The Ship Café, Venice, California

I’m honored to have three poems and one translation in the Summer 2021 issue of The Georgia Review. The four selections are united by a theme — the Southern Californian émigré experience — and all will appear in a collection, My Hollywood and Other Poems, which the wonderful press Paul Dry Books will bring out in the spring of 2022 (more on that later!). Two of the poems form a diptych of Venice, a fanciful corner of LA developed by the fanciful Abbot Kinney in 1905. The first depicts one of Sarah Bernhardt’s many visits to Los Angeles. After 1905, she always opted to stay in Venice, even though the neighborhood was rapidly losing its initial sheen. On the evening described here, Bernhardt left Venice in a taxi, which then collided with another vehicle on the way to the theater — yet the show went on.

Oil derricks at Venice Beach

The second poem depicts the final showbiz-adjacent act of Alexander Drankov (1886-1949), a Jewish entrepreneur who rose from rags to become the tsar’s official photographer and the first person to produce a feature film in Russia, only to be wiped out by the Revolution. Escaping through Yalta to Constantinople, he eventually landed in Hollywood, where his attempts to break into pictures proved futile. Seeking to capitalize on the fad for Russian culture, he converted the Ship Café, permanently docked at the Venice amusement pier, into the Volga Boat restaurant, but this venture too soon foundered. At the end of his life, he was operating a photolab in San Francisco; he lies buried in Colma, CA, “the City of the Silent.”

Alexander Drankov in his prime

The translation is of a poem by Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), whose work I’ve shared before. Five years before his death in Los Angeles, he envisions an exiled Russian veteran’s posthumous return to his homeland — a return he himself would never have the chance to make.

I want to thank Gerald Maa, a marvelous writer and sensitive editor with a lasting devotion to Californian émigrés, for giving shelter to these poor wanderers. And I also thank my friend Sasha Razor, who shares my passion for Russophone émigré history but is, unlike me, a proper expert; it was she who turned up that wonderful photo of Drankov above.

Venice Beach: A Diptych

I: Sarah Bernhardt, 1913

“Uncertain now, with faltering steps, but indomitable, she played half-hour performances in vaudeville programs…”

             — Lois Foster Rodecape, 1941

Fatigued, divine, she steps out on the boards
of Kinney Pier. The dark Pacific water
waves its white kerchief: foam, at least, accords
due adulation… Not the train that brought her:
it rattled rudely. And this funny town —
a new-world Venice — looks a bit rundown.
When she turns back, her hotel’s drab façade
sends a cold greeting from the esplanade.
Quand même, tonight, in what they call “Camille,”
she’ll die her death and prove herself immortal.
Age cannot blunt her power to transport all
these crowds who come expecting vaudeville.
The sun has set. She must not miss her cue
to bid Los Angeles her last adieu.

II: Alexander Drankov, 1930

“An obscure retoucher in a photographer’s shop in one of the cities in the Jewish Pale of Settlement … he became the first, and for a long time, the only film producer in Russia.”

             — Lou Reech, 1923

“Drankov tried many things — went from high Hollywood hopes to a boardwalk cafe in Venice, California … when I last saw him he operated a small photo-finishing plant in San Francisco.”

             — Jay Leyda, 1960

Oil derricks lower like Petliura’s troops
at Kinney Pier: in Venice, crude is king.
Aboard the Volga Boat, fake Cossacks whoop
in frenzied indigence, real colonels bring
out rafts of breaded chicken and skewered mutton,
enough to stuff the gut of any glutton,
had any gluttons showed… The night’s a flop.
Tomorrow he’ll start over, from the top,
or from the bottom. In Constantinople
he raced cockroaches, in Yalta he shot porn.
(So what? Was “Goldwyn” to the studio born?)
As buoyant as a cork, constantly hopeful,
Drankov sails on, until he lands, at last,
in the vinegary darkrooms of his past.

Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky

Exile’s Return

To perform a final honor,
a sleek cruiser from Kronstadt
sails into the silent harbor
slowly, like a juggernaut.
Ready for its distant journey,
taking leave of foreign lands,
comes a light-weight coffin, swaying
through a sea of lowered heads.
Were we right or wrong? No matter:
flag’s at half-mast on the stern.
With its scrap of Russian glory
in the hold, the vessel turns.
Such great heights, such depths below…
Joyful foam sprays everywhere
and a farewell siren bellows,
lonely, in the azure air.
All those stars and all those countries —
the return he had long sought…
A thick northern fog engorges
the thin-throated Kattegat.
As it nears the Gulf of Finland
through the Baltic — drizzly, dull —
waves, serene yet unrelenting,
beat against the cruiser’s hull.
In the brief glare from the lighthouse,
they rise up and pass away:
clouds and islands, clouds and islands,
blots of smoke, a barren quay.


Владимир Корвин-Пиотровский

«Для последнего парада»

Для последнего парада,
Накреня высокий борт,
Резвый крейсер из Кронштадта
Входит в молчаливый порт.
И с чужой землёй прощаясь,
К дальним странствиям готов,
Лёгкий гроб плывёт, качаясь,
Меж опущенных голов.
Правы были иль неправы —
Флаг приспущен над кормой, —
С малой горстью русской славы
Крейсер повернул домой.
Брызжет радостная пена, —
Высота и глубина, —
Лишь прощальная сирена
В синем воздухе слышна.
Час желанного возврата
(Столько звёзд и столько стран), —
В узком горле Каттегата
Северный залёг туман.
И до Финского залива,
Сквозь балтийский дождь и тьму,
Бьëт волна неторопливо
В молчаливую корму.
И встают, проходят мимо
В беглой вспышке маяка
Берега и пятна дыма,
Острова и облака.



10 thoughts on “Four LA Poems in THE GEORGIA REVIEW

  1. Boris, Wonderful dives into local lore and wistful sure-footed feelings.  Quand meme quand meme, indeed.

    Did you post from the Parthenon or are you and Jennifer back here in the Disney version? 

    By the way, if you missed it, the NYT had a wonderful deep read of Elizabeth Bishop’s One Art.  It wasn’t terribly profound but neither is the poem, really, though I do like it.  They go through a bit of biography, a history of the form, show a few other poems in the form and trace her poem’s growth through all her drafts.  It’s a magnificent thing they’re doing at that paper.  Their “deep reads” are a joy.

    Yours, John

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks, my dear friend! If anyone has the local lore game figured out, it’s you. Jenny and I are on Sifnos, as stunning a Cycladic isle as you could imagine, but if you squint you can almost mistake parts of it for the California of other days. Makes the fantasies of the early LA developers and Mr. Getty seem less ludicrous somehow… I’ll be looking up the deep read of Bishop’s masterpiece now!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Boris, oh my, such beautiful work—so rich and dreamy and sad and funny and…cinematic. I can’t wait for the book, I really can’t.

    Liked by 1 person

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