The Petrov Poems by Lesley Lebkowicz.
THE PETROV POEMS.
By Lesley Lebkowicz.
Pitt Street. 97pp. $30.
SIX DIFFERENT WINDOWS.
By Paul Hetherington.
UWA Publishing. 100pp. $24.99.
These two accomplished verse collections - Lesley Lebkowicz's The Petrov Poems and Paul Hetherington's Six Different Windows - come from poets with established careers, who still seek the full recognition to which they are entitled. Hetherington's latest book is thematically arranged in six sections, but he is also the author of the distinguished verse novel, Blood and Old Belief (2003).
It is a verse narrative, recounted in glimpses, but chronologically and tautly, that Lebkowicz essays in The Petrov Poems. For Lebkowicz it is personal because she was a child growing up in Canberra when the Petrovs defected from their posts in the Russian embassy in 1954. With restraint and psychological acuity she imagines the motives, fears and disappointments of Volodya and Dusya (or Vladimir and Evdokia as they were to the wider world).
Their harrowing previous life in Russia is sketched with terse effect: ''They had grown up in darkness'', in a country that was ''a landscape of bones''. During Stalin's purges, Vladimir Petrov ''had seen hundreds shovelled/Into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants swept/away by hot water''. Now, with the death of Stalin and the fall of their KGB boss, Beria, the Petrovs fear their own recall and death. In one of the shocks that Lebkowicz springs, Petrov runs into then-prime minister Menzies at the Canberra airport. Soon after, he is being interrogated by ASIO: ''they treat him like a machine that can talk''. Not that he can offer them much: ''A few 'facts'/to undo the Left./As at home''. Lebkowicz's use of verse forms is supple and varied. The Petrovs' story has moments of comedy, as of ignominy, and of fear. The humdrum character of their lives in Melbourne under assumed names is an ironic commentary on the political hysteria that accompanied their defection and that did damage long afterwards.
The first section of Hetherington's Six Different Windows begins with reminiscence: ''We were children,/a whole mob of us''. Places, memories, incidents are plangently arrayed. His recall is vivid: of an aunt's chest, which contains roubles, ''rotting dresses and expansive unhappy letters'', or his father's account of the bombing of Darwin - ''as death ambled near/in clumping explosive steps''. Yet the difficulty of this endeavour of reconstruction is conceded with this poet's typically melancholy but never indulgent tone of voice. A riff on Five Abstractions of Blue follows, encompassing the Prussian blue of the artist and the power of this simile: ''as blue as dementia that has let go/of all detail except a child's slow climb/up the rungs inside a well''.
There is much more in this richly compacted book: poems of travel, for instance, to a mediaeval monastery; a retelling of the story of Ariadne, Theseus and the Minotaur; a virtuoso section called The Vanished Villages. Here the poet disinters corpses - peat burials (in the manner of Seamus Heaney), Inca sacrifices, the body of a body who has been held in a mound it seems ''since time first frowned/on the human adventure'', the lost of Pompeii, a child killed to stop crops from dying.
Hetherington is alive to the forming of his own skills and direction as a poet, since ''words ran into my teenage body/and wanted the shapes of poems''. He is a witty, cosmopolitan but never affected writer, with a meticulous ear and an intellect matched to his technical skills. Six Different Windows is one the finest collections of poetry this year.