“Praise the bottle/sickled gold/its stopper fatter /than a comrade’s fist./Praise the communist.” An unlikely ode, yes, but one that we might feel prepared for, given the title of Jehanne Dubrow’s third collection, Red Army Red, a penetrating invocation of an American girlhood in the death rattle of the Cold War.
As a foreign-service brat myself, I confess some apprehension: would these poems fall prey to the expatriate-gaze-as-premise-for-art trap? But Dubrow’s sophistication and wit, her command of lyric turn and image, and, most importantly, her awareness of the particular nuances inherent to her speaker’s position vis à vis this historical moment eradicated any reservations. Dubrow’s lines demonstrate delicate muscularity, and she treats both the trivial and the grave with a bemused intelligence that marries well to her poetic concerns.
What’s particularly laudable in Red Army Red is the poet’s plaiting together of images, themes and landscapes from her diplomatic childhood with consumerism, lack, plenty, grunge. Gordan Gekko straddles the Fiats and melancholy shopgirls of Warsaw. It is these disjunctions that make new the tropes of the Eastern bloc that figure in the collection. Gunmetal grey is Urban Decay eyeshadow, Polish sky and “the shades…of hard parades/of polyester panties, pantalettes/ that snagged at skin, ballistic garter belts,/ the girdles leaving autocratic welts”(“Undergarments of the Soviet Era”) ; red is a fresh tube of M.A.C. lipstick as well as “mandatory red” and “the red that dyed December.” (“Purged History Of”).
The book’s first two sections set the drama of the speaker’s adolescence against the concurrent – but distant – fall of communism. Striking, too, is the speaker’s discomfort with claiming participation in both the historical moment she witnesses and the adolescent body she inhabits. “Like the Soviets,” she writes “my body had a plan for every phase…adolescence, a make of tyranny/ I couldn’t stand against. What to cut back? What to prune or hack into obedience?” (“Five Year Plan”). We can empathize with Dubrow’s ambivalence; she was, after all, There, witness to the “the city of nowhere—/ the city of discarded/ironies –lost shoes and scarves.” Yet she is also acutely aware of her privileged status, the separation her parents’ profession awarded, which translates here into images of glamour edged with unease. Preparing for a fête, nights of “waltz and gin,” her parents are “most beautiful,” yet her father is “stiff/so sensitive to the strip of silk that he barely moved,” and her mother’s neck is a “naked thing above her gown.”
In this poem, “Fancy,” Dubrow suggests that their beauty hinges on their silence, and this intersection of eros, silence, love and violence glides over many of the poems. “Whatever we said was love became/plutonium, became a spark/of panic in the buried world.” (“Chernobyl Year”) Hers is a childhood witnessing, yet Dubrow withholds – rightly, I think – the impulse to moralize what it is she observes. Her strategy here is the intelligent and unsettling juxtaposition of imagery, which coaxes the reader away from easy binaries about capitalism and communism, West and East, desire and satiety.
The third section, “Laissez-Faire,” draws us out of this narrative into a version of the present. Dubrow’s speaker is both outside and privy to the absence of capitalism in her girlhood. Stateside, both she and the New Poles are hypnotized by the greenback’s power and the allure of stocked shelf. Although the dollar-allowance of her childhood can no longer buy her “a week of luxury in Warsaw’s shops,” poems such as “Russian Red” and “Our Free-Market Romance” indicate a gentle horror at the allure of consumption and helplessness against its power.
Dubrow’s facility with form is another aspect of Red Army Red to praise, particularly her sinuous sonnets and elegant ghazals. She is perhaps less adept at playfulness; her imitations of Auden and Bishop lack the confidence of other poems. Perhaps, though, their comparable lack of gravitas is a commentary of its own. Can shopping be fodder for art? If we posit “consumer” as our primary identity, what will our subjects be? We’ve claimed “halving it all” as our slogan for 2013. Red Army Red is a necessary reminder of the manifold ways we have been told to live, and the suspicion that should necessarily accompany it. ”All forms are rooted/ in concrete,” declares Dubrow in “Agora”:
Some sink. Others
try lifting metal feet to walk away
Standing among them it’s clear
we’re much the same – three-dimensional
from the front, and from behind
the dark relief of hollowed trees.