Elisavietta Ritchie, Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes, New and Selected Poems. Poets’ Choice Publishing, 2016, ISBN: 978-0-9909257, 120 pages. Price $18.95.
Veteran Maryland and Washington, D.C. poet Elisavietta Ritchie has delved deeply into her Russian heritage to produce a richly textured and nuanced book as alluring as the nest of Russian dolls in the book cover illustration by Sal D’Angelo. The poet, who prefers to be addressed as “Lisa,” is now married to a retired New York Times writer—Clyde H. Farnsworth, himself a well-published writer. The couple divide their time between homes in Northwest Washington near the National Cathedral, and Broome’s Island, Calvert County, Southern Maryland.
Technically her full name, including both the Russian and American elements, is Elisavietta Yurievna Artamonoff Ritchie Farnsworth. Not only is she herself well traveled and well educated, but she brings to her poetry in this book a remarkably colorful heritage: Say, for example, a grandfather who was not only a Russian general under the Tsar but an explorer and world traveler. Gen. Leonid Konstantinovich Artamamonoff is pictured seated in a sepia portrait (one of a number of exquisite vintage family portraits sprinkled throughout the book). The caption helpfully clarifies that the general is “flanked by the two Cossacks with whom he dodged crocodiles as they swam the Nile. . .” (!). Then how about an aunt who survived the Nazi Seige of Leningrad during the Second World War? Or a father who himself had the prestige of being a U.S. Army officer involved in much of the blood-and-guts fighting of the same global war. All of these facets of her family history and of her own family circumstances Ms Ritchie assimilates and amplifies in her clear, spare, and enlightening poems.
Take her father, mentally scarred by his participation in numerous battles as conjured up before our eyes in a relatively brief but hard-hitting three-stanza poem, “My Father, Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired,” which concludes:
…..Forty years have passed, wars have not.
…..Shrapnel, rubble and peculiar shards of flesh
…..still litter all the bedroom floor so deep
…..he cannot find his slippers in the dark.
I think you will see, just by this quatrain, that Ms. Ritchie expresses powerful images and ideas effortlessly. In such a way, she encourages her reader to confront those same nasty demons and to consider the issues at hand. As the opening line succinctly and aptly states: “Forty years have passed, wars have not.”
In the closing tercets of “Improvements,” her father and her mother appear, the retired Army man revealed warts and all in the concluding two tercets, which appear to portray senile dementia or, at the very least, disorientation:
…..He wants retsina, caviar, turtle eggs, insists
…..he must get dressed now to receive the Queen
…..of Belgium, some princess from Cleves.
…..Till they arrive, we’ll scroll the corridor
…..from bed to chair, set four cups in a row,
…..boil tea, then deal out double solitaire.
The poem has a surreal Alice in Wonderland quality to it—beautiful but aching and sad at the same time. The scent of tea from a ghostly samovar is almost evident.
As a resident of rural Southern Maryland and a lover of nature, considerable imagery from the natural world is integral to Ms Ritchie’s poetry. Indeed, as you might suspect from the title of one of her earliest collections: Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country (1976). As might be anticipated, then, nature is also a strong element in the collection under review.
In “Notes for a Family Chronicle,” we are treated to a four-part cycle comprising a total of twenty-five haiku-like tercets. Here are some random quotes from the cycle:
…..We were present and one
…..in one ancient drop
…..of semen briny as seas
…..Those rampant chromosomes
…..swords drawn, already wearing boots,
…..thighs gripping saddles and loves. . . .
…..the blood of princes, tsars
…..rushing to their heads
…..crying for blood, for milk. . . .
…..And we, as isolate, unknown
…..and continents apart
…..ripped forth to light
…..drank light from fireflies
…..glow worms in the mud,
…..stars. . . .
…..Cold seas and hot seas
…..divide our fates
…..but in our passport photographs
…..you wear my eyes
…..and I your wide
…..cheekbones and jaws
…..Suddenly into my land-locked days
…..your tides break dikes
…..as I untangle and entangle you
…..in my wild currents
…..where honeysuckle whirls. . . .
…..In here is where
…..antique and royal chromosomes
…..link up, rebind and unify
…..those noble old alliances
…..and glorious coronations
…..We burst with crowns of glow worms, fireflies, stars
…..and once again pass on
Clearly, the poet is evoking her bucolic Broome’s Island home to an extent but at the same time relating that American, Maryland family environment to her Russian heritage: genes linked to genes.
This deliberate mixing of cultures as a conscious device on the poet’s part becomes clearer when we recall the engaging two-page prose essay the poet uses to introduce the collection, which was inspired partly by an enquiry from Bairma Bartanova, chief curator of Russia’s only Clock Museum, in Angarsk, Irkutsk Oblast. Ms Bartanova wrote to find out more about, per the foreword’s title, “. . . an Old English Clock in Siberia.” As it turned out, the clock was not English at all but made in Germany, and evidence showed that it had been in the possession of Ms Ritchie’s Russian forebears. Thus the curator was writing to find out more about her family, and while the lady knew quite a lot about Ms Ritchie’s Tsarist general grandfather, she confessed that she knew virtually nothing about Ritchie’s grandmother and other family members.
As Ms. Ritchie states, Ms Bartonova’s request “inspired this collection. . . My poems won’t give the exact information she seeks, but something else about the individuals. Nor can I neglect others who played significant roles in my life. . . Certain princes, and Ghengis Khan fifty-nine grandfathers back may not need poems. . . I trust that all whom I loved, albeit now snowy ghosts, are glad to be disturbed.”
I will end this review by quoting from the poem, “Babushka’s Beads” in which, Ms Ritchie writes:
…..My grandmother pops up online and disappears
…..like diving ducks but not sharp black-and-white.
…..All gray: face, hair, lace collar. Loops of china beads
…..gleam white, marble-size, worn in place of pearls.
The grandmother, who had been sent to be educated at the Sorbonne in Paris but skipped lectures to “browse the stalls with books and paintings by the Seine,” ends up bequesting the beads to her grand daughter, although she never explained to her grandchild who had given her the jewelry. Ms Ritchie writes in the concluding stanzas:
…..Did a secret love give her the china beads?
…..Or were these a proper present from a future general?
…..Their marriage in St. Petersburg, 1899, the Tsarina came.
…..Distant postings, wars, revolutions, children lost,
…..famine, terrors, jails, haven in America, more wars. . .
…..By then our unstrung fates had intertwined.
…..I walked her paths beside the Hudson, Neva, Seine.
…..They sent me to the Sorbonne too. “Avoid French men,”
…..she warned, “Despite their gifts, they climb all over you.”
…..Years slide past. She treasured those plain beads
…..more than sparkling gems, passed them on to me.
I am left to wonder if the china beads may have been given to the grandmother, the Babushka, by one of those Frenchmen who climbed all over her. Now there’s a thought. . . In this passage of the poem, sex is inferred without euphemism but clearly hinted at. Indeed, the grandmother’s well-chosen quote is of a piece with Ms Ritchie’s work as a whole. Her poems are always wise, crisp, and well constructed, without excess words. They always say what they do efficiently and memorably. A wonderful collection. If you love history, if you love family history, if you love Russian history, and also fine vintage family photographs, you are sure to enjoy this remarkable book.
© Elisavietta Ritchie and Christopher T. George
Elisavietta Ritchie’s twenty published books include Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes, New and Selected Poems; Guy Wires; Feathers, Or, Love on the Wing; Cormorant Beyond the Compost; Awaiting Permission to Land; Arc of the Storm; Elegy for the Other Woman; and Tightening The Circle Over Eel Country (winner of the Great Lakes Colleges Association’s “New Writer’s Award for Best First Book of Poetry 1975-76″).
Christopher T. George was born in Liverpool, England in 1948 but is a long-time resident of Maryland where he lives with his wife Donna and two cats. Chris recently retired as a medical editor in Washington, D.C. Besides being an editor of Loch Raven Review, Chris serves as editor at the on-line poetry workshop Desert Moon Review at http://www.thedesertmoonreview.com/. His poetry has appeared in publications worldwide. He is also a songwriter, artist, War of 1812 historian, and Ripperologist. With Northern Ireland historian Dr. John McCavitt, he recently published The Man Who Captured Washington: Major General Robert Ross and the War of 1812 (Oklahoma University Press, 2016).