What a gift: a new book of searingly intelligent poems from a uniquely eloquent poet. Gut-wrenching honesty, spiritual courage, and unflinching vision are what it takes to visit Medusa’s Country. It’s not easy to find a guide to take you there, but Larissa Shmailo is ready for the job. She spares herself—and her reader—no pains in the search for home, drawing on the experience of her immense challenges—prostitution, alcoholism, drugs and insanity—and her immense advantages—a gift for poetic form, a razor-sharp mind, the spirit of a mystic, and a deep intimacy with world literature and culture— to share with us precious and hard-learned lessons: the necessity not only to survive but to triumph, and the crucial place of art and culture in that achievement. Brace yourself. Medusa’s Country is a book to savor, and Larissa Shmailo, novelist, translator, and poet of urgent maturity and resonant depth, is a writer to watch.
—Annie Finch, author of A Poet’s Craft
Medusa peels herself from the pages of mythology to become a denizen of New York City’s margins. There, she waltzes with Thanatos: “The dance with death? / Ah, this: as I flirt, you draw near.” When Eros shows up, he lures Medusa on a peregrination toward self. She packs her poet’s suitcase of prosody and nuanced rhymes. Along the way, the gorgon assumes other personae, including a whore named Nora. These poems lead the reader through histories of misogyny and sexual abuse. Convinced of her prowess, this Medusa stares into the mirror, where she confronts distorted notions of normalcy. Despite landing on a psychiatric ward, she frees herself with sardonic wit and blade-sharp language. With verve, with chutzpah, with urgency, Larissa Shmailo’s poems are spells, transforming stone into flesh and death into an affirmation of life.
—Dean Kostos, author of This Is Not a Skyscraper
Reading Larissa Shmailo's hypnotic Medusa's Country feels to me like cracking open a rare blue lobster to find a cache of rich, luscious green stuff contained within a living thing. At the heart of this viscerally dictioned masterwork of myth and ritual is an uncompromising dedication to formal poetic innovation. These poems parse matters of sex and literature, of life and death, not only of "I, Shmailo, dervish, a lover signed," but of all who walk the questioning edges of sound, sense and what poetry can do to you.
—Lee Ann Brown, author of Other Archer and In the Laurels, Caught
There are days I am bored with poetry and days I think it is a waste of human effort. Reading Larissa Shmailo’s collection reminds me why I love the genre and proves what kinds of beauty and intelligence can exist in language. There is a lyric lift to every line and a direct honesty in every message that heartens me and renews me. The poems in this book deserve to be read and read again. I thank the poet for the renewal of faith.
—Okla Elliott, author of The Cartographer’s Ink and From the Crooked Timber
Medusa’s Country lies somewhere between the medulla oblongata & the soul. piercing the body as you enter into it. lying in wait for the reader are many headed poems, some venomous, others painfully sweet, yet filled with melancholy & longing. some are songs about songs. arrhythmic rhymes that seduce the psyche. brutally honest & at times, frightening. rarely serene. all based in the mythology of what we refer to as “reality.” engaged with & trapped within their own freedoms. greco-roman images lying naked beside woody allen’s bad jokes, engulfing the elements, earth, stone, air, water with their “suicidal impulses,” varied forms & dreams. what is revealed is a mind tortured by its own beauty, anger & distress. a heart filled with emotions, denials, betrayals & refusals. self-denial & self-assurance. pride. pimps. hookers. lonely homeless “aliens.”
this is a dance with death, love & an abundant ability to caress language & all its nuances. “the dead are dead, but not within me, my holocaust today, forever my bread.” a new archaic modernism much needed in a world of false romanticism & post-post language-oriented verse where the beauty of word/image has all but been subverted, seduced, abandoned & forgotten. even as shmailo decries “larissa’s rose is sick & consuming me” what we feel, beside extreme empathy, is the strength of her life force/breath as it forges onward while pondering even plundering itself. there are love poems that “crack…the force of gravity.” pleas. accusations. threats. drug induced psychoses. confessions of an often poisoned “being” who is so aware of the poison in others. “your heart beats not for me…your empty heart…you’ll be my heart / a numb flexible pleasure.” reach out & allow these poems touch you with their passions as they “turn particles into power.”
—steve dalachinsky nyc sept. 2016
To the Thanatos Within Me
Dear friend of ferment,
who unearths the worm
that enrich this blissful human soil,
promising the end of eternal roil:
I embrace you, dear shadow,
my revelatory friend;
dear suicidal impulse; today
I dream of the parapets above
A la Vieille Russie, and
of splattering near the Plaza
where Woody Allen wooed young girls,
leaving a bit of me
on the Strand Bookstand,
near the park and the seals—
but this is too vibrant and real.
Better to find myself alone
in a porcelain tub
with chamomile bath oil …
(as if I needed to be calm;
there is eternity for that),
listening to Verdi’s Requiem,
holding a razor, or better still,
to poison myself with small
scored pills, avoiding arsenic
and the Bovary traps
of indigestion, detection;
best with caplets, red carafes
of wine or Guinness brew—
(who wouldn’t want to quaff a few?)
What catharsis there is in the dive,
the gesture, the infinite jest,
the slash, the brush (its own fire),
the dance with death?
Ah, this: as I flirt, you draw near,
chingon to my chingada
bite my ear, stop my breath—
who else could do that?
Te quiero, my Mescal, my absinthe,
my blue cyanosing corps, my Mayakovsky,
my you …
Was this a mistake? Is it too late… ?
You bite my ear, take up my rear, whisper:
The Sun is hot and bothered, and libidinal, having fathered
all our mendicants and tycoons, cops and robbers, and our rife loons.
The Earth below is verdant, child of Eros, green, exultant
for solar love would bask her with his sure heat and not task her,
but treasure all her madmen, all her masters and their bondsmen,
thus offering a devotion of which our Gaia has no notion.
The fickle Earth presumes a love from solar powers as enough;
Her denizens expect the same and bask in glory with no name.
Now, the music of the spheres should play loud in one's own ears
But creation's power's assumed, and unheard by all us loons.