Memories loom large in 'small things left behind'

Poet looks back on flight from Soviet Union to Canada through metaphor of life’s little objects.


Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes once noted that “the little things are infinitely the most important.” It’s a belief that investigators at the University of Alberta obviously share. Whether they’re seeking to understand the tiniest forms of life, taking small steps toward major breakthroughs or influencing students in subtle but profound ways, U of A researchers and educators are proving that little things can make a big impact.

In small things left behind, published by the University of Alberta Press, poet Ella Zeltserman explores themes of homesickness and memory after she, her husband and their young child escaped from the Soviet Union in 1979 during the period of Russian-Jewish immigration to Canada during the Cold War. Through the metaphor of life’s daily objects, she examines what it means for people to be swept up in the powerful events of history. This is the title poem.

small things left behind

I used to like forest flowers (like my mother),
gentle inhabitants of the wild.
I had to bend down to see them
they were so small.

You often bought me teensy
tied-up bouquets
from the smiling babushkas
at the entrance to the metro.

Pale green hellebores in the late days of March
white lilies-of-the-valley at the beginning of May
and purple violets at the summer’s entrance.

I kept petite jewels for months
dusty, dried and faded
in tiny, ceramic cream-jars.

We added more jars—life bloomed on
until we left.
The flowers went down the garbage chute
from the ninth floor to the ground.
The jars went into the small crate
followed us into exile.

The jars now stand on a shelf in the basement.
For my first birthday on an alien planet
you brought me an orchid.
I saw a huge spider and started to cry.

Now I grow big, blousy flowers
lilies and roses,
irises and peonies,
bright oriental poppies.

No more small treasures, those too-gentle
flowers of first love
hidden from the eye.
To see them now I need glasses.