In Our Orbit

In Our Orbit

Reviews of Grace Schulman's The Paintings of Our Lives and Stephen F. Cohen's Failed Crusade.


The Paintings of Our Lives Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia


Brushes With Poetry

"Before the hour I cried, 'Let there be light!'/I tossed out some three hundred early versions./Revisions help. What clatter in the firmament,/though, when mountains fell, stars fizzled out," intones a God with both an authorial work ethic and a puckish sense of humor in Grace Schulman's The Paintings of Our Lives. And we've seen that authorial wink before: In this, the Nation poetry editor's fourth collection, she carries on with concerns we first noted in For That Day Only, Hemispheres and Burn Down the Icons.

Schulman writes a personal poetry that is both warm and clever; religion seems to float in as lightly as a chorale in the background, when it isn't coloring our lives outright: "Through leaded windowpanes, the light pours down/less on the holy figures than on objects/waiting to be used, that tell the story: a fringed towel hung askew, a kettle-laver,//unlit wall sconces, the windblown pages/of a book laid open on a table," she writes in the title poem. "Somewhere are the paintings of our lives,/invisible to us," she continues; the search for that underlying canvas permeates much of Schulman's work. (The poem is based on a triptych of the annunciation by Flemish master Robert Campin; many of Schulman's poems are based on or make reference to a historical context, object or event–e.g., "Henry James Revisiting, 1904"–in the process creating a tension between the reader's expectation and the poet's play with the concept. (One of her favorite techniques is to juxtapose historical context and modern detail for effect: In "Balm in Gilead" we move from Jeremiah to the traditional black spiritual to the underside of the California condor, "once thought doomed,/now flapping wide like the first bird from ashes.") Schulman's poems are learned and serious–the transom of death and the transcendence of delight in the physical are among her major concerns–but she is a poet of joy verging on prankish as well, speaking to us tongue in cheek, often as not. Schulman closes the book with a series of fifteen sonnets about the death of her mother. The book's last words: "Praise life."


Russia Without Blinders

"During President Bush's first months in office, his administration showed no signs of understanding the immediate need for cooperative measures designed to help stabilize Russia's economy and nuclear infrastructure and avoid any kind of new arms race," warns Stephen F. Cohen, Nation contributing editor, former "Sovieticus" columnist and currently professor of Russian studies and history at New York University. In fact, beyond the government, the press and professoriate appear to be working in tandem with the same set of blinders, as Cohen's updated edition of Failed Crusade finds the vexing problems of statecraft and vision that existed in the effort to remake Russia in our image during the Yeltsin years still at work. Journalists have been "stubbornly missionary and uncritical of their own professional record," ignoring horrific conditions inside the country or explaining them away, Cohen reports. A top editor of the Washington Post and former correspondent "saw no tragedy to explain" on a visit to Russia this April, remarking that the "debris" he observed was "a sign of prosperity." Worst of all, writes Cohen, "in 2001 America's Russia-watchers were still sleepwalking through the new nuclear era, seemingly unaware that lethal dangers in the country they study now exceed any in history." And "scholarly Russia watchers seem equally oblivious," with the head of Russian studies at a major university denouncing Moscow's own economic proposals to stabilize the country as "neo-Sovietism" and a Carnegie Endowment economist urging more "shocks" to Russia's economy and society. The Clinton Administration, its time running out, "continued to insist, contrary to all evidence, that the crusade it had launched eight years before was still on course." But a new Russia policy is possible "only by replacing those dangerous anachronisms with common sense, political-diplomatic thinking, and the imperative of mutual security interests–that is, authentic cooperation," Cohen writes. His argument is all the more trenchant in the aftermath of September 11, which showed in a very small way what is at stake.

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