What Does a Spy Look Like? Kevin Brophy Launches The Petrov Poems by Lesley Lebkowicz in Melbourne

Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). The Melbourne launch of the The Petrov Poems took place at Collected Works Bookshop on 29 August 2013. Kevin Brophy did the honours…..

Lesley Lebkowicz was a child in Canberra when the Petrovs defected.
Lesley Lebkowicz was a child in Canberra when the Petrovs defected.

What does a spy look like? How do you recognize one? Why is it we all think it would be interesting and exciting to be a spy? Perhaps none of us is sure we are not a spy.

The figure of the spy reminds us that after all, all we perceive are surfaces. We don’t truly know what another person thinks, why another person acts in the way they do, how sincere they are, or insincere, what their fundamental motives are. Any one in this room could be a spy, all they would have to do is blend in. In our case, since most of us are poets, it means wearing creased and mostly unfashionable outfits, leaving our hair relatively uncombed, and being prepared to quote a line or two at the drop of a pen or a bookmark. An interest in red or white wine would help. The occasional longing look at the book shelves too. Easy.

The spy lives a double life, one more than each of us is blessed with. The spy is one who might lose sight of which life is actually the one they prefer, the one where they are most themselves. The spy might eventually ask of herself or himself, when am I not acting? Or does the spy shrug off these doubts and tell herself, himself, it’s just a job, not too different to any other job where the consequence of making mistakes is death. There are plenty of jobs like that, including cleaning windows.

Is it the spy who knows, like a perfect Buddha, that eventually at our core we do not have anything except an infinite series of inner ‘spies’ who are taking on, on our behalf, role after role, identity after identity, costume after costume — that there is no core?

While the poet or the novelist might want to bring reality somehow into their fiction, the spy (that transgressive creature) brings fiction into our reality, as if fiction could be part of reality, proving to us that it can, that reality is as much a costume drama as any Maeve Binchey novel.

Volodya Petrov, third secretary in the Russian Embassy in 1953 was fat, short, often disheveled, too fond of drink, aware that his wife Dusya might have married him as a second-best choice, and he was a spy. Outside his spy-self he dreamed of freedom as a chicken farmer in the countryside, and of girls who might satisfy his alcohol fuelled desires.

Dusya’s chance for love and motherhood had passed already by the time she reached Australia, though not her longing for love, especially the love of family, community and companionship. Late in The Petrov Poems, in the days after their lives as spies had passed, we read:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs —
Too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbor builds a gate in their fence
So when the journalist comes, they slip out
Through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different —

No one would have known who they were.
Dusya had hoped to grow old in her village —
An ordinary woman buying onions
And bread, scolding her man

And holding his withered flesh to her own. (p. 69)

These apparently imagined, and beautifully paced details—in four line stanzas with a final line dropping down dramatically to make its own stanza—of Dusya’s experiences and private hopes are not simply coming from Lesley’s imagination, for they are based in thorough research, including the oral history archives in the National Library of Australia. This is a deeply and sensitively researched book of poetry committed to bringing those fragments in the record, lost observations, over-looked glimpses and insights forward in order to re-create these hapless, confused, venal and hopeful individuals as beings who are as real as we know ourselves to be.

Lesley uses the marginalized details of the historical record to bring us a human story that allows her themes to emerge. As I understand it, this theme centres upon the observation that dimly, and sometimes vividly, we cling to and rehearse what love means to us.

To revert to history’s broad sweep, the death of the murderous Stalin in March 1953 was followed by a political purge in Moscow, a purge that put the spy Volodya Petrov in fear for his life. Defection, under the offer of five thousand pounds, enough to set up a chicken farm, seemed the only way to ensure his personal survival. Five thousand pounds translates to something like $170,000 in today’s money. The Russians claimed he had been kidnapped by the Australians. Armed Russian officers sent to escort his wife back to Moscow had their plane diverted at Darwin, where their guns were taken from them, and while their backs were turned their spy was taken from them too, after a brief phone call with her husband to check that he was not a prisoner, and had defected (the fool, did he not know what terrible punishment might now come down on Dusya’s family back in Russia?). It is likely that this dramatic double defection assisted Robert Menzies to win the 1954 election for his Liberal Party over Dr Evatt, just as the Tampa much later was a possible election clincher for another Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard. The spy scandal that followed in 1954 included the discovery among Petrov’s papers of a document naming some of Evatt’s staffers as Communist contacts or informants. Evatt was convinced the document was manufactured and planted by ASIO in order to discredit him. He almost lost his mind over this conspiracy, and at the Royal Commission where he represented himself he was said to have acted strangely. This was a catalyst igniting the split that saw the emergence of the Catholic-based Democratic Labor Party, a party of  ‘clerical-fascist conspirators’ in Evatt’s phrase. As a result, the Labor Part would be lost in a politically helpless impasse for two decades. All this the result of a bewildered Russian spy wanting in his heart to be a chicken farmer somewhere in the Australian countryside, free to work and drink and visit the nearest city’s brothels at his whim.

Lesley’s book is in four sections. The first comes under the dramatic heading, ‘Volodya defects’. With deep canniness and sympathy, Lesley Lebkowicz brings Canberra into focus as the Petrovs try to see it for the first time.

They go to look at their enemies. High on a slope
opposite the Prime Minister
sit the Americans.
The red brick of their buildings is picked out in white.
The portico and the frames of their colonial
Windows are white.
Red and white and the warm grey
Of slate roofs. The grass is so green …

On the other side of the hill, close to the Parliament,
The British rest in a flat-roofed rectangle – white too
As though white were perfection and not paint.
It glows against the Canberra scrub.
The windows are set deep in stone frames.
We are quietly solid, the rectangle says.
We’ve been here a long time.

Dusya and Volodya look at each other.
She attempts scorn: Capitalists! She says.
Volodya is silent. Their embassy is much further
From Parliament. Once a block of cheap rooms
Its pale bricks are unpainted. (p. 6)

Lesley Lebkowicz beautifully reminds us that in a new place we see newly, we feel ourselves differently, we might even sense ourselves inside ourselves for the first time in a new way. Lesley is alert to all this. I like it that Dusya comes before Volodya in the poem’s final stanza, and I like the ambivalence, the possible and silently understood falsity of her attempt to speak like a true Communist in this capitalist enclave. I like it that surfaces speak deeply—that a coat of paint might not just cover-over, but might expose something of the self-images that rule in this part of the world. Lesley gives them a vista to view, but her poem is aware too of the smallness of individuals. I like the hint here, that if these two are attracted to the Capitalist West, if they are indeed treacherous in their hearts, it is their baser, more shallow selves that yearn for what coats of white paint promise against the absolute unpretentiousness of a disgracefully neglected Russian compound.

This is attentive poetry. And it is at home in this city, because Lesley grew up in it, and heard the rumours about the Russians as the town grew shocked and anxious over the spies in its midst.  From Part II, ‘Dusya defects’: April 19, 1954, Mascot Airport:

She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
About her? The mass swells and jostles —
Crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit
She loses a shoe. She must limp.
Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.

The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink
Through their clothes — sweat, fear,
Rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
On one thing — her dead daughter’s fine hair or
A white cup, its tea warming her palm. (p. 42)

Dusya’s image of the ‘one thing’ is, strangely, quite British. She had been in Australia for three years by this time, and tea was of course our national drink after beer. This was in the days before Australia discovered wine. Here too, that telling colour white — her preferred refuge now. This poetry inhabits its character, as all good fiction does, and it notices the importantly impressionistic aspects of the scene based on the famous photograph that now accompanies our collective memories and accounts of these episodes.

In part III, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’, an account of the ramifications of the Royal Commission, and the safe houses around Surfers Paradise where they were kept between visits to the Commission, we read:

He is hungry. ASIO food lies in his gullet like lumps
of malevolence. For breakfast they give him spaghetti — white

Slugs caked in red that come out of a can
And slump over toast. Bread should be black and have strength.

ASIO dries chops and steak under a grill and serves them
With drowned peas, mashed potato and carrots. ASIO gobbles it up

While he washes it down with beer and whisky and wine.
He wants duck roasted sharp and sweet with mustard apples,

Gravy that comes from the meat and not a packet,
He wants soft steaming dumplings and broth,

Cucumber pickles and cabbage with caraway seeds,
Wild mushrooms, veal simmered for hours with tomatoes

And eaten with buckwheat. (He remembers his childhood.) ….. (p. 58)

So, the table are turned, the colour white is now associated with the sickening sight of slugs like lumps of malevolence; the food of the democratic West is a capitalist plot serving to nauseate someone who has been fed on peasant food cooked lovingly, taken fresh from plots in backyards or bought from local stalls. It is enough to make you regret ever wanting wanting freedom. What is it we love about the life we lead, and how can we know what we have unless we first lose it? This is funny, this ASIO food poem, and it is wrenching.

After Volodya’s death in 1991, Dusya lived on in Australia with her dear, close sister Tamara who migrated to be with her. Dusya did not get to live out her life in a Russian village as an old woman buying onions, but in Lesley’s account she does find an antipodean version of her dream of love and connection:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

Like any two women from Europe.

They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.

They talk about whether to buy veal
For dinner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever
Tamara says makes Dusya happy — it’s hearing
Her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

And Tamara looks at her
But says nothing. His name falls out of their lives. (p. 83)

Lesley Lebkowicz has achieved something iconic here, in response to one of the oddest iconic moments in Australia’s early modern history.

– Kevin Brophy


Kevin Brophy is the author of 13 books of poetry, fiction and essays. His latest book is Walking,: New and Selected Poems, published by John Leonard Press in September 2013. He is a Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne.

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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