An echo where you lie by Polina Kouzminova

(Submarine, 2016)

Review by Keith Nunes

The Siberian wilderness of her former home seems to haunt poet Polina Kouzminova, and while she now lives in New Zealand, she appears to linger between lives, waiting for the new person, the new home to become whole.

Her debut poetry collection is a slim volume — 25 poems in 47 pages — but covers plenty of emotional ground. I don’t remember seeing the word absence so often in one place before and that speaks to her sense of loss (romantic and physical place) — a sort of serial sadness. It’s an understated but moving voice that resonates in the poem “At the airport” (p.28):

My nails are bitten by the nerves,
and eyes cast down onto the undone
sole of the shoe.

I fell in love with the poem, “I know your daydream” (p.36), with its playful touches: ‘get lost in a cab, exhaust the radio’; its melancholia of barely remembered nights: ‘white pillows / with my mascara drawings on them’; and finally its sense of disconnection and yet, as with Kouzminova, a sense of hope threaded with curiosity and unease:

I don’t know where you parked
your daydream. But if I did,
where would it take me?
(“I know your daydream”)

With these lines from “Limit” (p.38) — ‘Visualise me, I cannot see myself’ and ‘I wasn’t engineered correctly’ — I found a robust expression telling of a raw angst that hides behind the eyes, alluding to self-doubt, a lack of self-confidence.

In “The fall” (p.13), she outlines her tenet – she goes through heartbreak, she finds herself, and then doubt eases in through the cracks of human frailty.

I admire her depiction of three-dimensional characters (herself?) and her avoidance of rom-com happy endings:

I stare bewildered at the wild, the universe
pushing me to say this out loud:
that I do not love you anymore.

And then Kouzminova moves on saying:

I will be
pure again, without the need
for laughter between the sheets,
without the need for absence or presence.

The narrator shows strength and resilience in the face of a relationship collapse but again there is that gnawing doubt when she says later in the poem:

The water runs gently,
a small stream of quiet; that tightening,
under the evening street lights –
and I am there. I am always there.
(“The fall”)

In the poem “Distance, or when death ascends” (p.30), she conjures the lonely in a crowd scenario, with a dejection resulting from appealing for recognition and having it go unanswered:

The silver-green thread unseen,
as we can be unseen at times,
despite our best efforts.
(“Distance, or when death ascends”)

These poems carry gravitas; they place you in an uneasy space with Kouzminova if you’re willing to go there. The speaker stands as a solitary figure reaching out with apprehension aware of the potential pain of rejection and attendant lack of understanding and empathy – the stranger in a strange land.

I was enthralled by the poem, “The wedding” (p.16), which shot me through with stark steely imagery that is unsettling, and takes me geographically and emotionally to places that I might not ordinarily choose to go:

The snow’s sparkles fell in brisk segments –
the winter story unfolding beauty all around.
Some fell on my pink fingers – a pauper’s gesture,
outstretched and uninvited.

And further on in the poem, she adds:

I felt the need to go deeper,
much deeper than before.
But I couldn’t feel my heartbeat
for whatever reason,
and I’m not sure I wanted to.
(“The wedding”)

In “Christchurch” (p.26), she unnerves the reader by offering up a tangible and loving relationship, then withdrawing it and suggesting nothing is present: ‘I wonder why we have to be ghosts / when we are still alive.’ She portrays a sense of wandering this earth without being noticed or without having the sense of being. Are we just an array of ideas, beliefs, fears and hopes encased in an optical illusion? Is this the greatest of all sorrows, that we are here but there’s no substantive acknowledgment of our presence?

In the following stanza from “Weightless” (p.43), I believe she encapsulates the essence of the collection – the duality, the paradox, the two-halves of life (love and pain, joy and anguish) and that one is never far from the other and that’s just the way it is.

But I’m not lost. I’m merely found,
among the most exciting times within this life,
even if it’s all about banging doors, leading me
from room to room, a corridor of lives I care
and care not about.
They speak to me the same way in return.

Kouzminova’s delivery is straightforward and makes for an undemanding read, while still managing to surprise and challenge. An echo where you lie is a moving, memorable collection and, I believe, just the beginning of a poetic vocation.