Kevin Brophy – Launch of Lesley Lebkowicz’s The Petrov Poems (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013)

What does a spy look like?

What does a spy look like? How do you recognize one? Why is it we all think it would be interesting and exciting to be a spy? Perhaps none of us is sure we are not a spy.

The figure of the spy reminds us that after all, all we perceive are surfaces. We don’t truly know what another person thinks, why another person acts in the way they do, how sincere they are, or insincere, what their fundamental motives are. Any one in this room could be a spy, all they would have to do is blend in. In our case, since most of us are poets, it means wearing creased and mostly unfashionable outfits, leaving our hair relatively uncombed, and being prepared to quote a line or two at the drop of a pen or a bookmark. An interest in red or white wine would help. The occasional longing look at the book shelves too. Easy.

The spy lives a double life, one more than each of us is blessed with. The spy is one who might lose sight of which life is actually the one they prefer, the one where they are most themselves. The spy might eventually ask of herself or himself, when am I not acting? Or does the spy shrug off these doubts and tell herself, himself, it’s just a job, not too different to any other job where the consequence of making mistakes is death. There are plenty of jobs like that, including cleaning windows.

Is it the spy who knows, like a perfect Buddha, that eventually at our core we do not have anything except an infinite series of inner ’spies’ who are taking on, on our behalf, role after role, identity after identity, costume after costume – that there is no core?

While the poet or the novelist might want to bring reality somehow into their fiction, the spy (that transgressive creature) brings fiction into our reality, as if fiction could be part of reality, proving to us that it can, that reality is as much a costume drama as any Maeve Binchey novel.

Volodya Petrov, third secretary in the Russian Embassy in 1953 was fat, short, often disheveled, too fond of drink, aware that his wife Dusya might have married him as a second-best choice, and he was a spy. Outside his spy-self he dreamed of freedom as a chicken farmer in the countryside, and of girls who might satisfy his alcohol fuelled desires.

Dusya’s chance for love and motherhood had passed already by the time she reached Australia, though not her longing for love, especially the love of family, community and companionship. Late in The Petrov Poems, in the days after their lives as spies had passed, we read:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
Too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbor builds a gate in their fence
So when the journalist comes, they slip out
Through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –

No one would have known who they were.
Dusya had hoped to grow old in her village –
An ordinary woman buying onions
And bread, scolding her man

And holding his withered flesh to her own. (p. 69)

These apparently imagined, and beautifully paced details – in four line stanzas with a final line dropping down dramatically to make its own stanza – of Dusya’s experiences and private hopes are not simply coming from Lesley’s imagination, for they are based in thorough research, including the oral history archives in the National Library of Australia. This is a deeply and sensitively researched book of poetry committed to bringing those fragments in the record, lost observations, over-looked glimpses and insights forward in order to re-create these hapless, confused, venal and hopeful individuals as beings who are as real as we know ourselves to be.

Lesley uses the marginalized details of the historical record to bring us a human story that allows her themes to emerge. As I understand it, this theme centres upon the observation that dimly, and sometimes vividly, we cling to and rehearse what love means to us.

To revert to history’s broad sweep, the death of the murderous Stalin in March 1953 was followed by a political purge in Moscow, a purge that put the spy Volodya Petrov in fear for his life. Defection, under the offer of five thousand pounds, enough to set up a chicken farm, seemed the only way to ensure his personal survival. Five thousand pounds translates to something like $170,000 in today’s money. The Russians claimed he had been kidnapped by the Australians. Armed Russian officers sent to escort his wife back to Moscow had their plane diverted at Darwin, where their guns were taken from them, and while their backs were turned their spy was taken from them too, after a brief phone call with her husband to check that he was not a prisoner, and had defected (the fool, did he not know what terrible punishment might now come down on Dusya's family back in Russia?). It is likely that this dramatic double defection assisted Robert Menzies to win the 1954 election for his Liberal Party over Dr Evatt, just as the Tampa much later was a possible election clincher for another Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard . The spy scandal that followed in 1954 included the discovery among Petrov's papers of a document naming some of Evatt's staffers as Communist contacts or informants. Evatt was convinced the document was manufactured and planted by ASIO in order to discredit him. He almost lost his mind over this conspiracy, and at the Royal Commission where he represented himself he was said to have acted strangely. This was a catalyst igniting the split that saw the emergence of the Catholic-based Democratic Labor Party, a party of 'clerical-fascist conspirators' in Evatt's phrase. As a result, the Labor Party would be lost in a politically helpless impasse for two decades. All this the result of a bewildered Russian spy wanting in his heart to be a chicken farmer somewhere in the Australian countryside, free to work and drink and visit the nearest city's brothels at his whim.


''The Petrov Poems'' Lesley Lebkowicz - launch speech by Joanne Burns 15.08.13

Lesley Lebkowicz's verse novel 'The Petrov Poems' is an accomplished achievement, in which her detailed historical research, and her poetic and narrative skills blend to create a compelling evocation of a dramatic and significant period in post-war Australian political history. Among other elements, what makes this poem sequence so distinctive and individual is the way Lebkowicz takes the reader into the emotions and psyches of the two main protagonists, Volodya and Evdokia Petrov, who is called Dusya in the narrative. Throughout the unfolding of the external political narrative Lebkowicz tracks and intertwines the Petrovs' fear, angst, and anguish especially in relation to Dusya. The verse novel opens with their arrival in Sydney en route from Russia to take up their appointments at the Russian Embassy in Canberra in 1951, and concludes with the death of Volodya in 1990, and Dusya's subsequent peaceful life with her sister Tamara. The novel is structured into 4 parts: Volodya defects; Dusya defects; the Petrovs at Palm Beach; the Petrovs in Melbourne. 'The Petrov Poems' takes us way beyond the newspaper headlines, political shibboleths, and shadowy sensational photos of that period in the first half of the 1950s when the sound of the name 'Petrov' could make a child feel as if an unknown monster was at large in Australia.

Throughout the narrative Lebkowicz traces the oscillations, tensions, dramas in the Petrovs' complex relationship. In the opening poem 'Harbour' Dusya assesses their relationship in an affirmative way as she stands on the deck of the 'Orcades' as it sails into Sydney Harbour -

'Volodya had been a safe choice.
Volodya is solid - more than a husband - an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth........'

But this opening poem is full of the shadows of their pasts in Russia - their successes, but more strongly the hardships, the harshness.This is expressed with grim succinctness - 'When you've scrambled to survive/you know how to fear'. Fear is a powerful force in the Petrovs' lives, and it stalks the atmosphere and texture of the narrative.

Now settled and working in Canberra Volodya considers the possibility of defecting. Beria, KGB chief [and his boss], is arrested in Russia following Stalin's death. Petrov calculates his bleak chances in the poem 'Sums', via Lebkowicz's lean, confronting, short lines -

Three months it took
from Stalin's death
to Beria's arrest
plus six more till his execution -
Volodya keeps doing the sums
and the answer
is always his death.'

The couple argue over the defection issue. Dusya is terrified that if she defects her family in Russia will be murdered. Volodya accuses her of spurning the Russian ambassador's advances. Dusya's fear for the fate of her family as a consequence of defection haunts her throughout the sequence. Volodya does however show some feeling for Dusya. During pre-defection meetings with ASIO's deputy director, Richards, he is tempted with a brief display of $5,000 in cash. He does have the guts to say more than once 'I fear for my wife'. At one stage he naively thinks if he leaves without telling Dusya, and takes nothing to implicate her, she will be protected. Particularly tender is Lebkowicz's evocation of a moment on the night before Petrov plans to secretly defect. In the poem 'Loss' she writes -

'He pads across the corridor to her room and opens a drawer.
Her soft things are slivers of loss
he can touch. He brings the silk to his face.'

This is a moment of love, delicate and riveting in the context of his marital infidelities.

We again see the strains in their relationship, after their defections. In the Palm Beach section things are not so palmy. In a savage moment Volodya sets the dog Jack onto his wife. But we also see her dependence on her husband. In short lines that show her frailty she asks - 'But where would/she be/without Volodya?/Who could she/talk to?' In this phase of the narrative Volodya angsts about the possibility of Dusya's family being killed because of him. Later when they move to Melbourne the tension continues. In 'At home in Bentleigh' Lebkowicz writes alliteratively and figuratively -

'Their fights split
the house.
Paint lifts from skirtings
like stolen documents.'

As already indicated Lebkowicz gives Volodya some depth as she probes under the surface. While we see him superficially as a drunk and a sexual philanderer, a prostitute consorter, and a not very good spy [ Volodya thinks he is recruiting Bialoguski to be a spy but Bialoguski is already an ASIO agent! and Volodya gets nothing of substance through his meetings with Rose Marie Ollier from the French embassy], in 'Glass I', however, Lebkowicz intensifies his sense of failure in describing a scene where Divisek, a possible recruit doesn't show up. We see Petrov's strong emotions and tense state when he picks up a shard of broken glass and cuts his palm with it. Earlier in the poem Lebkowicz writes with sharp and gritty evocation - 'Failure/follows him like iron torn from a roof and/rattled along the wind'. The circumstances of his mother's death in Russia continue to haunt him - how he saw her dying in the family home, almost destroyed in the aftermath of the Revolution. The roof tiles are gone -'his mother lay beneath a ceiling/of dead grass and dirt'.

During ASIO's interrogations after his defection Volodya is deeply disturbed by what he has done, his betrayals. Lebkowicz writes graphically - 'Fat maggots lodge/against the wall of his heart.' in the poem 'Maggots'. Volodya longed for a farm in Australia as a payment for his defection but this never happens. The images from his shrinking life in the final poems are grim and affecting. Through his work at Ilford processing film negatives his clothes get dirty. This dirt suggests a deeper darkness, an inner dark. Lebkowicz firmly writes in 'The terrible dirt'

'It gets trapped in his clothes
ground into his pores
and he comes home again -
black black black


John Foulcher launches The Petrov Poems in Canberra:  Watch the video

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