Little Red: A book review
Location: Rose O’Neill Literary House
Before I begin, I should admit to my biases. I like Jehanne Dubrow. She is a kind and intelligent person with a wonderfully irreverent sense of humor (that is very similar to mine) and I consider her a friend. But I am also a poet, and in this capacity, I have been following Jehanne’s work since the release of her first collection, The Hardship Post, in 2009. Each collection of hers is a poetic study, a project. String the poems together and you will see a loose narrative formed there in between.
In Red Army Red, Cold War’s Communism appropriates all shiny things for propaganda the way a teenage girl accessorizes. They are magpies at heart. Dubrow, in turn, collects these glimmering metallic details and nests poems in them. Of course, not all of these details are beautiful but they have a certain shine that draws us in anyway. In “Moscow Nights,” “rose perfume…smells of piss,” and another perfume smells of “pickled beets/ and turpentine.” And as in the mind of a teenage girl, all of these details are sex or innuendo, “the romance of objects.” Things that Communist dictators would hold just out of reach.
The first section of the book, titled “Cold War,” although packed with vivid images is a stark landscape full of old objects. Not just old, but old-world. Something that the speaker has clearly outgrown. Shirts and shoes are two sizes too small and all pleasures are taken in secret.
Section two, “Velvet Revolution,” is a rebellious adolescent testing the limits of her own body’s dictatorship. Although taken from the actual historical context of nearby then-Czechoslovakia, the phrase taken out of time seems tailor-made to capture the melodrama of teenage rebellion, with another nod toward an adolescent’s newfound fashion-consciousness. The poems of this section take the melodrama of an average American teenager and place it within a nation in flux. Let’s just triple the anxiety-level. The poems “Five-Year Plan” and “November 1989” capture this juxtaposition best. In the latter, the speaker has locked herself in the bathroom teaching herself to shave her legs and underarms while “Outside our house: Warsaw, avenues/ named for generals…Everything was falling down.”
In the last section, “Laissez-faire,” our speaker is in the full bloom of her new womanhood. And the world has opened its commercial doors to her (and her parents’ credit cards), with the fall of the Berlin Wall and Communism in the Eastern Bloc. This section is populated with satirical poems praising the wonder of merchandise and variety and everything that money can buy: “Bag ‘N Save,” “Our Free-Market Romance,” “Warsaw IKEA,” “A History of Shopping,” “As Seen on TV.” Little Red is all grown up now and flung from starkness into a post-Communist rumspringa. It is overwhelming and disorienting, but there is still the underlying philosophy of sex as commodification. Our speaker is left to navigate her way through this new Poland, flipped like the tornado-thrown bus in Dubrow’s “YouTube” poem. Because flinging a nation so quickly and jarringly from one extreme to another cannot come without casualties.