In with the Old: Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood and Other Poems – Michigan Quarterly Review
The cover of Boris Dralyuk's "My Hollywood and Other Poems" set over a blue-green background.

In with the Old: Boris Dralyuk’s My Hollywood and Other Poems

As in the Hollywood of the last century, Boris Dralyuk’s debut collection features bankrupt dive bars, washed-up starlets (“Nothing was ever / quite the same. // Every one came / to be another”), the odd fruit stall, balding palm trees, and Igor Stravinsky. Dralyuk is the former editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and he has been acclaimed for his efforts as a literary translator and anthologist. Like the composer of The Rite of Spring, Dralyuk emigrated with his mother from Russia near the end of the USSR’s long and brutal tenure (Stravinsky left in his fifties at the outbreak of the Second World War). In upbeat homages and wistful elegies cast as ballades, sonnets, and villanelles, Dralyuk is the reader’s guide, not exactly to that too-famous American neighborhood, but the lanes as well as dead ends of his memory. Note that, for a day in the mid Nineties, Dralyuk sold souvenir maps to the residences of Hollywood’s crustiest celebrities. It’s a tearless nostalgia—less Aeneas in the dilapidated temple of Juno than an attempt at mental inventorying—for a society that would rather be gutted and updated than age gracefully.

Although he exhibits a local’s fondness for what once was, Dralyuk’s firsthand knowledge of Los Angeles is worn loosely; the guidance, neither random nor exhaustive of its author’s lived experience, is pleasingly self-consistent. But despite its status as a concept book, My Hollywood and Other Poems has the character of a one-man omnium gatherum, as we find in those semiannual trawlings of what the recently departed have left in their wills or the care of a young executor. With its sweeping together of mostly single-pagers and a passel of translations, the whole comes off a tad bantamweight—unless it ought to be deemed stouter than its parts once Dralyuk’s meters and rhyme schemes factor in. His finest uses of the latter either complement some observation charmingly (“Long live the masters whose quaint crafts are holy. / They work in solitude. Now by appointment only”) or unfold with drowsy slowness:

The early work on which his learning lay
in patches of midrashic appliqué,

broke down to this one solomonic plea,
myrrh-scented murmur: Lover, come to me.

While Dralyuk’s skill is not limited to matters of form, its rarity today means it is one aspect of this slim volume that blurb-ers can’t help identifying, a fluorescent buoy in the sea of free verse. Yet, under those very constraints, he is particularly adept at pictorial economy, at showing much in nearly too cramped a space: “Your bold agaves, fierce, protective aloes / lay down their spears beside the realtors’ gallows.” Don’t miss the succinctness with which an aloe plant’s deformation is noticed while alluding, through the same image of defeated soldiers disarming themselves, to the aloe’s abandonment by the bungalows’ new owners; thus the plant droops, its spiny limbs become purposeless weapons. Or in a poem addressed to the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting, how neatly “You will not let the zodiac distract us” lobs a comment about the effect light pollution has on inner-city stargazing. It sounds good, too.

Dralyuk is possessed of a real ear (“A scruffy rose bush puts on airs out front / a big beige box”) but never throws himself off-kilter through prettifying, or leaning hard into consonance’s obvious music. Where he tries actual lyrics, the tone is borderline corny:

Remember the wobbly barstool? The pleather
as red as the sore on what’s-her-name’s lip?
And how she would curl that lip whenever
you’d slide her a couple of coins for a tip?
Where is the tumbler of bourbon you’d sip?
Where’s its amigo, the Mexican beer—
Pacifico, wasn’t it? Down with the ship . . .
Sunk are the dives of yesteryear.

Then again, everybody knows that centered in the Venn diagram of bar songs and ubi sunt is a heaping of mushy sentiment. Bound together like this, they almost turn balladry on its mawkish ear. Dralyuk is usually his best when taking stock of LA via an insuppressible past, stretching from the miles of sun-blanched hotels, consigned to a louder decade’s ethos and design choices, to dusty bricolage:

Clown prince of bargain shops—those penny-ante
Xanadus that take up half a block—
was the La Brea Circus. Huge barn chock-
full of overstock, a poor man’s horn of plenty,

where we, though broke as sparrows, like canaries
flitted about, whistled with disbelief
at deals—no, steals!—that would abash a thief:
Bic pens for nickels, dollar dictionaries!

I wore my Webster’s out, clumsily wooing
the tongue in which I sing this dime store’s praise.
But they’re worn too, my memories of those days,
like VHS tapes after years of viewing

and spooling backwards to the sweetest spot.
Oh yes, that was another thing we bought:
a plastic sports-car VHS rewinder—
so obsolete, so perfectly designed for

its vanished purpose, like a streamlined hearse
inexorably heading in reverse.

The irony, of course, is that secondhand retailers like La Brea Circus could ever be considered out-of-date. If you’re into list poems the effect can be agreeable: to idly browse at the risk of cultural whiplash, handling by eye what has collectively been deemed obsolete and finding the words. This is hardly just verbal fireworks, that of auto-prolixity for its own sake. Dralyuk isn’t the type. Admittedly, what unrhymed poetry has been included—or that which flounders about, unsure of any pattern—is the less impressive, reaching for a kind of quasi-romantic urgency, seemingly inherent in writers under thirty-five:

In certain rooms I lived
  like momentary noise.
In others, I took pains
  to make myself perceived.
In some I was the creak
  to be more felt than heard—
  linoleum’s absurd
  and personal mystique.
 In many I was shrill—
  the pealing song of birds
  accustomed to the scraps
  left on the windowsill.
In yours I wasn’t sound,
  I was the tangled sheet
  still clinging to your feet,
  holding your ankles bound.

Rather than a change of pace from the book’s well-ordered, richly specific first quarter, there are poems that feel like relative misses in what are thoughtful groupings. Dralyuk’s one-off adoption of a slightly Hasidic idiom, for instance, in which the disgraced uncle in an Isaac Babel story is sympathetically addressed, goes similarly awry. On balance, it falters for a surfeit of good-humored chumminess:

But let’s not kvetch. Let’s go and hit the Kibitz.
We’ve got no urgent business. Let’s get drunk
where ACs burr and wheeze like old hasidim.

The LA sky’s a quinceañera by Chagall.
Schlemiels like us—we never quit the Pale.

Supposing his aim is pastiche, one has to admire Dralyuk’s willingness to be in the same room as humor, which went the way of the talkies after Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton convinced us a gasp was preferable to laughter. Slavic literature, we’d do well to keep in mind, has a tradition that is equally comic as it is tragic: look at Pushkin.

If his light verse better resembles a schtick than it does parody, what works for Dralyuk is earnest appraisal, with his intelligence grounding the mood and minor éclaircissements clueing us in to eccentricities that otherwise might be lost on east coasters. Compare the eponymous triptych My Hollywood opens with; like William Logan, whose lucid, straightforward use of symbols lends his poetry an aura of rhetorical patience, Dralyuk in neutral is interesting enough. The persona poems are numerous, from a man stood up by his late style at a bar—the analogy being to a blind date, for who other than Picasso has been able to peer around the corner of their own creative maturation with any certainty—to a sort of Russian Balanchine managing a company of dancers, a metaphor for a homeland now kilometers out of earshot (“Each day I scour the papers for reviews, / but find obituaries, crosswords, and old news”) and maintaining the self in exile. They’re airy, maybe, but welcome just the same as brief detours away from the deeper, thematically on-target odes to Los Angeles, possibly the most frequently serenaded metropolis following Paris and New York. I wish Dralyuk’s title allowed itself the plurality of “My Hollywoods,” both in distancing it from Mona Simpson’s novel and to suggest a certain parallelism beyond his recollective explorations as one contiguous Hollywood, with then a ghost of a nod to Maxim Gorky’s autobiographical My Universities.

It is with Dralyuk’s third section, introducing the reader to less-than-famous émigrés of a bygone era in the city’s history, including the Russian-born songwriter and film composer, Vernon Duke, where he, for all the legitimacy of the ambition, scores the fewest number of bullseyes. These manqués and dilettantish entrepreneurs, their talent and sociopolitical backgrounds as varied as wildflowers (Vladislav Ellis trained as an engineer, Peter Vegin took to painting), figure significantly in Dralyuk’s conception of Hollywood as a lapsed Eden, both architecturally speaking (“Cyrillic letters scraped from shuttered storefronts, [. . .] the bustling little shops / of Russian Hollywood”) and with regard to who used to be whom, a list as thick as a phonebook and as démodé. It’s the anthologist in him which teaches through inclusion, the lesson being the artistic diversity California as we know it is—and suddenly was, circa 1939—attributable to. The translations, which aren’t exclusively Russo-Ukrainian, lack the ingenuity of Dralyuk’s bulk of contributions; the sentiments, like day-old borscht, have lost their freshness in a gulf that is both temporal and figurative:

A Scandinavian essence rings
within the sound of Spanish names:
that’s why I love, I must confess,
this flashy, multicolored mess.

There’s plenty room for all one’s thoughts,
which whirl about and glow and flare.
Armenians find Arat
while Finns find birches everywhere.

So you’ve been wronged by destiny,
your love is in some far-off land—
however hard your luck may be,
you’ll always find a countryman.

One wonders what Anthony Hecht was actually up against when he translated Joseph Brodsky’s magnificent “Lullaby of Cape Cod.” Is Dralyuk’s choice to bring in this handful of Angelenos foremost of a curricular nature, such that we think of them as aesthetically exempt? Recall that Vladimir Nabokov, in a poem about his twenty-year effort to render Eugene Onegin into English, described translation as profanation of the dead. This newfound milieu, brought together for posterity as much as our present-day enjoyment, isn’t that. Perhaps they feel like padding to get us to the fourth act, but we miss the generosity of spirit at our peril.

It is almost axiomatic to say that immigrant writers tend to be drawn to what the dominant culture excludes. My Hollywood is a meditation (to echo the back copy) on how even a landscape’s natives begin to forget, like an Alzheimer’s of place. The concluding section, each sharing titles with the poem that starts it, is the shortest and fades to black on the question of origins as located in language and occupation. After a terrific diptych,

Oil derricks lower like Petliura’s troops
at Kinney Pier: in Venice, crude is king.
Aboard the Volga Boat, fake Cossacks whoop
in frenzied indigence, real colonels bring
out rafts of breaded chicken and skewered mutton,
had any gluttons showed . . . The night’s a flop.
Tomorrow he’ll start over, from the top,
or from the bottom. In Constantinople
he raced cockroaches, in Yalta he shot porn.
(So what? Was “Goldwyn” to the studio born?)
As buoyant as a cork, constantly hopeful,
Drankov sails on, until he lands, at last,
in the vinegary darkrooms of his past.

this halogen-yellow collection flickers out on an enervated allusion to the Neva River, if that’s right, by way of Lethe (Los Angeles may have been referred to as “Lotusland” during the early twentieth century). Having taken stock of a city in freefall, its flaking exteriors and liminal, had-been communities, Tinseltown gives it a rest.

Erick Verran is the author of the nonfiction collection Obiter Dicta (Punctum Books, 2021). His writing is forthcoming or appears in the American Poetry Review, the Georgia Review, The Drift, the Harvard ReviewOn the Seawall, the Cortland Review, the Massachusetts Review, and elsewhere. He is also an independent scholar of aesthetics and digital games. He lives in New York.

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