Alice in Winterland

Growing up in Whitley Bay, Julie Egdell never knew how much she had in common with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. But when she went to work in St Petersburg she discovered that she was the spitting image of the Russian version of Alice – not Tenniel’s blonde school-girl, but the dark-haired ‘Alisa’ of Soviet illustrated children’s stories, sarcastic and cruel and very Russian. A new city, a new language and a new identity. What could possibly go wrong?

Alice in Winterland is the story of a strange and subversive wonderland, of a worm who thinks he is a caterpillar and the Baba Yaga who became a witch. It’s a book about life in post-Soviet Russia, mad hatters, tears and temptations. It is a story of exile, heartbreak, loneliness and longing, about falling down a cultural and linguistic rabbit hole.

Author photo credit: Hannah Halbreich

Sample Poems

Alisa v Stranye Chudes

I fell down
the rabbit hole.
Now I wear the rabbit
as a coat.

Its skin smells
salty and ancient.
Its fur a gift
for the long winter.

In wonderland
they call me Alisa –
only Alice here is nasty,
not nice.

Black hair,
strong cheekbones,
acid tongued
and scowling.

She is carved
from the permafrost.
Eyes like chipped sapphires.
Выпей меня

on the vodka bottle –
the drink makes you
stronger and healthier,
or shrinks and blinds you,

depending on the brand.
In wonderland
cats don’t grin
and the caterpillar

is a sick worm
sending tasty smoke rings
dancing in karaoke bars
that never sleep.

Eшь меня.
I eat Soviet donuts
in grandma’s kitchen.
Everything tastes

of survival.
What is this world?
Vertical villages
hide soviet

complacency
mixed with Slavic pride.
The tower block reads
Настя ятебя

Nastya ya tibya lyublu
Nastya I love you.
Each floor
a different letter.

How did he do it –
scale the side
of the block
on a rope?

And why?
Had Nastya died?
Maybe a fight?
Did Nastya feel the same?

Alongside blocks
monuments to capitalism –
MEGA malls
and McDonald’s.

And then, further out,
dachas built by hand
from forest wood
in the war.

Embarrassments
to nouveau Russia’s
mansions.
The villages of Piter

a playground
for the rich.
Traffic jams –
Lada’s next to Land Rovers.

In wonderland
we feed
birds and squirrels
by hand,

grow our own
in the absence of
currency –
we know

that supermarket stuff
comes from Chernobyl.
We pick mushrooms and berries –
grandma knows which

don’t kill you
or send you crazy.
Every year in Spring
police extract

cars and people
from the Neva –
those who went ice fishing
wound up being the catch.

In wonderland
I am a stranger.
I drink tea
from china cups

in tiny apartments
shared by big families,
without choices.
In wonderland

snowflakes
are innocence.
Dust and dirt
homeless and limbless

vanish in the snow.
It washes away the past,
and changing, it rests.
Canals freeze over

the long winter grips.
In wonderland
there’s no evil queen,
but years of evil kings.

Deformed foetuses,
pickled in vodka,
line palace walls.
Whispers of

an evil
that never
sleeps.

In the Wood of No Names

I am asked
кто ты?
Who are you?

But can’t
remember.
First they call

me Yulia,
then Alisa –
on account

of my being
English
and dark haired.

In this Soviet city
there were no childhoods
watching capitalist Disney.

They tell me
I am just like her.
In the absence

of you,
my imagined
paradise,

there can only be
drowning
of voices.

I have lost hope.
You cut
my hair,

I bought
your clothes.
You sang to me,

I read to you.
You rolled
the joints,

I poured
the drinks.
Usually we said

what we meant.
But sometimes
we didn’t.

You went
wherever I led
and I left the

breadcrumbs
of my heart
in all our places

in place of
your passion.
But later

I couldn’t find my way back –
you had eaten
them all.

The Real Alisa

Sweet Alisa
all grown up.
Adulthood is
so destroying.

A plastic surgeon
you spend your days
telling patients
it’s dangerous

to talk.
Spend your nights eating
99 Kopeck ice cream
with your daughter.

Dreaming of a land
where husbands
could be
at home.

You remember
childhood summers
at your grandfather’s dacha
in the Ukraine.

Collecting warm
eggs at dawn,
the bitterness of
berries

ripe from the sun.
One day he dies,
suddenly,
and you, at 33,

notice
childhood
is gone.
You cried

that day.
Learning English
because you too
believe there is

a better life,
a better place.
You fall in love
with me –

the English Alice
of your childhood.
Because you still believe
in wonderland.

Disney Alice

A young scientist
who works in a cafe
decides upon a theme –
Alice in Wonderland.

She has long, blonde hair
emerald eyes which hurt
what they touch.
A hidden smile.

She thinks I am Alice.
She falls in love with me
and England, but gets
to know us better.

She borrows a white rabbit.
Dresses as the Disney Alice,
the inventor of a dreamland
in a Petergof cafe,

but is disappointed –
Petergof ’s MEGA mall
shoppers don’t know
Disney Alice.

Where is your dark hair?
Your sarcastic smile?
Your sharp fringe?
Your white dress?

Reviews

‘These Alisa poems give Julie Egdell the means of exploring her life beyond the North-East, poems sent back as postcards from the edge of language, from economic and cultural exile, examining language and the discourses of the self through geographic shift and the forbidden look over the shoulder.’

Bob Beagrie

‘an unflinching writer with an unnervingly clear eye for the telling detail or unsettling truth that digs under the surface of the everyday, her willingness to journey to the edges of both domestic and on-the-road experiences and her toughness with language has given her an original voice – female, imaginative, erudite but with working class authenticity that really makes for poetry with an edge. She is a significant poet.’

Andy Willoughby