Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Memorable mastery: on ‘My Hollywood’ by Boris Dralyuk

Tom Branfoot

Anachronism is a stylistic quality that governs translator and poet Boris Dralyuk’s debut collection My Hollywood and Other Poems (Paul Dry Books, 2022). In both form and subject – the dilapidated past of émigré Hollywood – My Hollywood is motivated by an interwar, formalist style that is objectively anachronistic. Dralyuk, born in Odessa and residing in Los Angeles after fleeing the crumbling Soviet Union, commented in an interview with Jewish news outlet The Forward that both cities are “on the edges of empire” and filled with immigrants. His observation frames the book, compiled from technically flawless character-based sonnets, pantoums, and villanelles, as well as translations from the Russian of four émigré writers who lived in LA.

The dominance of character-based and persona poetry is reflective of literary translation, wherein the ‘I’ is always the “faint voice” of another, “reel[ed] in” by “a famished angler” from “rippled pages” (‘The Catch: On Translation’). While Dralyuk’s extended metaphor of translation too seems out of time, when practised in the translations of four Russian poets who migrated to LA, his linguistic and prosodic skills illuminate the text of these exiled writers, bringing them into the English language. Whilst the collection does not directly reference the Russo-Ukrainian war, Dralyuk engages in an anti-authoritarian discourse through the act of translating exiled Russian poets. The stakes are high in this operation; as Osip Mandelstam (whose revolutionary poem, ‘The Stalin Epigram’, portrayed the dictator in abject imagery) wrote, “Only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed”.

“This much is clear: the good old days have passed’” begins the book, with ‘My Hollywood: A Triptych’. An epigraph about the golden age of Hollywood powers each of the three Shakespearean sonnets, be it through silent film stars (“Swanson and Pickford and Chaplin and Arbuckle”), the demolished château of French painter Paul De Longpré, or The Garden of Allah Hotel. The poems use historical gobbets to imagine their setting, painting scenes of “glory far too faded to restore”. It becomes abundantly clear that the possessive ‘My Hollywood’ is an émigré Hollywood. “And now I watch another era fade’” writes Dralyuk in ‘III. The Garden of Allah’, “Cyrillic letters scraped from shuttered storefronts”; the abrasive sibilance of this iambic pentameter line replicates the action of scraping; moreover, the image configures language being abraded from place, suggesting it may be easier to assimilate rather than dissolve. Throughout the collection, there is a haunting of diverse cultures in the palimpsest of LA, echoing the Faulknerian undead past and the dissection of unreality expounded in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz (1990). 

A line from ‘The Drink’, an eight-line verse of iambic trimeter, provokes unrelenting intrigue: “I am what I displace” can be read considering Ukrainian refugees, configuring the dictator as related more to displaced people than consciously apprehended. The poem is a dramatisation of Archimedes’ principle, from the perspective of the displacing mass. It creates chaos, “rais[ing] the water up”, the poem closes on this remark –

I am my albatross;
wearing myself, I hope
to make up for my loss.

The singsong metre and rhyme functions historically to contain a moralistic tale, or to veil horror. To be at once the herald of fortune and wear the burden of guilt consolidates the contradictory positionality of dictatorship, whereby peers avow your warmongering, yet the catastrophe engendered is palpable. It is an elegant, diminutive poem which invites interpretation.

Certain metrical verses are over-wrought and contrived, such as the penultimate ‘Dictionary of Omissions’, which sees the speaker compiling an archive of regret, “Words I’d withheld like an obsessive hoarder / have been arrayed in alphabetic order”. That end rhyme is predictable, and dully reminiscent of nursery rhymes. Whereas some of the sonnets achieve formal mastery, this feels loose and undirected. It seems like an English sonnet constructed of three quatrains and a rhyming couplet, yet the rhyme scheme in the first quatrain is confused (“continents/fish in/tickets/omissions”) while the remaining ten lines clarify an interesting scheme. It is the final couplet which disarms the pretence of speech, as the poem engages in a conversational dramatic monologue, “The supplements arrive, set after set – / perpetual addenda of regret”. The poem uses an extended metaphor of a lexicographer compiling the titular ‘Dictionary of Omissions’ to narrativise regret around “objections I should have made” and “kindnesses never extended”, yet this wordy couplet rings hollow and the final line seems metrically forced.

Conversely, a poem such as ‘Absentee Ballet’ displays acrobatic use of language and sound. The title itself exercises an anapaest and trochee with playful interplay between phonemes to mimic the ghostly dance. Dralyuk’s use of end rhyme is virtuosic here, signalling the content of a retired ballet director, “season” and “breeze in”, “jeté” and “away”, “figures” and “riggers”. The new dancers are “like the wispy skeletal remains / of fallen leaves”, on “stage boards [that] creak beneath tiptoeing figures / of memory”. The impossible image of boards creaking with memory provokes sadness for the old director, ready for his “final bow”. The condition of being an immigrant lends itself to these elegiac and nostalgic forms, where home is not home and the past shines with misremembered glory. Bathos is heavily applied to the final couplet, which sees our character “scour[ing] the paper for reviews / but find[ing] obituaries, crossword, and old news”. An image where his association should be in reviews yet climaxes in an unconscious relation to old news.

My Hollywood contains an under-celebrated émigré history of Russian presence in Los Angeles; Dralyuk flourishes in his analysis of space and governance with local particularity that speaks to universal themes within city planning in the twenty-first century:

… I watch swathes of you demolished
in favor of the featureless and polished
plutocracy of condominiums.

(‘The Passing of the Bungalows’)

It is a well-researched project, evinced by the plethora of epigraphs from sources such as Eddy S. Feldman’s The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (1972), Robert Winter’s The California Bungalow (1980) and The Los Angeles Mirror-News. Evoking nostalgia (from Greek nostos ‘return home’ + algos ‘pain’) and uncanny (from German unheimlich ‘unhomely’) landscapes of decay, Dralyuk captures a discrete exilic condition, the flight from one degenerating empire to another. The collection could have benefited from a personal interrogation of space and identity; however, its anachronism and persona poems are distinguishing features, memorable in their mastery.



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