to her by a psychic in Moscow. Lebkowicz used this figure with skilful and restrained poetic licence. At one stage in the narrative Dusya is hospitalised after the strain of defection and ASIO’s interrogation. In the poem ‘Torment’, whose zigzagging shape echoes Dusya’s state of mind, Lebkowicz writes of the medicine that spills from the nurse’s hand after Dusya kicks her because she thinks it is poison – ‘The bright liquid spills in an arc.’ This poem is followed by another that reveals a healing dream where Dusya, her sister Tamara, and Irina are sleeping all together in a vast bed. Dusya states “Our breathing is silk.”

However Lebkowicz does not whitewash or romanticise Dusya. We also see her in tough titty mode. She throws a pie in the face of the Russian ambassador’s wife, she slaps the face of their cook at Palm Beach, she makes ambiguous statements, insinuations, about the Frenchwoman Rose Marie Ollier at the Royal Commission. Early on she rejects the Russian ambassador’s advances. In ‘Snake’ Lebkowicz writes –

But when he smooths his hand over Dusya’s hips
she wheels around. She’s a snake: a viper,
an asp – she hisses him to his dark place.

And now to the action of the spy thriller itself. I have deliberately focussed on the Petrovs as individuals, and as a couple, since the book’s strength to me is in the way it transcends the spy thriller genre. Its title is not The Petrov Affair but The Petrov Poems.

Lesley Lebkowicz shows a talent for presenting individual dramatic episodes of the narrative’s action in a very measured, rationed, crafted way over a number of poems, thus maintaining suspense and tension, particularly as she reaches the climactic action of Dusya finally defecting at Darwin airport. This is a gripping section of the narrative. It’s razor’s edge theatre. She is most precise with the titles:’Rough’ – Dusya at Mascot, April 19 1954; ‘Flight’ – from Mascot to Darwin, 19 April 1954; ‘Darwin I’ – 5am 20 April 1954;’Darwin II’ 7am 20 April 1954.

There is a moment in the narrative prior to this which is like a prelude to the dramatic and symbolic significance of the airport and plane journey scenes. This takes place at Canberra airport on April 3, where Petrov, carrying the documents he has stolen from the Russian embassy, passes Menzies in the terminal. Lebkowicz writes

His future nestles in his briefcase
just inches from Menzies.

In Darwin Dusya is gifted a special moment when her Russian escorts suddenly walk away from her in the airport terminal. And a gap in time opens. She is surrounded, protected by Australian police and officials. After a gruelling ordeal she has now defected. Throughout this journey she is caught between two forces – at Sydney airport between the crowd yelling at her to stay [where she loses her shoe – that iconic photo] and the Russian couriers who are really guards, and have locked arms with her. These couriers who smell of sweat and fear – ‘They stink through their clothes’ – sit all around her on the plane. At the same time when she goes to the restroom she’s encouraged to stay in Australia by the air hostess who is passing on this message from Spry, director of ASIO. Later, when on the tarmac at Darwin airport, still in the presence of the Russians, Leydin from the Northern Territory administration encourages her to stay in Australia. The couriers have been forced to hand in their guns and leave the plane while it’s refuelling. In the transit lounge Leydin puts Volodya on the phone. The Russians can hear her talk. Dusya is smart enough to pretend it is not Volodya. This chain of events is gripping and compelling, and Lebkowicz’s use of short, tight, telling statements and chilling images such as ‘Russia waits/with a rapist’s assurance.’ add to the dramatic atmosphere.

Images of food are sometimes deployed in the narrative to indicate Volodya’s inner states. In the ‘Palm Beach’ section we see images of ASIO food which he loathes contrasted with images of Russian food which he craves. ASIO food is like ‘lumps of malevolence’, spaghetti is ‘white slugs caked in red’, lamingtons are ‘made of air, free of taste’. The Russian food images are seductive – ‘He wants duck roasted sharp and sweet with mustard and apples’, he wants soft steaming dumplings with broth’, ‘veal simmered for hours with tomatoes’. These images sing on the page. Paradoxically though Russian food will not save him from a deep fear that the KGB will get him. In Part IV in the poem ‘When to make blinis’ he devours Dusya’s blinis in a manic and disturbed way –

‘Sour cream
dribbles onto his shirt and he eats
and he eats and he eats.’

At times during ‘The Petrov Poems’ Lebkowicz introduces a comic dimension. Volodya has special names for the prostitutes he visits in Melbourne. The women are the West – ‘Marnie is England, Belinda the USA/ or they are all Australia, one for each state’. Dusya is the KGB. During a visit to Manly he says to a man ‘I am Petrov’. With a typical Australian response of indifference or deflation the guy says ‘ Congratulations’ and walks away. At one stage while living in Melbourne he takes off for some free time to Surfers’. When arrested drunk and climbing into someone’s window to find some money he declares his name is John Olsen.

As already indicated Lesley Lebkowicz’s polished poetic skills contribute greatly to the quality and success of this verse novel. Her judicious attention to the shape and form of the poems – the long and short lined poems, the short and longer poems, the choice of stanza length, the use of the prose poem, and her use of conversation, fragments of dialogue serve to mirror and reflect certain moments, events, feelings, and the rhythms of the action. Her writing is lean and incisive, tender and emotive, tough and passionate. Her imagery is graphic and evocative, and not decorative. ‘The Petrov Poems’ is a wonderful achievement and should be launched with a good swig of vodka! Congratulations to Lesley, and to Pitt Street Poetry for publishing such a fine collection.

-joanne burns


joanne burns is a Sydney poet. Her most recent book is amphora Giramondo Publishing 2011. http://www.giramondopublishing.com/category/author/joanne-burns-author

The Petrov Poems is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/poetae/lesley-lebkowicz/

Lesley Lebkowicz can be found at http://lesleylebkowicz.com/

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