Katherine E. Young: Review by George Drew


Young Cover

Day of the Border Guards by Katherine E. Young (University of Arkansas Press)




                            Young's odyssey is staggering...

                                         —John Surowiecki


       What we today call poetry of witness is not new. At its most basic, witnessing is seeing something occur and testifying to it. Poets have always done this. The English/American canon aside, think Russia—or, in the case of Katherine E. Young's collection, Day of the Border Guards, the Soviet Union. Some of its poets were sent to the Gulag, some killed outright. As Young concludes in “Driving the M8,” the longest poem in the book,


                                                                        I've decided there's no

                                                 such thing as essential: we're—all of us—

                                                 intimate strangers who'll disappear some morning:

                                                 tomorrow, or next month, or maybe twenty-

                                                 five years along the line, joy becoming

                                                 theoretical as it vanishes, unbelief

                                                 chafing fingers where rings once held sway.


       That mortality is shared by all of us is one thing; that it was superimposed before their time on millions in one of the most horrific crimes of the twentieth century, another. This awareness is the background radiation to Young's poems as she travels, like some female Odysseus, in a faraway realm, in her case Russia, both in her own time and the historical. As she says in “Nearing Chernobyl,” “I carry the dust of the universe on my shoes.” She is of course referring to the fallout that has poisoned the very earth she walks on, but metaphorically it could reference the human dust of all the souls ground into death by the Soviets, and more generally by history—souls such as Mandelstam, and much earlier in Russian history, Lermontov and Pushkin. Their voices, and those of others, merge in the poems with Young's; merging, that is, the present and past, the current and the historical. Her concern isn't so much the history itself; rather, it's the human repercussions of that history. Those are what she encounters in the Russian people themselves, whether it's a driver tightening an engine wire in Siberia (“Siberian Spring”) or a Russian washerwoman with whom she shares a moment of sorrow at the death of someone from a ruptured pipe (“Centralized Heating”): “Whole neighborhoods, entire Russian cities / conjoin along these grids of heating lines,” which metaphorically summarizes Young's emphasis on those human repercussions. More is conjoined than just physical cities. As much as separating, borders yoke, dissolving themselves in the process.

       Appropriately, Young opens Day of the Border Guards with “Old Maps,” a poem that is all about borders, specifically those that mark change and stasis. The “river's the same” and the “street grid stretched out / in an age of absolutes,” but “factories have filled in / fields beyond the rails.” Even the physical cityscape bears witness to change and all that accompanies it, whether in Moscow, where most of the poems in the first section are centered, in Chernobyl, in Siberia (section two) or in the Caucasus where, re-imagining Lady Macbeth, Young notes: “Here in the mountains, it's the same old plot.” And she's not just talking about Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In one of the truly haunting poems, “Wreaths,” Young presents us with an anonymous soul, a man who “staggers out through seven / lanes of traffic to the center / of the road, dead center.” While wreaths are being laid  to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and “speeches made / and statesmen find their photo ops,” there is this solitary man on his knees in the middle of a road dangerous with traffic, “Some secret grief” his burden. The contrast is excruciatingly telling—amid the wreaths and speeches, this little Charlie Chaplin-man “swaying gently, gently.” The speaker wonders, “But who has a soul / so great it holds all the world within?” Precisely. We the readers are bearing witness to a man who is bearing witness, brought to his knees by the weight of a personal and, by extension, historical grief. In a sense, all the poems in Young's collection are bearing witness to millions of Russians, both alive and dead, as are we, albeit briefly. Behind the barriers (borders?) of their windshields, “drivers stare / and honk at him,” and then, like the speaker, her palm pressed “to the glass of the tram,” move on. Bearing witness can itself be unendurable.

       Yet there is, in the act of witnessing, something held out beyond a mute despair. This is made explicit at the end of the title poem—which describes the speaker’s witnessing of the landing of a private plane in Red Square by a German teenager on May 27, 1987—when  Young writes:


                                           Because now I’m a witness,

                                           I stand and watch—we all watch—as slowly,

                                           shockingly—that drunken officer

                                           of the Border Guards stretches out ten trembling

                                           fingers to print the faintest stain of hope

                                           on the airplane’s shiny metal skin.


Hope. Despite millions of individuals ground into death, and despite the historical weight of Soviet ruthlessness and social savagery, there still persists the “faintest stain of hope.” Clearly, this echoes Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir Hope Against Hope, herself a character from that Soviet past whom we meet in section three, which centers on the likes of Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Lermontov, Joseph Brodsky and Boris Pasternak.  

       To hope requires courage, as does bearing witness, which in turn requires honesty. In another poem central to the act of bearing witness, and one this reader admires for the courage it exhibits, “My KGB File,” the speaker is, ironically, bearing witness to her own subjection to an omnipresent power. The file she is perusing details her every movement—whether in Sverdlov Square, while sketching the Lenin Hills Bridge, raising toasts to “fraternity among peoples,” riding the tram, sampling pirozhki, and so on. Then, toward the end of the poem one note reads, “Subject shows scant interest in our so- / called ‘dissidents,’ ” after which, “penciled in the margin,” there is a question mark. This time the witnessing is being done by someone else, maybe a friend (“dear Lena”) or an anonymous KGB agent, and the speaker (Madam Odysseus) is the event being witnessed. Courage is made manifest when the speaker reacts to that question mark. “There are two / likely answers…,” she says: “Subject—meaning me—saw but felt nothing; / Subject—meaning me—was unable to see.” The courage is in her honesty.  Ultimately, we can witness, but what if we don’t truly see what it is we’re witnessing? What if we see, but feel nothing—lack all empathy? This is the personal conundrum the speaker faces, and it is the moral conundrum that is at the heart of bearing witness, certainly as it is presented in Day of the Border Guards. In the hands of a lesser poet this moral truth might well have been glossed over, or even missed altogether.

       Bearing witness is often a bleak affair, particularly when it confronts us with our own moral and ethical dilemmas. That aside, too often, even if our intentions are noble, we end up realizing


                                                Nothing’s turned out the way we’d hoped—

                                                no lustration, no truth commission.

                                                The old informants lounge in silk;

                                                their girlfriends accessorize the bath.

                                                The light that figured in all our dreams

                                                proved puny, dull, its purifying

                                                power just an old wives’ tale.

                                                                                        (“The Percussive Quality of Light”)


Well, yes. And yet… And yet, in “Red Vineyard, 1888: A Painting by Van Gogh,” Young writes,


                                               There’s Death, too, in that sunset—but not yet.

                                               On the wet-black walk, chalk soil softly dusts

                                               the blush and flutter of a sap-swollen bud.


But not yet. The very act of summoning the courage to bear witness implies a hope—for change, for an avoidance of the horrors with which history has skewered us. In other words, to apply an old cliché, it’s always darkest just before the dawn, and dawn, in the speaker’s case, is her self-honesty, an honesty that can usher in a new awareness. That, too, is central to the moral locus of Young’s book. Perhaps that’s why she chose to end with “Peredelkino,” a poem that details a visit to Pasternak’s grave, the difficulty in locating it, and more to the point, what she discovered when “we found it,” referring to his stone: “the face— / intaglioed—inscrutable as a hieroglyph.”

     Writers visiting the graves of other writers is often more a pilgrimage than a simple visitation. But what exactly is it we think we’ll find? Like all those other Russians, Pasternak is merely a visage staring out silently at a brooding world. He is, like them, dust—a particle of dust. He is no more. Bleak stuff. But then, with her last three lines of not only the poem but of the book, Young acknowledges that “puny light”:


                                                      The sun set copper in an onion dome;

                                                      birches wrapped in paper rustled their leaves;

                                                      nearby, a nightingale began to sing.


Certainly that beautiful imagery—“onion dome,” “birches wrapped in paper”—pays homage to Pasternak the writer with its gentle allusion to the writer’s element, paper, and the dome implying the sanctity of the imagination. There’s that. And then there’s the nightingale, a bird that of course sings in the dark—a bird bearing witness to the power of truth and beauty, even in the darkest of dark. Keats might have been transported to some other realm beyond the earthly, but this nightingale is an emissary of hope, of change, and of the courage and honesty that make it at least possible.

       Finally, then, the poems in Day of the Border Guards bear witness to the subterranean chaos undergirding the surface “order” of ourselves and of history—in their case, the Soviet Union. They are, in short, what all poetry is, insurgents crossing the borders of what appears to be and what is, the borders of the real and the fanciful, the borders of truth and falsehood, and the borders of the beautiful and the ugly. Like the heating system she described, Young presents her poems as a kind of centralized seeing, in the sense of focusing in on all those borders and in the process, if not eradicating them, forcing a reunification of what borders attempt to keep separate—human beings. Again, this mimics Odysseus. Ever the man of action, not reflection, when he is confronted with the suitors, who would separate him from not only his wife and son but from his throne, Odysseus removes them violently. Likewise, in Day of the Border Guards Young—Madam Odysseus—takes action. But of course it isn’t physical; rather, it’s an inner transformative action, that of an infiltrating moral determination. Over the years Young returns to Russia (Ithaca)  many times, and discovers, like Odysseus, all has changed, changed utterly, and nothing has changed. That is the dilemma of bearing witness, certainly for Madam Odysseus. This is what we mean by a poetry of witness—the unblinking gaze of art at both what is heartwarming and heartrending. 

       Either way, Young has succeeded in breaching borders. Superbly so.


George Drew is the author of six collections, most recently The View from Jackass Hillwinner of the 2010 X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, Texas Review Press, 2011. His seventh, Fancy’s Orphan, will be published in 2017 by Tiger Bark Press; his sixth, Down & Dirty, appeared in June, 2015 by Texas Review Press; and his New & Selected, Pastoral Habits, in 2016 by Texas Review Press. Drew has published reviews and essays in Louisiana Literature, Main Street RagTexas Review, and BigCityLit, among others.