Carbon: Song of Crafts by Svetlana Lavochkina Lost Horse Press 2020 $20.00 by Marina Brown, PIOnline staff writer
SVETLANA LAVOCHKINA’S WRITING brims and bubbles, twists and turns; not laborious but deftly industrial: power-loving and full of the unsentimental and the sensory. Carbon’s narrative shines through its own sweat and buildup like an unearthed gem.
The primary narrative of Carbon concerns Alex, a man from the coal-rich Ukrainian city of Donetsk, and later Lisa, a sharp-eyed, restrained yet decadent linguist from the West. Alex and Lisa write to and of each other, observing how their histories influence themselves and the world. They travel, suffer, and have an affair gritty with metallurgical connections. We are sent speeding from the late Soviet era into the mid-2000s, as we watch Alex, his city, and his country dissolve the borders that once separated them from the rest of the world and its capitalist swell of bribery, passports, terminals, four-star hotels, imported cars, CV’s, social media, universities, and more. Soviet influence flashes in the background as a moldy book on a shelf or a reference to Yuri Gagarin.
There is not a single predictable line in Carbon. Each wild stanza activates the engine of the next, with Lavochkina’s descriptions often tied to character, place, distance, or measurement. Her nouns and verbs dance nonstop like strange couples, guiding the moods of the stories. For example, people are sometimes referred to as creatures, especially to emphasize their enemy status: “the centaurs soon lose me” (45); “my scanty mane wolfs down the alms” (61); and “leave the estate for the orcs to ransack?” (94).
Like iron purified by oxygen, Alex is as much man as he is atom, plunging forward. He grows older but always returns to his preoccupations and the narrative’s recurring motifs, like the Cat Eye Pit which has ensnared the men of his community.
Lavochkina’s use of physicality sometimes looks over the precipice into the vulgar or the profuse, but this is done with humor and self-awareness as she even calls one section, “The Gross and the Unseen.” The realism and odd tenderness of varied voices merge with the poet’s careful attention to alliteration and line length, charging the book with electricity. Most of Carbon’s poems are meaty mouthfuls. Many carry the bitter weight of Slavic wit. In one of my favorite poems, Sixfold Loves, Alex describes his time in prison, telling Lisa about making a crucifix for a cellar which has been converted into a church as Christianity reclaims its hold on post-Soviet enclaves.
On the chastised dog’s back, I beat out a pig iron cross. I chiseled a vestigial face, collar bones, scrawny chest. I forged His divine privates, with a solitaire ball. I poured a hot blotch on top for a loincloth. No one knew that beneath the hard rag He was me, a custom made god. ....... One balled-Jesus pointed out my chief mistake: I’d scorned metals, treated them like inanimate whores. Pimp-pocketing half their income. Yearning for six-fold love. (Page 71)
Here, we get a sense of Alex’s vocabulary and personality as he deepens his skills and sets up a contrast between an eternity which he does not believe in and the world’s indifference to people like inmate Arcady, an artist who dies of AIDS. Like so many other collier men, metal is what Alex knows and has faith in. It is his “scapegoat, savor, and maimer in one” (71).
Carbon’s cover image, a beautiful mural by Donbas artist Roman Minin, complements Lavochkina’s kaleidoscopic convergences. Minin depicts the modern toil of mining and construction in traditional folk art style: bright, bold colors, maximized use of space, and clear differentiating outlines.
Into Carbon, nature and the landscape come as they are, entering uneventfully through side doors. Time passes into the future only by dragging war, grey hairs, physical exertion, meals, fights, sickness, punishment, bureaucracy, and its day job along with it. Our gaze lingers on Alex’s untamed perceptions, heavy with references to his past, Slavic idiosyncrasies, and 21st century minutiae. Lavochkina balances proper-noun-heavy poems with formal shakeups, like subsections, centered poems, and letters.
References to history and sections like “Cosmogony,” in which Lisa muses on human evolution by way of the carbon atom, help to make each return to concrete occurrences in the characters’ lives real and impactful.
one day in the Triassic we got sick of the endless pavane around the carbon nucleus four souls shared one I am with a pimple the size of a pea the first ever dusk kissed our brain aspic the spread of glandular rash (Page 109) For Western readers, Carbon offers a rich, brazen, and vigorous new voice. It weaves through politics, sex, love, and work to arrive at questions of legacy, resource, and life at its most elemental.