Deeply political and deeply personal, Stalin in Aruba is a startling debut. Puhak recreates the past in shocking and vibrant detail. This collection takes on the sweeping breadth of history by delving deeply into specific moments, specific voices that resonate and haunt. The movement between wars is so deft that time blurs and what remains is exquisite sorrow and strange joy. Puhak has me hooked. This is a poet to keep your eye on!
—Julianna Baggott, author of The Madam and Lizzie Borden in Love
Shelley Puhak’s stunning first book of poems is not so much a voyage but a zigzagging from one strange and fascinating port to another: Hitler’s lovers, lady laudanum drinkers, a high-school Proteus, gypsies, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X, a Polish refugee who triples her weight after marriage, and a cemetery of life stories. And throughout it all is Stalin, not the historical character, but the everyday Stalin who dances with his aunts, blackmails Lenin’s widow, even pens a poem. Stalin haunts this collection, a sinister guardian angel and one we must all acknowledge when we are too ambitious or too full of ourselves or have lost, even if only temporarily, our gift for kindness and generosity and love. Let the zigzagging begin! —John Surowiecki, author of The Hat City after Men Stopped Wearing Hats
Shelley Puhak’s Stalin in Aruba recalls Philip Sidney’s dictum that “the best of the historian is subject to the poet; for whatsoever action, or faction, whatsoever counsel, policy, or war stratagem the historian is bound to recite, that may the poet . . . make his own, beautifying it.” In a language surprisingly intimate, sometimes downright heartbreaking, these poems expose the subtle dynamics not only of Joseph Stalin’s nefarious private world — in which women are as easily erased as adulated — but of Nazi Germany, American suburbia, post-Communist Eastern Europe , even “Lady Laudanum Drinkers” of the nineteenth century. “Simplicity and clarity always obfuscate: / actions become ideas we only squint at,” writes Puhak in this collection’s remarkable title poem. Yet in lucid poems sometimes impassioned as dramatic monologues, sometimes measured by the poet’s own equanimity, Puhak stirs life into some of history’s unseen participants — as her music crackles like “sneakers/ on leaves” and her imagery shimmers like “bleached teeth and winking diamond rings/ [that] blur together — simply dazzling!” —John Gery, author of Gallery of Ghosts and Davenport’s Version