Winner of the 2007 T. S. Eliot Prize
Carol V. Davis is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her fascination with Russia, aided by a Fulbright grant, drew her to St. Petersburg in the mid 1990s. Over the next decade, she divided her time between the U.S. and Russia, where, as an American-born Jew, she was an outsider in Russian society. This collection of poems expresses the struggle with language barriers and cultural differences—struggles heightened as Davis helped her children adjust to their new daily life. Inspired by Russia’s rich history, its economic changes, and landscape, these poems express a unique perspective of Russia.
Russia centers this world, in person and at a distance both. The casual detail and patient telling add up everywhere, giving us meaning where difference had been. Showing us what this particular life in Russia feels like makes it our world, even when the speaker struggles to draw meaning from confusion or frustration. In one poem, the speaker tells of laying out the language of the next day on the back of the chair, quite as if it were clothing. We grasp this moment with depth, startled to make the connection between language and clothing. These are great moments in their small detail, abstractions given recognizable form. Finding meaning—a continual act of translation and its failure in so many things—propels the poems in this book.
Struggling to speak a new language, while immersing herself in Russian culture, becomes Carol V. Davis’ trope for a spiritual quest in this book-length narrative of sensuous, tangible, shape-shifting poems. I feel constantly enticed into her richly textured world.
Rich, resonant, Russian—these alliterative adjectives barely begin to describe the charisma of Carol Davis’s evocative engagement with Pushkin, St. Petersburg, and a mythic yet quotidian country whose archaic capital, Novgorod, is a city “so ancient / its language oozes out of the dark soil.” Plucked (like the beets on which she broods in several poems) from the earth of Russia and the groceries of St. Petersburg, from the “arms of Pushkin” and the streets he once wandered, Davis’s wonderful poems transcend the “struggle of translation” between one culture and another. To read them is to love them and to sigh with sympathy!
—Sandra M. Gilbert