Detonation from Contrast: Ella Zelterserman’s Small things left behind


It’s been more than thirty years and Ella Zeltserman is still homesick for many small things – like bouquets of tiny forest flowers sold by babushkas in the market, and an old coat lost and forgotten that she guessed “like Gogol’s, went for a stroll/along noisy Nevsky” visiting well-remembered sights and shops (“coat”). The book’s title is both ironic and exact – it was hardly a small thing for a young couple to escape with their child from the Soviet Union and relocate to Edmonton, Alberta, at a time (1979) when their government viewed unsanctioned emigration as defection treasonous to the State – but the cost of their newfound safety was displacement, virtually forever, from home and family, all the “small things” that make up everyday life, the people, places, foods and flowers she grew up with, familiar and treasured. Contrary to the view that people are easily separated from family, from home and from the past, a recent piece in the New York Times points out that “this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.”

Here the drama of escape looms large. In 1973, western nations had made liberalizing the Soviet emigration policy a prerequisite for lifting trade barriers, resulting in the emigration of a limited number of Soviet citizens, mostly ethnic Jews:

thousands of people worldwide
march for our freedom
in front of the Soviet consulates.
In the end, ‘The Party’ sells us. (“let my people go”).

Zeltserman was among the lucky who cheered when the pilot of the plane carrying them to the west announced they had left the USSR border (“airborne”). Nothing must be left behind to incriminate family (“end of my life in a box”): “My brother starts the fire in the water tank/in the bathroom.” It must be undetected, this bonfire of photos of school friends, notebooks, love letters – “the years up in flames.” Without small mementos such as these, many images of the old life will henceforth be summoned solely from memory. The poem “unraveling,” for example, evokes from everyday smells and tastes the harsh realities of deprivation and repression – dried apricots made into delicacies, their polished pits cracked open for the nut; pilaf made from vegetables from the small garden of a friend who “disappeared during the early sixties/when the government cracked down … that’s the aroma of pilaf”).

Just such small things stand in for what may be considered larger moments in history, if by small we mean the individual, and by large events that affect the collective. Zeltserman brings us again and again the felt experience of one person during regime-wide events both as they played out, and afterwards. “Striped cake” was baked in black and white layers:

I live them both
juggling all these long years,
the happiness of being
the despair of being apart.

Energy detonates from contrasts: everyday realities within feared state controls; life in Leningrad/St. Petersburg versus adaptive life in Edmonton.As a whole, the book comprises a narrative that repays reading in sequence, but individual poems often stop us in our tracks with their felicity, clarity and compression. This collection is deeply felt, memorable for the power that bursts from the deceptive simplicity of its telling.


Barbara Myers is an Ottawa writer. She is the author of the poetry collection Slide and has contributed frequently to Arc.



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