Russian Letter Summary
by John Yau

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(Poetry for Students)

“Russian Letter,” published in 2002, in the collection Borrowed Love Poems, is a quirky little poem that at first seems to promise to offer a deep meaning of life and the passage of time and what all that means to the individual. Then in the middle of this poem, the narrator appears to change his mind. First, the narrator offers a standard philosophical theory about the makeup of the past and the present and how one reflects upon the other. This philosophical theory is offered through some source, referred to in the phrase, “it is said.” Then the poet casts doubt on the theory; the narrator suggests that maybe this philosophical message goes too far. Just as the reader anticipates an alternative statement by the narrator, the poem offers a surprise ending, which neither provides an argument against the theory nor offers a more stimulating one. Instead, the narrator inserts an artistic memory, an image as beautiful as a Rembrandt painting, leaving the reader with a picture to ponder rather than an answer. If there is an answer to the questions in life, this poem hints that those answers cannot be easily handed over like a gift.

Yau’s “Russian Letter” is the first in a series of six poems, all with the same title. Reading all six of these poems does not necessarily offer an easier task of understanding Yau’s poetry, but it might help the reader to relax in the reading of Yau’s poetry. Rather than attempting to make literal sense of Yau’s poems, the reader needs to merely enjoy the images, the individual couplets, and the sounds of the language. Or as Paisley Rekdal, writing for the International Examiner, described Yau’s poetry, his “writing attempts to mimic the effects of abstract painting in that words or sentences become isolated images that are irreducible as narratives: they exist simply as line and color and tone.” Yau’s poem, “Russian Letter” is like a painting, in other words, one that uses language as its medium.


(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1 through 5

John Yau’s “Russian Letter” is a short poem of ten couplets (pairs of lines), with each couplet offering the reader a brief but fascinating image. Yau has stated that the couplet is one of his favorite poetic forms, offering short but concise reflections on specific themes.

The first couplet in Yau’s “Russian Letter” opens with an image of time and the memories and experiences associated with the passage of time. However, this opening image is not offered as coming from the narrator. Rather, the narrator suggests that the first thoughts of this poem belong to someone else. The narrator begins with the phrase, “It is said.” In other words, there is a widely recognized and affirmed theory that the narrator wants to discuss. This theory is stated as “the past / sticks to the present.” The narrator offers this philosophical statement in such a way that the reader senses (because of the “It is said” phrase) that the narrator will either reinforce or refute this belief later in the poem. By using this opening phrase, “It is said,” the narrator implies both an inherent weakness in the philosophical statement and an awareness that it has perpetuated and is well known. The pronoun “it” locates the power of the statement in tradition, away from the narrator. This signals that the narrator may not agree with the statement at all or, at least, may be skeptical that this statement reflects truth as far as the narrator understands it.

In the second couplet, the narrator expounds on the stickiness of the past to the present. The past is stuck “like glue” to the present. This simile provides an image for the statement. What does it mean for the past to be stuck to the present? And how powerful is the adhesion? After all, some glues can be easily washed away. In the next lines, the narrator makes clear there is a lot of stickiness, using a metaphor , creating the image of flies stuck on tacky paper. Flies are small and frail. If flies are caught on a...

(The entire section is 1,581 words.)