“We Swore We’d Stay Eternal Friends”: Vernon Duke Remembers Boris Poplavsky

Over the past six months I’ve occasionally ventured beyond the Angeleno émigré scene, which continues to hold most of my attention, in order to translate the work of Russophone exiles who landed on other shores. One of these is the fabled poète maudit of the First Wave, Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935), who made his career, such as it was, in Paris, but whose earliest poems of note were written during the initial stage of his exile, in Constantinople — one of the primary way stations for those fleeing the Civil War from southern Ukraine. I’ve translated and written about Poplavsky before, but this time I had the occasion to render his dazzling youthful cycle of sonnets about his temporary home for a soon-to-be published volume dedicated to the literary legacy of “Russian Constantinople.” In 1920-21, the young poet found himself wandering through the streets, squares, and alleys of this borderland between east and west like a proper flâneur, as well as waiting for free and cheap meals at the Russian Lighthouse (“Mayak”), a social club for refugees established by the Y.M.C.A. at what was then 40 Rue de Brousse and is now 40 Sadri Alışık. He was one of some 200,000 thousand former subjects of the Russian Empire in the city and, as fate would have it, encountered another young man of extraordinary gifts, though of a quite different, more stable temperament.

That young man was the composer and poet Vernon Duke, or rather Vladimir Dukelsky; he wouldn’t adopt the Americanized monicker for a few years yet. Duke and Poplavsky grew close and even founded a “Guild of Poets” in the city, but they were soon to drift apart — the accursed poet settling in Paris, the bon vivant songster dividing his time between Paris, London, and New York, before coming to stay in Los Angeles. It was in Southern California, in 1961, a quarter of a century after Poplavsky’s overdose, that Duke wrote a brief memoir in verse of their time together. I love the poem dearly. I can’t think of a more effective evocation of the fitful blossoming of those adolescent friendships that stay with us, if only in memory, for the rest of our lives. And the whole smell of it, from Alexander Vertinsky’s incensed fingers to the ouzo, is simply intoxicating.

Look out for the appearance of three of Poplavsky’s fourteen sonnets in Schlag Magazine, co-edited by the great poet Cynthia Cruz, and for the publication of the entire cycle, along with Duke’s poem, in Russian Constantinople (Academic Studies Press).

In Memory of Poplavsky

I knew him in Constantinople,
the Russian Lighthouse on de Brousse,
where, in a worn toupée, a singer
received the refugees’ applause,
where ladies, elegantly grazing,
handfed their erstwhile millionaires,
where, my composer’s lyre abandoned,
I dabbled in a stream of verse.
From time to time, for our enjoyment,
the ones in charge would throw a ball,
where, squinting raffishly, Vertinksy,
intoned “Your Fingers Smell of Incense,”
and faeries fluttered through the crowd,
enraptured by the fluty waltzes,
cooling their pallid little foreheads
with rapid flicks of homemade fans.
Through this American-built dwelling
scurried a hungry profiteer:
“Hold on a minute, Mr. Jackson —
five-carat diamond — make a deal?”
There, cast adrift by Reds advancing,
a portly journalist would wail —
this former henchman of Denikin
was craven, voluble, depraved.
A priest, a kindergarten, high school,
the Boy Scouts’ Motto: be prepared…
for inactivity, monotony —
the fate of children and old men.
Once, in the main room, in the evening,
I saw a youth, his shoulders broad,
off in a corner, leaning slightly —
an athlete, maybe, or a clerk.
Hair parted. Jacket and a bowtie.
I thought, “Some model… Drop the pose.
You might be dressed like a romantic,
but you’ve an onion for a nose.”
At sixteen, we’re all prone to envy…
That jacket’s what I hankered for —
unthinkably extravagant;
and yet my dandy was quite poor.
Failing to track down a librarian,
he said: “Poplavsky. Got Renan?”
But he would surely have preferred
a baker with a warm croissant.
We were both young. We got to talking —
a lot of nonsense, truth be known.
But then he read his sweet-stringed poems,
in a peculiar nasal tone.
His lines were awkward and uneven —
strange poison seemed to ooze from them;
the verse of helpless love, it sounded
like sinful cherubs at their song.
Yet they were wonderful, these poems —
yes, they gave off a magic smell.
Each one to me seemed like a window
swung open to an unknown realm.
It was divine — a transformation —
to me his jacket now appeared
to be the toga of young Horace:
from hell to heaven! Then a bar,
where we lapped up the local ouzo
(a blend of anise and wild flames);
poetry’s captivating music
flowed in and filled me up again.

Wore a beret. And slouched a little.
Wasn’t a looker, but quite strong.
Adored Rimbaud, the streets, and football.
Was quick to fall in love — headlong.
Even back then, he’d raise a scandal
to ruffle up a boring scene.
Never would he salute a general.
Galata’s crooks ate from his hand.
His strange grandiloquence would leave
people bewildered, at a loss,
and yet this Russian Don Quixote
would blush before a buxom lass.
Beneath the careful decoration
and the romantic suit of mail,
there lurked a pitiful, befuddled
hero of unheroic scale.
What bound us to each other? Europe?
No — we took off for different lands.
But there, in gold Constantinople,
we swore we’d stay eternal friends.


Памяти Поплавского

Я знал его в Константинополе,
На Бруссе, в Русском Маяке,
Где беженцы прилежно хлопали
Певцу в облезлом парике;
Где дамы, вежливо грассируя,
Кормили бывших богачей,
Где композиторскую лиру я
Сменил на виршевый ручей.
Распорядители в усладу нам
Порой устраивали бал,
Где «Ваши пальцы пахнут ладаном»
Вертинский, жмурясь, распевал,
Где, тешась вальсами свирельными,
Порхали феи средь толпы
И веерами самодельными
Свои обмахивали лбы.
В американской сей обители
Шнырял голодный спекулянт:
«Вот, мистер Джаксон, не хотите ли –
Пятикаратовый брильянт!»
Приходом красных в море выкинут,
Там плакал жирный журналист,
Приспешник некогда Деникина –
Труслив, развратен и речист;
Священник, детский сад, гимназия,
Завет бой скаутов: Будь готов…
К спокойствию, однообразию –
Удел детей и стариков.
Однажды я, в гостиной, вечером,
Увидел гнувшегося вбок
Молодчика широкоплечего –
Не то атлет, не то дьячок.
Пиджак, пробор и галстук бантиком.
«Напрасно просишься на холст», –
Подумал я. «Одет романтиком,
А нос, как луковица, толст».
В шестнадцать лет мы все завистливы –
Меня кольнул его пиджак,
Для бедняка наряд немыслимый;
Мой франт – беднейший был бедняк.
Он, не найдя библиотекаря,
Сказал: «Поплавский. Есть Ренан?»
Но предпочёл бы, видно, пекаря
И разогретый круассан.
Разговорились. Оба – юные:
Плели немало чепухи.
Потом прочёл он сладкострунные
Гнусавым голосом стихи.
Стихи нелепые, неровные –
Из них сочился странный яд;
Стихи беспомощно любовные,
Как пенье грешных ангелят.
Но было что-то в них чудесное,
Волшебный запах шёл от них;
Окном, открытым в неизвестное,
Мне показался каждый стих.
И тогой юного Горация
Мне померещился пиджак –
Божественная трансформация!
Из ада в рай – потом в кабак.
Лакали приторное дузико
(Союз аниса и огня);
Стихов пленительная музыка
Опять наполнила меня.

Носил берет. Слегка сутулился.
Был некрасив, зато силён;
Любил Рэмбо, футбол и улицу,
Всегда в кого-то был влюблён.
Уже тогда умел скандалами
Взъерошить скучное житьё;
Бесцеремонен с генералами,
Пленял Галатское жульё.
Грандилоквентными причудами
Уже тогда смущал народ,
Но с девушками полногрудыми
Робел сей русский Дон-Кихот.
За декорацией намеренной,
Под романтической бронёй,
Таился жалостный, растерянный,
Негероический герой.
Что нас связало? Не Европа ли?
О, нет, – мы вскоре разошлись.
Но в золотом Константинополе
Мы в дружбе вечной поклялись.



“I’ll Perish in the Concert Hall”: Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky Foresees a Californian Death

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 1960s

As I noted at the start of this year, although I’m far from LA, I still keep one eye on the latest Angeleno developments. The Los Angeles Times is always a reliable source — a source, as I told my wonderful audience at the LA Times Festival of Books a week ago, which I’ve often plundered for epigraphs when writing poems about the city. Yesterday’s edition brought to light an incident that… well, I’ll let reporter Christi Carras tell it:

Molly Grant was enjoying the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony on Friday at the Walt Disney Concert Hall when she heard what she described as a “scream/moan” erupt from the balcony.

“Everyone kind of turned to see what was happening,” Grant, who was seated near the person who allegedly made the noise, told The Times on Sunday in a phone interview.

“I saw the girl after it had happened, and I assume that she … had an orgasm because she was heavily breathing, and her partner was smiling and looking at her — like in an effort to not shame her,” said Grant, who works for a jewelry company and lives in Los Feliz. “It was quite beautiful.”

I can’t imagine a more delightfully SoCal reception of Tchaikovsky. As another concert-goer told Carras, “I think everyone felt that was a rather lovely expression of somebody who was so transported by the music that it had some kind of effect on them physically.” Angelenos are nothing if not full-bodied in their appreciation of art.

This life-affirming story also brought to mind a poem by the Russophone Angeleno émigré Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), whose work I’ve shared twice before and also included in My Hollywood. This poem — a part of Korvin-Piotrovsky California cycle — also speaks to the bodily impact of music, but paints a darker scene. In it the poet, who had survived two world wars and imprisonment by both the Bolsheviks and the Gestapo, foresees his demise in a concert hall. I wouldn’t be surprised if Korvin-Piotrovsky had one of Tchaikovsky’s pieces in mind.

Fortune has ruled that I won’t die
on any battlefield:
I’ve seen the jolly shrapnel fly,
have dodged my share of steel.
It won’t be violent at all,
death in this foreign land.
I’ll perish in the concert hall,
and by the lightest hand.
Wearing a tailcoat, raven-black,
a vest as white as snow,
his gray hair carelessly swept back,
one strand on his cold brow,
a violinist will delay
his stroke, hiding a sneer,
and I will sense it right away —
I’ll know my death is here.
No one will stir within the hall
amid the music’s boom;
the lightning of the bow will fall
into the piano’s gloom.
As I peel off a narrow glove,
my heart will cease to beat;
the hiss of ripping silk is smooth,
the tear is straight and neat.
I will collapse without a sound,
as battle laws decree,
and some stern doctor will pronounce
what should be done with me.
Then, pushing back the little crowd,
a scrawny clerk will say
that there are worse ways to go out —
he wouldn’t mind this way.

Не от свинца, не от огня
Судьба мне смерть судила, —
Шрапнель веселая меня
Во всех боях щадила,
И сталь граненая штыка
Не раз щадила тоже, —
Меня легчайшая рука
Убьет в застенке ложи.
В жилете снежной белизны
И в чёрном фраке модном,
С небрежной прядью седины
На черепе холодном
Скрипач, улыбку затая,
Помедлит над струною,
И я узнаю, – смерть моя
Пришла уже за мною.
И будет музыка дика,
Не шевельнутся в зале,
И только молния смычка
Падёт во тьму рояля.
Перчатку узкую сорву
(А сердце захлебнётся),
И с треском шёлковым по шву
Перчатка разорвётся.
Я молча навзничь упаду
По правилам сраженья,
Суровый доктор на ходу
Отдаст распоряженья.
И, усмиряя пыл зевак,
Чиновник с грудью впалой
Заметит сдержанно, что так
Не прочь и он, пожалуй.

“Free Yet Dry”: Alexander Voloshin Takes Down Prohibition

When our man Alexander Voloshin and his fellow émigrés, who had seen their share of suffering in the Old World, landed in the United States in the 1920s, they found much to celebrate — but one thing stuck in their craw. That something was prohibition and the Volstead Act, the puritanical law of the land, which wasn’t done away with until 1933. The émigrés had already had a taste of dry living. As I show in one of the first sections of 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, the Tsarist ban on the sale of alcohol during the Great War led to much frustration and, with the coming of the Revolution, to mass raids on cellars and warehouses where wine and vodka were stored. It also led to clever workarounds.

In the brief third chapter of the second part of his epic, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, Voloshin reveals that those who fled the collapsing Russian Empire brought with them a few helpful recipes. A little bison grass or nutmeg and cinnamon and a visit to a drugstore (the kind Jay Gatsby owned a lot of) were all the émigrés needed to prepare some homemade Polish Żubrówka or Ukrainian Spotykach. Who cares about store-bought Shustov vodka when you can make your own? Never underestimate the entrepreneurial spirit of the spirit-loving immigrant.

Drinking is the joy of the Rus.
— from the Primary Chronicle

We had one headache: “Prohibition.”
All émigrés were grumbling, wishing
for a safe means to get a drink.
We often ended up hoodwinked
by “bootleggers,” with phony “whiskey.”
Quaffing that stuff was somewhat risky,
to say the least… Birthdays were bad —
there was no vodka to be had…
Who needs Dutch herring, when you dine
without a glass of beer or wine?
The shame of it! The country’s free
yet dry… However, presently
we found that every old drugstore
would sell us alcohol galore!
Physicians put us in the know,
explaining how to make solutions —
we’d learned all that already, though,
as sons of wars and revolutions…

Infusions were our sacrament:
with wormwood, bison grass, and mint,
as our forebears had done before,
we made liqueur upon liqueur…

These set our ladies’ eyes ablaze!
Wouldn’t you know it? Within days,
some ancient doctor made a batch
of real, authentic “Spotykach”!

With Shustov’s secrets all revealed
and breaded cutlets for our meal,
we’d down the “sixth part of an hin”
of Brooklyn’s finest rowan gin…

Руси есть веселье пити.
Из летописи

Сначала мучил «прохибишен»,
И среди русских — всюду слышен
Был недовольства мрачный гул:
Того — «бутлегер» поднадул
И продал дрянь под видом «виски»,
Тот — под горячия сосиски —
Вчера налег на местный «джин»
И отравился … Именин
Нельзя устроить, — нету водки…
К чему-ж голландские селедки,
Коль нет ни пива, ни вина?!…
Позор!… Свободная Страна,
А выпить — нечего!… Но — вскоре —
Мы приспособились: в «Дрог-Сторе»
Нашелся — спирт!… Гип-гип-ура!…
Тут помогли нам доктора,
Они рецепты нам писали,
Как разводить — мы сами знали,
Не даром были мы — войны
И революции — сыны!…

Нашлись: полынь, зубровка, мята,
И, чтя заветы дедов свято, —
Мы приготовили в момент
Весьма большой ассортимент…

Чтоб милых дам блистали взоры, —
Варить мы начали ликеры,
А некий старый русский врач,
Так даже делал — «Спотыкач»!…

Открылись Шустова секреты,
И под пожарские котлеты
Мы выпивали «по шестой» —
Рябины «бруклинской» настой!…

Trifecta: Kurkov, Voloshin, and Coulette

I haven’t posted a thing here in what feels like ages. It’s only been a month and a half, in fact, but what a month and a half it’s been! In February, Jenny and I learned that we were both finalists for the inaugural Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, which made us the first married couple to be shortlisted for any NBCC award — and this fact drew some attention from the Literary Hub and the Los Angeles Times. Last Thursday, I was stunned to learn that my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees won. I mean it: stunned. The news reached me over Twitter in Los Angeles, in the office of my old colleague Peter Winsky, who’s now teaching at the Slavic department at USC. I was about to give a reading from My Hollywood and Other Poems and couldn’t believe what I saw on my phone. Jenny and I were visiting LA with our twins and my wonderful sister in law, and we had all just been to Disneyland, the setting of Jenny’s brilliant story “Anaheim,” which begins with an unexpected win. Well, this whole prize thing felt about as real as the puppets of It’s a Small World to me… But as with the finest of Walt’s fantasias, it made me want to believe.

To make matters even more fantastic, just days earlier The New Criterion ran my essay on Alexander Voloshin, whose mock epic of “Russian” Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, I’ve been translating and posting here for about a year now. And a few days before that, The Orange County Register published a beautiful biographical article on one of my favorite LA poets, the unjustly neglected Henri Coulette, by Erik Pedersen, with whom I’d shared my reflections on Coulette’s Angeleno style and his legacy. Do give it a read.

What does all this prove? Perhaps this: For all their differences, Kurkov, Voloshin, and Coulette each managed to capture, uniquely and convincingly, a time and a place in their work. There’s no expiration date on writing as perceptive and evocative as theirs.

“The Unkillable Poor”: Dana Gioia and Alexander Voloshin at the Crossroads

Last week saw the publication of Dana Gioia’s Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a perfect collection of poems. Dana has been a mentor and a friend to me, but had he and I never met, the pages of this book would have lodged themselves just as firmly in my heart. In fact, we came to know each other through one of its masterpieces, “The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz.” It reached me through a mutual friend, the late Scott Timberg, and I leapt at the chance to publish it in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The ballad tells the true story of Dana’s great-grandfather, a Mexican immigrant to the US who was killed in an argument over a bar tab. It is a poem of the West, and others in Dana’s book — including the titular “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” — bring the reader even closer to the turf (and surf) he and I share, Southern California. I quoted from his psalms and laments for Los Angeles before, but let me do so again:

I praise myself, a mutt of mestizo and mezzogiorno,
The seed of exiles and violent men,
Disfigured by the burdens they shouldered to survive.
Broken or bent, their boast was their suffering.

I praise my ancestors, the unkillable poor,
The few who escaped disease or despair —
The restless, the hungry, the stubborn, the scarred.
Let us praise the dignity of their destitution.

To celebrate the launch of this book-long, bittersweet song of praise for the generations who made us and made the US, I’ll offer my translation of a buoyant chapter from Alexander Voloshin’s On the Tracks and at Crossroads, which depicts those cast out from the Russian Empire by war and revolution at, well, a crossroads, temporarily establishing themselves in Harlem and learning American ways (paychecks! Coca-Cola! chewing gum!) before they are lured by the weather and the glamour to Dana’s and my old stomping grounds. Incidentally, one of the finest poems in Meet Me at the Lighthouse is titled “At the Crossroads,” and you can read it here.

Chapter Two

Those who don’t work, don’t eat.
— a slogan of 1918

The days turned into weeks and months,
then, bit by bit, not all at once,
old residents of Harlem found
themselves inside a Russian town.
An exile’s heart is quick to heal
with help from a familiar meal 
at one of our new restaurants…

In front of these beloved haunts,
beneath the early evening stars,
you see neat little rows of cars — 
not one of them the latest Ford,
only what exiles can afford…
Still, such a pleasure, in warm May,
to leave town, even for a day,
not in some tram — behind the wheel,
kicking up dust with tons of steel!

Now aunts and uncles, moms and pops
buy all their groceries at “shops,”
and every Saturday they get
their “checks,” earned with abundant sweat…

Old worries have been put aside —
we got dressed up, regained our pride,
put on some weight, even began
acquiring new things again…
Men have umbrellas, suits, and canes,
and watches on their wrists or chains.
Our shelves hold Bunin and Dumas;
our closets — coats, new hats of straw;
our dressers — ironed shirts and ties;
our pockets — coins of every size…
We have our phones and baths and showers,
and sleep serenely — all eight hours…
The ladies too are well attired
in all the finery they desired…
Hard work, installment plans — however,
they got it: better late than never.
Now they’re all draped with fancy boas —
each nail on finger and on toe is
as crimson as a drop of blood…
At evening gatherings, like buds,
they open up and, in full bloom,
go whirling all about the room!
They spin a fine thread of flirtation,
recovering their former station…

And we’ve acquired new tastes, too:
drink Coca-Cola, often chew
what’s known as “gum,” eat grapefruit slices.
Only the finest food suffices:
we claim to be, with some bravado,
true connoisseurs of avocado.
We’ve learned the ways, as you can see,
of this, the nation of the free…

No longer foreigners, we can
almost be called American.
Now, when we exiles meet anew,
we say, “Hello! How do you do?”

Глава вторая

Кто не работает — тот не ест.
Из лозунгов 1918-го года

Катились дни, текли недели,
В Харлеме беженцы осели,
И вырос русский городок:
Не то Лубны, не то — Моздок!…
Закрылись сердца злые раны,
Зато — открылись рестораны,
Столовки, русских клубов ряд…
У клубов вечером стоят
«Первобумажников» машины, —

Пускай у них истерты шины,
Пусть это «Форды» древних лет,
Пусть дребезжат, как «драндулет».
Но как приятно теплым маем
За город ехать — не трамваем,
А свой вести автомобиль,
Гудя и поднимая пыль!…

Все дяди, тети, мамы, папы
Пристроились и ходят в «шапы»,
И каждый русский человек
В субботу получает «чек»…

Тревоги прежняя уснули, —
Мы — приоделись, отдохнули,
Мы — пополнели и опять
Вещами стали обростать…
У всех — костюмы, шляпы, палки,
Зонты, часы и зажигалки,
На полке — Бунин и Готье,
В шкапу — пальто и канотье,
В комоде — галстуки, рубашки,
В карманах — мелочь и бумажки…
Есть ванна, душ и телефон…
И безмятежно сладок сон…
И дамы — счастливы и рады:
У них — чулки, белье, наряды…
Пришлось работать, но зато —
В разсрочку куплено пальто,
Горжетка из какой-то шкуры,
И кровью блещут маникюры
И на руках и на ногах…
На танцевальных вечерах
Им для веселья — ночи мало!…
Оне цветут и в вихре бала —
Сплетают тонко флирта нить,
Чтоб — вновь былое пережить!…

Прошли и вкусовую школу:
Пьем Джинджерел и Кока-Колу,
Едим грейпфруты и жуем
Традиционный «чуинг-гом»…
Учить уж больше нас не надо,
Как нужно кушать «авокадо»,
«Образовались» мы вполне,
Живя в свободной сей стране!…

И мы уже не иностранцы,
И мы — почти американцы,
И мы умеем на ходу
Бросать: «Хелло!… Хав ду ю ду!»…

“The Beatnik’s Heart is Tender”: Vernon Duke in Venice West

Beatniks from Venice West at LA City Hall

In a recent rambling conversation with Micaela Brinsley, who has a rare gift for drawing people out, I went on — and on, and on — about a poem from My Hollywood in which I imagine Sarah Bernhardt on the amusement pier at Venice Beach. I’ve written about my Venice diptych before, describing the area in which it’s set as “a fanciful corner of LA developed by the fanciful Abbot Kinney in 1905.” In my interview with Micaela, I add a bit to the picture, explaining that Venice is “a place that goes up and down in status rapidly. One decade it’s the worst part of Los Angeles, the next decade it’s the priciest.”

One of its low points, in terms of economic status, happened to coincide with its cultural renaissance. In the 1950s, Venice West became the hub of LA’s beatnik scene, Southern California’s answer to San Francisco’s North Beach. None of the poets who haunted the rundown seaside cafés of Venice achieved the status of Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but they left their mark, and one of the institutions born of that moment — Beyond Baroque — is still a powerhouse in LA letters, hosting weekly workshops and readings.

If you care to revisit this mostly vanished beat paradise, you’re in luck. It’s the subject of a beautifully produced, fawning “ethnographic” study titled The Holy Barbarians (1959), written by Polish-born Jewish-American journalist and poet Lawrence Lipton (1898-1975). It’s also captured on film in Curtis Harrington’s truly eerie independent horror picture Night Tide (1961). And you can even hear some of the scene’s authentic sounds thanks to USC’s audiovisual preservation team.

But my favorite portrait of Venice’s beats belongs to the pen of another foreign-born observer, the jauntily wistful Vernon Duke. As part of his early-’60s cycle of LA poems, Duke presents us with a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a cultural dropout — perhaps Stuart Z. Perkoff? But then, why should I be surprised? Although he loved the good life, Duke was ever the bohemian at heart, and perhaps the sight of these youthful idealists, with dirt under their fingernails and heaven in their eyes, reminded him of his old ill-fated friend from Constantinople, the poet Boris Poplavsky. Read the poem below and then dip into the older bohemia of Russian Montparnasse with the help of Bryan Karetnyk’s new translation of Poplavsky’s Homeward from Heaven.

Beatnik (Venice, Calif.)

His ears stick out through stringy,
uneven, greasy hair.
Bedraggled with insomnia,
he hasn’t bathed all year.
His long arms dangle loosely
as through a toothless scowl
he wheezes out the blues or
simply emits a howl.
Pity virtue’s defender,
helpless and innocent;
the beatnik’s heart is tender,
his head, hidden in sand.
Upon a scuffed old drumhead
he rattles a tattoo
to drown out inner torment
and summon his own dormant
nirvana, pure and true.
“Remember?” No… he doesn’t…
He’s happy in his cell:
the vague eternal “present.”
Tomorrow is unpleasant:
a gaping door to hell.
His eyes are both concealed by
his bangs — a tangled knot…
Still, maybe he can see what
the rest of us cannot.

Beatnik (Venice, Calif.)

Он лопоухий, он лохматый,
Всклокоченная голова.
Бедняк, бессонницей измятый,
Не мылся месяц или два.
Он несуразный, он кургузый,
Зубов передних больше нет —
Тем легче прогнусавить блюзы
Иль просто взвыть на Божий свет.
Добра беспомощный защитник,
Ему стяжанье невдомёк,
И прячет простодушный битник,
Как страус, голову в песок.
На порыжелом барабане
Он бьет неверное tattoo,
Чтоб заглушить трезвон терзаний
И доморощенной нирване
Предать последнюю мечту.
«Ты помнишь ли?» — О, нет … не помнит,
Живёт для смутного «теперь»,
Забившись в угол свой укромный,
А завтра — анфилада комнат
И в ад зияющая дверь.
Хоть бородой лицо закрыто,
Из-за волос не видно глаз,
Но, может быть, ему открыто
Всё, что неведомо для нас.

“Each Movement of Bold Hands”: Igor Avtamonov’s “Flight”

Flights have been much on my mind lately. 2022 was a year of often involuntary, often painful displacements for a great many people. Jenny and I, too, undertook some major journeys, which, for all their difficulties, have been rewarding beyond measure. We now find ourselves living in Oklahoma and caring for our seven-month-old twins, Nina and Charlie. I’ve stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and have taken up a position at the University of Tulsa, teaching courses in the English Department alongside Jenny. And at the very end of December we finally managed to fly our beloved cats, Pushkin and Nora, from LA, reuniting our family.

LARB has played an important role in my life from the time it was founded by Tom Lutz in 2011. I was its first volunteer Noir Editor and became a regular contributor. I served as the journal’s Executive Editor from 2016 to 2020, when I was named Editor-in-Chief. A few days ago I officially passed the torch to Michelle Chihara. Working with LARB’s brilliant staff and contributors has been an honor and a pleasure, and I’ll always support the organization in every way I can.

Likewise, although I’ve left Los Angeles for now, the city will always be my home. Jenny, the twins, and I will return to it frequently. The collection of poems I published in 2022, My Hollywood, is no farewell note — it’s a love letter, and the romance continues. I’ll be looking for and sharing LA stories all my days.

One such story made a deep impression on me last month. It concerns the tragic death of Rex Minter, mayor of Santa Monica from 1963 to 1967. A single-engine Cessna in which Minter was the passenger was forced to make an emergency landing on a stretch of Santa Monica Beach and flipped upside down into the surf. The pilot survived but Minter died of a heart attack. He was 95 years old.

The unusual setting and the fact that the former mayor was a lifelong pilot combine to lend this sad incident a measure of poetic resonance. The story made me think of a naively optimistic sonnet by the SoCal émigré Igor Avtamonov (1913-1995), about whom I’ve posted before. He too was a passionate aviator from an early age. I suspect lifting off was, for him, a near-religious experience; it was certainly a means of escape, if only temporarily, from the mundane troubles of life in exile.


Wide open space as far as we can see,
a fanciful mirage of clouds… Below,
mountains like clumps, a meadow’s streak of green,
a snaking river’s steady eastward flow…

Our gaze is greedy… And our greed’s rewarded…
We crawled like dung beetles just days before,
but we pressed on. No, we would not be thwarted:
and now we live our dreams — and now we soar.

The plane obeys each movement of bold hands
and pierces through the clouds just like a plow…
The city lies beneath us, a crushed spider,

its street-legs sprawling out, row upon row…
While we continue to climb higher, higher,
and in salute to Earth our wings expand!


Со всех сторон простор – внизу, вверху и сбоку,
Причудливо висят миражем тучи вкруг,
Под нами кочки гор, мазком зелёный луг,
Среди полей, змеясь, река бежит к востоку…

И жадный ищет взгляд… И всё доступно оку…
Мы ползали вчера, как по навозу жук,
Но вот упорством дум, усильями наук,
Мечты воплощены и мы летим высоко!

Послушен самолет движеньям смелых рук;
Пронзает облака, как землю резал плуг…
Под нами улицы размеченные в строку…

Средь дыма город там – распластанный паук!
А наши два крыла раскинулись широко,
И с неба шлём земле победный мощный звук!

“Good-bye, Dear Europe”: Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Voloshin Say “Prash-chai”

Alexander Voloshin in The World and the Flesh (1932),
playing a peasant breaking into a ritzy restaurant
during the Russian Revolution.

In 1941, a year after he and his family escaped Europe by the skin of their teeth, Nabokov began his Anglophone career in earnest at Wellesley College and published one of his best known poems, “Softest of Tongues,” in The Atlantic. A farewell to Russian, the language in which Nabokov first proved his mastery, the poem also demonstrates, with characteristic irony, the speaker’s mastery of the new language’s “clumsy tools of stone.”

To many things I’ve said the word that cheats
the lips and leaves them parted (thus: prash-chai
which means “good-bye”) — to furnished flats, to streets,
to milk-white letters melting in the sky;
to drab designs that habit seldom sees,
to novels interrupted by the din
of tunnels, annotated by quick trees,
abandoned with a squashed banana skin;
to a dim waiter in a dimmer town,
to cuts that healed and to a thumbless glove;
also to things of lyrical renown
perhaps more universal, such as love.
Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly… And so that’s that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.
To all these things I’ve said the fatal word,
using a tongue I had so tuned and tamed
that — like some ancient sonneteer — I heard
its echoes by posterity acclaimed.
But now thou too must go; just here we part,
softest of tongues, my true one, all my own…
And I am left to grope for heart and art
and start anew with clumsy tools of stone.

There’s a minor but significant macaronic touch to “Softest of Tongues,” which underscores the fact that, for Nabokov, the poem marks a moment of transition. In it he introduces into English the Russian word “прощай” — which he spells phonetically, “prash-chai” — suggesting that, to him, it means more than its Anglophone counterpart, “good-bye.” Interestingly, at around the same time, another Russophone émigré, the White Army officer-turned-Hollywood extra Alexander Voloshin, used the same device in the brief first “chapter” of the second part of his mock epic, On the Track and at Crossroads. He too rejects the English “good bye,” which he introduces in Latin script, in favor of the Russian “прощай.”

There the similarities end. Whereas Nabokov’s poem is, despite its author’s distaste for sentimentality, a rather sentimental affair, Voloshin’s is light and buoyant, though also — in its broader context — ironic. Unlike Nabokov, Voloshin readily cottons to the unsophisticated materialism and rampant consumerism of Yankee life. And why shouldn’t he? Isn’t there some truth in the proposition that we all want a bit of comfort, even if that’s not all we want? The rest of Voloshin’s epic will show that the equal treatment he celebrates at the end of this chapter is in some crucial ways illusory. And yet, although he’s painfully aware of the human imperfection and of the terrors all around, he remains at least half-convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds. He’s not quite Pangloss or Leibniz, our Voloshin, but neither is he Adorno and Horkheimer, his LA neighbors in the early 1940s. So, are you with Nabokov or with Voloshin? Heck, why choose?

Thus ended our nomadic days.
“Good-bye,” dear Europe: we part ways…
In fact, this is no mere “good bye” —
that’s right, dear Europe, it’s “prash-chai”…
Enough of wandering round and round.
We’ve finally found solid ground.
For in the end, our fondest wish is
to settle down, acquire dishes
of different kinds, and forks, and knives —
in other words, live bourgeois lives
the way the Yankees seem to do.
Oh, there’s hard work ahead, that’s true,
but our past grief is out of sight:
the sky is blue, the sun shines bright.
And also — most importantly —
here we’re all treated equally!…

Итак — окончены скитанья!
Good bye, Европа! … До свиданья!…
А впрочем, даже не good bye
Европе скажем, а — прощай!…
Довольно по миру мотаться,
Поря уже обосноваться,
У каждого желанье есть,
Как говоря — “на землю сесть”!…
Обзавестись посудой разной
И образ жизни буржуазный
Вести, как “янки” здесь ведут…
Пусть впереди тяжёлый труд,
Но в прошлом горести отныне, —
Нам светит солнце, небо сине,
А главное — Руси Сыны
Со всеми здесь уравнены!…

“They Make Their Exit, Arm in Arm”: Vernon Duke and LA’s LGBTQ History

Malibu Pier area in the 1950s

It was a multifarious delight to see My Hollywood praised in The New York Review of Books, in a wonderful piece by Anahid Nersessian, a professor of English at UCLA, that paired the collection with Adam Kirsch’s own loose (in all but the metrical sense) LA memoir-in-verse, The Discarded Life. Nersessian’s reading is generous and her phrasing is lapidary; she doesn’t groan at my rhymes and detects in my poems an “air of upbeat sorrow,” as well as “an émigré mood, defined by the conviction that things could always be worse.” How true, that last bit. And it gave me special pleasure to see the critic connect this mood to the work of the composer Vernon Duke, né Dukelsky, whose Russophone Angeleno poems I’ve been translating for some time. Not only does Nersessian mention the two I included in the book, “Farmers Market” and “Sunset Strip,” but she also (I could hardly believe my eyes!) quotes from this very blog:

Duke is best known as a songwriter and lyricist who collaborated with Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg, but he also wrote poetry, including the archly titled The Sorrows of Elderly Werther, published in 1962. As Dralyuk explains elsewhere, “The Sorrows includes an entire sequence of poems dedicated to Los Angeles: portraits of a faded movie star on Sunset Blvd., a toothless beatnik in Venice Beach, an old heiress in Beverly Hills, etc.”

This unexpected appearance inspired me to translate another of Duke’s portraits, which is perhaps the most daring of all. Set in a Malibu bar, the poem depicts a conversation between two men — one older, the other younger — who, by night’s end, leave together. Is what we witness a prelude to an exchange of sexual favors for money? Part of a longstanding arrangement? Is the younger man a part-time “hustler” or a kept man? The questions are left open. I find the poem to be daring not only because it depicts a homosexual liaison, but because the speaker passes little to no judgment on what he sees. If anything, it’s the disparity in age and economic resources between the men that comes in for implicit critique; yet even this disparity is treated as a fact of life. On a humid, fragrant night in Malibu, one man gets what he needs, the other what he desires. Things could be worse.


The fireflies of countless cars
sparkle and die out in a flash;
exhausted fishermen have cleared
the ocean of its final fish.
Now Malibu is humid, fragrant —
a plated slice of cantaloupe.
The night encloses in its coffin
the living corpse of daytime hope.
There’s precious little left for mortals:
white snow over a mug of beer,
a curious, peculiar torpor,
and waves, monotonous and drear.
Two at the bar — amid the hubbub,
they chat as if alone tonight;
Their trousers are as tight as rubber;
their shirts are neat and gleaming white.
One’s past his prime — passed it by plenty.
He’s rich, if looks do not deceive.
The other’s huge, and maybe twenty.
Wrestler, perhaps? Soldier on leave?
The younger one is downing whiskey;
the older sips Crème de Banane.
The Californian fog, all frisky,
tickles the eyes as it creeps in.
“How’s tricks, my boy?” “Oh, I’ve been better.
There isn’t any work these days.
“Yes, so I’ve read. Good luck, dear fellow.”
A second round. “Oh, by the way…
You got a fiver you can spare?
Landlady’s after me for rent…
I’m waiting on a package there…”
The old man’s eyes turn sharp, like flint:
“Five dollars isn’t nothing, friend.”
He pays the bill. “Let’s get some air.
It’s awful stuffy in this bar.”
Then, slowly and without a care,
they make their exit, arm in arm.

And now consider the fact that Duke’s book appeared in 1962, two years before Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, which also works up to a scene of flirtation between two men — one older, the other younger — on a beach in Los Angeles, though it is far more moving than this. Duke’s collection also appeared a year before John Rechy rocked the Anglophone literary establishment with his stream-of-consciousness novel of the hustling lifestyle, City of Night. That novel incorporates the 1959 LGBT uprising at Cooper Do-nuts in Downtown LA, which took place a full decade before Stonewall. Along with the 1967 uprising at The Black Cat Tavern on Sunset Blvd., which is still standing, and the 1968 protest at The Patch on PCH in Wilmington, the Cooper Do-nuts “riot” paved the way for the Pride movement on the West Coast. The people who frequented these establishments were fed up with constant police harassment, which targeted the patrons of other bars as well. Among those bars was Johnny Frenchman’s at 18756 Malibu Road, and I wonder whether that might not be the setting for Duke’s poem. Regardless of the exact location, the poem also reminds me of Charles Gullans’s sequence of SoCal bar poems, collected in Letter from Los Angeles (1990). Gullans, who was a professor of English at UCLA decades before Nersessian joined the department, wrote with disarming candor about the experience of being an older gay man in the land of eternal youth. In one such poem, he considers speaking to some handsome young people but reconsiders:

Because it is my past; and they are locked
Within a future I can never reach.
What would I say to them or they to me?
I have no wisdom that they need as yet.
Though I am out of place by twenty years,
There is some pleasure in my sitting here,
Watching the young and beautiful at play.
Golden children, all the long afternoon,
Till diamond chips sift down the evening sky.


Бесчисленных автомобилей
Сверкают, гаснут светляки;
Всю рыбу в море изловили
Измученные рыбаки.
Как ломтик спелой канталупы,
Пахуч и влажен Малибу
Дневных надежд живые трупы
В ночном покоятся гробу.
Немного смертному осталось:
Над кружкой пива белый снег,
Усталость, странная усталость
И монотонных волн разбег.
У бара двое — и в толкучке
Они толкуют про своё;
На них преузенькие брючки
И безупречное бельё.
Один поношенный изрядно,
По всяким признакам богат;
Другой — лет двадцати, громадный,
Борец иль в отпуску солдат.
Двадцатилетний хлещет виски,
Старик сосет Crème de Banane
Ползет в окно калифорнийский,
Глаза щекочущий туман.
«Ну, как дела?» — «Бывает лучше —
Работы нет, опять застой».
«Да, я читал. Good luck, голубчик!»
Они хватили по второй.
«Ах, кстати… Мне нужна пятёрка:
Хозяйке комнаты платёж…
Я жду посылки из Нью Иорка…»
Старик в юнца вгляделся зорко:
«Пятёрка — всё же деньги… что ж…»
Он расплатился . «Зря сидеть нам,
Кабацким воздухом дышать».
И под руку с двадцатилетним
Из бара вышел не спеша.

“All Ran South, If They Could Manage”: Alexander Voloshin on the Civil War in Ukraine

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pavlo Skoropadskyi

As I continue work on Andrey Kurkov’s Samson and Nadezhda, which is set in Kyiv the spring of 1919, when the city was (briefly) under Bolshevik control, I try to imagine what it was like for Ukrainian citizens to see, in the span of a couple of years, no fewer than fourteen changes of government. That estimate is Mikhail Bulgakov’s, and it isn’t entirely inaccurate. One of Kurkov’s challenges in this work of historical fiction is to give readers enough particulars to sink into the era, but not so many that they would get bogged down. He rises to it with aplomb, naturally working in references to the Central Rada, as well as to its 1918 dissolution under German occupation and to the installation of the anti-Bolshevik former tsarist military officer Pavlo Skoropadskyi as Hetman of Ukraine by Kaiser Wilhelm II. We also learn about Symon Petliura, President of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the behavior of his Cossack troops.

Yet one can never have too much background. One of the liveliest, most colorful, and most humane literary treatments of this period in Ukrainian history — when long-suppressed dreams of independent nationhood were realized, however imperfectly, only to be suppressed again — can be found in Teffi’s Memories, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, Irina Steinberg, and Anne Marie Jackson. And another, equally lively but more concise treatment can be found in — you guessed it — Alexander Voloshin’s mock-epic On the Tracks and at Crossroads.  Here are three brief Chapters from the first part, in which the Ukrainian-born Voloshin chronicles his escape from the advancing Red Army.

Chapter Two

All ran South, if they could manage,
seeking peace. To our advantage,
Germans came just at that hour
and successfully seized power…

Sweetening the bitter pill,
that old thoughtful Kaiser Wil’,
a “hero” glorious and great,
established a “Ukrainian State.”

This corporal in a German crown
rewarded those whose minds were sound:
He gave the Rada the heave-ho
and put a Hetman on the throne…

Chapter Three

Every ancient church bell rings —
Germans look on from the wings
as, surrounded by elites,
Skoropadskyi takes his seat…

This operetta, plain to see,
had been composed in Germany…
Yet we, who feared the darkening tide
of bloody Red, swallowed our pride.
We had suffered so much pain
that we didn’t dare complain…

Besides, the Hetman, we all knew,
had been in the Retinue…
Sure, this matter had been “fixed” —
still, he hated communists.
We were hoping, as his guests,
we might finally get some rest…

Chapter Four

There was music in the air,
Ukraine feasted without care —
none of us could comprehend
that our feast would someday end.
Misery was drawing near
and in only half a year,
Bolsheviks would come and flank
both the Dnipro River’s banks…
We were desperate to forget…
But the worst was coming yet…
Everyone was acting brave…
Blue and yellow flags would wave…
We all danced and drank, had fun,
tried to speak our mova-tongue…

Conquering our nasty spleen,
that year we could sing — and mean —
words that we’d all come to cherish:
“Our Ukraine has not yet perished”…

Глава вторая

Всяк кто мог — на Юг стремился,
Там — порядок сохранился,
Ибо немцы в этот час —
Оккупировали нас…

Подсластить дабы лекарство, —
Здесь «Украинское Царство»
Основал войны «герой» —
Кайзер, Рекс, Вильгельм Второй …

Благомыслящим в награду, —
Разогнав «Державну Раду», —
Сам нам Гетмана избрал —
Коронованный Капрал …

Глава третья

Окруженный «сердюками»
И немецкими полками,
Под церквей старинных звон, —
Скоропадский сел на трон!…

Правда — не было секрета
В том, что это — оперетта
Made in Germany… Но мы
Так боялись Красной Тьмы,
Так за этот год устали,
Что и спорить уж не стали…

Да, к тому-же, — всяки знал:
Гетман — Свитский Генерал!
Пусть избрание — «не чисто»,
Все-же — враг он коммунистов,
И мечтали мы — «при нем, —
Бог поможет, — отдохнем!» …

Глава четвертая

«Украина» пировала,
И того не знали мы,
Что пируем — в дни чумы,
Что опять близка невзгода,
Что пройдет всего пол-года
И — вокруг Днепра-реки —
Сядут вновь большевики…
Мы забыть спешили горе…
По колена было море…
Все держали хвост трубой…
«Прапор» — желто-голубой —
На флагштоках развевался,
Всяк, по мере сил, старался —
Веселиться, пить, гулять
И — на «мове» размовлять…

Сбросив иго злого сплина, —
«Ще не вмерла Украина»
Пели, громко и вразброд, —
Киевляне в этот год …