Reviews and Awards

Whispering Gums    Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov poems (Review)
NOVEMBER 13, 2013

Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz has made a couple of brief appearances in my blog: first in my post on The invisible thread anthology, and then when she won this year’s ACT Poetry Award. I was consequently more than happy to accept for review her latest book, The Petrov poems.

It’s intriguing that nearly 60 years after the events, we are still interested in the Petrovs. In fact, I have written about them before, in my review of Andrew Croome’s historical novel, Document Z. Most Australians will know who they are, but for those global readers here who don’t, the Petrovs were a Russian couple who worked at the Soviet Embassy in Canberra in the early 1950s. Vladimir (Volodya), Third Secretary, and his wife Evdokia (Dusya) were both Soviet intelligence officers (or, to put it baldly, spies). They defected in 1954. The defection was particularly interesting because Vladimir defected first, and Evdokia two weeks later at the airport in Darwin after some dramatic scenes at Sydney’s Mascot airport.

At first glance, The Petrov poems looks like a collection of poems but in fact it is a verse novel, albeit one comprising many short individually-titled poems. These poems are organised into four ''chapters'': Part 1, Volodya defects; Part 2, Dusya defects; Part 3, The Petrovs at Palm Beach; and Part 4, The Petrovs in Melbourne.

I must admit that I wondered, initially, why Lebkowicz had decided to write about the Petrovs, given that they have already been picked over in novels, non-fiction, theatre, and television. But, as soon as I started reading it, I could see why. Lebkowicz gets into the heart of these two characters, bringing them back to ordinary human beings who were caught up in something that was both of and not of their own making. It is a rather pathetic story. There are no heroes here – and yet, as happens with these sorts of things, it captured the world’s attention for a short time.

Now, before I comment specifically on this book, I’d like to quote another Canberra poet Paul Hetherington from an interview with Nigel Featherstone in the online literary journal Verity La:

One of the ways I recognise the poetic is when I find works in which language is condensed, ramifying, polysemous and unparaphraseable. Part of what I wish to do when writing poems is to make works that speak in such ways – but to do so without resorting to any kind of trickery or artificial obscurity.

While I wouldn’t use words like ''ramifying'' and ''polysemous'', and while we can paraphrase the ideas to a degree, this is pretty much what Lebkowicz achieves in The Petrov poems. In just 80 pages or so she manages to not only tell the story of their lives but get to the nub of their hearts and psyches – as much, anyhow, as anyone can do for another person. We learn that Volodya is not succeeding at spying:

He wants to succeed but stumbles. Failure
follows him like iron torn from a roof and
rattled along the wind.
(from ''Glass I'')

We learn that he loves Dusya (''Dusya is his place in the world''), but that he loves booze, his dog and prostitutes more. He seems weak, but he’s a man struggling. With Stalin’s death and the arrest of his boss, he fears reprisals when he returns to Moscow. Here he is at the moment of defecting (which he does, after disagreements on the subject, without telling Dusya):

Once again he’s going to be wrenched from the soil.
He remembers his father – struck by lightning, buried up to his neck
by foolish men, and dying in the freezing night.
Then chaos and not enough food. Uprooting a full-grown plant
is no easy thing: so many roots
are wound through the earth. He mutters the Russian words
for sadness and home and ruffles his Alsatian’s fur.
(from ''Loss'')

Dusya, on the other hand, is a stronger character, but she has suffered severe losses in her life, including her first love and her daughter:

This is something Dusya does not allow herself to think: how her
life might have been if Román had not been arrested. [...]
If she had gone on taking happiness for granted. Living with
Román had been like walking along a winter street and arriving
in a field of warm poppies. If Román had not been broken in a
labour camp. If Irina had not died -

(from ''Román I'')

While she understands Volodya’s fear, she fears even more what might happen to her family if she defects. At Darwin airport she doesn’t want to make a decision: ''If only/this government man would abduct her''. But of course he can’t.

We then watch them as their relationship falters, first during ASIO’s interrogation, and then the years of living together in Melbourne, officially in disguise but known nonetheless. (''The whole street knows they are Petrovs -/too many photos, too much publicity'').

While I’m not a Petrov expert, I’ve read enough to feel that Lebokowicz’s interpretation is authentic. She explores what happens when the political interferes with the personal; she recognises the pull of culture and the despair that losing one’s home can engender; and she sees that corruption is not confined to communism:

so when ASIO falsifies (No! Not falsifies -
amends, adjusts, even corrects) the documents
he brought from the Embassy – of course he assents
(from ''Bones'')

These are wonderful, readable poems. They are poetic, but without, as Paul Hetherington seeks, ''trickery'' and ''artificial obscurity''. The imagery is strong but clear. I particularly liked the way Lebkowicz varies and plays with form. None of it is rhymed, but there are sonnets, couplets, poems with multi-line stanzas but closing on a single dramatic line, and others. There are poems with short lines or terse rhythms, indicating action or stress, and poems with long lines conveying thoughts and reflections. There is also a shape-poem, ''Torment'', in which the zigzag shape mirrors Dusya’s distress (''Her life is a staircase that switches directions'').

Like any good historical fiction – if a verse novel can be called that – you don’t need to know the history to understand the story told here. And like any good historical fiction writer, Lebkowicz has produced something that enables us to reconsider an historical event from another perspective and to understand the humanity below the surface of the facts. An excellent and moving read.

Whispering Gums  Delicious descriptions from Down under: Lebkowicz and Moorhouse on 1950s Canberra NOVEMBER 15, 2013

Canberra & District Historical Society Inc, Canberra Historical Journal new series no 71, September 2013.

Lesley Lebkowicz The Petrov Poems Pitt St Poetry, Sydney 2013, 97pp. PB, $20 @ CDHS, Curtin or Pitt-Street-Poetry

A slim volume of poems reviewed in a history journal? Unusual but, in the opinion of this reviewer, well justified. Hilary Mantel's popular books about Thomas Cromwell have opened a lively debate about the creative interpretation of history. Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz's book contributes to that debate. She has researched her theme well and provides an excellent example of how a poet can encapsulate historical events and bring them to life with compelling images and the finest of brushstrokes.


Peter Pierce. The Canberra Times. 31.8.13
(and online editions of SMH and The Age)

THE PETROV POEMS. By Lesley Lebkowicz. Pitt Street. 97pp. $20.
SIX DIFFERENT WINDOWS. By Paul Hetherington. UWA Publishing. 100pp. $24.99.

These two accomplished verse collections - Lesley Lebkowicz's The Petrov Poems and Paul Hetherington's Six Different Windows - come from poets with established careers, who still seek the full recognition to which they are entitled. . . .

It is a verse narrative, recounted in glimpses, but chronologically and tautly, that Lebkowicz essays in The Petrov Poems. For Lebkowicz it is personal because she was a child growing up in Canberra when the Petrovs defected from their posts in the Russian embassy in 1954. With restraint and psychological acuity she imagines the motives, fears and disappointments of Volodya and Dusya (or Vladimir and Evdokia as they were to the wider world).

Their harrowing previous life in Russia is sketched with terse effect: ''They had grown up in darkness'', in a country that was ''a landscape of bones''. During Stalin's purges, Vladimir Petrov ''had seen hundreds shovelled/Into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants swept/away by hot water''. Now, with the death of Stalin and the fall of their KGB boss, Beria, the Petrovs fear their own recall and death. In one of the shocks that Lebkowicz springs, Petrov runs into then-prime minister Menzies at the Canberra airport. Soon after, he is being interrogated by ASIO: ''they treat him like a machine that can talk''. Not that he can offer them much: ''A few 'facts'/to undo the Left./As at home''. Lebkowicz's use of verse forms is supple and varied. The Petrovs' story has moments of comedy, as of ignominy, and of fear. The humdrum character of their lives in Melbourne under assumed names is an ironic commentary on the political hysteria that accompanied their defection and that did damage long afterwards.

Joyce Kornblatt reads Lesley Lebkowicz's bold, original "The Petrov Poems" (Universal heart book club, 2 August, 2013)

Sometimes a fine poet rescues political scandal from the tabloids and the television soundbite. She reveals the mythic power and psychological complexity in these public dramas. From Homer's ancient epics to Anne Carson's contemporary re-tellings of Greek tragedy, these writers remind us of the complex human depths in the stories that media often reduce to mere surfaces.

Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz has done just this with her wonderful verse-novel, The Petrov Poems. In her spare and vivid voice, the married Soviet spies who defected to Australia in April 1954, emerge as haunted individuals shaped by forces they barely fathom. The choices they make, while consciously considered, also seem to be the result of an inexorable fate they cannot escape.

We suffer with them, the stolid Volodya and the stylish Dusya, as the poems offer bright shards of insight into their lives. 'They had grown up in darkness', we learn. Volodya '...had seen hundreds / shovelled into their graves,' Dusya loses a brother and lover to the gulag, and 'when her child died / her grief upended the world.' The security they thought might be possible in the KGB proves to be a sham: 'Spies live under skies which offer no shelter.'

Patriotism tested, loyalties scrambled, temptations impossible to resist: Volodya succumbs to ASIO's offer once he knows he cannot return home: '...he carries his body / like a felon already condemned.'

Dusya, too, reluctantly chooses the asylum that is also a punishment: her family remains in the Soviet Union where, she fears, they will pay for her choice. Luckily, they survive - ' I have not killed my family', she consoles herself repeatedly. In Dusya's later years, her sister Tamara emigrates to Melbourne to be a companion to her soon-widowed sibling. And for Volodya, lost in the haze of dementia, 'the past vanishes', his world reduced to a nursing home room while his wife '...cries in her loneliness.' Supported by her sister, Dusya, the former spy and famous defector, understands that 'everything to do with Tamara is precious', the blessings of ordinary life, relinquished for so long, at last bestowed.

In fewer than a hundred elegant pages, a spy drama yields its real treasure: beyond the machinations of nation-states, in spite of the the traumas of violence and loss, the capacity for tenderness endures and redeems us.

I loved The Petrov Poems for all the ways Lesley Lebkowicz inhabits the inner lives of Volodya and Dusya. She liberates them from stereotype and slogan. Read this book and be reminded: every human heart is a masterpiece.

PS Cottier reviews The Petrov Poems

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