The Odorless Smolder that Flared into This City:

A Review of Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album

“years later you will read / this daily album / & find absolutely // nothing you remember & everything / so clear will be / nowhere & nothing // like the odorless smolder / in Peter’s mind / that flared into this city — ”

Philip Metres’ recent Russian-influenced collection allows the reader to linger in the lyrical suite of a translator’s meanderings in Saint Petersburg. While it might be tempting to read this collection as ekphrasis of Mussorgsky’s eponymous musical work, these poems present themselves more in the key of the hybrid, intermedial text, reminiscent of Bulgakov’s operatic novel The Master and Margarita with its roots in Pushkin’s classic novel in verse Eugene Onegin, and the Tchaikovsky opera of the same name. Drawing on techniques evident in Metre’s previous collections, notably Sand Opera, with its juxtaposition of the Barney children’s song with narratives of torture by the U.S. government in Guantanamo, Metres makes full use of the page to develop a sonic landscape of polyphonic and overlapping voices.

Each page of this lovely, sensory-rich, hybrid text includes poetic movements paralleling those of the Mussorgsky suite, and short fragments of two ongoing meditations that run the length of the work in the header and footer spaces, and interact in surprising and thought-provoking ways with the themes in the main spaces. This album of Petersburg requires multiple and multi-directional readings. Where the tenth movement intersects the italicized text of the lower margin, we tour the Neva river and its edge, the Nevsky Prospect, “The river’s colors blur with each stroke, bleed into shore. The waters rise. Everything wants to be flooded. Every empire dies, entering its own dilated eyes /// of strings, gravitas of a sustained bass.” This meeting of two lyrics, multiplied and varied throughout the collection, reveals Metre’s gift for layering the voices of the city through juxtaposition of sonic assonance, consonance, and dissonance.

Metres sustains tensions within the city’s exteriors and interiors, positioning the narrator(s) in the spaces of translation between these. Recurring interludes in the form of letters to G. (poet Sergey Gandlevsky) obliquely refer the reader to Metres’ translations, both of Gandlevsky’s work, and of Petersburg itself: “Dear G! / Why is it, in Russian letters, the direct address is always followed by an exclamation? I am not shouting at you. But there is always some question, since the postman’s decade-long vodka bender, the pond full of letters.” Metres engages the reader in a conversation between poet and translator, Russian and other languages: “Outside Kresti Prison // a woman conducts / a movement for clouds / in the key of Cyrillic.” The collection verges into documentary poetry, flowing in and out of translations and references to Russian literature, including a translation of a prose poem by Daniil Kharms in the eleventh movement, and quotations from poets including Pushkin, Gandlevsky, Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, and others.

In the end notes, Metres describes the collection as a “work of friction,” and we see examples of this in the ways creative spaces open up between lines and intersecting texts, such as the fourth movement meditation on the Russian travel diaries of the Marquis de Custine: “Gogol, for instance, never finished the story, or the manuscript was never found. … I could not find a converter, even the currents were different.” We see the interstitial spaces between the diaries and the narrator’s reading of them: “Who could not see through to the end of your travels, your three-month three-volume book of Russia, the bookmark still intact on page seventy-five, a temporary pass dated to expire 1994? / It doesn’t matter how long you stay if you never leave.” Weaving between Gogol, the Neva, currents of river, musical suite, and electricity, the synesthetic panorama of Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album invites us on a journey through the fugue of a city embodied by Saint Petersburg, and tempts us with never wanting to leave.