The Catalog of Broken Things – Anatoly Molotkov
Differences of character, author, and reader appear written in stone. However, Anatoly Molotkov’s mesmerizing first book of poems, The Catalog of Broken Things, reveals such borders are dotted lines. “You remember your own memories better than your past,” the speaker tells us near the end of the book, reminding us how our fictions penetrate our life stories. Even the position of speaker proves unstable in the book’s explorations, often switching places with the reader who typically constructs a speaking voice out of her own identity presumably outside a book. The Russian-born American Molotkov, who began writing English in 1993, challenges this external place of the reader in one of his “Melting Hourglass” poems:
I unwrap myself
like a delicate candy
but to whose tongue
does it belong?
is there anything left
after the wrapper?
This question doesn’t just recognize the ephemeral pleasures of poetry. It also inserts or “inflects” the poem into the reader’s own mental processes. As a founding editor of the Inflectionist Review, Molotkov uses the term “inflect” to describe his poetics. We inflect, or mirror a world, rather than reflect upon the world. The mental processes of making and matching are not fully distinguishable
The collection is a four-part collage: “The Catalog of Broken Things,” “The Protagonist’s True Story,” “The Melting Hourglass,” “Your Life As It Is.” The first and third sections feature short lines; the second and fourth present predominantly prose poems with stanzas of varying length. This sequencing of constriction and expansion simulates something like a now in, now out, flow of heart and mind. In this flux, we struggle to discern the enormous shadow of the real from the tiny shadow of what we create, as in this passage from section one:
My daughter’s hands are made
reflecting only my own
Is this how she thinks
of me, or I of her?
She is a shadow without offspring.
The second section offers a way of thinking about these existential problems the
speaker presents us with. Blocks of prose alternate with shorter, indented ones that begin with
the phrase “in the final experiment,” as in these lines: “In the final experiment, you are the
typist, / and I’m the letter I.” The point is that no final experiment puts to rest such matters of
who does what to whom. The collection induces and frustrates any settled image again and
again. The writing places a rug under us to reveal the lack of a floor, or, as Molotkov puts it on
the last page of his book, “You go outside, but the outside is gone.” His tactics bring to mind the
Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of art as an “ostranenie,” or a “defamiliarization” that an
artist must put into play “to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Molotkov makes the
stone stony, revealing his poetry as both a sensation of the world and a world itself.
Riddles of estrangement and engagement begin with the first line of the collection: “I let
my dead mother in.” The dead but not at rest mother living inside the speaker, we are told,
“holds the map of broken things / for my catalog.” She is the missing conduit through which the
speaker has come to learn of life’s fundamental uncertainties:
She knows suns
and moons fail in the end. Boats
sink, rot. Marble
crumbles. And now, I
know it, too. I’m used to this
exit of others, this betrayal
The book offers a journey of disorder and disappearance. As in life, one must find a way. Conspicuously in search of some lasting order, no life or book can provide, Molotkov’s Catalog ends with the reappearance of a dead mother only this time – for the first time in the book– she is now, “your dead mother…surprised to see you.” The implication is that it doesn’t matter a bit to our imagined memories whether she is alive or dead, absent or present. We exist in a zone together, and no passport beyond being born needs be issued to enter into that still-life zone incapable of being walled off. Alternatively, we are all exiles from our mother’s body upon birth. Molotkov, a Russian immigrant to America whose own mother remained in Russia until her death, writes erasure and discovery into every line of his book.
A passport as both legal document and as poetic zone of rapture or transport is
active as a symbol from the first page. The speaker has his dead mother come to life like a
puppet seeking refuge:
My mother brings a pillow full of
her own hair, soft like dawn.
She grew it all her life, and after.
She sleeps lighter with her head
on her own past.
The past, her only coin.
Her lips don’t move. She says,
Where is your passport?
The speaker in the last lines of section one answers her, “that thing you said was true. / I’ve applied for my passport.” This impending emigration from mother and homeland echoes the book’s first lines where the speaker let the mother in, an exile of death as well as the source of his life:
I let my dead mother in.
She’s lonely out there on her own.
Her ears are seashells
empty of sea.
She carries me among her bones
where her womb was.
These are harrowing lines whose scope widens in the course of the book to approach something like a vision of our shared humanity.
When it comes to having mothers dead or alive, our personal pronouns prove interchangeable. Molotkov’s shifting use of pronouns throughout the book – my mother, your mother, my wife, your wife, my husband, your husband – indicates how life stories readily exchange. Pronominal shifts suggest something like a verbal anamorphosis as in this passage from “The Melting Hourglass”:
you watch me
through the lens of a telescope
my shining eyes magnified
you know me
you trust me
you run to me
there’s no one here
Repeated allusions to chess in the final section, “Your Life as It Is,” symbolize our silly rule-bound expectations about mine and yours as well as the weird unpredictabilities of living our own life while playing at shared games. The king and the queen “take up residence off the board.” “The smoke from their barbecue causes you to tear up in fake grief.” Such writing gently, comically, throws a stone into our hall of mirrors so easy to mistake for life. Molotkov’s humor prevents the iconoclastic voyage from going sour or dour as reader and writer face and become each other:
In the final experiment, you are the
protagonist, and I’m the author. You
resent the implications of this assignment.
You discard every copy of my account.
You pick up a pen and write.
From my own reading of this work, I can attest to its spillover force, its ability to reach beyond the page and inspire. Perhaps it will do for you what it has for me. Or, in Molotkov’s encouraging words from “The Melting Hourglass”:
you said something distant
something I missed
from my perspective
you are far ahead