Maryna Ajaja’s poetry volume In Deep is a gem. It is more than a collection of poems that deal with fleeting images and second-long emotions that the poet records with an accuracy that would make any hyperrealist painter jealous. In Deep is an exploration of feelings and stories, culturescapes and encounters with texts and people in a condensed, yet crystal clear expression. This feature of masterful writing is matched by the author’s versatility of poetic genres ranging from visual to prose poems, and from imagistic cyphers to autobiographical accounts. The five-part volume—In Need of Random, Work of Mourning, All Powerful Word, Silence as a Crime, and Leeway—embraces the quotidian for what it is, with no hierarchies or extraordinary moments, no pretentiousness or embellishment. While silently excluding grand, universal truths and their riddling sound, she engages with her own reference points that are as tragic as Greek myths, as complex as Plato’s philosophy, or as heavy as the burden of painful memories.
The volume maps out an intellectual trajectory that begins in a Pacific Northwest seen through a perceptively feminine lens, continues with a cathartic mourning of her ancestors, the turning point from which the change in the geographical and cultural meridian takes her to Moscow, where an unexpected imaginary sisterhood puts her American identity into perspective.
The title of the first part “In Need of Random” emerges organically from the first poem, which echoes the density in meaning and formal brevity of Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro”. In perfect contrast to Pound’s urban frenzy, though, Ajaja’s “Chimacum Cows” is a calm pastoral and, in addition, a visual poem, whose lines literally draw the contours of symmetric hillsides, animal backbones, and slow-paced clouds “crossing about.” There is something undeniably menacing in this part which, in different forms (clouds, the disappearance of the sun behind a volcanic slab, alluvial lands of mourning, a mother crying during a starless night, a loveseat that becomes an instrument of physical pain, or the ferry foaming rudder), testifies for a poetic stream of consciousness. While a “poetic stream of consciousness” may seem a contradiction, it is not if one considers how circumstantial details are scattered throughout the volume and fulfill their warning: the clouds in the first poems become rain, hail, mud, snow, and dangerous ice; mourning for the family’s dead extends to strangers, Soviet poet-heroines, or even fictional ones, e.g. Amos Oz’s short story. The reader is swirled into the poet’s self-exploration and the exploration of the world with the concrete poem in the shape of a spinning top, “Overcoming Vertigo.”
Maryna Ajaja compresses each experience to its essence. No flowery epithets, but genuine attributes of people and things as in “Still Life on Hastings” where the real house is “flat white” while the one in the children’s dream is simply “warm [and] square”. No avalanche of metaphors, but witty expressions of feelings as in “Loveseat” in which hatred is “A deep lesion [that] festers and gnaws at the heart valves”. No abundance of similes, but penetrating x-rays that melt the realms of being while reaching atavistic depths: Husband “lurches around like a bear, tripping and bumping into corners with that glazed look of forgetfulness”; the wind in “Port Townsend,” the last poem of the cycle, is as “crazy as a prairie woman”. The image of the wind-prairie-woman will stay with the reader throughout the rest of the poems which, with each line, add another stroke to the portrait of a poet as an intriguing woman.
Starting with Work of Mourning, the next three parts open with epigraphs from twentieth-century Russian scholars and authors: prominent historian Alexander Etkind, poet Anna Akhmatova, and writer and Stalinist era survivor Nadezhda Mandelstam. Epigraphs which set expectations are common practice in the world literature; but this is not how Maryna employs hers. She sinks into the deeper meanings of these texts that come from a culture that has been doomed as “the other” for more than a century in the West. Not only does she suggest that responses to life trials are universally human, but also echoes the survivors’ duty to leave accounts of the trauma so that the suffering would not be in vain. While the title of the second cycle, Work of Mourning, seems to have surfaced from Etkind’s excerpt that serves as an epigraph—“…the grandchildren of the victims, perpetrators, and onlookers… / produce the work of mourning for their grandparents…”—the epigraph itself is poetically shaped / framed as a distich, perfectly incorporated into her poetry, thus creating an unusual effect of deja-vu.
Ajaja is an expert at descending into the depths of memory, as Marion Peck’s The Diver on the cover of the book quite aptly represents. There is yet another kind of depth she scrutinizes beyond the circumstantial surface of reality or the appearance of her protagonists. A little Maryna, hanging upside down in an oak tree, ignores the “dolls with glass eyes” and refuses to be one to others; instead she is “Climbing rocks and bringing home bits of schist, / hunks of garnet in the matrix,” as an unaware initiation into the ascendance-descendance dialectics. Unraveling the thread of memory—a feisty grandma who “reaches into her throat / to pull [a chicken bone] out”; a mortal and sick Venus who, in “her half-shell hospital gown,” still shares divine attributes with the goddess whose name she has; and a father who, at the end of his “dying chores” is “laid … out in the white sheet / stiff around his ivory body, a totem”—the poet is sublimating it in blunt lines fraught with undercurrent meanings. What a seven-year-old girl sees from a backseat is an image of entrapment as well as the seed of the desire to escape; the presumably comforting advice to “save each day like a button in a box” has the opposite effect: it causes despair and fosters the impulse of running away.
Maryna’s “away” is first and foremost Moscow where the abyss is filled with mud and debris, fear takes over, a horrific gore awaits for you in the street, and history seems irrelevant when basic survival trumps any consideration for peers. Akhmatova’s adage that “the most enduring [thing is] the all-powerful word” looms over the third cycle. Yes, poets’ words outlive them and inspire others, but it is their lives that Maryna distills down to poems, thus giving a sense of poetic justice. Because of an unfathomable coincidence of names, Marina Tsvetayeva might appear as Maryna’s alter-ego; nonetheless, I would like to think of all her Soviet heroes as well as her mother as role models of stamina, endurance, and dedication. In Moscow, she is “the other” who reads English poetry in a train, even though inertia acts upon all—“we lean together as the conductor brakes”—making her as powerless as the rest. Unacquainted with deplorable streets, surprised by aggressive dogs, observant of details with no obvious significance: an orange coat, empty bottles clinking in an old lady’s bag, the tapping sound of people getting in and off a trolley bus, she records her becoming in filmic-like stanzas. (For those who know that Maryna Ajaja is a SIFF Eastern European film curator, the poem “Jet Lag” suggests a double homecoming: the return home, and the landing of a profession. For the oblivious, now informed, her sequence of poetic images that capture ever-changing rhythms of life is a pictorial-textual-filmic mix.)
Silence as a Crime could not be more appropriate than today. As Nadezhda Mandelstam’s scream is finally heard by the entire world, Maryna had heard the truth of these words long before. Even if God remains silent, someone’s identity should not. The poet’s identity is forged in sharp replies to deity, others’ statements, and her own younger self. In the most self-reflective cycle, writing is turned onto writing, alluding to Jewish sacred texts or inscribing texts-to-come which haunt hours of insomnia. Writing is also questioning itself in “Who Runs the World?”, where the attempt to retract a word has textual value and becomes a matter of identity: “Sometimes I hear my twenty-eight-year-old voice grasping, / no, I hate the word grasping, she looks for power too / just as other animals do.” At this point, the meaning of “in deep” is illuminated: she, the younger self, “speaks / like a diver looking for abalone”, but it is “I” in “Sometimes I hear my twenty-eight-year-old voice / in my voice now” who knows the depths whence she has come.
The final installment of poems brings the reader back to the starting point of the journey, but in a different time. The outward gaze is wise; the depth is for others to explore. The light in these final poems burns out the “pockets of foggy memories”. Present encounters are hopeful as is the one with the “smart blonde” who “would never say save me from this wreck”. The scars of the past surface in the definition of love that “stamps you forever like a number from Dachau.” Among the whole series of human reactions transformed into literary tropes in the volume (fury, empathy, grief, sorrow, fear, and melancholy), hypocrisy receives a biting critique which takes a political turn: “I’m happy about Trump bashing / but disgusted by the Russia bashing.” The clarity remains untainted, requiring the accuracy of concepts to prevent gross generalizations. The poet rants against ubiquitous hypocrisy bluntly to the end. After that, the last poem in this collection, “Point No Point”, reads more like an epilogue that tells the reader that everything is OK and life has returned to “reading books sentence by sentence” and fishing.
The lucid simplicity of her style grips the reader from the first to the last line. Without being narrative, the volume engages the reader as a well-told story. It is the sincerity of each episode that pulsates in every line, it is the intensity that comes out of each trope; it is these two pillars of her poetry that transform the reader into an empathic witness of the poet’s emotions in their highs and lows. Furthermore, it is the substance of the poems that finds its perfect straightforward expression spared of a poetics of ambiguity. The down-to-earth rhetoric in constant contact with everyday language foregrounds her quest for self-identity and invites the reader to take a deep dive into their own self.
Ileana Marin teaches interdisciplinary courses at the University of Washington, Seattle, and at the Center of Excellence in Image Studies of the University of Bucharest. She has published books on tragic myths, Pre-Raphaelite artists, and on Victorian aesthetics of erasure. Her studies on the de-humanizing power of art and the artistic legacy of communism, have drawn praise from specialists as have her articles and conference presentations on the materiality of literary, pictorial, and graphic texts. Recently, she has focused on E-Literature and digital arts. She is co-founder, and currently the Board Chair, of the Seattle non-profit American Romanian Cultural Society.