Russian Novels by Luke Bloomfield
Factory Hollow Press, 2014; 64 pp
Reviewed by Dillon J. Welch
When I first read through Luke Bloomfield’s Russian Novels, I felt like I’d missed something. The poem excerpted on the back of the book, “Have Some Cake,” was funny, spontaneous, moved quickly and cleanly. It was unique and interesting to me—a stranger lowering their shoes into a hole for no discernable reason, another stranger smacking dessert from the mouth of the “You.” But what was really there? Were these just quirky anecdotes, delivered in an aesthetically (and sonically) pleasing fashion? Was there weight to this work?
I'm not sure what changed my initial view of this collection, though I’m tempted to say it was specifically the poem “Fisticuffs,” starting “Who licked all the envelopes? / In 17 years I have never seen so many wasted / envelopes.” What I found once I got over some of the very obvious quirkiness to Bloomfield’s poems, was an honest and stripped down thing. A small piece of fresh sheet metal, untouched by spray paint or welding. Bloomfield’s poems are what minimalist poets try to dream about when they’re dreaming about rocks. Some of the lines are so simple, so quaintly stated and wonderful that I was immediately angered I hadn’t written them myself. From “Large Hope for Water”: “While the grownups / grilled sausages / I hit sticks with sticks.” An immense part of my childhood exploring the suburban “woods” was essentially explained in three short, perfectly broken lines.
And while Bloomfield’s poems may be “simple” in content, they are anything but in movement and readability. From the same poem:
I killed Norris Floyd and relived a previous killing.
Henrique Shushufindi never existed and died
quickly without complaint.
I killed France once.
It grew a discourteous second head.
I killed it a second time.
It became amphibious.
This gave me goosebumps.
The lines here are short, the moments brief and exciting. An Eastern European country is anthropomorphized, beheaded, revived, beheaded again, and then develops gills, all within the stretch of four lines. This brisk movement—something Bloomfield has
great control of in Russian Novels—continues throughout the poem, ending on an even more delightfully ridiculous note, including some black and white “avant garde” artwork:
A popular avant garde artist rendered my likeness
from fiberoptics and silicon tubes.
This is what I look like
in the Centre George Pompidou:
Many art students have written
dissertations about death
but I am a small planet with
a large hope for water.
Both recognizing and absolving the fact that I am a sucker for poems whose last lines are also the title, this piece has some seriously strong movement and all of the strange qualities that kept me hooked throughout my reading of this collection.
On a more magnified level, Russian Novels is one of the more quotable books I’ve read in a long time. Segments like “I want to make love to you on a bed of birds / and at the apogee of our love / the birds lift us up and carry us through the uprights / and out of the stadium” (“Sometimes I’m Intrigued by a Big Mystery”) are truly arresting, borderline celestial. In “The World Will Tell You About Its Stillness,” the speaker evokes a beautifully contemporary summer scene in three lines: “Satisfaction is playing a ukulele / in the pool and chicken wings / in a plastic bag.” The poem “Two Thirds” is essentially a Best-Of collection of quotable lines by Bloomfield, with segments like “You turn toward the window and pretend to sleep / but I know you’re thinking about a great Atlantic Nothingness,” or, later (and polishing off the poem):
In the dark I whisper
if I lost my legs in a plane crash
and got metal legs
I could wear shorts in the winter
and not feel cold.
You whisper, you would be dead in a plane crash
If simple (yet profound) images and brisk movement are the two sturdy legs of this production, what then is the head, the true draw of this book? I’d like to think it’s the relatability of his images/scenes that really stand out. Bloomfield’s poems have the distinct feeling of déjà vu. Of wait, this stanza is so heartbreaking and meaningful but I don’t know why. Like new pants that immediately feel like the old, comfortable pair. From the first half of “She Looks Beyond You As Though You Were Flotsam”:
When somone walks in and she is topless
and completely bald
not even eyebrows and her eyes
are hidden by thick black makeup
so thick her eyes are two dollops of cream cheese
with the centers poked out and there are gemstones
on her nipples that catch the light from every angle
bright enough that you can’t see her breasts
because it is like looking at two extraordinary suns
but you wouldn’t look because
some deeply conditioned manner
you have is to avoid looking even if you are walking
on a beach and someone is walking toward you
and there is no one else on the beach
because it is morning and it is Sunday
and you are in Spain
and she is getting closer
and you could clearly see if you looked
but you won’t look because your forefathers
the puritans their fear of the body
so you look at the sea and there is nothing
but a few sexless things bobbing in the distance
a darker cloud on the horizon
everything is boring when bared breasts
come at you like torpedoes
and you must choose something to look at
some aspect of the landscape to plunge
your eyes into and you don’t understand
why two breasts are harder to avoid
than a great expanse of sea
or sky or sand so you assess
your periphery and there are shapely cliffs
in your periphery though to look at them
your gaze would have to pass
over her and she is close enough that she would
see you shifting gaze and think you deliberately
shifted your gaze to the shapely cliffs
as a ruse for your gaze to pass over her
and now she is almost right in front of you
and you must say something to be polite
it is what passersby do when you and
she are each other’s only passerby [...]
The poem continues for another two pages, the following lines even more relatable than the last. Which is how I ultimately felt about this collection. At first I was admittedly skeptical. It all seemed too straightforward, too simple and painlessly moving to be beautiful, to be current and relatable and affecting and poignant. Maybe that was Bloomfield’s intent: to lure the reader into a sense of simplicity, catching them off guard with some sleight of hand, and then making them very much aware of what they’ve landed in. From “Today I Am Feeling Radical about Hypothetical Things that Exist in a Parenthetical Way”:
I catch a bird in flight without crushing its wings
I look into its eyes and there is mutual recognition
or even we communicate telepathically.
I have you, I think. I have you, it thinks back.