“Do you come for your own sake or for the sake of another?”
This is the question posed in “The Heroine and the Witch,” the first poem of Gala Mukomolova’s recent collection, Without Protection (Coffee House Press). The asker is Baba Yaga, the eponymous witch of the Russian fairy tale of Vasilyssa. The story tells of a young girl, Vasilyssa (often referred to as Vasilisa the Beautiful), whose evil stepmother sends her on an errand to the woodland house of Baba Yaga, where she is trapped in service to the witch. Ultimately, it is her dead mother’s blessing that saves her, because the witch cannot bear to have any sort of blessing in her house.
Reading Without Protection, I began to wonder if this seemingly simple question gives birth to the whole collection. In response, Mukomolova has written Baba Yaga dozens of poems to try and answer it. What follows, in sections each introduced by a Vasilyssa scene, is an inquiry into what it means to live and love in a shared world. It is an inquiry into what it means to be a self, inside and outside of one’s family, one’s community, and inside and outside of the body.
Without Protection is Mukomolova’s first full-length poetry collection, and it knows what it’s doing. Mukomolova, because she is so masterful in her craft, sets her book free to have a life and a logic of its own. The result is a set of poems that manages to be colossal and little all at once, personal and universal. The poems oscillate between confessional and fairy tale, and through all of them the story of Vasilyssa and Baba Yaga in the woods is omnipresent.
Vasilyssa and the poet blur into one fluid narrator, allowing each poem a spanning multidimensionality. Furthering this multidimensionality is the tour through Vasilyssa/Mukomolova’s life, back and forth through grad school, young adulthood, “teenage rituals” (“I saw a woman lunge into the pit”), and childhood. It is in these childhood poems that we see her parents and fall into the tiny tenderness of a little girl. Family, the beautiful and the ugly, the sacred and uncomfortable, is central throughout the collection. One of my favorite passages of the book appears early in “Return”:
We had no songs and few rituals. On Yom Kippur, we lit a candle for the dead
and no one knew a prayer.
We kept the candle lit, that’s all.
The wave always returns, and always returns a different wave.
I was small. I built a self outside myself because a child needs shelter.
Not even you knew I was strange.
I ate the food my family ate, I answered to my name.
Mukomolova, who is an astrologer as well as a poet, has said that she comes from a long line of witches. Well, these last lines cast a spell, reverberating. The disembodiment of being young, the understanding of inevitable difference and inevitable belonging, is at the heart of the work. That feeling follows the narrator through it all, and, like “Baba’s disembodied hand” (“Vasilyssa Comes to Call”), keeps coming back. Hands have a massive presence in Without Protection, once again asking what it is that we do for and to each other. Many of these hands are evoked in the context of sex, but many are not: there are playing cards, joints, liftings. In Baba Yaga’s case, it is disembodiment. However, it is the sweet relief from this discomfort, scattered moments of euphoria, that gives us a gift. “When I was loved I lived at the edge of rooftops,” writes the poet in “Twenty, sunburnt at Brooklyn Pride.” One feels the wind, sees the confetti-laden Brooklyn streets below.
The precarity of living at the edge of rooftops allows for Without Protection’s moments of intense physicality to be beautiful, grotesque, uncomfortable, mundane, and sublime, sometimes all of these things at once. Mukomolova is unafraid to tell us that “All the butterflies in the room are choking on pot smoke” (“A girl brings me home to nothing”) or that “The wrong girl put her hand inside me. Damn it” (“I ask my mother for something small”).
Above all, Without Protection reveres the real, with “found” poems from Mukomolova’s personal “erotic archive.” In the book’s notes, the poet tells us that her erotic archive is “a collection of events mostly but not exclusively sexual in nature, which shaped my sense of self as sexed.” These events materialize in the form of saved emails, transcribed voicemails, poetic and lewd Craigslist ads, and, I’m sure, much more.
Aside from being authentic themselves, these found poems also remind us that any coming-of-age, any realization of self or the myth thereof, is inseparable from the culture surrounding it. Though its poems do often reflect on and converse with each other, Without Protection never claims to bloom in a vacuum. It teems with Americana. Cigarettes, TV, YA novels, and music haunt its pages. Like she does with many of the found poems, Mukomolova, in the notes to her collection, tells us what music means to her. In the note for “Somebody is singing,” Mukomolova tells us that “Lesley Gore was a young lesbian who loved to be young.” The notes are a unique addition to the collection, because, to me at least, it shows that Mukomolova has no intention of or interest in acknowledging the writer-reader dichotomy/hierarchy that is unfortunately often present in poetry collections.
In that vein, the translations provided for the Russian phrases throughout the poems: I do not think that providing translations for foreign language uses in works of literature is always necessary. Intentional foreignness or intentional communication with one specific audience is, obviously, the prerogative of the writer, especially in today’s world of Google Translate. In the case of Without Protection, however, Mukomolova seems to want us with her (and Vasilyssa) every step of the way.
The structure of the book is like a good mixtape. A climb up and down a mountain, or many mountains. First, Mukomolova lets us get to know her, lets us understand what she’s getting at with all of the Vasilyssa stuff. This is where the poems about childhood and teenhood mainly reside. Then, once we’ve taken that journey with her, she lets us into her erotic archive, and the “sexed self” that it created. If the first half of the book was at the edge of rooftops, the second half has jumped over the edge and is doing flips. The last leg of the collection makes jumps into more experimental territory, such as the irreverent “X” in which “each song is a lizard/on the branch/changing/shape.” But, in the end, she will float right back up the edge.
The penultimate poem is about a car ride with her brother. We have met him before, in “My brother,” a sweet poem in which he brings a pet bird to the four-year-old narrator from the market. “My brother” shows him doing only that, in the title/first couple of words of the poem. The rest is about the bird, or, rather, all of what the bird means in the logic of Without Protection:
How she learned to be good: say you are good. How did a bird love me? Midflight. In the crook of my arm, neck, cooing and curled in. How did a bird leave me? I boarded a plane. I gave her away.
Still, when the narrator’s brother returns to us at the end, we remember him as the heroic bringer of the bird. This penultimate poem (“Drunk, one sneaker over the other,”) is a return to the familiar. The final two questions are asked. The first (“Where are we going? He forgot.”) recalls the beginning of Vasilyssa’s journey from the tense inside of her ex-cab driver brother’s car. The second question, from the voice of this brother, is “Don’t you need forgiveness?” Any poet, or outsider, will understand this: the ambiguous need to apologize for our art, apologize for who we are. The final poem, another return to her father, begins, “I was a warm live thing that wanted/to be loved about all others” (“I was a warm live thing”). In Without Protection, we return to the edge of the rooftop, again and again.