For someone for whom the word “historical” has always had connotations of “stuffy” and “boring”, historical fiction has held little interest. Therefore I was expecting Shelley Puhak’s recent chapbook Stalin In Aruba (published by Black Lawrence Press) to be a dull read. In actuality the collection is impressively strong, and conveys a surprising variety of depth and feeling.
Despite his titular presence, the erstwhile dictator is not the main focus of the collection. Although his presence is to be felt in several of the poems (such as “Stalin, Alone” and “The Dictator’s Daughter from a Nursing Home in Wisconsin”, both of which paint him in a very human light), he seems to be more of a recurring theme than a focal point around which the whole collection moves.
In fact, many other historical figures do feature prominently in Stalin In Aruba. In “My Life With Perseus” we see the Greek legend of Perseus and Medusa relocated to a modern American high school, and in “Torch” we are told of the people behind three suicides by self-immolation that occured in the 1960s.
Although to some degree fictionalised, these poems are rarely frivolous. Puhak has done her research. A glance through the notes section reveals several annotations that are almost poems in themselves. A fine example can be seen in the note that accompanies “Meeting the Secret Police Chief, 1930”:
“The poet Osip Mandelstam and the future secret police chief Yezhov both vacationed at the same resort on the Black Sea in 1930. The men met and even dined together. Eight years later Mandalstam would die in a forced labour camp.”
It is the authenticity of these poems that is their strength. Even those that do not deal with a certain historical figure are richly woven and dense with a feel of personal history. In fact, it is some of the more obscure pieces that showcase Puhak’s best work. Take these lines from “The Alumni Magazine” for example:
“You look back and you either feel better
or you feel worse about the days
you spent silent, curled up in your chair.
You wore your uniform skirt
short, like all of the girls,
but you had a slouch, sloping
into hips, that made you look bored
and back then, that was
all there was to looking smart.”
The sense of intimate personal knowledge that permeates this poem is typical of the others in the collection. For its unique texture Stalin In Aruba is a consistently engrossing read. This first collection is a confident debut by a quietly talented writer.