It’s another sultry day in Los Angeles, though we’re well into fall. After a morning and afternoon full of Zoom meetings, I took a long walk, just as the sun was beginning to set, and thought about what I’d witnessed this past weekend. On the evening of Sunday, October 11, my neighborhood began to fill with protesters — some on foot, others in cars, but all proudly flying the flags of Armenia and of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Fighting has again broken out in that beautiful mountainous region, which is no stranger to bloodshed, and LA’s large Armenian-American population took to the streets, voicing their solidarity with the people of Artsakh and calling for an immediate stop to the violence.
I wrote about our city’s diverse yet tight-knit Armenian diasporic community earlier this summer, when sharing my translation of a poem by Peter Vegin. Today, at this difficult time for my Armenian-American neighbors, I’d like to share a lyric by another Russian-language poet of Armenian descent, Richard Ter-Boghossian (1911-2005), who emigrated to the United States in 1960 and lies buried, beside his wife, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can learn a good deal about Ter-Boghossian’s life and his difficult journey to Los Angeles by following that last link; it will take you to John Freedman’s interesting blog entry, and if your scroll down to the comments, you’ll find a touching biographical sketch by the poet’s son, Edouard Boghossian.
Ter-Boghossian fought in the Second World War and was captured by the Germans; after escaping from the POW camp, he had to flee once more — this time from Soviet territory, for fear that he might be shot as a suspected spy. Some of the poems in the three books of his that I own confront those traumatic war years directly, while many more look back wistfully on the poet’s youth in Russia. The song-like lyric below, however — drawn from Ter-Boghossian’s fifth collection of verse, Evening Bell (Vechernii zvon, 1995) — sums up his impressions of his adoptive homeland. Although it’s far lighter fare, it brought to mind some of the themes expressed with shattering power in two exquisite recent poems by Dana Gioia, “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles” and, especially, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels.” In the latter, Gioia, a grandson of immigrants from Mexico and Sicily, writes:
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.
I offer my translation of Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood” in homage to the poet’s people and to all Angelenos who have faced their struggles with dignity, without giving in to despair.
Your air, Los Angeles, is poisoned
with the exhaust of countless cars.
You’re famous — yes, the whole world knows you,
knows all your grand and minor stars.
Gangsters of every form and fashion
drift through your bars, your parks, your streets.
O verdant town of sinful passions,
forever drenched in sunlight, heat.
Lush greenery hides handsome villas —
I loved them at first sight, still do.
True, subterranean forces quiver —
man can endure a fright or two.
City of Angels… Standing guard
are rows of palms, stately and thin.
But we — we trample on our dusty stars,
and that is Hollywood’s great sin.
Воздух, Лос-Анджелес, весь твой отравлен
Дымом от разных машин.
Ты на весь мир достойно прославлен
Звёздами всех величин.
Улицы, парки и бары набиты
Гангстерами всех мастей.
Вечно зелёный и солнцем залитый,
Город греховных страстей.
В зелени пышной красивые виллы,
Я полюбил их навек!
Часто пугают подземные силы,
Но терпелив человек.
Тонкие, стройные пальмы над нами,
Город святой берегут.
Топчем мы пыльные звёзды ногами —
Грешный на то Голливуд.