In Lori Cayer’s fourth book of poetry, Mrs Romanov, she beautifully crafts an intimate and passionate interior life for Alexandra Feodorovna, the last tsarina of Imperial Russia. Perhaps because we are so familiar with her story–Feodorovna, her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, their five children, and four family associates, were executed in 1918 during the civil war that broke the centuries old hold of the Romanov family over Russia–Cayer begins with that ending in the book’s devastating opening poem “The Past is a Dream, All Earthly Things Slip Away”. When she writes: “… a face of bad news / steps forward, reads a proclamation / his hand is a gun going off … he seems to have shot Nicky / did he just shoot Nicky dead?” (7), it is Alexandra’s voice we hear, Alexandra speaking her last words.
Following this stunning opening poem, Cayer’s imagined first person narrative unfolds chronologically in two parts–the first in paired lines and the second in paired sections alternately titled “the Rule” and “the Light”. In the first part of the book, Cayer’s Alexandra speaks about her fear that she may carry the so-called Royal Disease of hemophilia, her efforts to manage the disease once it presents in her only son–including her fraught relationship with the Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin–her isolation in her adoptive country, and her difficult political position. In “Each room as we left it, befallen”, the spectre of hemophilia first presents. Cayer writes: “my list of dead begins before memory / baby brother tumbles from a window / a blood-flower blooms in his head / and puts him to sleep” (11). Later, after Alexandra’s fifth child, the longed-for male heir, “… bleeds till he is limp” (32), Cayer writes: “I did this to my boy / as Granny’s veins did to her own son” (32). In lines like “we mothers of bleeders / stand trembling amidst blood’s indifference” (32), “a bruise-garden beneath his clothes” (49), and “Alexei’s pale body emits a sound that flays the long nerves / his pain a white rending, inside a red war” (52), Cayer’s Alexandra becomes every woman, expressing the universal anguish of a mother for her child.
While hemophilia plays a prominent role in Alexandra’s story, so too does her complicated relationship with Nicholas and the deplorable state of the country and its people. In “Love opened in my belly, like God’s sore wings”, Alexandra speaks about her attraction to Nicholas in the gorgeous lines, “his northern eyes hang on me like loosened silk / blue as the sky’s imagination; he sees me entire” (14). Later, in “Forgive me, But I don’t like the choice for Minister of War”, we can feel the realities of Russian politics and family duties accumulate and press in on Alexandra. When she says, “I will not apologize for asking to be made Regent / while Nicky leads the war from the front / he’s only a telegram away and I’ve told him / Use me, I have trousers on unseen” (61), Cayer skillfully meshes history’s Alexandra with the woman we are coming to know in Mrs. Romanov.
The second part of the book takes place after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas in March of 1917, and follows the Romanov family into house arrest. Most of the titles of the poems in this section are place names and dates, a progression that leads inevitably to Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg, the site of their execution. Here, Cayer’s altered structure reinforces the family’s loss of status and autonomy, and their precarious situation. The end of the story begins in the poem “Ekaterinburg, July, week 3”, when Cayer writes: “the Rule: the atmosphere around us is fairly electrified” (123), and “the Light: though the storm is coming nearer and nearer / our souls are at peace” (123).
While history has much to say about Alexandra Feodorovna, her turbulent life and abundant failures, Cayer delivers a compassionate and fully-embodied Alexandra, her voice at once intimate, demanding, petulant and loving. Informed by themes of gender, marriage, motherhood, and power, Mrs. Romanov is a generous portrait of a woman both formed by and constrained within the flawed construct of European aristocracy near the end of the Victorian era – a most compelling read.
Lori Cayer is the author of three previous poetry collections: Dopamine Blunder (Tightrope Books, 2016), Attenuations of Force (Frontenac House, 2010) and Stealing Mercury (The Muses’ Company, 2004).
by Lori Cayer
The Porcupine’s Quill, 2018, 128 pp., $16.95
Jody Baltessen is an archivist and poet in Winnipeg.