REVIEW: The Catalog of Broken Things

"The Sounds You Heard in Your Dreams"

essay/review by LynleyShimat Lys



"Before a moment passes, it is already registered in the catalog of the past. The catalog is not alphabetized."

     ("Your Life as It Is")


The four meditative sections which make up A. Molotkov’s The Catalog of Broken Things surreptitiously converse among themselves across genres, geographies, and temporal spaces. Molotkov demonstrates dexterity in stretching the lyric and formal conventions of language, ranging from the title piece with its play on the crown of sonnets, and the echos of villanelle in the section “Your Life as It Is,” to the hourglass shape of the poems in “The Melting Hourglass,” and the screenplay layout of “The Protagonist’s True Story.” The sections of this work can easily be read as satisfying stand alone pieces, however their full resonance comes into play in the myriad intersections and ways in which they speak to each other, through recurring themes, images, tones, and moods.

The Catalog invites readers to intimate encounters with the work, “In the final experiment, you are the protagonist, and I’m the author. You resent the implications of this assignment. You discard every copy of my account. You pick up a pen and write." (“The Protagonist’s True Story”) As the scenes and spaces of the collection shift and undergo transformations, the narrators negotiate the boundaries of identity, as in the narrator who describes his father,


He holds the map of broken things.

He seeks the most

I listen to his eyes, relearn
his story, welcome
absence into my life.

     (“The Catalog of Broken Things,” 9)

Appearance and disappearance figure largely in the dreamscapes of these pieces. The scene and its inhabitants alter frequently, “The setting changes according to season and century. The raindrops are optional.” (“The Protagonist’s True Story”)

"I don't write in Russian anymore since my conversion to English in 1993, three years after my immigration."
  —A. Molotkov (interview)

Themes of exile and border crossing recur throughout the collection, beginning with a conversation in the first section between the narrator and his late mother on the necessity of passports, “My lips don’t move. // I tell her, / That thing you said was true. / I’ve applied for my passport. (“Catalog of Broken Things,” 14), and continuing through the disorienting scene changes encountered by the narrator in the last section,


Your son is humming a tune in the next room, something vague under his breath. The melody is familiar, but hard as you try, you can’t place it. When you enter the room, it’s empty. You remember what happened to your son.

     ("Your Life as It Is")

This last section in particular maintains a taut balance between the matter of fact statements and their off putting implications.

"I avoid the names of local figures, historical personages, anecdotes of a particular culture, geographical locations. I’m also obsessed with avoiding gender specificity in poetry . . . I attempt to write intuitively vs. analytically and to target the readers’ emotions before thoughts. But one can never predict how a reader might react to the text. The finished work is that unique one-on-one interaction."
  —A. Molotkov (interview)

“Your Life as It Is,” which was originally written in Russia, hovers between the specificity of the Soviet and post-Soviet context, and the broader dissonance which comes with drastic social and spatial reconfigurations. The section is structured in a variation of the villanelle, with the opening stanza, “You wake up in the morning. / You go outside. / This is your life as it is,” (“Your Life as It Is”) serving as recurring lines of sections on each page. The protagonists of these prose poems, addressed in the second person “you,” negotiate rapidly changing geographies and sensory landscapes,


You wake up in the morning. The world’s silence puzzles you. The birds, the cars and the ocean all decided to take a break at the same time. Then you remember about your recent hearing loss. The sounds you heard in your dreams were transmissions from the past.

     ("Your Life as It Is")

"Why does a life matter? A literary work? Beyond these inquiries that push at the edges of my own identity, I’m interested in the boundary between environment and self. What of self is essential, irrepressible through a change in circumstances?"
  —A. Molotkov (interview)

Along with the changing landscapes, the protagonists of this section face unstable elements of identity as well, “You walk outside and find yourself on another street, next to another house. You might have been a different person all along, or perhaps there is a better explanation for all of this.” (“Your Life as It Is”) The only constant becomes the changes themselves, "You go outside. The snow has melted before falling again. The world looks as if nothing had changed. This is what happens when changes replace changes. You close your eyes." ("Your Life as It Is")

The poems in this collection range from the whimsical to meditations on state surveillance, “You wake up in the morning. A boom microphone is placed over your bed, and in the window, a poorly concealed camera muzzle can be seen.” (“Your Life as It Is”) They challenge the relationship between narrator, author, and reader, “In the final experiment, I’m the rabbit, and you, the wheat field. I press my haunches into your fertile soil, each leap eternal. You are tender under me. You make many sounds. The air smells of grass. Then you are the eagle, your swoop smooth and elegant, like a long parenthesis. I’m still the rabbit.” (“The Protagonist’s True Story”) These poems also remind us of the possibilities afforded by radical changes in viewpoint, 


You have tried to mark your every turn so you can make your way out of the labyrinth. But the paint has run out. Knights and bishops are laughing at you from a nearby hill. Then you notice that the walls are two feet high. If you hadn’t looked down all your life you would have realized this sooner.

     ("Your Life as It Is")

"I think of literary genres as different dances a dancer might practice, each expressing its joy and message in its own way, but sharing the same moves, relying on the same muscles."
  —A. Molotkov (interview)

The constituent sections of The Catalog of Broken Things work together to blur the boundaries between dream and waking; between author, narrator, and reader; and between formal and free verse. They problematize the distinction between long poem, short story, and screen/play in verse, opening a variety of possibilities for hybrid work across these genres and in their marginal spaces. The stitching together of the sections through common themes, images, and dissonances creates an organic whole without coercing the broken fragments into a formally determined order. The reader emerges better for having been considered, challenged by, and enveloped into the currents of these shifting lyrical dreamscapes.


LynleyShimat Lys (MFA, Queens College- CUNY, Poetry and Translation, 2016) is a PhD candidate in English and poetry editor of the Hawai'i Review. Lynley co-chaired the panel "Now What? Everyday Resistance in the Middle East," at Split This Rock! Poetry Festival 2016 with Nomi Stone, Phil Metres, and M. Lynx Qualey. Recent work appears in Drunken Boat online. Other activities include reviewing Judaica for "Religious Studies Review," and serving as a multi-genre reader for the Atlas Review.