canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Learning Russian
by Diana Fitzgerald Bryden
Mansfield Press, 2000

Review by Mike Martin

There are times when reviewing a book of poetry is just a joy. Liquid gold poured onto the paper. This is what we who dare review other people's poetry hope for. Such was the task of reviewing Diana Fitzgerald Bryden's book of poetry Learning Russian. It is no wonder that this book was a finalist in 2000 for the Pat Lowther award.

Her love of Russian literature and poetry flows outward onto the page from her heart. It sent me scurrying to the library and the Internet to reread Chekhov and find more of Tsvetaeva's* poetry. As someone who was born in London and emigrated to Canada she also delves into the layers and labels that people have developed to shelter themselves from the shock of immersion into the cold water of a new culture.

The title poem 'Learning Russian' is a just a beautiful poem. It describes her desire to learn Russian, to 'Unlock the Cyrillic, unfasten the gates'. Her joy at hearing her Russian teacher read poetry in Russian to her:

The first time Greta, my friend and teacher
read Tsvetaeva out loud
in Russian, I cried.

In 'Vanya at Home' she recalls the greatest of the great; Chekhov, and retells the story of Uncle Vanya from her own eyes, after seeing Louis Malle's film version. Her brilliant synopsis;

Add time onto time itself, let life escape
so that death will reward you later,
while under feigned resignation: panic

A true Canadian after being here for twenty years she feels comfortable enough with us to talk about our weather in 'New Year's Weather':

Since our plane set down
into a blizzard, a white mist
of the unfamiliar, I've stayed
unbelieving of this weather.

But still unsure of her place. Is it here, or in England or maybe Russia? She explores this a little in 'The History of Trains': ' Waiting alone on the platform I'm lost' and in several of her poems, both in the 'Home' section and sprinkled throughout like in: Night 1: The Coward':

Every night my fragile boat pushes off,
and I stay awake to navigate
my way and back across the lake.

As someone who has lived in the city I found the Toronto section quite interesting. It is always a surprise to me to see what other people like or dislike about a familiar location. Bryden didn't disappoint me at all. Here are some of hers:

The Silence of Cities

My city at night is a forest
or a range of cliffs on the coast


Then the sky is as wide as the outback
and the silence is vibrant and endless


At this time of year, dusk demands witnesses

Ghosts 1

Everyone here is homesick.
The lake's a sink
where all our dreams and origins
might drain away

An Atheist's Prayer

Tonight my city's a green bowl,
a cup of green, overflowing
whose light falls translucent, in watery veils.

In 'The British Museum' she searches for answers to her father's death and talks about one room:

From the ceiling of this egg-shaped room-
a fragile, shabby Faberge,
pale blue and milky glass with lead-ribbed crown-
clouds of paint have peeled away.

Then there are just some great lines of poetry that talk about a diversity of topics like Van Gogh:

Look at his face. One clear eye,
the other smeared and half obscured,
irregular. Now I see
he's alone and sorrowful. Acutely
aware of his own afflictions,
determined to paint them.

Her final section entitled simply 'Poetry' gives us a glimpse into her darker muses and the fact that she really loves despots, tyrants, anti-feminist old dog's  'sour and cynical, dry with ennui'. She also gives us a couple of poems, which she self-describes as 'after Marina Tsvetaeva'. Nice touches to nearly end the experience.

But still more before she lets us go. 'Two Poets':

Two poets. One a field.
The other a wave on a white-hot beach.

And finally 'Symmetry' as she helps us rest in her words from the journey, wraps up what she believes are loose threads from the story of her life so far. Thank you Ms. Bryden. I look forward to seeing her new work soon.

Mike Martin is a poet and writer who is currently writing a musical play called Life is a Highway.

*Tsvetaeva, Marina Ivanova 1892-1941

Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow in 1892. Her father was a professor who founded the Museum of Fine Arts and her mother was a concert pianist. She wrote about women's sexuality and the tensions between the roles of women at home and in public. She lived in exile in the 20's and 30's because of her political views. She returned to Russia in 1938 but was ostracized by the literary community. In 1941 she committed suicide.







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