Boris Dralyuk is an LA formalist. It always feels surprising to say Los Angeles in the same breath as formalist. LA seems a place so steeped in its dream of casualness—and in the production of its own myth, the story of sun-bleached California—that the notion, in such a context, old-world rules like rhyme and meter, can feel as startling as it is beautiful. “And now I watch another era fade, / Cyrillic letters scraped from shuttered storefronts, / tar-crusted bread, stale fish, stiff marmalade …” But when you consider that Dralyuk’s debut collection, My Hollywood, is not so much about Los Angeles at present, but the Los Angeles that’s been paved over by the twenty-first century—then Dralyuk’s work comes into clearer focus. These poems are as impersonal as they are soaked in disappearing history. There are many dead people in the book, and a loneliness to the way the poems hold the world at a remove, the way the speaker seems always to be speaking a little bit out of the frame. “My” in the title is misleading: these are not memoir-poems. These are the souvenirs of an almost-vanished glamour, an ethnic, gritty, free-wheeling city, little fantasias encased in rhyme and meter.
Few intimate relationships show up in the book, but instead a glittering world: A lost city of the mind, of memory, of invention, bars and hotels and forgotten apartment complexes, parties and studios and sets, the fading LA not only of Chaplin and Arbuckle, but of much more obscure figures (to most American readers) such as Soviet-era émigré poets and filmmakers, many of them Ukrainians and Jews, who found their way to Los Angeles in the early and middle twentieth century, forming a little community in the Fairfax neighborhood. It was this neighborhood that the poet found himself dropped into when his family arrived from Odessa looking for a better life just before the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when he was eight. Already, the Los Angeles he found was a world in which “A crow clacks in the branches overhead, / like a projector slowly going dead.” But brilliant and magical, too, this world was, at least to the child who’d just lost everything he knew, and who would grow up to sing that brilliance in poems.
And so we get things like this couplet, which ends the first poem in the book, coming in one of what the poet described to me as “Onegin sonnets,” pentameter versions of Pushkin’s adaptation of that old Italian shape, here for likely the first time in literary history brought to bear on Hollywood, made to work as a form for nostalgia, that backward-facing love that’s always at risk of going stale or sickly-sweet.
Dralyuk’s sensitivity to this very problem imbues his poems with, by turns, a glowing and devastating effect, such as the claustrophobic but deeply evocative villanelle about a library for Soviet refugees that’s run these days by “half-blind holdouts hobbling through the room”: “Our library is open, but for whom?” repeats one of the refrains. Who can imagine the afterlives of traditional forms! Here’s an aristocratic French party form put to use conjuring the dying of a small but stubborn cultural milieu on the other side of the planet centuries after said form’s invention. Poems like this are a parable of how the tradition works, how culture feeds on itself, morphing and surviving and growing up. The book ends, fittingly, with an eight-line poem called “Lethe,” the most abstract piece of writing in a collection absorbed with rendering detail into music. “Lethe” transforms Charon’s river into a Heraclitean river. Fitting, I say, because to look back—to fix one’s gaze on a past that can only ever be imaginary—is always to court death:
Nothing was ever
quite the same.
Every one came
to be another.
This is a river
that goes by the name
of the river I
will never recover.
JESSE NATHAN: What draws you to rhyme? Why, in these times, work so consciously in the tradition of meter and rhyme? What, for instance, does the Onegin sonnet allow?
BORIS DRALYUK: The simple answer is that I find rhyme to be a source of reassurance as well as a tool of discovery. A good rhyme lends poetic statements a sense of completion, but not necessarily the completion the reader—or even the poet—had anticipated. It may offer a surprise ending, just the sort of thing that Hollywood’s known for. I immediately think of a sonnet by one of my favorite younger poets, Austin Allen, titled “High-Octane Blockbuster Sonnet with an Ending You Won’t Forget,” which appeared in the latest issue of Bad Lilies. You’ll get no spoilers from me, but the rhyme in the closing couplet isn’t the star attraction. It’s not the complexity of the rhyme pair that packs the punch, it’s the fact that the words suture, in a deeply resonant way, two seemingly unrelated thoughts. A non sequitur becomes an integral part of the whole. Rhymes—and forms of all sorts—can make a progression of thoughts or images, however improbable, appear inevitable. That, in turn, makes the progression memorable, and I aim for memorability. I don’t mean to say, though, that a random jumble held together by devices is what I’m after. In an essay from 1978, Donald Justice writes with characteristic sensitivity that, with the help of meters, “a subjective event gets made over into something more like an object. It becomes accessible to memory, repeatedly accessible, because it exists finally in a form that can be perused at leisure, like a snapshot in an album.” And he adds that memory itself works that way, “not without craft”—filling in gaps, cutting away the incongruous, making sense of experience. Memory is imperfect precisely because it works to perfect. I cherish the photo, knowing it’s a flattened, discolored reproduction of a messier, livelier affair. I wasn’t especially conscious of this as I was writing My Hollywood, but this notion of formal poems as memorable objects that stand at a necessary remove from the sources of their inspiration is appropriate to the subject: This town is forever fading out, the scenery always changing, and here I am, hurrying to take the perfect still before the set is torn down. Really, I’m at an even greater remove, retouching and framing old headshots and lobby cards I picked up at an estate sale. As for the Onegin stanza, that too is perfect. It’s the formal poem par excellence, exhausting the possibilities of rhyme (alternating, envelope, couplet), but is also associated with a kind of story that makes room for endless digressions. Eugene Onegin is ostensibly a narrative about fictional characters, but it tells us a great deal about Pushkin. And so I’d say my Onegin stanzas are both adamantly self-sufficient and obliquely connected. They’re all about the sights and sounds of Hollywood, but my prints are all over them.