“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, —
Шофёр указал уже нам вдалеке
Деревьев зелёную цепь.
Гора за горой, — Колорадо-река
Влечёт глубиной голубой —
Россия, Россия, — ты так далека,
Что мне не расстаться с тобой.

1.VI.1961, Los Angeles

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

  1. Another beautiful translation, clearly done from the heart. The longing in this poem is almost unbearable. “an existentialist resignation to loneliness that is typical both of Los Angeles literature and of Russian émigré verse”. This brought back a childhood memory, circa 1974-5: my Russian-Armenian grandmother and I strolling along the Promenade des Anglais, in Nice, Russian émigrés, fur coats the worst for wear, walking proud but wistful to the bone, sad-eyed borzois at their sides. Their faces lighting up when they overheard us speaking Russian. “Vi govorite po ruski?” Hope lurching forward. And then the finding common ground in the sorrow about dead or disappeared family members.

    Liked by 1 person

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