Braggs’s third full collection answers the burning question of what he did on his summer vacation in Russia in 1998. Some of the poems pay homage to a number of major Russian poets—particularly Akhmatova, whose home in St. Petersburg is described in the title piece—while others provide glimpses of one of the world’s larger countries. But nothing here is bigger than Braggs, and it’s too bad, for the most successful poems are those that unabashedly center on him, drawing effective analogies between the poet’s alienation from home and the foreignness of his new environs: “With steel eyes, he stamps my reason for entering Russia. / With downcast glances, I stamp my reasons for leaving America / and walk ill hearted into realizing nothing / but the vastness of things unclaimed.” Those pieces that do not work as well flag because the poetic voice drowns out the scene portrayed. Braggs dips his pen one too many times into the well of poetic craft, using alliteration (“In the evening we wrote what we wrote knowing / morning would wash words away. Knowing”) or word repetition (“exiled in extreme poverty in extreme strange places, / one gloomy suburb to another. Extremely saddened”) until the sense of sound and phrase is completely exhausted. The result is a language that calls attention to itself without revealing itself, bringing the reader no closer to viewing the world Braggs depicts.
While true affection for all things Russian comes across in this weighty volume, its delivery might be better claimed by prose.