Universal Horrors and Remedies

In April of this year, a few weeks into California’s COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a poem about a little parlor that sits at the back of Artisan’s Patio, an alley that cuts into the middle of one of the busier blocks of Hollywood Blvd. Built in 1914, the Patio once boasted of speciality bookstores and avant-garde haunts like Clara Grossman’s American Contemporary Gallery, where, in the early 1940s, the teenaged Kenneth Anger and Curtis Harrington could rub elbows with Oskar Fischinger and the doddering D. W. Griffith. Now the alley mostly hosts souvenir shops, but it is also home to the impressively well-stocked As the Record Turns and the hallowed Hollywood Movie Posters, the subject of my poem, which first opened its doors over four decades ago. I took a walk down Hollywood in late March. It was midday, and the boulevard was completely deserted. The gates of the Patio were locked and I could barely make out the lettering on the sign at the back. I stood there for some time, stupefied. Eventually I snapped out of it, took a couple of photos, and went on my way.

The Onegin stanza that came out of that encounter, “Universal Horror,” was accepted for publication by a poet I greatly admire, A. M. Juster, whose latest collection, the marvelous Wonder and Wrath, is out this month from Paul Dry Books. Appropriately enough, my poem appears in the October issue of First Things — though there won’t be much trick-or-treating this year, of course. I extend my deepest thanks to Dana Gioia for pushing me deeper into the subject, to Mike Juster for taking a chance on the poem, and to Patrick Kurp for giving it more attention than it deserves at Anecdotal Evidence.

As our era’s horrors keep adding up, I look with ever greater hope to the work of Julia Nemirovskaya, who offers one poetic remedy after another. Today, I am happy to say, two more of Julia’s indispensable “object poems” have made their debut in translation. They appear in the visually enchanting and congenially named new journal Pocket Samovar, which is edited by Kate Shylo and Konstantin Kulakov. The first, “Kin,” presents the moon — that mainstay of verse — as I’ve never seen it before, while the second, “Flu Remedy,” is good for what ails just about any of us. I was asked to recite the poems, and the videos are posted above the texts on each page. If my readings don’t put you off, you can also hear four more of Julia’s poems below, courtesy of the wonderful YouTube channel Translators Aloud, curated by Tina Kover and Charlotte Coombe.

“A Land Where Everything’s Funny”: Sofiya Pregel’s Gifts

The Odessa-born émigré poet Sofiya Pregel (1896/97-1972) was best known — and loved — in her day for the work she did in behalf of the Russian literary community. She came from a family rich in talents — talents that served them well both in the Russian Empire and abroad. One of her brothers, Boris Pregel (1893-1976), became a successful engineer and, eventually, the president of the New York Academy of Sciences. Both Boris and Sofiya were uprooted by the Revolution and the Civil War, finding themselves first in Constantinople, then in Berlin, then in Paris. Boris soon rebuilt his business career, while his sister began to publish poems. Forced to flee Paris as the Nazis advanced, Sofiya emigrated, via Lisbon, to New York, where Boris was already well established. In 1942, she founded the literary journal Novosel’e (Housewarming), which welcomed Russian émigré writers of all generations at a particularly difficult time; most had indeed been made homeless, yet again, by the war, which also forced the closure of a number of important journals and newspapers. Preternaturally warm, energetic, and diplomatic, she kept Housewarming running for eight years, becoming the emigration’s great peacemaker, but showing no patience for those who had collaborated with the Axis powers. After the journal folded in 1950, she financed the Paris-based press Rifma (Rhyme), which she took over in 1957, after its founders death. Throughout that time, she continued to write her own poems, and in the 1960s she started a captivating memoir of her early years in Odessa, titled My Childhood. Though left unfinished at the time of her death, it was published in 1973-74, in three volumes, by her brother Boris.

The whimsical poem below appeared in her sixth collection of verse, Spring in Paris (1966), and it appealed to me this week because Jenny and I are currently tending to one of our cats, who had to undergo emergency surgery and is now bravely recovering in an undignified cone. Pushkin is three years old, and, I’m happy to say, still has all his whiskers!

He gave me a whisker-less kitten,
an apple (Golden Reinette),
and a railway ticket bitten
all over, still soaking wet.

That ticket bought me a trip
to a land where everything’s funny —
where a rabbit on roller-skates zips
past a truck driver who flips
through a book on brilliant bunnies.

He gave me a little ladder,
the summer’s sunshine and warmth,
and the gift that most truly matters —
his four-year-old being on earth!

Он дарил мне кота безусого,
И яблоко — жёлтый ранет,
И изжёванный и обкусанный
Железнодорожный билет.

Пробитый всеми контролями
Билет в страну чудаков.
Где заяц катит на роликах,
И читает про умных кроликов
Водитель грузовиков.

Он дарил мне погоду летнюю
И ступеньки в дворовой мгле
И своё четырёхлетнее
Пребывание на земле!

Humor to the Rescue: Herb Randall, Jonathan Waterlow, and Maxim Osipov

I’ve been pitifully slow to note the launch of Punctured Lines, an absorbing new blog that focuses on post-Soviet literature. It’s edited by two of my fellow émigrés, the scholar Yelena Furman — an old friend and frequent contributor to LARB — and Olga Zilberbourg, author of the poignant collection Like Water and Other Stories. The occasion for my noting the launch now is the appearance of a movingly candid, searching, subtly suspenseful essay by Herb Randall, titled a “A Question in Tchaikovsky Lane.” In it, Randall follows a trail of breadcrumbs left by an Englishwoman named Eddie, who — as the title of a 1946 collection of her letters puts it — married a Russian. The trail leads to a street in Kharkiv, where the couple made their home in the 1930s and ‘40s. Randall is keenly aware of the rough historical winds that swirled around Eddie’s private realm, but he knows nothing about her fate after 1945. The doubled pressure of the known and the unknowable forces a question that, to Randall, seems both urgent and unseemly. The essay is so finely crafted and affecting that I was shocked to read the following line beneath the text: “This is his first published piece.” I extend my editorial congratulations to Furman and Zilberbourg for getting this out of Randall, and I hope we won’t have to wait long for a follow-up!

The question of what happened to Eddie and her husband after the end of the Second World War remains open. And so does another: how did they, and those around them, cope with the threats and catastrophes of Soviet existence — the shortages and the famines, the arrests and the executions? A partial answer is offered by Jonathan Waterlow, author of It’s Only A Joke, Comrade!: Humour, Trust and Everyday Life under Stalin (1928-1941), whose work I’ve mentioned once before, and whose superb essay on the necessary risks of sharing a laugh just appeared in LARB. In “The Conspiracy on Pushkin Street,” Waterlow explains how the lives of five students at a provincial Zoological Institute in 1940 were turned upside down and — in one case, cut short — all because they had come together “to tell a few jokes, blow off some steam, and share their hopes and fears.” The young men became victims of “Stalinist paranoia and a ruthless obsession with mental purity that turned humor into heresy, banter into activism, and friendship into conspiracy.” Theirs was a harsh era. But ironically, it was precisely this harshness that had made them resort to humor in the first place:

Humor — flippant, caustic, and often dark — came to their rescue as a kind of emotional therapy. […] Whether it was absurd stories about Molotov’s glasses, mockery of empty propaganda, or even offhand sexism, their jokes met seriousness with silliness, helping them maneuver their way through uncertain times.

Our own times, of course, are anything but certain, and in the great tradition of Russian and Soviet satirists, Dr. Maxim Osipov has served up a bracing tonic of dark laughs. A new anthology titled And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again: Writers from Around the World on the COVID-19 Pandemic, edited by Ilan Stavans and published by Restless Books, carries one of Maxim’s sharp diagnostic sketches of the human response to the spread of the coronavirus — our fears, be they well-founded or groundless, our hopes, be they noble or petty, and our attempts to stay connected, be they helpful or deadly. I won’t ruin the surprise ending of “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” (the title is borrowed from Maxim’s namesake, Gorky), but I’ll share a long quote, together with Stavans’s description of the piece from his useful introduction:

For Maxim Osipov, from Tarusa, Russia, the concern over the elderly masks other fears. He writes of a man who began telling anyone who would listen that he was worried about his mother. “What else would he be worried about? No sense in thinking of the children (they weren’t vulnerable), his wife was eleven years younger than him, and, needless to say, he wasn’t concerned about himself. Do the math: what were the chances of him croaking? One percent, maybe one point five. A real man doesn’t lose his head over trifles. If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home… Oh, speaking of, he’d prefer to be cremated — everyone clear on that? People had always told him he had a pleasant voice, and now he was growing convinced of it. He kept singing and singing — vigorous, patriotic songs. He’d have loved to sing democratic ones, but there just weren’t any. A nervous reaction? Maybe… But it was his mother he was worried about, not himself.”

As Russian authors like Nikolay Leskov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Zoshchenko, and now Osipov show us time and again, humor is serious business. Bursting through our pieties, it reveals uncomfortable truths — and even if the truths remain uncomfortable, their revelation can come as a relief. The unsayable is said, with a smile, and the weight falls from our shoulders.

Proceeds from the sales of And We Came Outside will go to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which aids the heroic booksellers who continue to feed our reading needs in this time of crisis.

An LA Celebration: Lisa Teasley’s “Castle in the Trees” and Vladislav Ellis’s “Californian Verses”

Today is Jenny’s and my one-year anniversary, and though the pandemic has limited our options considerably, we won’t let it hamper us altogether. This evening we’ll enjoy a meal from one of our favorite Italian restaurants, as well as some quality time with the cats, and later in the week we’ll take a brief road trip up to Northern California.

Our state is not in the greatest shape, of course, but optimism is the Californian way. And so, as I look back on a year like no other, I find myself focusing on the many wonderful moments Jenny and I have shared and on the friendships that have sustained us at the most difficult times. I also look forward to a day when we can meet with our friends in person, without endangering them, at some dreamed-of Castle in the Trees. I borrow that dream from Lisa Teasley, a visionary Angeleno author, LARB’s senior fiction editor, and one of the friends whom Jenny and I cherish and cannot wait to see again. Lisa conceived of the Castle for an exhibition organized by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design and titled “Every. Thing. Changes.” The entire plan is so delightfully imbued with the spirit of LA that it’s hard not to quote it in full, but Lisa’s evocative opening paragraph will do:

Though a traveler, how much more could I love coming home? Particularly when the world still negotiates the fallout from crisis. Los Angeles is my birthplace and heart’s terrain, and I have done my share of complaints during decades of the city’s many neighborhood-identity losses. But from today’s roving view of the Gold Line, the Jacaranda makes a lavender magic carpet of the streets leading to The Castle in the Trees—an epic, majestic, welcoming place to convene and collaborate, after endless months of Zoom meetings.

Do visit the Castle, and make sure to click through to the contributions of artists Silvia Herrasti and Paulina Herrasti, the architects of MUTUO, and the composer Imogen Teasley-Vlautin.

As I dangled my legs from the upper branches of the Castle, I recalled a poem by another Angeleno, the Ukrainian-born Vladislav Ellis (1913-1975), who could probably have helped make Lisa’s dream a reality. Descended from English master welders who had been invited to St. Petersburg by Catherine II, Ellis was raised in Kharkiv, where he received his engineer degree in 1937. Around that time, both his father and brother were arrested and killed in the Great Terror. During the Second World War, Ellis was captured by German troops; after the Nazis were defeated, he remained in the West. Thanks to his professional qualifications, he was able to find work in Belgium and, in 1950, to immigrate to the United States. He and his wife settled in California, where Ellis earned another degree in 1962 and launched a career in construction that took him all around the world. He had been writing poetry since his teenage years, but his travels, as well as his life in California, inspired some infectiously vivacious lyrics that were collected in book form in 1968. The “Californian Verses” below echo the verve of Vernon Duke and anticipate the Ararat-sighting of Peter Vegin. I dedicate my translation to Jenny, the most perfect partner any Californian exile could ever hope for!

Californian Verses


So as to squeeze the sweetest juice
(why pour a drink no one can stand?),
throughout these verses I will use
oranges, women, sun and sand.

Give in, relax, give up your past,
and it will make you young again:
the Californian beach — so vast,
for every class and shade of skin.

There’s space enough for everyone!
Oranges, women — can’t be beat.
Of course, the pastries of Ukraine
would make the pleasure feel complete.


Don’t fret about the heat too much:
evening will bring its cooling touch.

Our climate diligently clears
the heart of all its aches and fears.

Stepping outside to get some air,
a gentle breeze brushing their hair

beneath the Californian sky,
little old ladies grow more spry.


A Scandinavian essence rings
within the sound of Spanish names:
that’s why I love, I must confess,
this flashy, multicolored mess.

There’s plenty room for all one’s thoughts,
which whirl about and glow and flare.
Armenians find Ararat
while Finns find birches everywhere.

So you’ve been wronged by destiny,
your love is in some far-off land —
however hard your luck may be,
you’ll always find a countryman.

Калифорнийские стихи


Чтоб не сварить Демьяновой ухи,
Чтоб был компот приятнее и слаже:
Неси в «калифорнийские стихи»,
Побольше женщин, апельсин и пляжа.

За это много прошлого отдашь,
Любого лаской делает моложе,
Калифорнийский грандиозный пляж
Для всех сословий и расцветок кожи.

Под солнцем мест достаточно для всех,
А апельсин и барышень излишек.
Но нехватает здесь полтавских пышек,
Для полноты и цельности утех.


Жары бояться нечего,
Придёт прохлада вечером,

И грусть на сердце вымыта
Усердиями климата,

И вышедши из комнаты,
Там нежным бризом тронуты,

Становятся проворнее
Старушки в Калифорнии.


У испанских имён
Скандинавская суть,
Потому я влюблён
В эту пеструю жуть.

Вихря мыслей простор,
Разноцветно горят.
Финн берёзку нашёл,
Армянин — Арарат.

Коль обижен судьбой,
Иль любовь далека,
Неудачник любой
Здесь найдёт земляка.

Valery Skorov Finds His Muse in Chicago’s “Garbage”

July 25 was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980), the beloved Russian bard whose unmistakably gravely voice has sounded in these pages twice before. “Beloved” is putting it mildly: Vysotsky’s songs were the soundtrack to the late Soviet experience, the most gut-wrenchingly direct expression of the passions and frustrations of several generations of Russian-speaking people. I could post long entries on any number of his performances, but I thought I’d honor his memory indirectly by sharing a song by a far less recognized bard, Valery Skorov (1941-2001), who began writing songs in earnest after Vysotsky’s death. In fact, it was the shock of that news that inspired him.

The Novosibirsk-born and Leningrad-educated Skorov had immigrated to Chicago earlier in 1980, and he would remain in the States until 1993. In that time he wrote a lot, performed frequently, but only recorded a handful of songs; his one full-length cassette, from 1987, was titled Another Poet Has Passed (In Memory of V. Vysortsky), and his name seems to have been misspelled on the label (Snorov). One of the tracks on that album, based on his poem “Garbich” — a phonetic rendering of the Russian pronunciation of “garbage” — wittily dignifies the poverty of newly arrived refugees. Skorov’s words brought back memories of my own family’s first years in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, his growling performance testifies to Vysotsky’s outsize imprint on Russian culture.


Whenever I remember
my first days as an immigrant,
I cannot help but shiver
and blush up to my ears;
my cultivated countrymen
from Moscow and from Leningrad
would pick their way through garbich,
embarrassing their kids.

Yes, to a new arrival —
unseasoned, inexperienced —
this strictly foreign custom
is hard to comprehend.
The bourgeoisie’s decaying —
they’re simply tossing out stuff
that no amount of money
could ever buy back home.

Color TVs and dishware,
new mattresses in plastic,
the latest styles in furniture,
crisp linens in clean bags.
How could the poor not waver,
confronted with such bounties?
What was the point of suffering
and packing up with their rags?

So off they go, my countrymen,
bent under heavy loads,
huffing, puffing, groaning,
on alien streets and roads.
This custom is convenient
for any needy immigrant
until he makes a killing
and earns his first cool million.


Когда я вспоминаю
Период эмиграции,
Меня бросает в краску,
Меня бросает в дрожь;
Культурнейшие люди,
Москвичи и ленинградцы,
Ночами шли по гарбичу,
Смущая молодёжь.

Да, человеку новому,
Ещё не искушённому,
То дело заграничное
Не так легко понять.
Буржуи разлагаются,
Вещичками швыряются,
Такими, что на родине
За деньги не достать.

Цветные телевизоры,
Матрацы в упаковочке,
Посуда, мебель стильная
И чистое бельё.
Ну, как не дрогнуть бедному
В подобной обстановочке.
Напрасно дома мучились,
Везли своё шмотьё.

И вот идут родимые,
Сгибаясь под добычею,
По стритам и по роудам,
Не сдерживая стон.
Для эмигранта бедного
Удобен их обычай,
Пока не заработал он
Свой первый миллион.

“An Eagle’s Heart Lies in the Dunes”: Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky at the Colorado River

We’re at the end of the second week of the LARB Publishing Workshop, which its peerless director, Irene Yoon, has taken online this year with the help of her quick-thinking and nimble-fingered crew. I’ve played only a small part so far, moderating a few enjoyable sessions — one with the delightful Adam and Ashley Levy of Transit Books — and hosting an informal discussion on translation. Even so, my eyes are already feeling the strain. I really don’t know how Irene and her team manage it, day in and day out… All this small-screen time makes me long for distant vistas, of which Southern California has its share.

The thought of those vast landscapes sent me back to a lyric by Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), a Ukrainian-born Russian poet who twice narrowly escaped execution (first as a White officer captured by the Bolsheviks, then as a member of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo) and spent his last years in Los Angeles. He first entered the literary world in the early 1920s, as a member of the Berlin Poets’ Club, along with V. Sirin — better known as Vladimir Nabokov — who remained his friend. The poet moved his family to Paris just before the start of the Second World War; there he grew close to Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), one of the most original voices of the emigration, though his own verse was highly traditional in both form and content, often echoing the tones and moods of Pushkin and Baratynsky.

The same tones and moods — intimate, melancholic, philosophically cool — dominate his Californian cycle, much of which appeared in journals between 1961 and 1966. In it I recognize an existentialist resignation to loneliness that is typical both of Los Angeles literature and of Russian émigré verse. The poem below, however, stands out. Never published in his lifetime, it describes a fishing trip to the Colorado River. The change of scenery reignites Korvin-Piotrovsky’s imagination, restores his warrior spirit, and, in the end, reminds him of what he will never regain, and yet can never abandon.

We’re going fishing. Early morning.
The overheated engine whines.
Quivering layers of desert air
float off toward the hills beyond.
A sandy wasteland — lifeless, bare —
but it’s a joy to watch the sky.
Where fearless Native chiefs once roamed,
death strikes no fear. Let arrows fly.
An eagle’s heart lies in the dunes,
mourned by the desiccated steppe.
Our driver points: a chain of trees,
all green, already looms ahead.
Ridge after ridge. The Colorado
lures with its unseen depths of blue…
O Russia — you’re so far away now
that I can never part with you.

June 1, 1961, Los Angeles

Мы едем на рыбную ловлю с утра,
Гудит перегретый мотор, —
В пустыне слоями сплывает жара
К подножью отчётливых гор.
Песчаная глушь. Ни зверей, ни людей,
Но весело в небо смотреть, —
На родине храбрых индейских вождей
Не страшно от стрел умереть.
Орлиное сердце зарыто в песке,
Вздыхает безводная степь, —
Шофер указал уже нам вдалеке
Деревьев зелёную цепь.
Гора за горой, — Колорадо-река
Влечет глубиной голубой —
Россия, Россия, — ты так далека,
Что мне не расстаться с тобой.

1.VI.1961, Los Angeles

“True Love for Women or for Mountains”: Peter Vegin Sees Ararat in Los Angeles

I grew up in LA’s diverse Russian-speaking community — that is, among people who shared a language, but who had come from all parts of the former USSR. Among my closest friends in college were Armenian Americans, many of whom spoke Russian because they or their parents had emigrated from Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moscow, etc. Meanwhile, other friends of mine, whose roots reached back to the historical region of Western Armenia, didn’t speak Russian at all. Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Armenians outside Armenia, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to 1,000,000. I loved learning about their culture — or cultures, rather — about what the Eastern and Western Armenians had in common, about what separated them.

One of the things my friends (and especially their émigré families) had in common was a reverence for Mount Ararat, whose breathtaking snow-capped peaks rise to roughly 13,000 and 17,000 feet near the intersection of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Very recently I came across a Russian poem that expressed this reverence with such witty candor, such sweet music that I just had to translate it. The author is Peter Vegin (1939-2007), a poet and painter who had rubbed elbows with Andrei Voznesensky and other leading figures of Thaw-era Soviet culture in the 1960s. He emigrated to the United States in 1989 and soon settled in Los Angeles, where, throughout the 1990s, he was a major contributor to the Russian-language press. But a series of setbacks in the 2000s — including a fire that destroyed a number of his manuscripts and canvases — plunged him into depression. He passed away on August 10, 2007, at the age of 68.

Vegin was half-Armenian (his father’s surname was Mnatsakanyan), and in the poem below he finds himself bonding, from a balcony’s remove, with the denizens of Hollywood’s Little Armenia. The sights and smells of Transcaucasian delicacies like lavash and khinkali bring him back to Ararat — or do they bring the mountain to him?

July 21st would have been Vegin’s 81st birthday, and Tuesday is my 38th. My translation is my own early gift for the both us.

Armenians unhurriedly
walk through the streets of Hollywood,
bearing lavash, khinkali, greens,
all that they’d grown accustomed to
where Ararat blocks half the sky,
where Ararat fills up your soul
so that you never can escape,
even halfway around the world.

True love for women or for mountains
is all the same — a sacred poison —
no matter what, there’s no deliverance.
Go on, then: live, try to remember,
and if your memory should fail you,
your loved one will still find you, always.

This morning I awoke in Hollywood
to springtime, hummingbirds, magnolias,
and from my balcony I spotted
my dear Armenians, unhurried…
While in the sky above — what’s that?
The great, the holy Ararat…

Неторопливые армяне
фланируют по Голливуду,
несут лаваш, хинкали, зелень
и всё, к чему привыкли там,
где застит Арарат полнеба,
где застит Арарат всю душу
и от чего нет избавленья
на этом свете никому.

Любовь не знает избавленья,
Она — священная отрава —
что женщина или гора.
Живи и постарайся помнить,
а если вдруг откажет память,
они везде тебя найдут.

Я просыпаюсь в Голливуде.
Весна, магнолии, колибри
и выйдя на балкон, я вижу
моих армян неторопливых,
а в знойном небе, воспаряя,
стоит великий Арарат…

Screen Time: A Busy Week and a Silent Treat

This week featured an usual amount of “screen time” for yours truly, all of it immensely enjoyable but, in the end, quite tiring. From Sunday to Thursday, by invitation of the wonderful Mindl Cohen, Jenny and I led a translation workshop for the Yiddish Book Center over Zoom. This year’s fellows brought in a mouthwatering mishmash of texts, ranging from modernist poetry to children’s plays to comic depictions of the criminal underworld. Although I was there to lead the workshop, I actually made out like a bandit, having learned far more from the participants than I could ever have taught them.

And the same goes for my other Zoomings. On Monday, the 79th anniversary of German invasion of the Soviet Union, I was virtually reunited with three dear friends and constant collaborators, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and Maria Bloshteyn, for an event hosted by Globus Books in San Francisco. The occasion was the launch of Maria’s monumental anthology of Russian poetry from and about the Second World War, Russia Is Burning, which will officially appear from Smokestack Books on August 1 and can now be ordered directly from the press’s unsurpassably discerning publisher, poet Andy Croft <info@smokestack-books.co.uk>. Writer Zarina Zabrisky, who manages Globus and curates the series, has uploaded our presentation to YouTube. As I rewatched it, I was struck anew by the power of the poems Robert, Irina, and Maria chose to share, and by the sensitivity of their recitations. Much of the collection is translated by Maria herself, and in her masterful handling these distillations of raw experience and deep reflection, of triumph and lasting trauma, of humanity’s shocking resilience and baffling complexity read as if they were written today, for us alone.

The surprising relevance of the preceding century’s masterpieces was the theme of the week. It emerged again on Wednesday, during a panel discussion (this time over StreamYard) of Elia Kazan’s 1950 classic Panic in the Streets — the second entry in the LAYKA Lens screening series, organized by Yiddishkayt in partnership with LARB. My conversation with legendary cultural critic J. Hoberman, Yiddishkayt’s Rob Adler Peckerar, and Tulane University’s Karen Zumhagen-Yeklé is also now on YouTube. We touched on the symbolism of contagious disease, the scapegoating of foreigners and members of the lower classes, as well as the violation of civil rights and the suppression of journalists in the interest of “public safety” — as construed by men in uniform. It seems everything old is new again.

I must admit, as stimulated as I was by all the brilliance around me, I now feel pretty talked-out. My longing for silence led me back to a little lyric by the Odessan poet Semyon Keselman (1889-1940), about whom I’ve written before. Please join me as I wind up my Victrola and wait for the curtains to part…

At the Cinema

Winter is tedious. Where can we hide?
There — in the bluish-black velvet of night
someone has hung a white screen.

Across that white plane, in pairs or alone,
ghosts wander past, pale and wan;
swaying, as if on a halcyon pond,
towns float away like white swans.

Pierrette and Pierrot from the boulevard keen
for a Countess who’s heart has been shattered.
Oh, how they hiss whenever the screen
is shadowed by your hat’s soft feathers…

Tedious winter will not relent.
My misery knows but one balm —
and that is the delicate trace of your scent,
which lingers awhile on my palm.


В кино

Куда спастись нам от скучной зимы?
Там в иссиня-чёрном бархате тьмы
Вырезан белый квадрат.

На белом квадрате пройдут чередой
Призраки бледных людей;
Словно колеблемы тихой водой,
Проплывут города, как стая лебедей.

Над графиней, погибшей от сердечных ран,
Прослезятся тротуарные Пьеретта и Пьеро.
И как зашипят они, когда на экран
Бросит тень ваше гибкое, нежное перо!

Ах, от скучной зимы нам не уйти, —
И лишь оттого станет легче тоска,
Что Вашими духами на обратном пути
Будет пахнуть моя рука.


A Day on Fairfax: Ernie Barnes at Home

About two years ago there was a knock at the door of my mother’s apartment. When she answered, she found two young men on the threshold, both stooping slightly to meet her eyes (she’s very petite and they were quite tall). They introduced themselves as aspiring filmmakers from Durham, North Carolina, who were visiting Los Angeles to lay the groundwork for a documentary about Ernie Barnes, an African-American football player-turned-painter who was born in their hometown but built his artistic career out West. Not just out West, actually, but in West Hollywood. And not just in West Hollywood, but inside the very apartment my mother now called home.

Although she had never heard of Barnes, she was delighted to learn of her apartment’s brush with fame, and was excited to share the news. She phoned me and I came right over. The young men stuck around until I got there and we all had a long chat — more of a show-and-tell, really, as they had brought with them a big binder of photos and clippings. I myself couldn’t quite place Barnes’s name until they opened that binder to a color reproduction of his iconic, thrillingly frenetic The Sugar Shack. I know the word “iconic” is grossly overused, but how else would you describe this sultry depiction of a rocking roadhouse, which appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You (1976)?

Other Barnes paintings caught my eye as I flipped through the binder — a late-night DJ spinning platters and cooing into a microphone, a lean young man suspended beneath a basketball hoop with a farmhouse in the distant background, a raucous service at a Baptist church — but the photo that stopped me cold was of Barnes himself, huddled with his family in the little kitchen I recognized so well. That photo had appeared in the March 1973 issue of Ebony magazine, and it meant so much to me that I just had to track the issue down.

Apartment living is by its very nature isolating. It takes effort to establish a connection with one’s current neighbors, and one hardly ever gets the chance to connect with tenants past. But here was Barnes, vibrantly present, larger than the life — the subject of museum retrospectives in California and North Carolina, and of a lovely picture book for youngsters.

My connection to him was mostly circumstantial, of course. We’d just happened to walk the same carpeted ground, decades apart. But there was a little more to it, I learned. Barnes began painting scenes of African-American life in the early 1970s, after moving to West Hollywood, which borders the Fairfax District. At the time, the neighborhood was still the center of LA’s Jewish community, packed with refugees and immigrants, speakers of Yiddish and Russian, some religious, some secular, none very shy. Big chunks of their lives took place out on the street, for everyone to see — including Barnes.

Sam & Sidney (1988)

Reflecting on this period years later, Barnes said: “Fairfax enlivened me to everyday life themes and forced me to look at my life — the way I had grown up, the customs within my community.” Like the people he knew back home, here too were survivors who hadn’t lost their capacity for joy, their sense of humor. The drawings and paintings he made of his Jewish neighbors inspired his series The Beauty of the Ghetto, which focused on African-American themes. As Colony Little points out in her article at Hyperallergic, the link between the two communities is made explicit in Barnes’s penciled comment on the drawing below, A Day on Fairfax (1973): “There is not much difference between Willard St. and Fairfax.” Little explains: “Willard Street is where Barnes grew up in Durham.”

In Barnes’s drawing I see all the proud babushkas of Fairfax — some of whom had, like mine, come over from Odessa. After all, every town has its Willard Street, and every Willard Street has a lot to be proud of.

Hollywood Neighbors: Memories of Nola Thorp

There is too much to say about the events of the last two weeks, but the important things are being said more cogently elsewhere. What I’d like to share is a tangential reflection, triggered by an unexpected vigil. Jenny and I live in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, which was the site of one of the earliest and most volatile protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. On the afternoon of May 30, columns of smoke rose up all around us. Early the next morning we went to survey the damage and saw dozens of people sweeping up shattered glass, painting over graffiti, and comforting each other. These weren’t just store-owners and employees — they were neighbors, doing their neighborly duty.

Over the days that followed, the protests continued and, gradually, grew less volatile. On Wednesday evening, we received a group text message from a neighbor in our building, asking us to participate in a simple gesture of mourning and solidarity: all we needed to do was to go outside and shine a light at the sky for eight minutes and forty-six seconds — that now infamous length of time. One by one, we gathered in front of our building, sources of light in hand. The talk was, at first, cool and tense, but it soon grew warm. Then it stopped, and the lights went on. A long — very long — eight minutes and forty-six seconds later, the street was dark once more. It was at this point that voices reached us from up the block. Small crowds had formed in front of other buildings. They pooled together and called out to our group. We approached, formed a socially distanced circle, and introduced ourselves.

Must it take something like this to bring a neighborhood together? I don’t think so. But this certainly did. And it brought back memories — memories of the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and of September 11, 2001. My next-door neighbor for both those traumas was Nola Thorp — a name that, to my immigrant ears, might as well have been “Miss America.” And, as it turned out, Nola had been something of a beauty queen. I learned this on the day of the Quake, which had thrown me out of bed in the middle of the night. I was 12, Nola was 61, and though we had probably uttered no more than 20 words to each other in the two years prior, we spent all of January 17 — all of it — chatting on foldable chairs between our respective doors and shuddering at each aftershock.

What I learned was that Nola (who, I should say, was still very beautiful, still very queenly) had come out to Hollywood from Wisconsin in the late ‘50s, having landed a co-starring role in a Roger Corman picture titled T-Bird Gang. I had no idea what kind of plumage a “T-Bird” sported, much less what kind of schlock Corman produced. All movies were movies to me: invariably glamorous. Still, some titles sounded more glamorous than others — and so my eyes bulged when I heard that Nola had appeared on the big screen as Cinderella herself! (I ignored the fact that she had played the fairytale princess in something called Cinderfella, opposite Jerry Lewis, whom I knew only as a pudgy, wizened, and wheezing telethon host.) Her promising start led to a string of bit parts in TV shows. Eventually she gave up on acting, but never on Hollywood; she attended just about every Tuesday matinee at the little movie theater on Sunset at Crescent Heights, on the site where, decades earlier, Lana Turner had gotten her big break at the Schwab’s Pharmacy soda counter.

As the sun set on that day in ‘94, Nola brought out her albums of clippings — stills from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Cheyenne. The mesmeric effect of those glossy photos drove all thought of plate tectonics from my mind. Freed of my fear and pleasantly weary, I went home, crawled into bed, and fell right asleep. The next time Nola and I spent the day together was 9/11. I moved soon after, and though I didn’t go very far, we fell out of touch. Many years later, an internet search conducted on a whim informed me that Nola had passed away in 2011.

The faded female star is a stock figure in the Hollywood myth — and, of course, that myth has some basis in truth. The forgotten Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, you’ll remember, is played by Gloria Swanson, who was herself all but forgotten for at least a decade. Yet as Swanson’s case shows, glory can return. And in my mind, Nola Thorp will never be less than glorious. I wish I had thought to bring her flowers.

Ruminating on all this, I remembered another of Vernon Duke’s Los Angeles poems. I dedicate my translation to Nola, who defied the Hollywood myth and shone bright for her neighbors when they needed it most.

Sunset Strip

Poor lady is in tatters,
disheveled and distressed —
a star of yesterday.

Abandoned by the cameras,
no wonder she’s depressed:
her heart is drained away.

Look all you like, no matter —
won’t guess how old she is…
Her dress is dull and gray:

despite her stately manners,
she can’t keep up appearances
without her former pay.

Her days drag on, relentless,
her eyes look tired and lifeless,
her furs are worn and frayed…

O Hollywood, how horrid…
Lord, work your little wonders:
restore her faded fame.

Sunset Strip

Растрёпанная женщина,
Развинчена, развенчана —
Вчерашняя звезда.

Экранами покинута —
Недаром сердце вынуто
Из тела навсегда.

Девчонка ли, старуха ли, —
Таких мы и не нюхали;
Одета кое-как,

Повадка горделивая —
Но трудно быть красивою
Без денег, натощак.

Ее глаза усталые,
Ее меха — линялые —
Ползут за днями дни.

О, гнусный Холливудишко!
О, Боже, — сделай чудишко
И славу ей верни.