“Surka” and Boris Only Cash Café

Rooting around in Calisphere, the “gateway to digital collections from California’s great libraries, archives, and museums,” my girlfriend and I came across some photographs of Boris Sapiro — actor, director, restaurateur, and who knows what else? — in front of his eponymous café in Shanghai in the late 1930s. These photographs are part of Loyola Marymount University’s Werner von Boltenstern Shanghai Photograph and Negative Collection, which documents, among other things, the fascinating life of the city’s Jewish ghetto. The photograph below, which appeals to me for obvious reasons, reminded me of a line from one of my beloved Odessan criminal songs: “we ducked into a rundown little joint.”

Boris Sapiro's Boris Only Cash Cafe - Shanghai, 1938-1939.jpg

The song is “Surka” (a diminutive of Sarah), a Jewish parody of the infamous “Murka” (“Moll”), which I mentioned in an earlier post. I was so inspired by the photo of my namesake in front of his greasy spoon that I translated the song’s lyrics. You’ll find several versions of the original here, and a recording of Vladimir Vysotsky’s take below the lyrics. So here’s to Surka, that hell-raiser! (In “Rabinovich,” the emphasis is on the “o.”)

We went to pull a job, me and Rabinovich,
but Rabinovich had to knock one back —
after all, why shouldn’t a poor Jew wet his whistle,
if he ain’t as busy as all that?

So’s to get a stiff one, and a bit of tzimmes,
we ducked into a rundown little joint;
there we saw her — Surka — and she had a pistol
underneath her skirt, loaded with shot.

We thought we were done for, so we took a powder,
vowing that we’d make that Surka pay:
in a darkened alley by the local temple,
we’d take Surka’s wretched life away.

So we called up Moyshe (he’s a hardened convict),
and Moyshe loaded up his trusty gat.
In a darkened alley by the local temple,
he was gonna lay that Surka flat:

“Greetings, my sweet Surka — greetings, little darling.
Greetings, my sweet Surka — and goodbye!
You ratted on poor Shlomo, ratted on poor Aron —
it’s time for you to eat my lead and die!”

Rabinovich drew his crooked-barreled heater,
tried to hold it steady in his paws —
first he screwed up one eye, then screwed up the other,
then he cocked the hammer with his schnoz.

Rabinovich fired — but he missed a bisl,
and his bullet dinged my head instead.
Now I’m getting stitches — meanwhile, Rabinovich
and Surka have been painting the town red!


Neglected Poets at The Odessa Review

The kind people at The Odessa Review have published my brief essay on two Odessan poets who never achieved the success they seemed destined to achieve: Semyon Keselman (1889-1940) and Anatoly Fioletov (1897-1918). In the piece I offer my translation of Keselman’s jewel-like pre-Revolutionary lyric “I wait for love as for a tram at night,” which made a great impression on his contemporaries. I reproduce it here, below his portrait, along with the Russian original.



I wait for love as for a tram at night,
peer through the dark while tears slip down my cheeks —
saying a spell, willing a point of light
to flare up somewhere down the street.

I wait. Quietly, like stars within a cistern,
reflections stir within my soul.
I wait and dream that in the damp of evening
light glides towards me through the cold.

Я жду любви, как позднего трамвая,
Гляжу во мглу до слёз, до боли глаз,
Творя волшбу, чтоб точка огневая
В конце пустынной улицы зажглась.

Я жду. В душе, — как Млечный путь в цистерне, —
Лишь отраженья зыблются одни.
И грезится, что в сырости вечерней
Уже скользят прозрачные огни.

Consider the Lilies: John Cournos, Anna Akhmatova, and H.D.

On my visit to Northampton I had coffee with my friend Marilyn Smith, scholar extraordinaire, who has spent years researching the career of John Cournos (né Ivan Korshun, 1881-1966). The abstract of Marilyn’s excellent essay “The London Making of a Modernist: John Cournos in Babel” summarizes the scope of the man’s achievement as a critic, journalist, editor, novelist, poet, and playwright. But as Marilyn rightly notes, Cournos “is remembered today, most frequently, as a translator from the Russian.” Unfair though this may be, his translations are indeed very artful; they are certainly worthy of closer — and more generous — attention than they have received. (I discuss one of his translations, briefly, in my essay “The Land of Columbus: Echoes of LA’s Russian Past.”) Of course, it stands to reason that I have special affection for him: we were both born to Jewish parents in Ukraine, and both emigrated to the United States at roughly the same age.

John Cournos.jpg

Today I’d like to present one of Cournos’s original poems, which was born of his work as a translator. Cournos visited Revolutionary Petrograd in 1917 and 1918, where he met with a number of poets and writers, including Anna Akhmatova. He presented Akhmatova with a poem, titled “To A.A.,” which was long thought to be lost. In fact, the typescript is safely stored in Akhmatova’s archive, and was reproduced in an article by Roman Timenchik in 1994. In the 1910s, Cournos was quite close to the Imagists, especially to his fellow Philadelphian H.D., and his poem to Akhmatova reads like a subtle synthesis of the Russian and American poets’ styles:
Akhmatova - 1917.jpg
To A.A.
O lily,
Frail white flower,
A joy to behold!
The hurricane blows,
Felling huge trees,
The beech and the oak,
And the tall sycamore.
O lily sweet,
Dear and frail,
Will you still stand
When the winds cease to blow?
Will you still hold high
Your fair proud head?
Will you look with pity
On the beech and the oak
And the tall sycamore
That lie stretched on the ground
When the winds cease to blow?
Compare this to H.D.’s “Sea Lily.” In subsequent years, a number of scholars would remark on Akhmatova’s similarity to H.D., and on the general affinity between the Anglo-American Imagists and the Russian Acmeists. Here, a poet-translator who knew both H.D. and Akhmatova brings them together in his own lyric. And think of how prescient the poem is: Akhmatova, the delicate lyricist, would outlast so many of her seemingly hardier contemporaries. What are Requiem and Poem Without a Hero but the proud, pained songs of the lily, looking down on the felled beech, oak, and tall sycamore?

Raising Hell and Falling for Crooks

Smith Babel Dralyuk.jpg

On Monday, February 26, I’m giving a talk on my translations of Isaac Babel’s stories at Smith College. I hope my spiel will be worth my hosts’ time. I certainly don’t want them to feel cheated… Speaking of cheating, whenever I think of Babel’s Odessan crooks, it’s to the soundtrack of Soviet criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s, about which I’ve written before. The one perking me up at the moment may be the simplest of all: “Mama, I’ve Fallen for a Crook!” (“Мама, я жулика люблю!”) The title tells most of the story: a young woman is in love with a thief. How will she and her paramour support themselves? Simple: the crook will rob and steal, and she’ll peddle the ill-gotten goods. Here is a recording of the song by the legendary Romani singer and guitarist Alyosha Dimitrievich (1913-1986), a star of the Paris cabarets:

As a bonus, here is another recording of Dimitrievich, performing with his friend Yul Brynner:

Eduard Bagritsky’s “Smugglers” and Ryszard Krynicki in the TLS


I’ve written about Eduard Bagritsky (1895-1934), one of Odessa’s finest literary citizens, once before, in connection with Isaac Babel and The Odessa Review. In that earlier post, I offered my translation of his colorful Futurist juvenilia. But as much as I enjoyed rendering those charming quatrains, the real challenge lay ahead. My white whale, as it were, was the poet’s soul-stirring sea chantey “Smugglers” (Kontrabandisty, 1927), and now I feel I’ve finally brought it ashore. The stalwart crew of The Odessa Review were kind enough to post my effort on their site, and I hope it brings to their readers a fraction of the joy it has brought to me.

Whereas Bagritsky, as I write in my brief introduction, was essentially a romantic poet, the contemporary Polish master Ryszard Krynicki is a far more complicated case. Two new collections of his work have recently appeared in English, and I reviewed both for the TLS (2 February 2018).

Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944) and the Paris Note


The Russian émigré poet Anatoly Steiger (1907-1944), who died of tuberculosis at the age of 37, wrote what is, to my mind, the quintessential poem of the so-called “Paris Note.” Not quite a movement, the Paris Note was the dominant mode of Russian émigré poetry from the 1930s to the 1950s. The poet most closely associated with the mode is Georgy Adamovich (1892-1972), an erstwhile Acmeist, who set out his aesthetic ideals in the journal Chisla (Numbers) in 1930:

A poem should, like an aeroplane, drift, drift, drift along the ground and then, all of a sudden, take flight… if not very high in the sky, then with all the weight of its cargo. Everything should be plain and clear, and only through the cracks of meaning should one sense a piercing transcendental breeze. Each word should mean what it means, but taken together, the sense should double slightly. A poem should sink in like a needle, leaving no sign of a wound. There should be nothing to add, nowhere to go — there should be an ‘Ah,’ a ‘Why did you leave me?’ — it is as if one were drinking a bitter, black, icy drink, the ‘final key’ from which one can no longer tear oneself away. The world’s melancholy is entrusted to poetry. *

The poets of the Paris Note mined the experience of exile for insight into the human condition. Their work was, at its heart, existentialist, and like the prose of Sartre and Camus, it was stripped of all stylistic excess. Fragmentary and elliptic, their poems read like entries in a diary. The forms are unobtrusive, the music iambic, the words simple and often repeated. In 1933, Steiger distilled both the themes and the style of the Paris Note into an instantly memorable five lines:

We put our trust in books, music, and verse;
we put our trust in all the dreams we dream;
we put our trust in words… (Even in words
whose only role in life is to console us —
words spoken from the window of a train…)

Marseille, 1933

Мы верим книгам, музыке, стихам,
Мы верим снам, которые нам снятся,
Мы верим слову… (Даже тем словам,
Что говорятся в утешенье нам,
Что из окна вагона говорятся…)

Марсель, 1933

* In Russian, Adamovich’s statement reads:

Какие должны быть стихи? Чтобы, как аэроплан, тянулись, тянулись по земле и вдруг взлетали… если и не высоко, то со всей тяжестью груза. Чтобы всё было понятно, и только в щели смысла врывался пронизывающий трансцендентальный ветерок. Чтобы каждое слово значило то, что значит, а всё вместе слегка двоилось. Чтобы входило, как игла, и не видно было раны. Чтобы нечего было добавить, некуда было уйти, чтобы «ах!», чтобы «зачем ты меня оставил?», и вообще, чтобы человек как будто пил горький, чёрный, ледяной напиток, «последний ключ», от которого он уже не оторвётся. Грусть мира поручена стихам.

Yuri Kazarnovsky’s Final Stroll


(Henri Cartier-Bresson. Gorky Park, Moscow, USSR, 1954)

A little over a month ago I shared a link to my translation of Yuri Kazarnovsky’s rollicking poem “The Tram,” which inspired an insightful and deeply moving post on Patrick Kurp’s incomparable literary blog Anecdotal Evidence. Today I’d like to share another of Kazarnovsky’s poems, which he sent to Ilya Selvinsky (1899-1968) in 1956. Selvinsky was, by then, a grand old man of Soviet letters, while Kazarnovsky was living hand to mouth. This late poem, titled “The Stroll,” bears few traces of the many unthinkable indignities the poet had suffered throughout his life. Instead it playfully captures the minor indignity of an old man’s hopeless infatuation with a young woman.

In its thematic universality, stylistic elegance, and wistfully stoic tone, “The Stroll” reminds me of certain Elizabethan masterpieces, like Ben Jonson’s “My Picture Left in Scotland.” The better-known Soviet poet Nikolai Zabolotsky (1903-1958) also adopted a “plain style” after his term in the camps; all filigree had been burnt away. (Two poems from Zabolotsky’s cycle “Last Love” — on a similar theme, treated more seriously — are included in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.)

The Stroll

Yes, I remember… And the shadow
of someone else’s grief descends:
A blindman met us in the morning —
but couldn’t meet your lovely glance.

I gaze at you… And blindly trust
that muteness is more frightening yet:
A mute man who sat down beside us
could offer you no compliment.

A streak of smoke… Whine of a motor…
I marvel, can’t believe it’s true:
A pilot flies his jet — a hero…
He flies so fast… And not to you?

A car darts by, clashing with wind.
Its driver is as pale as chalk:
His is the pallor of deep pain —
because he couldn’t whisk you off.

Chopin… And wreaths… And through your lashes
the sadness of huge eyes shines blue…
Oh, how I pity the poor soldier
who died for anyone but you.

Still, I’m unhappier than others —
the poet is a bit too old…
Where can I find you magic glasses
that would remove ten years or so?


Припомнил все… И сразу снова
Чужого горя сумрак лег:
Мы, утром, встретили слепого,
И он — увидеть вас не мог.

Смотрю на вас… И слепо верю,
Что немота страшнее мглы:
Немой, сидевший с нами в сквере,
Не мог сказать — как вы милы.

Полоска дыма… Стон мотора…
Дивлюсь, глазам не веря сам,
Геройству летчика — который
Летит так быстро… И — не к вам.

Вот ЗИМ промчался, с ветром споря,
Мелькнул седок, бледней чем мел:
Он бледен так — конечно, с горя,
Что увезти вас не сумел.

Шопен… Венки… Сквозь ваши веки
Синеет грусть огромных глаз…
И — очень жаль мне человека,
Который умер не за вас.

Но я несчастней, чем другие, —
Немного стар уже поэт…
Где вам найти очки такие,
Чтоб стекла минус десять лет?

Bloody Sunday: Peter Yakubovich (1860-1911) and “Red Snow”


On January 9, 1905 (according to the “Old Style” Julian Calendar), soldiers of the Russian Imperial Guard opened fire on peaceful demonstrators marching toward the Winder Palace in St. Petersburg. Led by Father Georgy Gapon, the protestors — striking workers and their families — intended to present a petition demanding an eight-hour workday, higher wages, and better working conditions. Some 1,000 people were killed or injured — either shot or trampled by the terrified crowd. The events of what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday” sparked Russia’s first mass uprising of the twentieth century, the Revolution of 1905, and inspired a number of fervent poetic responses. Among these is Peter Yakubovich’s “Red Snow.” Yakubovich (1860-1911) was a lifelong revolutionary who had spent three years imprisoned at the Peter and Paul Fortress and another twelve years in Siberian exile, an experience he chronicled in a roman à clef titled In the World of the Outcasts, published under the name “L. Melshin.” In 1899, Chekhov wrote to Lydia Avilova: “Melshin […] is a major, unappreciated writer — an intelligent, powerful writer.” And in 1911, in a letter addressed to a group of prisoners, Maxim Gorky offered the following words of encouragement: “I only wish to remind you that they throw plain people into the penal camps in Siberia, but what they get back are Dostoyevskys, Korolenkos, Melshins — dozens, hundreds of beautifully tempered souls!” In the World of the Outcasts is indeed a classic work of prison prose, and while Yakubovich’s poetry doesn’t rise to the same standard, it did succeed in stirring passions and strengthening revolutionary commitments. Here, then, is “Red Snow.”

Like a mighty torrent,
The people came in waves —
Forward, forward, forward,
With a child’s pure faith.

To beat the foe of freedom
In a noblе fight,
Their one and only weapon
Was simply being right…

Snow lay all about them,
White and undefiled;
The chilly air of winter
Was windless, almost mild.

Suddenly… a volley!
Oh, they had aimed well;
Like leaves caught in a flurry,
Piles of bodies fell!

Staring, stupefied,
At the carmine snow,
We stood without a word…
How long? It’s hard to know.

‘Cain, what have you wrought?!
How can you believe
That you’ll conceal your mark,
Hiding like a thief?

Know this: till the last drop
Of blood spills from our veins,
Vengeance — holy vengeance —
Is our only aim!

At the throne of God,
In blissful paradise,
Red snow — bloody red —
Will stand before our eyes!’


Красный снег

Как прилив могучий,
Шел и шел народ,
С детски ясной верой,
Все вперед, вперед.

Чтоб врага свободы
Поразить в бою,
Нес одно оружье —
Правоту свою…

Белый, непорочный
Снег кругом лежал;
Воздух, чуть морозный,
Еле трепетал…

Вдруг… ряд залпов грянул!
Меток был прицел;
Как под бурей листья,
Пали груды тел!

Тупо взор уставя
В обагренный снег,
Мы стояли молча…
Миг один, иль век?

— Каин, что ты сделал?!
Прячась, словно тать,
Божьего проклятья
Скроешь ли печать?

Знай: покамест в жилах
Капля крови есть,
Мысль одну мы держим —
Про святую месть!

У престола бога,
В утро райских нег,
Все мы видеть станем
Красный, красный снег!


Zoshchenko and Benchley

On this, the first day of 2018, I’d like to share a couple of blasts from the past. The short clips below feature two of the top humorists of the early 20th century. The first, from 1933, shows Mikhail Zoshchenko reading his story “The Receipt (Raspiska)” (1929), which concerns a mustachioed dandy’s savvy plan — a makeshift prenup — to avoid responsibility for any child that might ensue from his relationship with a certain young lady. Sure enough, a child ensues, and the young lady takes the dandy to court, where the judge declares that “Soviet law is on the side of the child, and it is the child’s interests that it protects. And in the given case the child should not be held responsible or made to suffer on account of his father being a pretty damned clever son of a bitch.” Of course, it isn’t the moral of the story that gives us pleasure, it’s Zoshchenko delightful delivery — rhythmic, nasal, drawling — of his exaggeratedly colloquial narrative. This is the only recording of Zoshchenko in existence, an invaluable point of reference for anyone who wants to hear his prose as he heard it himself.

But the recording is, of course, in Russian, and though it may still be of use to anglophone readers, a little more context might help. With that in mind, I offer Robert Benchley’s Pathé short “The Causes of the Depression” (1931), in which the great Algonquin wit pokes fun at the alleged economic experts who cheerfully proclaimed, in the depths of the Great Depression, that prosperity was “just around the corner.”

Some of the devices Benchley uses to conjure his character — a cliché-abusing know-nothing economist — are strikingly similar to the devices Zoshchenko uses to create Kolenkorov, the narrator of his Sentimental Tales. Early in the clip, Benchley rattles off “the primary causes of the Depression, as we called it”:

Overproduction, maladjustments in gold distribution, overproduction, deflation, too little thyroid secretion — or Platt’s disease — too much vermouth, overproduction, and, by the same token, underproduction.

The inserted phrase, “or Platt’s disease,” is a masterstroke — as if the official name of the condition in question (false, at that) makes the absurd diagnosis any more sound. It’s a desperate grasp at authoritativeness. Well, here’s Zoshchenko’s Kolenkorov, waxing poetic over the physical attributes of Apollo Perepenchuk, the tragic male protagonist of his first tale, “Apollo and Tamara”:

Even his Adam’s apple, his plain old Adam’s apple — or, as it’s sometimes called, the laryngeal prominence — which, when glimpsed on other men, is apt to trigger disgust or laughter, looked noble on Apollo Perepenchuk, whose head was invariably thrown proudly back. There was something Greek about that prominence.

You can survey that Greek prominence for yourselves this coming summer. May 2018 bring us all plenty of laughs and a little perspective, even if prosperity isn’t just around the corner!

Yuri Kazarnovsky at BODY

The venerable Prague-based literary journal B O D Y has published my translation of “The Tram,” a sprightly poem by Yuri Kazarnovsky, a victim of oppression whose spirit, despite all odds, remained unbroken — at least in verse. Introducing the poem, I write:

The Russian poet Yuri Kazarnovsky (1905 – ca. 1960) was born in Rostov-on-Don. In 1927 he was arrested, along with 11 other students, for participating in a subversive literary circle; he spent four years in the Solovki prison camp (1928 – 1931), where he contributed poems to the camp’s literary journal, and another year working on the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. He was released in 1932 and published one collection of poems in 1936, but was arrested again in 1937. Kazarnovsky may have been one of the last people to see Osip Mandelstam alive; the poets were housed in the same barracks at a transit camp near Vladivostok. After serving another four years in Kolyma (1938 – 1942), he was sent to work as a health inspector at the camps in Mariinsk, Siberia. Two years later he moved to Tashkent, where he descended into drug addiction. He was presumed to have died around 1956, but it was recently established that he lived at least another four years in Moscow, in abject poverty, and exchanged a number of letters with one of the major Soviet poets, Ilya Selvinsky (1899 – 1968). “The Tram” is drawn from Kazarnovsky’s 1936 collection. It reverberates with wit and the joy of invention. The poem’s lightness and brightness seem so incongruous with the cruel facts of Kazarnovsky’s life, but might in fact explain how he managed to withstand those facts.


August 1929

You can learn a bit more about Kazarnovsky at the fascinating virtual exhibit Beauty in Hell: Culture in the Gulag, curated by Dr. Andrea Gullotta of the University of Glasgow. And here is “The Tram” in Russian:


Он везёт
         одиннадцать свиданий,
Две разлуки,
         сумочку в руке,
Семь портфелей,
         восемь опозданий,
И жука
         на чьем-то пиджаке.
Он спешит.
         И множит громыханье,
Режет вечер,
         молод и жесток.
Он звонит —
         и тотчас расстоянье
Без оглядки
         мчится на звонок.
Он везёт
         закутанное пенье,
В серых брюках
         едущий доклад.
Пьяный нос
         (в обратном направлении),
Женских глаз
         лукавый виноград.
Он везёт
         намотанное время
Всех часов —
         карманных и ручных,
Он спешит
         в гудящей теореме
         величие прямых.
         летчику на ногу,
Как обидно
         другу облаков.
         торную дорогу,
Прётся танком
         шар семи пудов.
А трамвай
         быстрее режет вечер.
         и мчаться и звенеть, —
И углы,
         и улицы навстречу
         ближе посмотреть.
Он везёт
         толстовку на собранье,
Двух влюбленных —
         в марево луны.
Мне влезает
         на ноги, как зданье,
         трехспальной ширины.
За подножку
         уцепилось лето
И роняет
         звезды от толчков…
— Дайте мне, кондуктор,
         два билета:
Для меня
         и для моих стихов.