“Scows Full of Mullet”: Vladimir Agatov’s Sentimental Tribute to Odessa

Not long after Maxim returns to Tarusa, Jenny and I fly off to London, where she’ll attend to Booker business and I’ll give a talk at Pushkin House on the language of Odessa — a talk for which I’ve been casually preparing my whole life, and which is scattered like breadcrumbs on the pages of this blog. In my blurb for the talk, I mention Eduard Bagritsky, Leonid Utyosov, and, of course, Isaac Babel, saying that, “in the 1920s, their writings and popular songs infused Soviet culture with a new ‘Southern’ flavor, a spicy blend of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish unique to their hometown. For a translator of Odessan texts, the question of whether this blend was a language all its own or a dialect is beside the point. What matters is what one does with it.”

Just to demonstrate how widely influential and easily recognizable this Odessan “blend” was, I thought I’d share my translation of an immensely popular Soviet song written by a Kyivan-born poet and performed by the Nizhyn-born singer Mark Bernes. The poet, Vladimir Agatov (born Velvel Gurevich, 1901-1966), contracted a serious case of Odessa-philia in the mid-1920s, while working for the Moscow-based newspaper Gudok (The Whistle), the staff of which was rife with genuine Odessans at the time. As Charles King writes in his lively history, Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2012), the song Agatov wrote for Leonid Lukov’s war film Two Warriors (1943) — “a lively nonsense ditty about a goodtime sailor, Kostya, and his pursuit of the fisherwoman Sonya” — “cemented Bernes’s place as a professional Odessan”: “This was supreme silliness, of course, but it was Odessa’s silliness, and in a time of awfulness and privation, it could make a person smile or even cry — Odessa’s own version of ‘Yankee Doodle’ or ‘Waltzing Matilda.’”

The times were indeed awful; in 1941, Odessa was besieged and occupied by Nazi-allied Romanian forces, and it was not liberated until 1944. Agatov’s song, which strings together a number of Odessan tropes and distinctive words — the neighborhoods Peresyp and Moldavanka, chestnut trees, swaggering sailors, scows and longboats brimming with fish, gruff draymen and stevedores — is a little too pat and sentimental to be authentically Odessan, but it was just the treat Soviet Odessa-philes needed: a sugary monument to the city’s resilience, to the indomitable buoyancy of its spirit. (That said, I couldn’t help roughing it up a bit in my translation, bringing it a little closer to what I think an Odessan song ought to sound like.)

Kostya the seaman used to sail
scows full of mullet to Odessa.
And in the beer joint, draymen hailed
him on their feet, raising their glasses.

The blue sea sparkles from afar,
the chestnut trees are in full bloom —
our Kostya picks up his guitar
and, nice and soft, begins to croon:

“Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

Once, in May, the fisherwoman Sonya
moored her longboat at the dock and said:
“Everyone around here knows you, Kostya,
so I figure it’s high time we met!”

Kostya always played it cool and calm.
Reaching for his pack of cigarettes,
he said, “You’re a fascinatin’ dame,
Sonya — but the thing is that…

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.”

On French Boulevard and near the shore
bird-cherry trees are blooming up above,
and this is all you hear from stevedores:
“Hey, it looks like Kostya is in love!”

All week long, the fishermen at sea
were buzzing with the latest news.
Before the wedding, with an awful creak,
the stevedores squeezed into leather shoes.

Can’t say this is true of all Odessa,
since Odessa is a sprawling town,
but Moldavanka and Peresyp? Yessir —
they love Kostya. He’s their favorite son.


Шаланды, полные кефали,
В Одессу Костя привозил,
И все биндюжники вставали,
Когда в пивную он входил.

Синеет море за бульваром,
Каштан над городом цветёт.
Наш Константин берет гитару
И тихим голосом поет.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Рыбачка Соня как-то в мае,
Причалив к берегу баркас,
Сказала Косте: «Все вас знают,
А я так вижу в первый раз!»

В ответ, достав «Казбека» пачку,
Ей молвил Костя с холодком:
«Вы интересная чудачка,
Но дело, видите ли, в том…»

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

Фонтан черемухой покрылся,
Бульвар Французский был в цвету.
«Наш Костя, кажется, влюбился», –
Кричали грузчики в порту.

Об этой новости неделю
Шумели в море рыбаки,
На свадьбу грузчики надели
Со страшным скрипом башмаки.

Припев:

Я вам не скажу за всю Одессу
Вся Одесса очень велика.
Но и Молдаванка, и Пересыпь
Обожают Костю моряка.

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Autumn in New York (and Elsewhere): Maxim Osipov’s Book Tour

This summer has, for reasons large and small, felt like a season of transition. I finished a substantial project — a translation of four tales by Tolstoy, to be released by Pushkin Press in November under the title Lives and Deaths — and a few minor ones, including a preface to a republication of Jessie Coulson’s excellent 1959 translation of Ivan Turgenev’s A Nest of Gentlefolk and Other Stories, which Rivverun will bring out in June of next year.

Now autumn is here, and it’s time to return to the 21st century. Not only am I working on a translation of a novel by Andrey Kurkov, set in war-torn Donbas and Crimea, but I will also be joining Maxim Osipov for several dates of his US book tour. I’m very excited to celebrate the successful launch of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories with its brilliant author, whose hand I’ve been waiting to shake.

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Photograph by Alexandre Outkine

The first stop is the Brooklyn Book Festival, where Maxim will sit on a panel titled “Village People: Rural Lives in a Global World” on Sunday, September 22, at 10am. (I’ll be in the audience, if not on stage.) Unfortunately, I’ll have to miss Maxim’s second appearance in NYC, at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute on Tuesday, September 24, at 6:30pm, as well as his presentation at Bard College the following day, at 6pm.

After Brooklyn and before the Harriman, Maxim will travel to Philadelphia for a discussion at the Penn Book Center (Facebook event) on Monday, September 23, at 7pm. And on Thursday, September 26, he will speak at Harvard University’s Davis Center at 4:30pm.

Maxim and I will reconnect in LA — after his readings at UC Berkeley on September 30, Point Reyes Books on October 1, and City Lights (Facebook event) on October 2. I’ll join him at my alma mater, UCLA, on Friday, October 4, at 3:30pm and at the wonderful Book Soup (Facebook event) the following day at 4pm.

I hope to see some of you on the East or the West Coast in a month or so!

Humor Did Not Fail Him: The War Poetry of Veniamin Babadzhan (1894-1920)

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Veniamin Babadzhan, Self-portrait

Both the work and the fate of Veniamin Babadzhan (1894-1920), an Odessan artist, poet, and soldier of Karaite descent, brings to mind the more famous British poets of the Great War — particularly Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918), who was also Jewish, also an artist as well as a poet, and who also died tragically. But there are as many differences between Rosenberg and Babadzhan as there are similarities. Unlike Rosenberg, Babadzhan was from a well-to-do family; he served as a junior officer, not as a private; and he survived the Great War. His end came two years after the Armstice. Having joined (or been called up to) the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army in 1919, he was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks in Feodosia in 1920.

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In the 1910s, between deployments, Babadzhan co-founded and ran a publishing house in Odessa, which released five of his own works: three collections of poems, a book about Cézanne, and a pamphlet about Vrubel.  Babadzhan’s verse pales in comparison to that of Rosenberg, but some of the poems he wrote about the war are striking both for their level-headedness and for their ironic humor. Here is a witty example:

Oh, what a bore to sit still in a wet, filthy trench,
with shells shrieking past, with only one thought in your head;
or to warm yourself up by a stove in a dugout that’s drenched,
eating borscht that’s gone cold, drinking tea with dry bread.

No! A hussar’s not meant for the life of an infantryman.
We’re created for horses, and horses for us cavaliers.
Here, in a trench, you’ll forget: What’s a tail? What’s a mane?
You’ll get in the saddle and find that you’re facing the rear…

In 2004, Babadzhan’s surviving poetry, prose, paintings, and drawings were collected and published in two volumes, edited by Sergey Lushchik and Alena Yavorskaya, Deputy Director of Research at the Odessa Literary Museum. As one reviewer of the edition noted, “the Odessa native’s sense of humor did not fail him even at life’s most tragic moments.” I take comfort in that thought.


Ох, надоело сидеть мне в мокром и грязном окопе,
Слушать визгливый снаряд, думать всегда об одном,
Греться в землянке промозглой возле заржавленной печки,
Кушать остынувший борщ, чай попивать с сухарем.

Нет! Неприлично гусару пехотное тяжкое дело —
Мы! рождены для коней, кони для нас созданы.
Тут позабудешь, пожалуй, что хвост у коня и что грива,
И, отправляясь в поход, сядешь к движенью спиной…

“Dear Miss Lazarus”: Ivan Turgenev in English

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When I posted about Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” a couple of days ago, I had wanted to include some Russian literary connection, but I was surprised to learn that the first translation of her sonnet into Russian wasn’t published until 1987, and then only in emigration. It was the work of Vladimir Lazaris (no relation), a resident of Tel Aviv, and you can find it here, on the author’s site, in a review of his book about his almost-namesake.

The earliest Russian connection to Lazarus that I found was a letter (page one and page two), in English, from Ivan Turgenev, who responded warmly to the American poet after she sent him a copy of her only novel, Alide: An Episode of Goethe’s Life (1874). It was a delight to see concrete evidence of Turgenev’s use of English, which Henry James described so memorably in his essay:

I have said that he had no prejudices, but perhaps after all he had one. I think he imagined it to be impossible to a person of English speech to converse in French with complete correctness. He knew Shakespeare thoroughly, and at one time had wandered far and wide in English literature. His opportunities for speaking English were not at all frequent, so that when the necessity (or at least the occasion) presented itself, he remembered the phrases he had encountered in books. This often gave a charming quaintness and an unexpected literary turn to what he said. “In Russia, in spring, if you enter a beechen grove” — those words come back to me from the last time I saw him.

Another charming, if less diplomatic, account of Turgenev’s English can be found in Cheerful Yesterdays, a memoir by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911), who is remembered chiefly for his literary relationship with Emily Dickinson. Higginson famously found fault with some of Dickinson’s poems, and the passage below provides further proof that he was a stickler for linguistic norms. His meeting with Turgenev took place on May 30, 1878, in Paris, at the Voltaire centenary celebration held at the Théâtre des Folies-Dramatiques.

[T]he whole thing would have been rather a disappointment to me […] had it not been rumored about that Tourguéneff was a delegate to the convention. Wishing more to see him than to behold any living Frenchman, I begged the ever kind secretary, M. Zaccone, to introduce me to him after the adjournment. He led me to a man of magnificent bearing, who towered above all the Frenchmen, and was, on the whole, the noblest and most attractive literary man whom I have ever encountered. […] Tourguéneff greeted us heartily as Americans […] and spoke warmly of those of our compatriots whom he had known, as Emma Lazarus and Professor Boyesen. […] All this he said in English, which he continued to use with us, although he did not speak it with entire ease and correctness, and although we begged him to speak in French.

Be that as it may, I imagine Lazarus was more than pleased with Turgenev’s eloquent letter, in which he writes of her novel, “It is very sincere and very poetical at the same time; the life and spirit of Germany have no secret for you — and your characters are drawn with a pencil as delicate as it is strong.” And the Russian novelist concludes with words any young author would love to hear: “I feel very proud of the approbation you give to my works — and of the influence you kindly attribute to them on your own talent: an author who writes as you do — is not a ‘pupil in art’ any more; he is not far from being himself a master.”

Mother of Exiles: Emma Lazarus

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Emma Lazarus’s powerful sonnet “The New Colossus,” individual lines of which reside permanently in the back of every American’s mind, has been brought to the fore by some unconscionable words that are not worth repeating. It’s slightly perverse of me to say that I am glad to see Lazarus’s name in the headlines, under these circumstances, but it’s true: I am glad.

As Esther Schor, the author of a recent biography of the Jewish-American poet, reminds us in interview she gave to Rebecca Onion of Slate, “The New Colossus,” which was written in 1883 to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, “began as a subversive poem. It’s literally subverting the meaning of the statue that the French intended it to have, which was to honor French republicanism and abolitionism. So Lazarus single-handedly changed what the statue meant.” And the poem’s message certainly didn’t reflect US policy of the era in which it was written. Schor notes that “1882 was also the year of the Immigration Act of 1882, and the Chinese Exclusion Act,” hardly an auspicious time for the tired and the poor, the homeless and tempest-tost, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Lazarus’s poem expresses an ideal, not reality — an ideal cherished by generations of Americans and Americans-to-be, an ideal towards which many have worked tirelessly, an ideal that has become a promise. Although it’s heartbreaking to see figures in positions of power go back on that promise, it is also heartening to see that the ideal has retained its own power. The reaction to the mangling of “The New Colossus” was swift and visceral. Lazarus’s words are inviolable because they are a part of us. They are certainly a part of me. Hers was the first sonnet to which I was exposed in English — before Shakespeare, Sidney, Spenser; this was in the fourth grade. Our teacher read it out to us — a class of newly-arrived immigrants from the Soviet Union — with great feeling. I’m sure I didn’t understand most of what I heard, but I knew the words “tired” and “poor,” I could see that lamp beside the golden door.

My classmates and I were close, in some ways, to the community that aroused Lazarus’s sympathy in the 1880s, the Jewish refugees at the Schiff Shelter on Wards Island. Many of us were also Jewish refugees from the territory that had once been the Russian Empire. But far closer to those huddled masses are the people seeking refuge today. May they find what they’re looking for here, in the country that welcomed me with Lazarus’s words.

“Home of a Childhood Gone By”: Semyon Olender and Birthdays in July

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From time to time my friend Steve Dodson, the mastermind behind (beneath?) Languagehat, honors me by mentioning my writing on his legendary blog. He did so yesterday, and this time I was especially honored, because the mention came right on the heels of Languagehat’s seventeenth birthday! Steve marked that grand occasion with a moving entry, in which he reaffirmed his commitment to the blog format, despite the fact that it has “for quite some time now […] been a relic.” He offered some excellent reasons for “blogging along,” but it was one of the comments to his post that touched me most. “The thing that makes Languagehat so special,” writes the regular commentator, “isn’t (just) the format, it’s the COMMUNITY. While membership has changed over the years, there are always people with insights into languages from all over. […] I look forward to Languagehat continuing to charm, entertain, and educate lovers of language everywhere. Long Live Languagehat (LLL)!” Hear, hear!

Both Steve and I were born in July, so I think he might enjoy this July birthday poem — with roots in Odessa, of course. It was written in 1948, in Moscow, by the Odessan-born Semyon Yulyevich Olender (1907-1969). Not much is known about the poet, who relocated to the Soviet capital, like so many Odessan literati, in the 1920s. He published three collections of poems in the 1930s, as well as translations from a number of languages. All the sources I’ve found say that he was repeatedly institutionalized for an unspecified psychiatric condition, but that he eventually recovered, married happily, and began to publish again. His hometown was never far from his mind, it seems, and in the poem below it returns to him whole when he overhears its name uttered by strangers:

Once, on a train, without warning,
I heard two strangers say
the name of the town I was born in
one July, on a warm, rainy day.

And I felt these fleeting neighbors
give off a southern breeze.
I saw the sun of my youth
smiling above the trees.

I remembered it all — the blue sea,
the distant silvery dock,
my friend’s fishing boat, which he
sailed in the morning fog…

The light of the lighthouse, the ships —
how still their shadows lie —
and you, awash in white foam,
home of a childhood gone by.

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(Both the photos in this post were taken by Jenny, at Lanzheron Beach, on our first day in Odessa.)


Я услышал в случайной беседе
Двух совсем незнакомых людей
Имя города, где я родился
В пору тёплых июльских дождей.

И от этих минутных соседей
Вдруг повеяло южным теплом.
Солнце юности мне улыбнулось,
Засверкав за вагонным стеклом.

Всё я вспомнил – и синее море,
И далёкий серебряный мол,
И рыбачью шаланду, в которой
Поутру мой товарищ ушёл.

И огни маяка, и на рейде
Неподвижную тень корабля,
И тебя в белой пене прибоя,
Пролетевшего детства земля…

Charlie Chaplin Cuts Capers in Odessa

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One evening in Odessa, Jenny and I wandered over to the City Food Market, a one-stop shop to satisfy any appetite. Housed in a glorious hollowed-out building on Rishelievska St., the Market, which opened in 2017, was entirely new to me, but it fit my sense of the city to a T. People eating, drinking, dancing — what could be more Odessan than that? And the Market’s slogan is just that: “Eat. Drink. Dance.”

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I can just hear Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik barking out those commands at his sister’s wedding. (Oh, and speaking of Benya, many thanks to Marina Sofia for a meaty new review of Odessa Stories — lip-smacking good!)

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That evening, as bevies of Odessans ate and drank, a little tramp got up to all sorts of antics above their heads. The Market was screening short films featuring Charlie Chaplin, and this brought back a flood of memories from my childhood. Chaplin’s character was a hero of the Soviet public; neither the highbrows nor the lowbrows could resist him. Owen Hatherley has analyzed the early Soviet avant-garde’s fascination with the Little Tramp in The Chaplin Machine (2016), which Tim Kohut reviewed for LARB, and Clare Cavanaugh has offered a brilliant reading of Osip Mandelstam’s two poems on Chaplin from 1937, among the last he ever wrote, in a chapter of Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (1994).

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Of course, my little friends and I didn’t know thing one about Mandelstam’s poems in the late 1980s, when we were getting up to Chaplinesque antics of our own. We did know this little song, of unknown origin, that is sung to the tune of Léo Daniderff’s foxtrot “Je cherche après Titine,” which Chaplin immortalized as “The Nonsense Song” in Modern Times (1936).

What the Russian folk lyrics capture is the sad plight and universal charm of everyone’s favorite underdog, his infectious joie de vivre and his utterly inexplicable indomitability — what Mandelstam would call his “marvelous / astonished powers.”

The sailors on the deck
were smoking cigarettes —
poor little Charlie Chaplin
was picking up their butts.

They grabbed him by the neck and
gave him a real shellackin’ —
poor little Charlie Chaplin
got teary-eyed and said:

My upper lip is hairy,
I’ve got a big old belly —
I’ll eat the finest meal
but never pay the bill.

I’m little Charlie Chaplin,
I’m meant to keep off tipplin’ —
but for a shot of booze,
I’ll keep you all amused…

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На палубе матросы
Курили папиросы,
А бедный Чарли Чаплин
Окурки собирал.

Они его поймали,
По морде надавали,
А бедный Чарли Чаплин
Заплакал и сказал:

Я усики не брею,
Большой живот имею,
Хожу по ресторанам,
А денег не плачу.

Я бедный Чарли Чаплин,
Мне пить нельзя ни капли,
Налейте мне сто граммов,
Я песенку спою…

Eduard Bagritsky and Odessa’s Amorous Cats

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As you might have guessed from my last post, I’m something of a cat person. It’s no wonder, really — Odessa’s a cat lover’s town. Like most seaports, it’s swimming with cats. Even so, looking over the photos Jenny and I took during our trip, I was amazed to see just how many felines had sneaked into the camera roll. This inspired me to translate a poem by another Odessan cat fancier, Eduard Bagritsky, whose work I’ve shared twice before. “Cats,” from 1919, is a lovely little ode to the passionate furballs of my hometown.

On the roof, behind the chimney,
with the kind moon looking down,
sticking up their tails so firmly,
they’re already crowding round.
Where the milk is sweet and fragrant,
where the fatback’s gleaming white,
just like little balls of velvet,
they’re rolled up and sleeping tight.
All enkindled by the heat,
they have had their fill of food —
you can’t tempt them, roasted meat,
though you do smell awful good.
How they love the evening warmth
of the kitchen, near the fire,
and the soup’s delicious steam
curling, rising ever higher.
O the darkness of the stairwell!
How the attic smacks of mice…
And that broken window, where they
spy on doves through slitted eyes.
When the house grows still and frigid
neath the waves of evening air,
they come slinking round the edges
of the roof in loving pairs.
To every creature, love’s the same:
the gentlest, loftiest delight —
and the kind moon summons them
to the rooftop every night.

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“The Cat Awaits Your Visit”

Birthday in Odessa with Babel, Utyosov, and Zoshchenko

This year, for the first time since 1990, I’m celebrating my birthday in the town of my birth, Odessa. I turned eight in 1990 and left the Soviet Union in 1991, a few months before turning nine. Now I’m 37, wandering through the streets, parks, and courtyards of my childhood. They haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s — in fact, they haven’t changed all that much since Babel’s day. That’s certainly the impression one gets when one steps into the courtyard of Babel’s former residence, at the corner of Rishelievska and Zhukovs’koho streets, as Jenny and I did this morning (pictures to come). It was a moving experience, but not as moving as my solo visit to another courtyard, at Ut’osova Street, No. 7, just around the corner from where my grandparents once lived. The street is called Ut’osova precisely because of this courtyard at No. 7, which was once home to Leonid Utyosov, the voice of Odessa, whose jazzy tunes have become the soundtrack for this blog.

I entered the gate without ringing the bell, sneaking in behind a busy young man who seemed to be running late for something — a tea party?

Utyosov 01 - Gate.jpgBy the time I made it through the tunnel-like entranceway, the young man had disappeared. What I saw instead were two figures: an Odessan granny feeding pigeons in a state of St. Francis-like grace and a dapper song-and-dance man tipping his straw hat. But I couldn’t get a word out of either of them…

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If my attention hadn’t been drawn by a grinning cat at the top of a flight of stairs, I might never have seen the sign of the “apartment-museum” (an admirable Soviet tradition), which was founded in 2015 and occupies most of the rooms in which Utyosov spent his earliest years.

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I greeted the charming petite cat and hardly had time to knock before the door was opened by a charming petite lady, Valentina Nikolaevna Lys, the museum’s assistant director. Looking a bit fatigued and frustrated by some computer mishap (the young man, it appears, had been rushing to her rescue), Valentina Nikolaevna at first showed little interest in me, but then, without warning, she flipped on the lights and began her tour.

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To say that she knows all there is to know about Utyosov’s career and the Odessan cultural scene of the 1910s and ‘20s would be an understatement. As she led me from one framed item to the next, she bubbled over with names, dates, addresses, and anecdotes. Here it all was: photographs of Utyosov’s parents, the Vaysbeyns (the singer took his stage name from the cliffs — utyosy — on the coast of his beloved Black Sea); tickets to theatrical performances at Odessa’s legendary variety theaters; playbills; fragile shellac and durable vinyl records of Utyosov’s hits; his clarinet; and even his podstakannik! (Valentina Nikolaevna, who admitted that she sometimes even pokes around in scrapheaps for Utyosov memorabilia, is still looking for a glass that’s thin enough to fit the podstakannik perfectly.)

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As we came to the end of the exhibition, I saw two familiar faces on the wall: Isaac Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Both were friends of Utyosov’s, and in the case of Zoshchenko, Utyosov proved to be a real friend indeed. In the late 1950s, after Zoshchenko was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and made a pariah, Utyosov was one of the few well-known cultural figures who didn’t hesitate to visit him. (I told Valentina Nikolaevna that I’ve translated both Babel and Zoshchenko into English, and she said that she still reads Zoshchenko all the time: “Nothing has changed!”)

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When I left the museum, the cat, who hadn’t budged from the railing, gave me a lick of approval at parting.

Utyosov 09 - Cat Lick.jpgThen I took a closer look at the statue of the granny and noticed an inscription on its base, the first line of one of Utyosov’s biggest hits, written by the Odessan poet Semyon Kirsanov (1906-1972)…

I sing of a town that I see in my dreams —
if only you knew how I cherish
this town that I found on the coast of the sea,
this town full of blooming acacias —
this town on the Black Sea…

Maximilian Voloshin’s “Newspapers”

Kustodiev Voloshin 1924.jpg

(Boris Kustodiev’s Portrait of Maximilian Voloshin, 1924)

In our work on The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I would concentrate for weeks at a stretch on particular poets. During one of these stretches, we delved into the verse of Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932), an accomplished and original Symbolist whose work took on a strikingly prophetic tone in the years of the Great War, the Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. We included a number of his Civil War-era poems in the anthology, in Robert’s searingly powerful translations, and a few of these also found homes in journals. An excerpt from Voloshin’s “Russia” was published in Standpoint and “Terror” appeared on PEN Transmissions. In his introductory note to “Terror,” Robert writes: “Part of Voloshin’s appeal lies in his steadfast refusal to accept any ideology as absolute truth. One of the slogans most often repeated by Putinites today is ‘Whoever is not with us is against us.’ Such thinking was anathema to Voloshin.” This refusal to accept the dominant ideology of the day also informs Voloshin’s prescient poem “Newspapers,” which I included in an issue of the much-missed journal Chtenia: Readings from Russia dedicated to the literary legacy of the Great War. More than a hundred years have passed since Voloshin wrote the poem, yet his Cassandra-like warning could not be more timely in our era of “fake news.” Below is an updated, and slightly condensed, version of my translation. (As Robert also notes in his introduction, Voloshin’s poems are often “uneven, but there is much that is incisive and moving.”)

My eyes run greedily across
the scalding letters of the news
to scorch my soul. The bloody rows
bristle with lethal little worms.

Fermenting vengeance, yeasty ire
seep in and rot within my heart.
Lies muddle and becloud each thought,
then blossom with the devil’s fire,

while half-truth’s vacillating shapes,
like molten wax, flow and congeal.
I languish silently and feel
my soul cut back, my conscience scraped.

Oh, to sense nothing whatsoever…
To turn to salt… To hide in snow…
Let me not cease to love my foe
and not begin to hate my brother!

May 12, 1915
Paris