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!
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.
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
И вышедши из комнаты,
Там нежным бризом тронуты,
Старушки в Калифорнии.
У испанских имён
Потому я влюблён
В эту пеструю жуть.
Вихря мыслей простор,
Финн берёзку нашёл,
Армянин — Арарат.
Коль обижен судьбой,
Иль любовь далека,
Здесь найдёт земляка.