A promising new voice delivers memories from his Russian youth and reflections on global religion in this crisp book of poetry.
Vladimir Nabokov was born in Russia, but he was raised in Europe and driven to the United States in 1940 as German troops advanced; it’s a fine irony of world literature that one of Russia’s greatest novelists spent most of his life in America. Perhaps the young poet Kulakov senses some of the same pressures; Kulakov was born in Russia but was educated in America, and his verse often engages the challenges and joys of his double origin; take, as one fine example, the “Song to Flying”: “In a neat English playground, near a worn brick sidewalk, / I mumble in mixed Russian, digging / pale hands into earth, burying sticks and rocks: / a time capsule to call mine in a far-off adulthood.” Today, the adult author is a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, so it’s unsurprising that his mature poetry often engages religious themes. However, this is not a collection of stale, devotional poetry from a green seminarian. Kulakov is clearly eager to grapple with his own faith—and with the faith of others. “If We Burn Them All Together” is a troubling, evocative discussion of Islam’s role in the world that ends on a utopian note: “above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens / rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets / of gold, hairless companions, and pearly gates.” At other times, readers learn how crucial his poetry is to his spiritual calling: “In my room, / I punch in letters mixing words / to bring-out sparks. And it is you, Yahweh.” Such frank confessions are much preferable to his occasional dips into the self-conscious jargon of a graduate student, as in “Morton Peak”: “Bodies heavy, I say, ‘The real Real is too traumatic? / for any being to behold.’ ” However, most of the time he avoids such patter, instead writing honest, evocative verse about spirituality and the life of the émigré.
A fine young poet digs deep.