Barrelhouse Reviews: Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides by Jessica Laser

Review by Allison Casey


Jessica Laser’s debut book Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides wields a terrible blade of knowledge—one most of us can only wield via Google. Even the title boasts a wide-cast net of experience, referencing a passage from War and Peace, and the name of an obscure Russian soldier. I know this thanks to Google, the 80 pages of Tolstoy I got through last summer, and a helpful epigraph at the beginning of the book. Knowledge isn’t the only weapon in Laser’s arsenal to be sure. Another, subtler, instrument is her beautiful attention to sound (How to represent this through a metaphor? Perhaps a lyre? A harp with racing stripes?). Laser creates bouncing rhythms, loops through unexpected rhymes, and sprinkles alliteration over the poems, not unlike Salt Bae; just the right amount, enough for that pleasant surprise. 

Surprise, it seems, is a goal of hers. Not just in the sudden rhymes and matching sounds, but in the syntax itself. Enjambment creates unstable lines and stanzas, catching one off guard so that the reading of a poem gets twisted and turned in real time, as if Laser’s will forces one to bend to understand a particular line, a key phrase. And while there’s obscurity and maybe some neurosis ringing in those moves, there’s also the pure delight of realizing that the poem has, once more, tricked you.

Laser reminded me, in fact, of the awe I felt the first time I ever read Emily Dickinson: the way she fucked with standard sentence clause construction. Laser’s wrought-iron syntax has that same hide-and-seek going on. Take the poem “Sergei,” for example:

“Man of what pebbles / The government pours // To adorn concrete lapping waves / Denote as slabbed beaches.”

With every line, the referent slips away, slides into something else. Those shifts prompt new readings, new thoughts, and a more careful attention to the poems. Reading the poems, then, becomes like slowly unworking a knot, trying to trace a winding shimmering trail of stones that Laser has left behind.

Some of those stones, though, are easy to miss. Every syllable of the book is absolutely flooded with references. Laser brings everyone from Flaubert to Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Eliot into the fray, and ironically, it’s in a move like Eliot (or maybe more like Anne Carson) that Laser risks losing her reader among the weeds in all her influences and allusions. At what point are they more for her than for the poems? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that there’s a certain weight to the more academic and cerebral poems. If you catch who she’s paying homage too, it’s all the more fun. If not, that’s a facet of the work that’s lost flickering to the night. Of course, it’s a testament to just how fun the poems are that I didn’t want to lose any of the angles. Rather than being frustrated with Laser, I was disappointed in myself. To miss an aspect of Sergei Kuzmich felt like an opportunity wasted, and so I found myself Googling more than I otherwise would when reading poetry—in an effort not to let any allusion pass me by. That—needless to say—is not ideal.

But there’s the satisfaction of the recognized reference. Laser includes some interior references, lines that appear as duplications or inverses of previous lines in the book. It’s exciting to happen upon, to read a line and have that instant jolt of recognition: to read “In the Depression Between Two Hills” and remember the first poem of the book, the first line of which gives “Depression…” its title. The self-referential style feels like being invited in to Laser’s secret club: in watching Laser work back to a previous moment and revise some of it, one sees her extend past it.

One poem in particular, “The Bulletproof Vest,” stands out for its precision and economy. It contains all that the other poems boast, too: a winding syntax, cliff-hanging enjambments. But the story being told, the images deftly set into the lines are lighter, more delicate and therefore more pristine. That difference feels like something tangible. That difference feels like the reason I’ve been caught up in the last lines of that poem like spider-webbing (“...down that coast-resembling road / We migrated south with the circus party / And laughed without nets.”)

 The last poem of Sergei Kuzmich, “Losss,” is made up entirely of quotations, with endnotes that can lead the reader to where those words had their first home. Unlike the previous weighty references, this poem actually does more work toward telling the story of the composer—of Laser. Like Joan Retellack’s “Not a Cage,” “Losss” grants us a peek at the books that might line Laser’s shelves. The endnotes are a graveyard of poets, philosophers, thinkers: Blake, Porchia, Heidegger, Salinger, Frost, Browning, Cheever, the Bible…

It’s not just name-dropping this poem, though. Wildly impressive, more so than the names and titles is the form and what Laser has accomplished through it: compiling so many disparate and varied texts, doing the complex work of finding images and, indeed, finding a poem through them all. Despite the source material, Laser’s influence is apparent through her flex of craft. In other words: far more of Laser comes through than the other writers, even though the poem is made entirely from their words, and that’s a feat worth marveling at.

I’d venture that it’s the poems where we clearly see the picture of Laser that work better at what Laser herself considers important to poetry. A few years ago, while interviewing Hannah Sanghu Park for the LA Review of Books, Laser said, “As long as you’re hitting up against as much specificity as possible, your tiny little grain of sand [the poem] will explode into the universe.”

It is in the poems that feel entirely owned by Laser, not fogged by another voice, that we get the closest, most specific and unique glimpse at her own grain of sand. And it’s those poems that do indeed feel like they explode into the universe, into the reader, and leave a supernova burst imprinted on that reader.

Allison Casey is a current MFA Creative Writing candidate at Rutgers University—Camden. A New Jersey native, Allison received her BA in English and Certificate in Creative Writing from Rutgers University—New Brunswick. While her first and second loves are her cat and coffee respectively, poetry comes in at a close third. Her work has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Moonchild Magazine, and Occulum Journal.


Barrelhouse Reviews: In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes by Giorgio van Straten

Review by Michael Mungiello


In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes

by Giorgio van Straten, Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Serge

October 16, 2018

Pushkin Press

We write words dozens of times a day and hit send. We immediately forget what we wrote, but our texts are archived forever. Naturally we don’t think of all writing as precious. However, in Giorgio van Straten’s work of literary history and criticism In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, we’re reminded of a past method of mourning, one founded on a romantic idea: that the object of readerly love is precious, irreplaceable. Straten’s is a less utilitarian, more humanistic approach to writing.

In Search of Lost Books tells eight stories, each about a manuscript by a Great Writer (Romano Bilenchi, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Bruno Schulz, Nikolai Gogol, Malcolm Lowry, Walter Benjamin, and Sylvia Plath), each thought beyond retrieval. The “lost” of the title is synonymous not with “misplaced” but with “dead.” Straten’s book is thin, pleasant, and just a bit snobbish; it’s caviar on a Ritz cracker. Straten wears his old-world eloquence, his sense of culture, on his tailored sleeve. One gets the sense he takes his “mission” “seriously.” In other words, In Search of Lost Books might have been written by Niles Crane.

Straten frames his searches as spells of unrequited love, explicitly invoking Proust not only in his title but in his introduction. And just like Proust, it is entirely possible that Straten wrote this book from his bed. You might think our author literally searches for these books, donning the cap and cape of a literary Sherlock, but no. Instead, Straten compiles what amount to book reports on the eight unpublished books: biographical summary, literary anecdote (“anecdote” meaning gossip), and paeans to Important Authors that verge on pontification.

Despite his Proustian pretensions, Straten is surprisingly shallow. There’s a lack of introspection or invigorating literary analysis. The author bandies about flashy signs of knowingness without revealing any underlying knowledge. Where we might look for an archaeologist willing to get into the dirt—how did the loss of Gogol’s redemptive sequel to Dead Souls shape Russian literature and its sense of pessimism? What did the destruction of Byron’s memoirs mean in the context of the Romantic argument for catharsis through self-disclosure?—we instead find a charming tour guide delivering a lecture from the top of a double-decker bus, gesturing vaguely at ruins we’re meant to respect.

“It is possible that from those lost pages, despite everything, the traces of a tremendous talent would have nevertheless emerged.”

“Instead of this text we have only a few surviving fragments…small pieces of paper with burnt edges, like maps of pirate treasure.”

“Is it too much to hope that sooner or later—by chance, scholarship or passion—someone will rediscover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

“It is next to impossible to know what really happened.”

Despite vagueness and grandiosity, Straten is charming. He’s self-aware, and I have a sneaking suspicion he’s a sharp dresser with good teeth. In a sense, Straten himself is the sort of person disappearing from the world: the cultivated European aesthete, seemingly unsullied by extraliterary preoccupations, unashamed of his elitism, proud deployer of polysyllables.

Appropriately, Straten makes no effort to appeal to contemporary taste, no argument for the “relevance” or “urgency” of In Search of Lost Books. And why should he? Straten’s book is a languid love story, an indulgent rumination on the romance of what’s lost, including the phenomenon of lost manuscripts. This romance is rooted in a dream of wholeness: the lost book acquires a magical aura . The lost book is the one missing piece to the puzzle of an author’s oeuvre. Somehow, it’ll make everything cohere. Straten’s fondness for lost books mirrors my fondness for his manner. He has a holistic sense of literature as the missing piece to complete a cultivated life. His faith in culture, in literature, is uncommon.

Perhaps for good reason. Straten’s love of lost books seems indulgent, but it might be worse than that. Who’s to say Straten’s love is harmless? Isn’t his aestheticism apolitical, bourgeoisie, simplistic, weak-minded? Although a preservationist orientation could be mistaken for conservatism, the evidence points to the contrary. Straten preserves the work of the past to encourage the progress of writers and readers to come.

One of the binding threads of In Search of Lost Books is Straten’s PSA-like appeal to readers (and future literary trustees and heirs) that books, even books that their authors disdain, should never be destroyed. He suggests that authors and their descendants seal up embarrassing or dangerous manuscripts for a few centuries to protect the privacy of said authors’ loved (or hated) ones. But what’s written should never be destroyed, he argues. “The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.” The readers of the future take priority over a writer’s temporary contemporaries. And in this sense, Straten’s idea of culture isn’t just pining for the past, but belief in a canon that continues accumulating into the future forever. A faith in continuity, stretching forward as well as backward, vivifies the otherwise clichéd nostalgia of In Search of Lost Books. If we believe great writing is precious, and worth preserving, then even the automatic preservation of online texts seems meaningful. In Search of Lost Books is almost a cautionary tale: this is what it was like when manuscripts were on paper and could be completely lost. Don’t forget.

Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.