Wayside shrines, flowers strung up on lampposts with a couple of turns of parcel tape, wither and rot but, once memorialized, our Facebook page will stay shiny and new. On anniversaries, the comments posted by friends and family might as well be carved in stone. To see death assume its ultimate place in the timeline of exuberant youth is surely the internet’s most powerful articulation of the tragedy of mortality. In my opinion, there’s nothing ghoulish about these memorial pages. There’s one I visit every few months, with its now poignant profile picture of a man in his prime, my cousin, walking down the beach and away.
Vera Pavlova’s most memorable poems run to little more than a few words, and each sits in a field of white. Yes, that white space is oppressive, powerful, infinite, but Pavlova lays word on word with purpose, rhythm and strength. I try to avoid quoting poems in full, but Pavlova leaves me with no choice. Take 98, for example: ‘A poem is a voice-mail: / the poet has stepped out, most likely / will not be back. Please leave a message / after you hear a gunshot’. Line one’s repeated indefinite article lends the poem an aphoristic quality, but line two steps away from the universal and generalised, dropping the reader into a specific, dramatic situation. Are we hearing the poet’s greeting and, if so, why are we on the other end of the line, hoping to connect? Our voice-mails usually provide a variation on the I’m out, or unavailable theme, but this voice-mail feels unnervingly specific: ‘the poet has stepped out’. Stepped out? Where? Just now? And s/he recorded this message especially for this occasion? Then Pavlova subverts our usual certainty that our message will elicit a return call with her ‘most likely / will not be back’. And then the gunshot. In a few words, her inscrutable white page slams us hard against our sleazy tabloid culture. Faced with a total blank and a few fruity details, we leap into speculation, rather than stepping back, opening the book, and letting the work speak for itself. We assume it’s a gunshot because, through a telephone earpiece, it sounds like one, but how can we know that we haven’t heard a conservatory door slamming hard in a summer breeze? Pavlova exposes our own salacious desires and flips a finger to those who would pry into her own life. At one level, this is a disarmingly intimate collection but, at the same time, its pristine pages are inscrutable.
In 71, Self Portrait in Profile, Pavlova again throws her reader against this tension between the public and private, the intimate and the anonymous. Her poem reads: ‘I / am / the one / who wakes up / on your / left’. The line breaks build the poem to a crescendo, screaming out the words I AM THE ONE before undercutting this bold statement of being with a prepositional phrase, ‘on your left’, revealing that the great ‘I am’ of the speaker’s life is, beneath the surface, wholly dependent upon an other for her being. Pavlova is disarmingly honest and, like her content, her language is bare.
I’d like to go on. In poem after poem, Pavlova renders life’s joy and pain with simplicity, clarity and profundity. It’s all here: love, sex, childbirth, death. Pavlova’s voice is the calm in the storm and it just feels wrong to spoil it here. These remarkable poems belong on the page. Trust me, you’ll be the richer if you read them and they can be ordered in the UK from the LRB Bookshop.