London Grip Poetry Review – Boris Dralyuk

Poetry review – MY HOLLYWOOD AND OTHER POEMS: P W Bridgman admires the humanity and discernment in this collection by Boris Dralyuk

My Hollywood and Other Poems
Boris Dralyuk
Paul Dry Books
ISBN 978-1-58988-167-9
60 pp.  $16.95 USD

What is Hollywood?

This is a more difficult question to answer than, say, what is Toronto? or Dublin? or Vicenza? or Vladivostok? Hollywood’s fame and fortune have been built mostly on artifice. In Hollywood, phantasmal things are made to appear genuine, just long enough to be captured and preserved on reels of celluloid film (or now, in digital files) and despatched to the wider world. From there, they go on to live in the minds of cinemagoers and streamers.

Hollywood—and Los Angeles more generally—are, thus, places of conjured parallel realities that often cannot be distinguished easily from actual ones. Where do the boundaries between the real and the imagined lie? Is the barista’s dream of stardom well founded or self-deluding? Is that Lamborghini revving at the traffic light owned by the driver or leased for a day to make an impression? Are the encouraging words spoken at the end of the audition to be trusted or uttered just to get the auditioner quickly out the door? Where are the boundaries and the fault lines? How does one find them in a place where cunning and deception have been elevated to high art by gifted wizards whose fabricated worlds can sometimes seem more real than our own?

Is it any wonder then that so many who live elsewhere approach the idea of Hollywood with a combination of wariness and wonder? Hollywood is an unsettling enigma.

Boris Dralyuk, the author of My Hollywood and Other Poems, came young to America as a perspicacious exile with a sympathetic eye and ear. Born in Odessa, he is now based in L.A. where he serves as editor-in-chief of that city’s eponymous Los Angeles Review of Books. Dralyuk is a very successful exile indeed; he has earned impressive academic credentials in the field of Slavic languages and teaches that subject at UCLA. Dralyuk is also a much-sought-after translator, mostly of Russian literature, and his articles and creative pieces have been published in such prestigious journals and outlets as Granta, the TLS and The New Yorker. In 2015 he co-edited, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. For all of those accomplishments though, Dralyuk retains a consummately common touch and a manifest love for the ordinary run of humanity—most particularly his fellow exiles who live in Hollywood.

Boris Dralyuk’s common touch and his love for the community of exiles he considers his own shine through very brightly in his first book of poems. The reader delving into My Hollywood will quickly realise (as did this reviewer) that this poet is a sagacious observer of humankind who plainly has neither been blinded by, nor become entangled or mired in, Hollywood’s signature froth. The poems in My Hollywood show, rather, that he has found his way to the city’s heart and its considerable cohort of exiled residents. The exiles Dralyuk celebrates live genuinely, if insecurely, in Hollywood beneath the cloud cover of show-business meringue that mostly keeps them hidden from view.

As one would expect, there is plenty of grit in these poems:

…Sit here all night, if you can bear the grime—
watch people come and go, but you will see no
women in black shed tears for Valentino.
The Sheiks sinks deep into the dunes of time.
A crow clacks in the branches overhead,
like a projector going slowly dead.
                                                  (from “Aspiration”)

Not far along in My Hollywood, in “The Flower Painter”, he describes a once-grand estate in decay:

…Decades ago, that Eden went to seed and
it pains me to recall what is no more…
My Hollywood, mon vieux, is not ideal:
a grand old dame reduced to dishabille,
her glory far too faded to restore.
But ruin was inscribed in what he built.

Ah, such rich, palpable, fin de siècle imagery.

Dralyuk writes in a non-cloyingly nostalgic way about favourite places in Hollywood where those from numerous diasporas tend to congregate—to live, to shop, to converse, to find community. One of those places is an enormous bargain shop, popular with Orthodox Jews, Russians, Armenians and… opportunistic Westside connoisseurs. It is a “poor man’s horn of plenty” he says. The descriptions and metaphors he employs to bring such places to life on the page are richly physical, lending verisimilitude to a wistful and sometimes pained reverie:

…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—

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

We see in “The Passing of the Bungalows” the encroachment of rapid land development on neighbourhoods where many of Hollywood’s foreign exiles have lately lived. Their lives, they know, have always been marked by impermanence and inevitably their tiny homes have now begun to yield to the march of progress, making way for the “featureless and polished / plutocracy of condominiums”. We can see in poems like this that life in the Hollywood that is elementally real is becoming increasingly insecure. My Hollywood sounds a plaintive lament for the further displacements that loom for these exiles—exiles who reappear in the poem, “Plants in Pots”, as “[c]alm captives [who], inch by inch, make their flight, and reach the window, bent on seeing light”.

A minor club singer, not quite “too faded to restore” (to borrow a phrase from “The Flower Painter”), is featured in Dralyuk’s exceptionally poignant poem, “Uncredited”. This singer is long past her prime, now enslaved to her television and the reruns it supplies to help keep the heart of her past still beating in her deteriorating present. Dralyuk recognises the pathos here and so he chooses to paint an affectionate and affecting word-portrait of this fading flower. Though her “paunchy” ex-husband’s car dealership has failed, and though she has suffered a broken hip and much other adversity, still:

…None of that matters, if you ever catch her
singing “How High the Moon”—silvery, misty—
on that one show…She isn’t any match for
the stainless Julie London or June Christy,

but through her gauzy voice as through a sieve,
spare notes of heaven reach you from afar.
For those two minutes, she’ll make you believe:
Somewhere there’s music. It’s where you are.

This poem, “Uncredited”, must surely be the living heart of My Hollywood and Other Poems. Thanks to Boris Dralyuk, a minor torch singer of modest means and modest accomplishments has at last been credited for her talent. Though her life has been uneven and fraught, here at least (and at last) her name is up in lights on the bright marquee of this fine poem, “Uncredited”. While she’s not on the talk show circuit, not rolling in money, not endorsing designer sunglasses, lingerie or energy drinks—while she’s not really remembered at all—still, “none of that matters” when her rendition of “How High the Moon” surfaces periodically on late night TV reruns and sounds, for all the world, like a veritable lark ascending.

This singer and so many others who are ennobled by Dralyuk’s poems are the real people of the poet’s Hollywood: they belong to his community of exiles. They aren’t perfect and Dralyuk doesn’t idealise them; however, unlike the city’s “beautiful people”, we see in his poems that they are generally free from Hollywood’s special brand of artifice. They are underrepresented in the face that Hollywood turns to the world and, until now, they have seldom been seen, much less celebrated.

It required discernment to recognise the special qualities of Hollywood’s exiles, and a deep humanity to choose to celebrate them in this way. Dralyuk has both discernment and humanity in overplus. His My Hollywood and Other Poems is the exiles’ marquee, if you will. They are no longer “uncredited”. In putting their names in lights, Boris Dralyuk has—without any sly sleight-of-hand—honoured them sincerely and enriched us all. This book of poems is a bravura first outing all round. Bravo, Dr Dralyuk!