The Naked World

THE NAKED WORLD: Sue Wallace-Shaddad follows Irina Mashinski on her autobiographical journey in prose and poetry

The Naked World
Irina Mashinski
Mad Hat Press (
ISBN 978-1-952335-39-6 
85pp    $21.95

This collection by Irina Mashinski is thought-provoking, wide-ranging but also intimate. ‘A Tale with Verse’, it comprises prose and poetry written in English or translated by the author herself and others. Each of the book’s four parts starts with an epigraph and musical references are threaded throughout. The collection’s narrative arc spans generations of Mashinski’s family’s life in often brutal times in the Soviet Union’s and Russia’s history. Ilya Kaminsky describes this as ‘a soul-making book’ and this collection is very true to a literary tradition steeped in landscape, philosophy, struggle and survival.

The opening prose piece in Part 1, ‘The Thaw’, sets the scene for turbulence. Mashinski writes she was born in ‘that exploding-river time […] the invigorating clutter and disarray, which by definition cannot last forever.’ She conjures up her childhood home with a lovely description: ‘I gazed from my windowsill helm, over the roofs to the east: a lemon yellow and argent haze of a big city, pierced by uncertain sunlight.’ However, she imagines the world as a ‘matryoshka universe’ (a traditional layered doll) which ‘would implode’.

Snow lies for a long time in Moscow, from early winter through to April when there is a brief spring before the intense heat of summer. In the poem ‘Children of the Seventies’, the children jump into ‘the dirty city snow’ and ‘a stubborn ice sheet grew black / and chicken-poxed’. The month of November is a ’bride in a glass casket’ in the poem ‘To the Border’; and in ‘Tatars’, there is a ‘hardened heap of peppered snow’. ‘Tatars’ also introduces the concept of ‘the other’, explaining that the Russian word for an ethnic minority (in this case Muslims sharing the courtyard) is ‘inorodets (born other)’. The collection goes on to explore what it means to be an émigré. Here she writes, ‘I somehow sensed that I wasn’t that dissimilar from this quiet family.’

‘The Accordion’ describes being at home after skiing in a park. The child hears an accordion-accompanied song, ‘the call of a different, almost foreign, life that was all around me but which I hardly knew and would try to imagine, in vain.’ Mashinski is very skilled at detail, for example when writing about collars, aprons and sleds in ‘The Stand-Up and the Turndown’. She describes a thermometer breaking in the poem ‘Mercury’; its mercury then becomes a metaphor, ‘quick silver—Soviet spy—’.

This poem marks a turn towards darker topics as the poet moves to describe her mother as an evacuee ‘who knew hunger for the first time and began to compose poetry’ in ‘The Bronze Horseman. Natasha’. In ‘The Fire on the Snow’, the reader learns of thousands killed in the woods 1937-1938. Mashinski considers the nature of an emigrée’s relationship with her native land in ‘Jew’ and concludes it is ‘not unlike the relationship between a father and a daughter whose lives diverged but who remain linked.’ She explores a child learning about herself, discovering the power of Nature at a pioneer camp in ‘Sunrise’: ‘from then on, I could survive anything’. In ‘The Motif: Silence’ there is a strong sense of threshold, as a child waits for ‘the sealed myth— the bubble—the universe—to implode and rays of infinite possibilities to rush in all directions’.

The political context is made personal as Mashinski focuses on her grandparents and parents in Part 2. She presents a sad litany of arrests, exile, torture and execution affecting her relatives in ‘Her Sisters’. Her grandfather, arrested for the second time, finds on arrival in Kolyma, ‘they had to lie on the permafrost face down’. The reader learns that bodies emerging from melting snow are called ‘snowdrops’’. The prose is interspersed with complex evocative poems such as ‘To Atlantis’, which tells of her father joining the Red Guard. He ‘saw terror, saw it all, sent them to hell, / got himself jailed, jailed again, exiled then old’. Mashinski often introduces grammatical or poetry terms in her writing, as she does in this poem:

As for the meter— as for the pure honey
of rhythm, 
     for iamb of littoral, for anapest of depths,
lighthouses of metaphors […] 

She takes this interest further in Part 4 in ‘The Poet and the Child’, an interesting musing on poetics, how children have ‘a passion for likeness’ whereas ‘Adolescents are anti-poets’ who, in her view, don’t understand metaphors. She writes ‘The seeming chaos of poetic speech is simply a special way of putting the world into order’ and the poetic world is ‘off limits to those who’ve become irreversibly grown up’.

Mashinski often uses rhyme and half-rhyme in her poems (but not usually for every line), creating additional musicality. In ‘The Russian Senior Building, Newark NJ’ in Part 3, she describes a lively bunch of participants

        Those who are younger-younger play their bingo,
those older-older dance their tango,

In Part 2, I found the juxtaposition of prose and poetry descriptions of a single scene fascinating. In ‘Alexandra. Her Book’, Mashinksi writes in detailed prose about her elderly grandmother, now in Newark, NJ, bringing out ‘her eternal cobalt Moscow tea cups’. She describes the same scene lyrically in a poem placed immediately afterwards, ‘Alexandra’s Book. Newark, NJ’:

right from the threshold I see that 100-watt
snow-white table cloth, and your Moscow teacups

their skies like cobalt, and when I fill them
a gilded wave frills their afternoon brinks,

‘The Motif: Patterns’, at the end of Part 2, where Mashinski describes looking at curtain patterns, seems to presage her own journey into exile: ‘I have to start again in the new foreign territory where the motif seemed entirely unfamiliar and new.’ The epigraph for Part 3 mentions ‘the universe rearranging itself’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Interestingly, this Part is almost entirely made up of poetry. This reflects less narration of the past and more internalisation.
The poem ‘Creation of a Room’ follows a woman as she moves about a room, only for the poem to turn at the end:

and so she saw
her universe complete
for collapse

The landscape, forest and seasons come back into play in Part 3. The mountains, in the poem ‘In Absentia. At Twilight’, ‘linger, turning mauve, and move off to the west, / like leaves to the ravine’. In the poem ‘In Absentia. The Woodstove’, someone taking an ash pan outside is pictured raising their face

toward the racing, pine-filled
darkness crammed with light,
to stand there in the snow,

The poem ‘Morning at Cape Cod’ takes the reader to the shoreline where ‘The world is turquoise-white’. The motion of the waves is conjured up:

With you—away from you,
with you—and after you,
along the gleaming line,
amid the sandpipers,

This movement to and fro is also reflected in the last stanza: ‘within myself, without’. However, in the poem ‘In Absentia. Coming Home’, Mashinski turns to the urban image of ‘old familiar slippers-and-cabbage smell of Moscow stairwells’. The final prose piece in this Part, ‘The Motif: The Myth’, expresses the discombobulation of the émigré: ‘you feel stark naked in the middle of a stark-naked world, in the empty field […] your little myth becomes disconnected’.

The epigraph to Part 4 talks of ‘a library of longings’ (Susan Sontag). This final Part, I feel, is very much about the act of leaving but still being rooted in memory and culture. The poet remembers a group of students celebrating the anniversary of Pasternak’s death in ‘Their Anniversaries’ and the poet Tsvetaeva in the poem ‘Yelabuga’. The ‘great-grandmother’s cobalt teacups’ feature again in ‘Milk Bottles’ in a memory of drinking milky tea to help with breast milk. ‘Geese. Apples, Thunderclouds’ captures a seminal moment of farewell when the poet tells her young daughter Sasha ‘Remember this —this is Russia’.

The journey to America involves an anxiety-inducing passage through ‘that impossible border’ as detailed in ‘The Sheremetyevo Airport’. She promises herself ‘to never—never— be afraid of anything again’. This sentiment is echoed in the poem ‘The Border’

I had lived in a cage—a landscape of frost covered wires 
  and then broke free
    flew away, saw fiords—
and lost fear.

Indentation and varied line lengths emphasize the confusion of the emigrants’ journey, leaving ‘the Land of Forbidden Things’ in the poem ‘The Descent. JFK’. The poet reflects that emigration is ‘like evacuation’ and the realisation that it is ‘a young naked world’ appears in the prose piece which gives the collection its title. The country is also described as ‘this antiworld’ and as ‘Unmerica’ in ‘Going Off to America’. I particularly liked the counter-intuitive nature of the lines: ‘you will learn that nothing in this world could ever be as lonely as that fall, dry firing a sweep of its cerulean blue leaves across the crumbling ochre sky’. This is poetic prose at its best.

The final prose piece in the collection takes us back in time to a potato field near Moscow where the child stands with her grandmother looking at a freight train and thinks: ‘I don’t know how to deal with this longing’. Through her luminous prose and poetry, Mashinski effectively communicates and shares her bittersweet longing for home and freedom.