Elisavietta Ritchie’s new and collected poems, Babushka’s Beads: A Geography of Genes, Poets Choice, finds the poetess in top form, and is an excellent starting place for the uninitiated and a great collection for enthusiasts. Ritchie’s Russian heritage is on display here, and in the author’s forward she discusses the clock at the center of the inspiration for some of the new poems, and their narratives.
The book shuffles poems and pictures creating a poetic historical slideshow through Ritchie’s ancestry, which, is exotic, and romantic. Russophiles rejoice, for Beads drips with Russian mystery, some of it austere, others more dangerous. The book opens on foreign soil, where the speaker searches history for clues about relatives who served in the military. In “Orders to a Scribe,” history and its danger becomes a “dagger,” fierce a “lizard swiftness
spears me,” and here Ritchie hits the danger of history, and our position looking back on it. We see, all too perfectly well, the cracks in the facade, the “half-baked campaigns” and the out lived palaces.
As a collected works, Beads showcases Ritchie’s grand style, breathless lines that cascade down; her eye and ear for a poem’s individual foot highly attuned. She’s in narrative form for most of this collection, acting as curator and guide. In “Guest of Honor” Ritchie’s stylistic flair perfectly clocks the surprise of a birthday guest, “She has visited me several times/Not during the year right after she died/while buying her ticket to spend/one more birthday with us.” And the poem synthesizes the best moments of family ritual: a “wink,” “dabs of icing.” Beads is not a ruby lensed look back to the good old days, rather Ritchie manages to remind the reader that this collection is focused on family, those moments of human connection that appear in our lives in small fragile moments. But that’s also true for the parts of history that haunt us. It’s not just the moments where you feel connected to your mother or aunt, but also the ghosts. The pain is the upside down of memory, and Ritchie dices it up with her composed, graceful lines. “We...distribute coats we cannot bear to see/ hang empty and hope not to know/ who wears those shoes donated to thrift,” and there’s actual ghosts too, adding to the exotic flavor, not just our mundane “things” like books, or watches, that carry on a little bit of our spirit after we die.
Impressively, Ritchie has arranged this collection with photographs of some of the subjects, as well as organized the collection to provide a chronological narrative of her family. Her father’s war history acts a bridge to more familiar America. In the lovely elegy “While It Rains” her father’s “elbows and knees/fold and close/like the dull blades/of his pocket knife,” and later in “Root Soup, Boxing Day” his death becomes a retelling of stone soup; her father the poor soldier asking for food during the war. The military and service to one’s country is one of the constance's across the generations. A tradition rich in imagery that Ritchie mines throughout the ages.
Babushka’s Beads contains an addendum featuring cover art submissions for the collection by University grad students, a sharp addition to an already fine collection.