Russian Doll, Teika Marija Smits
Indigo Dreams, 2021 £6.00
Power of a single, central image
That Russian Doll of the pamphlet’s title sits at the centre of this strikingly simple seeming sequence. The group is divided into two halves: ‘Daughter-doll / Doll-daughter’ and ‘Mother-doll / Doll-mother’. The poems in the first half chart the poet’s childhood, as daughter to her two parents; those in the second chart her experience of motherhood, to her two children.
The Russian doll image recurs, and is used potently to underline stress, grief and change. In the first part, there are striking themes. A glamorous ‘Muscovite mother’ to a shyer daughter. In ‘Shades of Red’ the mother, ‘Once an actress’, who ‘knew how to make an entrance’ would arrive late and loud, ‘Striking in fuchsia’, to her daughter’s ‘school performance’:
I’d glow crimson
and turn into the smallest
version of myself —
the littlest Russian doll,
the one most easily lost
There’s a ‘best friend’, ‘Anne Marie’, who runs like a winner, but obviously has a much more vulnerable self inside, and ends tragically in an ‘open coffin’.
This childhood is also shaped by the early loss of the poet’s father. ‘Matryoshka’ is ‘scattered’. Some of the dolls
shut tight, permanently locked in grief,
others ripped apart, heads rolling
at their feet.
And ‘The littlest doll’ grows
To all eyes an adult, within, a child.
The second half of the pamphlet charts motherhood. It starts in pregnancy, in ‘Making Heartroom’:
She homes the house guest come to stay
within her womb, which grows each day
I like the especially short poem, ‘Treasure’. Its narrator splits open, we hear, ‘the matryoshka — / pop pop pop pop pop’ and then:
the baby doll rests snug in her palms.
This seems like restitution. And mother love — with its ‘no elastic limits’ from ‘Hooke’s Law’ — proves so. Although, of course, in the end, there’s also wear and tear. The penultimate poem is ‘Russian Doll’, which starts: ‘I am heavy with the hopes / of my younger selves’.
And so this pamphlet itself is rather like its central image — that Russian doll — as it works to unite separate parts, poems, selves.
Big or small?
My mother is not from Moscow but she very definitely knows how to make the kind of entrance made in ‘Shades of Red’:
Once an actress, my Muscovite mother
knew how to make an entrance.
Striking in fuchsia
she’d arrive late
to my school performance,
call my name. Wave.
Have trouble finding her seat.
And like the child in this poem, I would ‘glow crimson / and turn into the smallest / version of myself’.
Whenever my family took a holiday, on our return home a photograph of my mother would inevitably appear in the local paper accompanied by an article about her winning the holiday camp beauty, ballroom-dancing or talent contest. And like Teika
I was never mentioned,
except as a side note:
Mrs Smits lives in Windsor
With her husband and two daughters.
How fortunate for mousey-haired me.
[‘An Early Lesson in Fake News’]
Again, I would make myself as small as I possibly could. So reading these poems reminds me how different people have the power to make us feel big or small: emotionally, spiritually, literally and metaphorically. Or perhaps I should say we let them have this power.
In ‘Our Last Conversation’ the author and her father are discussing how quickly scientists might ‘make medics microscopic / saving lives in miniature.’ The poem ends: ‘How was I to know that for my father, / they were already too late.’ It's a line that makes me curl in on myself and shrink…. shrink… shrink.
I feel exactly the same as I read the repeated statement ‘My world stops’ in ‘The Pulmonary Embolism’.
[…] he falls and thud! My world stops.
[…] ‘I fell,’ he says. My world stops.
[…]‘It’s just a fall.’ My world stops.
And I shrink yet again when I hear Teika’s father speaking in the poem about conference pears:
Her father would crunch
His way through the bowl saying,
‘We need to eat these up.’
Yet she had no taste for them.
The flesh was too hard, the skin too bitter
Poetry can have the same power as human beings to affect how big or small I feel. This is the proof of it.