“All My Life I Kept on Spinning”: Igor Avtamonov and Edwin Arlington Robinson

I’ve posted many lyric poems by Russian Angelenos on this blog, but some of my fellow SoCal émigrés, like the Sevastopol-born Igor Avtamonov (also spelled Awtamonow, 1913-1995), also wrote book-length epics. At the end of the Russian Civil War, Avtamonov’s father, a captain in the Black Sea fleet, managed to evacuate his family to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then one of the largest centers of Russian emigration. In Yugoslavia the young Avtamonov discovered a passion for aviation, joining a Russian aeroclub, flying gliders, and eventually training as an aircraft designer and engineer. After emigrating to the United States with his wife in 1947, he found work in Los Angeles at North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), where he helped develop the electromechanical control systems of the F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter, the F-107 fighter-bomber, the Х-15 rocket plane, and the Space Shuttle orbiter.

This most impressive career in engineering went hand in hand with Avtamonov’s efforts on behalf of the Russian community. He occupied prominent positions in various émigré organizations and was also a sought-after lecturer on Russian culture and history — subjects that inspired his two long poems of the 1970s and ‘80s, Rogneda (Ragnheiðr) and Vladimir Monomakh and Gytha Garoldovna (Gytha of Wessex). Both poems, now available online, were published as attractively illustrated standalone books. On me, at least, they make a sad impression; the electromechanical engineer’s long lonely labor over these lines of antiquated verse, all in hopes of kindling patriotic feelings among the children and grandchildren of exiles, could only be called quixotic. The whole thing smacks somewhat of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy,” that modern “child of scorn” who “missed the mediæval grace / Of iron clothing.”

And I can’t help but think that despite his great American success and his constant activity, Avtamonov occasionally gave in to the sense of futility that trails the exile like a hungry stray. My evidence? The ironic lyric below, which seems so unlike the work of a poet steeped in medieval lore. Then again, E. A. Robinson himself was the author Merlin and Tristram. The last line of my translation was influenced by a refrain from another of Robinson’s poems, “Mr. Flood’s Party,” which is dearer to me even than “Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” and all his other anthology pieces.

A little ball hits the roulette wheel
and rattles, as if cutting ice.
Circling its motley prison, it will
bring someone some small happiness…

While all my life I kept on spinning
and happiness played hard to get…
Days pass away… My hair is thinning…
Well, then — perhaps I’ll place a bet?..

Пустили шарик по рулетке, —
Шуршит, как будто режет лёд,
Бежит, бежит в цветистой клетке,
Кому-то счастье принесёт…

А я кручусь всю жизнь, всё время,
И счастье всё хочу догнать…
Уходят дни… Лысеет темя…
В рулетку, что ли, поиграть?..


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