Overripeness Is All: On Dralyuk’s Poetic Premiere

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My Hollywood and Other Poems
By Boris Dralyuk
(Paul Dry Books, 2022, 72 pp, $16.95)

There’s space enough for everyone!
Oranges, women—can’t be beat.
Of course, the pastries of Ukraine
would make the pleasure feel complete.
………………………………– Vladislav Ellis, “Californian Verses”
………………………………………………………. (trans. Boris Dralyuk)

In Boris Dralyuk’s debut volume, the poem, “Late Style,” distinguishes itself not only by heading the fourth and final section of the book, but by hinting at an intransigence that one may not have located in the flaneur who haunts the preceding pages. So far, we have toured exquisite set-pieces (in My Hollywood’s eponymous first section), imbibed the witty conceits of a series of short lyrics (this section’s title, “Absentee Ballet,” sets the tone), and marveled at Dralyuk’s translations from twentieth-century Russian emigrés who settled in Los Angeles. But now, unmasked—and dead serious, it would seem—Dralyuk portrays himself in a café or restaurant, waiting for his “late style” to arrive. Spoiler: the poor kid has been stood up.

Still, he persists: “tapping my fingers, waiting / to see it, hear it—wide-eyed, short of breath, / begging forgiveness, drenched and pale as death.” Until then, the poet will “listen to the chatter / at other tables—youthful, easy, fake”—a characterization that surely extends to all trivialities borne by an art too facile for its own good. Instead, the poem’s speaker vows, “I’ll keep my vigil till I turn to stone, / stubbornly silent, artlessly alone.”

A few factors conspire to make this declaration inapposite—but by no means “artlessly” so. First, “Late Style,” as a sonnet, is expertly turned, recalling the virtuosic flow of fixed verse forms Dralyuk has handled in previous sections. The performance is one of agility, not petrification. Second, it has become difficult by now to view the speaker of these poems as “stubbornly silent,” or as censuring “the chatter / at other tables,” since so much of the volume’s emotional weight derives from the tug of relative strangers, and their contributions to mythical place-making. This yearning for liminal spaces is evident even at a domestic level:

In certain rooms I lived ….like momentary noise. In others, I took pains ….to make myself perceived. To some I was the creak ….to be more felt than heard – linoleum’s absurd ….and personal mystique. ………………..(“Notation”)

A third complaint could be brought against Dralyuk’s “vigil” at the end of “Late Style.” Namely, the stance is impertinent. My Hollywood is the poet’s first collection, after all: it’s far too soon to welcome the “late.” Yet here it helps to consult the poem’s epigraph, and even its primary source. Dralyuk quotes the literary and cultural critic Michael Wood: “But late evening, late blooms, and late autumns are perfectly punctual.” The sentence, taken from Wood’s preface to Edward Said’s posthumous text, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain (2006), suggests that the adjective “late” often must assume a greater burden of meaning than it possibly can manage.

Said seems to have reveled in a post-historical and, hence, untidy, construct of lateness. As he writes, “we assume that the essential health of a human life has a great deal to do with its correspondence to its own time, the fitting together of one to the other, and therefore its appropriateness or timeliness.” And yet, he asks, “What if age and ill health do not produce the serenity of ‘ripeness is all’?” Said instances Ibsen’s final play, When We Dead Awaken (which, it will be remembered, an 18-year-old Joyce extolled in his first published prose piece) and other late works by the Norwegian because they “tamper irrevocably with the possibility of closure, and leave the audience more unsettled than before.”

Dralyuk finds refuge in this broken nest. Here, then, is the “vigil” he keeps—not to hold out for any promise of resolution or enlightenment, but to shore up fragments of a gaudy ruin: the Old Hollywood he celebrates. The irony is enriched by considering that Theodor Adorno, who coined the term, “late style,” in his discussion of Beethoven, and who sojourned in L.A. in the 1940s, was far less sympathetic than Dralyuk to culture as commodity. The very next poem in the book (“Uncredited”) recaps, in its first two quatrains, the banal career of a would-be starlet:

No breakout leads—a prisoner of reruns on local stations high up on the dial: a stray recurring role, a guest appearance on Perry Mason. Later, Rockford Files.

Her second act? Pure dullsville in Van Nuys. Chablis with ice. A Chevy dealership gone belly up. Her paunchy husband’s lies: a broken marriage. Then a broken hip.

Although the second (and final) pair of quatrains do not redeem her obscurity, they insist on an immutable moment. The poem lands on a line from a jazz standard that became a hit for Les Paul and Mary Ford:

None of that matters, if you ever catch her singing “How High the Moon”—silvery, misty— on that one show … She isn’t any match for the stainless Julie London or June Christy,

but through her gauzy voice, as through a sieve, spare notes of heaven reach you from afar. For those two minutes, she’ll make you believe: Somewhere there’s music. It’s where you are.

I’ve dwelt on this section of the book (“Late Style”) because it makes explicit a theme that otherwise might have gone unremarked. If “Uncredited” cleaves into two halves—one stanza-pair itemizing a mundane CV, and the other straining heavenward—then the next poem in the set forges a grand synthesis. “R.B. Kitaj’s ‘Los Angeles’” begins with a defiant claim about the artist’s late series of paintings, which conjured Kitaj’s second wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, who had died at the age of 47. Writing in a catalogue for the series, Kitaj dubbed his adopted city, L.A., “The Angels,” even as he associated his tragic love-story with Judaic lore: “Jewish Angelology, Kabbala, Talmud and medieval philosophers believe in angels,” he noted, as if defensively. Dralyuk’s own defense progresses from appreciation of Kitaj’s early erudition, via the Song of Songs, to the apotheosis of an artist-lover:

Impossible to say he was diminished, or that his final efforts were unfinished.

Each fallow plane of color, each bald spot of canvas was the harvest of long thought.

The early work, on which his learning lay In patches of midrashic appliqué,

broke down to this one solomonic plea, myrrh-scented murmur: Lover, come to me.

And she, at the expense of early things, returned, perfected, on angelic wings.

But is the transition as clean as the rhyming couplets would imply? One notes that “the early work,” however prescient of the serenity that is achieved at the end, exists “in patches” and is “broke down” (a phrase whose shadow-meaning of “explained”—a tidier verb-choice—is occluded by the prepositional phrase: “to this one solomonic plea”). Then, too, the “angelic” return of Kitaj’s muse is effected only “at the expense of earthly things.” Yet most of the poems in My Hollywood are determinedly local, with a premium on “earthly things,” even if those commodities often exude a faded glamor, eyed hungrily by Russian immigrants. And so, with “R.B. Kitaj’s ‘Los Angeles,’” just as with the poem “Late Style,” we well may doubt the sincerity of Dralyuk’s bid for closure.

“Somewhere there’s music. It’s where you are.” City Limits might have been an alternative title for Dralyuk’s book, because, like properties on an abandoned film set, his local exhibits are eloquent in their downgraded utility. Or would City Lights, à la Chaplin, have been better? In “The Bureau of Street Lighting,” Dralyuk figures the remorseless glare of a municipal street-lamp as the locus of silent suffering.

Yes, for the city limit, for your tactless, incessant focus on just who we are. You will not let the zodiac distract us— you make our private misery the star.

Limits are also frontiers. They not only mark the end of a jurisdiction or personality, they give permanent shape to the value-laden cargo that finds its way across the border. As Dralyuk says in a translation of “‘We’re Going Fishing,’” by Vladimir Korvin-Pietrovsky (1891-1966), “O Russia—you’re so far away now / that I can never part from you.” In this section of the book (“Russian Hollywood: Translations”), it often seems as if only someone who has lost a continent, and yet is fated to bear its imprint, can catalogue the detritus of Tinseltown. In “Hollywood,” a Russian poem by the Armenian-born Richard Ter-Boghossian (1911-2005), the “dusty stars” of Hollywood Boulevard earn an improbable second life as a metonym.

City of Angels … Standing guard are rows of palms, stately and thin. But we—we trample on our dusty stars, and that is Hollywood’s great sin.

The composer Vernon Duke (born Vladimir Dukelsky), who died in Santa Monica in 1969, is represented by two lyrics here. In “Farmers Market,” a column of tetrameter lines, he observes that the “meat upon a nearby tray / is ruddy with ferocious health [.]” He cheers the simple agglomeration of wares and strangers (“but not the type you find in Blok”). The poem ends:

There is no perfume, no thick fog— all is so obvious, so plain, and tuneful without any music: a purely thoughtless tenderness, uncomplicated happiness— And that, my dear, will do for us.

Duke, like his fellow emigrés, hallows the ephemera of his adopted city. This is no sacred obligation, as his poets, like Dralyuk himself, frequently enlist sardonic wit and an affected (though charming) world-weariness. Born in Odessa but raised in, or on, what he has called “noirish Los Angeles,” Dralyuk is one of the nation’s leading exponents of poems in Russian translation (he co-edited The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry) and has translated works by Isaac Babel and other authors. (He also finds time to edit the Los Angeles Review of Books, where he has published this reviewer.) In one poem, he likens translator and translated to a fisher and her catch: “Slowly but willfully, I reel you in. / We hold each other, for a moment, in suspension.” This encounter can stand in for the freeze-frame wonderment his narrators evoke from their sketchy transactions with overripe surroundings. In a poem about Babel’s Uncle Lev, whose checkered past pursued him to L.A., Dralyuk summons a “syphilitic luftmensch run to ground, / weighed down by dumbbells in a Boyle Heights madhouse, / forever stuck between two sweetly rotten towns.” Other poems revolve around a “bargain circus,” a public library sheltering “half-blind holdouts” from other countries, a movie memorabilia store (“Motes build tract housing in the grooves of vinyl”), and—lo—another farmers’ market:

“At our feet,” recalled Huxley, “the sand was covered with small whitish objects, like dead caterpillars. Recognition dawned.” “Many condoms on the beach,” wrote Mann.

Christopher Isherwood is a disciple, slipping off to the Viertels on the weekends: far from Swami, swimming naked. In Brentwood, Schoenberg lobs grapefruits and insults at Feuchtwanger’s wife.

The poem, “Stravinksy at the Farmers Market,” is in blank tetrameter quatrains; as shown earlier, though, he can rhyme just as effectively. My Hollywood opens with three masterful sonnets (“My Hollywood: A Triptych”). Another sonnet, outside the series, laments the demise of bungalow courts:

Fair bungalows, now your dominion comes to closure. I watch swaths of you demolished in favor of the featureless and polished plutocracy of condominiums.

This is perhaps as overt a statement as any made in My Hollywood on the gentrification of neighborhoods whose architectural trappings, an epigraph attests, formerly “extended at least a touch of ‘casual California living’ even to the poor.” We who no longer have access to such amenities, if we ever did, should be grateful that Dralyuk has recovered them for posterity. It is an act as generous as his impulse, throughout these poems, to spot the sweetness in decay—to find endurance in nostalgia for two lost cultures, now made inseparable through vision and craft.