Lesley’s book is in four sections. The first comes under the dramatic heading, 'Volodya defects'. With deep canniness and sympathy, Lesley Lebkowicz brings Canberra into focus as the Petrovs try to see it for the first time.
They go to look at their enemies. High on a slope
opposite the Prime Minister
sit the Americans.
The red brick of their buildings is picked out in white.
The portico and the frames of their colonial
Windows are white.
Red and white and the warm grey
Of slate roofs. The grass is so green ...
On the other side of the hill, close to the Parliament,
The British rest in a flat-roofed rectangle - white too
As though white were perfection and not paint.
It glows against the Canberra scrub.
The windows are set deep in stone frames.
We are quietly solid, the rectangle says.
We’ve been here a long time.
Dusya and Volodya look at each other.
She attempts scorn: Capitalists! She says.
Volodya is silent. Their embassy is much further
From Parliament. Once a block of cheap rooms
Its pale bricks are unpainted. (p. 6)
Lesley Lebkowicz beautifully reminds us that in a new place we see newly, we feel ourselves differently, we might even sense ourselves inside ourselves for the first time in a new way. Lesley is alert to all this. I like it that Dusya comes before Volodya in the poem’s final stanza, and I like the ambivalence, the possible and silently understood falsity of her attempt to speak like a true Communist in this capitalist enclave. I like it that surfaces speak deeply - that a coat of paint might not just cover-over, but might expose something of the self-images that rule in this part of the world. Lesley gives them a vista to view, but her poem is aware too of the smallness of individuals. I like the hint here, that if these two are attracted to the Capitalist West, if they are indeed treacherous in their hearts, it is their baser, more shallow selves that yearn for what coats of white paint promise against the absolute unpretentiousness of a disgracefully neglected Russian compound.
This is attentive poetry. And it is at home in this city, because Lesley grew up in it, and heard the rumours about the Russians as the town grew shocked and anxious over the spies in its midst. From Part II, 'Dusya defects': April 19, 1954, Mascot Airport:
She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
About her? The mass swells and jostles -
Crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit
She loses a shoe. She must limp.
Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.
The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink
Through their clothes - sweat, fear,
Rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
On one thing - her dead daughter’s fine hair or
A white cup, its tea warming her palm. (p. 42)
Dusya’s image of the 'one thing' is, strangely, quite British. She had been in Australia for three years by this time, and tea was of course our national drink after beer. This was in the days before Australia discovered wine. Here too, that telling colour white - her preferred refuge now. This poetry inhabits its character, as all good fiction does, and it notices the importantly impressionistic aspects of the scene based on the famous photograph that now accompanies our collective memories and accounts of these episodes.
In part III, 'The Petrovs at Palm Beach', an account of the ramifications of the Royal Commission, and the safe houses around Surfers Paradise where they were kept between visits to the Commission, we read:
He is hungry. ASIO food lies in his gullet like lumps
of malevolence. For breakfast they give him spaghetti - white
Slugs caked in red that come out of a can
And slump over toast. Bread should be black and have strength.
ASIO dries chops and steak under a grill and serves them
With drowned peas, mashed potato and carrots. ASIO gobbles it up
While he washes it down with beer and whisky and wine.
He wants duck roasted sharp and sweet with mustard apples,
Gravy that comes from the meat and not a packet,
He wants soft steaming dumplings and broth,
Cucumber pickles and cabbage with caraway seeds,
Wild mushrooms, veal simmered for hours with tomatoes
And eaten with buckwheat. (He remembers his childhood.) ... (p. 58)
So, the table are turned, the colour white is now associated with the sickening sight of slugs like lumps of malevolence; the food of the democratic West is a capitalist plot serving to nauseate someone who has been fed on peasant food cooked lovingly, taken fresh from plots in backyards or bought from local stalls. It is enough to make you regret ever wanting wanting freedom. What is it we love about the life we lead, and how can we know what we have unless we first lose it? This is funny, this ASIO food poem, and it is wrenching.
After Volodya’s death in 1991, Dusya lived on in Australia with her dear, close sister Tamara who migrated to be with her. Dusya did not get to live out her life in a Russian village as an old woman buying onions, but in Lesley’s account she does find an antipodean version of her dream of love and connection:
Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh
Like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
For dinner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever
Tamara says makes Dusya happy - it’s hearing
Her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya
And Tamara looks at her
But says nothing. His name falls out of their lives. (p. 83)
Lesley Lebkowicz has achieved something iconic here, in response
to one of the oddest iconic moments in Australia’s early modern history.
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