Inky Dense & Co.
On Svetlana Lavochkina’s Carbon: Song of Crafts
(Lost Horse Press, 2020)
by Omar Sabbagh
‘A heart pulsing with tasks.’
On March 6 1995 the Chair of Oral and Written Foreign Languages Practice, Faculty of English Philology writes a letter, addressing the ‘Dear Chancellor’ of the Ukrainian University in question. They are complaining of their rusty, rusted links to the dwelling-places of the language they teach and treasure. The letter, with 20 signatories, seems to be petitioning among other things for travel permits to native anglophone grounds, in order to enliven and improve their roles there, at the Faculty of English Philology. 51 days later, but in self-professed ‘prompt response’ to their query, Rector Arcady Myshkin replies denying in effect the desired or implicitly proposed actions, but informing them, too, that as it happens ‘The Roes of Yes’ mission from Alabama, USA (‘yes’, as against the Rector’s very Soviet, previous ‘no’ here), an evangelical group of thirty students under Dr. Ken Morass, has applied to visit the institute for pedagogical reasons and with no doubt religious intents as well. The fact that ‘Elizabeth Argon’ (‘Elizaveta’) is designated chief liaison is central to part of the plot at this stage and beyond in Svetlana Lavochkina’s verse novel: Carbon: Song of Crafts; but the serendipity within the frame of this epic driven at times with deep satiric gusto, is the literal coincidence of the request and the chancy circumstance enlisted in the reply. However, standing out as a rather too-chummy idiom, it may be construed to image in very small part Carbon as metafiction: so that the ‘real’ story at hand, the perhaps quite possible coincidence, is rendered hyper-real thereby; the phlegmatic Rector’s emphatically lightsome signing-off, telltale of so much in and about this verse novel. And as there is much of the hyper-real about the writing in this tale, I do want to pause here and take cognizance of this small, chancy detail, as it looks outwards from within the frame to us, on the outside.
The Rector’s mildly amusing imprimatur in fact lets the reader of this fabulous tale know once again, even if here at a merely intuitive level, that this is ‘fiction’, fabulation; and that it is armed thus with the circuitous or compacting designs (‘crafts’) of an imagined tale or history, a history steered for re-presentative purposes – the timely or untimely actants (only somewhat) like puppets in tow, their strings pulled (and for us to see) by the crafting of the author of this song. The fiction’s fictionality, thus, is its own immanent and imminent concern; and, accordingly, this ‘Song of Crafts’ mirrors from that very subtitle downwards, inwards, to an array of different crafts, between coal-mining and philology (such as language tutoring, interpreting, sales or interior design, say); but does so, that is to say, and from without the embedded content now, with truly fabulous craft.
The kind of (crafty) signpost I’ve started with (from within to without) is redolent throughout the writing in this verse novel – densely poetic but armed with a plot that is time-shifting and then, betimes, more experimental and fragmentary. Thus, put differently, the first important thing, I think, to clock, beyond its metafictional status and mode, is that while this is an almost-quest-like epic, detailing from start to finish certain pat rhythms of life into death into life – it is rigged with immanent satirical and thus self-expressive rather than self-effacing signals.
In my discussion to follow, I want to elaborate on different but interwoven aspects of the poetry in this verse novel, starting with perhaps generic concerns, then moving on to the most glaring facet, which is the deep-set nexus that is quite and indeed, overly apparent between language, language-use and desire. This second central theme and motor, tenor and vehicle, is of significance not only to Carbon and Lavochkina in particular, but also serves insights about much literary writing of this type. I also want to discuss, but only by the bye, the narrative designs and methods, the way the plot is relayed with at times a staccato rhythm (speaking globally), full of telling shifts in time and place, mode and perspective. But first, some brief background about the author and her latest work to be discussed here, published as it was under the auspices of the University of Washington Press, in October 2020.
I first came to know of Svetlana Lavochkina a few years ago, when the opening part of the work to be discussed in this article was published (if perhaps not fully in the present book’s finished form) in T&F journal Poem, edited by Professor Fiona Sampson – I too was published as it happens, serendipitously as it turns out, in the same issue. Ukrainian-born, Lavochkina is a polyglot poet and novelist of immense flair, of sheer luxuriating pizzazz. Her writing in both genres is fantastic, and though she writes in original English, her English and her English use is precious to her, not in the sense of ‘affected’, but in the sense of someone treasuring a tongue that it was possible they might never have known, or at least might never have possessed with such inhabiting dexterity: the contingent happening of having mastered English is made a necessary event for her life and work.
Since becoming remotely acquainted with Lavochkina, I have had the opportunity to publish reviews of two of her prose works. The first was Zap, the second published (though written first, chronologically, I believe) being shorter, but part of the same fabulous Ukrainian lifeworld, was Dam Duchess. And having read and considered and published on those two scurrilously entertaining novels, written with real literary panache, I can say that Carbon: Song of Crafts veritably reeks with this author’s distinct style and method of story-telling. The novels along with this new verse novel all effect character with the same satirical hyperbolic animus. The skein of interwoven lives can seem at times perhaps slightly too ‘serendipitous’, but that impression only lasts for as long as you haven’t realized that that very skein is not ‘realistically’ interwoven, but hyper-realistically – in the process for the reader of its interweaving. Which is to say, to my mind Lavochkina’s fictions are less like attempts to represent living experience with distanced realism, as in Tolstoy say, and more like the machinations of a chess game, where once you’ve accepted the game’s parameters, the riotous fun begins. This is certainly not to say that in Carbon as elsewhere, Lavochkina is not true to life – many of her characters are indeed far more complex than mere pawns; in fact, some of them seem to be so layered and deep, that they’re too much so, which is another way of saying what I mean here. The ‘reality’ Lavochkina wishes to reach and represent by her individual manner of story-telling is, it seems, mediated as it were to a higher order of abstraction. Some of the happenings in her fiction, here as elsewhere, we might not imagine happening to us: but, typifying a reflexive, satirical mindset, the exaggerations in whatever direction are there to paint our reality with their realer, perhaps more symbolically-pertaining truths. Perversity serves the norm: out of the stark black-and-white of satire, the Alpha, Omega, we gain insight with visceral force into the many shades between.
A deeply-feeding part of this effect in Carbon is indicated by the playful and recursive titling. To keep it simple, this verse novel is comprised of four main parts: I: ‘Slag’; II: ‘Slug’; III: ‘Snug’; and IV: ‘Guns’. The mutual inversions (inversions and back-to-face black-and-whites being central to Lavochkina’s satirical intents) of the spellings of the last two sections’ titles is not all there is to say. Part I is told from the perspective of the limited hero ‘Alexander Yangin’, starting (but after the short ‘Prologue’) at aged fourteen. ‘Slag’ represents the neighborhood he lives in, Cat Eye Pit, a mining town within Donetsk where three slag heaps meet – but also puns on the slangy English for the bitchier type of female. And this wordplay: even though it is certainly not Alexander who is the English-speaking linguist in this opening part, but rather, in a nice discrete dovetailing, the heroine from whose perspective the next section is told. ‘Slug’ obviously plays off, phonetically, the first title, and this is of redoubled significance because of how wedded the heroine ‘Elizaveta’ is to her youth’s newfound English. (She loves her English, much like the ‘Elizabethan’ ‘Elizabeth I’, whom she compares herself to at one point, playfully – another inner-signal pointing outwards again to the world of the author and of us, readers). But it is also of (Elizabethan) significance because ‘slug’ is used to represent with at times deep but also quite fluid lyricism the female member, the (prime) female organ of desire. In ‘Snug’, as previously, time-shifts are made to closer to the present, the characters more embedded and cozier now in their adult lives and in us, their readers living vicariously with them. The word ‘snug’ is also used in a central moment of amorous encounter between hero and heroine. And ‘Guns’ does not refer to guns, but actually is a section that if you like gathers-in threads with gunning pointedness, each main character given the lyrical floor to do their part, as reader and author part ways. But it is also good to note that this last feature of a line-up of characters, with its overt staginess, again indicates at ending the high drama of this fiction’s mode and manner.
Within the main partitions of the book, there are many subtitled subsections (with time-shifting dates, as well, jumping back and forth between times in or across the overall timeframe) – and these are of course just as colorfully playful. So, what I have noted so far, just above, should begin to indicate what I mean by the chess-game analogy. A fiction like this relates to the world out here of its readers indirectly, not directly. Though the visceral style affects us in a sensory way before our everyday reality, with its vital, urgent music and word-magic, its effects on us are also beyond that reality – but not, to my mind, a map onto the middle ground of basic, prosaically-felt reality. Indeed, the sensibility of the author is known to have been influenced (centrally for her poetry) by the work of Derek Walcott: surreal color coloring the real world into realer and realer hues; which is to say: not a direct reflection of experience, but language that creatively guides us into (then back to) experience. And perhaps, touched, there is a touch more to say in this line.
Lavochkina’s use of this genre of fiction is aided and abetted by the fact that she writes it in the historic present: this in part, too, gives us the hyper-real feel. The sheer vibrancy of sensual color in the verse itself, moving as it does between swiftly-related action and other moments of lyrical expression, is a feature so glaringly preoccupying the writing here that I will not, or hardly, discuss it directly – it should be duly indicated by the wayside from citations used for perhaps other, present, critical reasons. Along with the historic present tense, equipping what is in fact a ‘historical’ novel, ranging (but with different amounts of centrality or focus) between 1964 and 2014 with real dogged presence for the reader, there is also much world-building – perhaps a redoubled necessity for a tale, firstly, in history, but secondly, centering on the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which is not everyone’s most familiar locus. We get vivid pictures of the corruptions of different sorts, and of the otherwise deeply-flawed Soviet and post-Soviet societies. In any case, the hyper-real, only very mildly cartoonish (in the best, most vigorous sense) approach to and through the story is apparent from the opening onwards. I’ll now give only a few peppering instances to paint my point home.
From the opening, one surreal move which is central to how Lavochkina’s poetry works in this book, comes (satirically) via mutually inverted pathetic fallacies. For example, our young hero is described in part like this: ‘Dimples on dreamy temples / A sickle of piggy-pink grin.’ The ‘coal mines’ introduced in this section are said to be ‘wheezing like dragons.’ The inert and the sentient switch places for a moment, indicating if only on the reader’s as yet unknowing senses, that this is not ‘realism.’ That said, the overall representations of Cat Eye Pit (the coal-mining neighborhood within Donetsk) as very much a local locus, an organic community as it were, is rendered realistic in another sense by how central the trope of hearsay and gossip is. Alexander’s father, fourth in generations of pitmen, is about to send his son down a mine. We are told, in backstory, that his father had had a fling with a Cuban woman, Concepcion (think of the craft-like English translation) on a government sanctioned holiday to Cuba, rewarded for having been an urdanik, a particularly dedicated and productive worker. When he comes home, back to the Soviet Ukraine, his collier-chums won’t believe his fantastic lusty tales. However: if the bananas he’s brought back with him from Cuba will take to the soil of Donetsk, they say, then they will believe him. Their superstitious attitude is another ‘magical’ feature of the way this tale is peopled, but, funnily enough, the magic wished for is there to ratify what we know to be a ‘truth’ in this instance. Soon-following, when the fourteen-year-old Alexander is guided by his father down his first mine, the mishap that sets his fate far beyond the mining neighborhood, and thereby the fate of this whole tale to a certain extent, is great reading of course, but not workaday. Who would’ve guessed that on that first trip down a mine the hero would have one of the balls of his own dear nut-sack bitten off by a rabid dog? Without that magic, none of the pursuant would have ever been the same. And these are just three small examples from the opening pages. But the operative inversions abound.
Between the first two sections, Alexander’s then Elizaveta’s, there is more mutually-in-forming structural play. In the first we’ve slagheap dark colors, Alex’s ‘dust cloth…black’ from the ‘breath’ of those ‘wheezing dragons’; and then, near the start of ‘Slug’ the note is reprieved in inverse. The fated and fateful grime and the seasoned banter of colliers that opens ‘Slag’ is countered now in part II by the heroine’s far more innocent ‘Donetsk’: ‘a set of aquarelle paints, / nine colors, heart-on-the-sleeve’. While the ‘tiny bricks infected by each other’s woes’ continue apace, Elizaveta is pure and innocently game with her paints and craft. Her ‘Mother’s White Coat’ (the antonym, if you like, to Alex’s father’s black pit) is introduced by ‘White is none other than black diluted to nil.’ Even if Elizaveta’s tale will be at first about the harsh denuding of her innocence (her mother’s sometime lover, ‘Uncle Andrey’, a serial rapist, pedophile, killer, we find out after the horrible fact, raping her), it is significant that white is played off the black of the preceding section with architectonic intent. Indeed, the white/black is reprised close to her rape: quite unlike her mother’s (doctor’s) ‘white coat when it was new’ the ‘Sky’ is ‘upside down’ now, ‘so thick with stars no darkness was seen.’ ‘White is none other than black studded with stars, / Black is white’s nil under flower skirts…’ The ‘nil’ is the slug of her sex, the black that studs, as it were, a psychopathic criminal. And yet, if not for this dark happening, turning her world ‘topsy-turvy’ and making her an introvert, steering clear of boys (‘I fed my slug / in the mirror of my royal chamber, my made-over self my best daily bread’), and her mother dying to boot, it just wouldn’t have been the case that the heroine turned to language and linguistics (‘Tongues, my only family left’). Alex’s mishap frees him of the downward pull of becoming a pitman like his father, allowing him a wider sky or berth in the destiny of his life, and Elizaveta’s primal innocence, ruined, is what sets off on a track where ‘Roman Jakobson’, as it turns out, becomes her ‘Attorney General’. Jakobson’s law-like, dichotomizing, structuralist ‘yes-no’ is reprised many times within the tale, but is structurally pertinent to Lavochkina’s verse novel thus, too. Black goes to white, white to black.
Or then, even if it’s in Elizaveta’s linguistic line, and even if it’s in her part II: ‘Slug’, where she first coincidentally bumps into Alex in his ‘Fiat Punto, the high prosody of the breaks’ – it is Alex who (supposedly) parses his three blue-collar girlfriends as ‘“just fizz of my syllabic lust”’, after each of the three articulate their fun with him as follows. One says: ‘“I had fun of significant scope.”’ The second says: ‘“I reached clouds mounting your slope.”’ The third says: ‘“I had bliss in high tones.”’ Clearly, though part of Alex’s tale, it is being shaped by the observation of the young, slightly envious linguist, Elizaveta, or indeed, architectonically (the mathematics as it were, the scheme, of how his and her tales differ and dovetail) Lavochkina herself, outside the frame. For, as Alex says, rightly:
‘While you were reading your blue stocking linguistics,
I studied sultry metallurgy and exercised in binge drinking.’
And yet, language is not only the medium, the theme, the heroic concern and authorial performance – it is also something that unites the different centers of interest, as though all the characters were emanations from one prolix center – which they are of course.
Now more specifically, then, to the nexus of sex and language.
It’s not just a sensual style, which of course it is as well. It’s not even the many self-referential linguistic metaphors and tropes that people, specifically, the heroine-linguist’s perspective as expressed verse. It’s not, as well, the many inuendoes and puns, where sex is named by language as much as language is sexed-up by the very same token. All these might be quoted in abundance. And though it is, too, it’s nothing merely so banal as saying that desire is endemically unsatiated, the way words associate indefinitely. It’s not merely, that is, the Freudian-cum-Lacanian truth about the ‘phallus’ (the present word) being the signifier of signification itself: the present word indicating all the absent, but forthcoming ones in an unending slippery slope – making copula-tion or closure, totalization, erotic or linguistic, impossible. It is more to my mind about the optimistic nature of an epic like this, the quest-like nature of this historical drama. The quest-likeness again, of course, illustrates Lavochkina’s deep structural concerns, as much as her great lyrical poetic gifts: the venturing out, widely, deeply, in order to ‘come home’, is a small but important facet of the book, if hidden somewhat between and behind and through the rollicking of the actual verse.
The final section of the book details (titled) a ‘Male Heir’, and the last line of the book is about his ‘heart’ ‘pulsing with tasks.’ Which is to say, the unfinishedness is not seen as failure but as hope. And this, especially because the opening, in either ‘Slag’ or ‘Slug’, is so full of opening or eventual hopelessness, set in a dying Soviet era, or, later, in a slipshod and corrupt vestige of the dead Soviet era. In other words, the ending anticipates better, or hopes for it at least. The ‘tasks’ at the close then, sing of craft beyond craftiness, of future creativity out of past demising and destruction. There is nothing in this ending that is as it were, ‘beyond the pleasure principle.’ The notion that the ‘death instinct’ is (for Freud in this case) the ultimate purport of desire, where or when, satisfaction never being complete, the individual ends up living a kind of little death by adhering to his or her desirousness without check, chasing an impossible, unreachable shadow, seems to be being abjured or debunked here. Pleasure breeds thirst for more pleasure, but pleasure for a mortal man or woman is never finally satisfied, either intensively, as just mentioned, or (because we all die in the end) extensively. And yet, it seems to me that the opposite to this (realistic) notion is what Lavochkina – even if inadvertently or not necessarily with biographical, authorial intent – is (magically) saying; ultimately: that the song and the crafting goes on, satiating, even while it doesn’t (and/or never will) fade into satiation or inertia. That the hunger for creation is a good and always timely thing.
As Elizaveta says, about half-way through the book:
‘Back in my empire times, when expanding my word-bank,
I used to resort to artless mnemonics.
Impalement, impeachment – pale peach, I recalled with a grin.’
She takes pleasure in words, and doesn’t see their indigenously infinite play as moribund – much like her impresario on the outside, the poet, Lavochkina. Words for Elizaveta are her ‘only precious…asset / ten tongues in the fridge of my mind.’ And in the third section, ‘Snug’, Alex, addressing Elizabeth as ‘Lisa’ now, can say in his supposedly untutored way:
‘I’m ripping my biographical chasms for you,
Just as you flashed your cleavage for me unawares:
A button tore off the placket front of your blouse.’
Here, where sex in the literal empirical sense meets the form of his literary effort, updating her on his own past, his ‘biographical chasms’, the sentiment is desirous but also filled with light, unbuttoning the darks of the past. And this works within, as mentioned, but also from without. Because Alex can only be so poetic because he’s like putty in the hands of the true craftswoman, Lavochkina. Furthermore, between his words inside the tale, and Lavochkina outside, we have the mezzanine as it were, of Alex’s very ‘verse-letter-format’ being used as one of many different literary devices; not, then, just to fill ‘Lisa’ in with his ‘chasms’, but intended for us, the readers, to get a fuller, rounder tale, well-equipped with backstory now and taking us further into the light of and with this song of crafts.
If Alex and Lisa, the main protagonists, live through a strangely coincidental life, despite all the other more minor characters peopling the way – there yet remains yet another word for coincidence that may apply: synchronicity. Which is to say the deeply-crafted poetry that enervates this sprawling, entertaining story, one that records in imagined mode a part of Soviet and post-Soviet society, warts and all, is also a still-life of the poet herself; or if not of her-self, of her sensibility. The density of the writing and the density of the happenings are enjoyable for readers who thrill to the thrums of language – and who are, thus, in the end the real cohorts of this tale. The language in and of the writing is not only meant to re-present, it also flames the fuse of many personal discoveries, for us readers on the outside (and for Lavochkina, too), and of course for the dramatis personae who people the tale much as they people themselves. Language used like this is not mere reflection, nor even, refraction: it is as precious as invention.
Carbon, after all, is diamond as well as coal.
Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. He has published two novellas, Via Negative: A Parable of Exile (Liquorice Fish, 2016), and Minutes from the Miracle City (Fairlight Books, 2019); and much short fiction, some of it prize-winning. As a poet he began writing ‘professionally’ in 2006. From that time to date, his poetry has been published in many prestigious venues, such as: Poetry Review, PN Review, Stand, The Warwick Review, The Reader Magazine, Banipal, Kenyon Review, (T&F) New Writing, Acumen, Agenda, New Humanist, New England Review, among many, many others. Notable among his poetry collections are: My Only Ever Oedipal Complaint, To The Middle of Love, But It Was an Important Failure (Cinnamon Press, 2010, 2017, 2020). His Morning Lit: Portals After Alia is published with Cinnamon Press in early 2022. He is currently at work on a contracted Lebanese verse novel: The Cedar Never Dies, due to be published within 2022, and a collation of his published short fictions, Y Knots, will be published with Liquorice Fish in 2023. He is Associate Professor of English at AUD.