“The God of Soviet Jews”: Lev Mak in Odessa and Los Angeles

Over the past month, as the Russian military has committed atrocity after atrocity in Ukraine, some commentators have expressed concern about the damage that might be done to Russian high culture in the West. To those who know or care about the centuries-long, brutal suppression of Ukrainian culture by Russia — suppression that has not so much been ignored as celebrated by the leading lights of Russian high culture, like Joseph Brodsky — this concern seems woefully misplaced. It’s unlikely that Russian literature will cease to appear in translation, though the publication of these translations should not be funded by blood money from the Russian state. I myself have been complacent about these matters, but I vow to be more diligent from now on. Of course, there’s only one living Russian author with whom I have a close working relationship, Maxim Osipov, and he is now in emigration.

Yet Russian is the language I’ve worked with most — the Russian of the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, of the émigré poets of Los Angeles, and of dozens of Odessan poets and prose writers. As readers of this blog know, the salty, sunny language of that last group isn’t exactly the Tsar’s Russian, marinated as it is in Yiddish and Ukrainian and sprinkled with French and Greek. I’ll go on translating Isaac Babel and Eduard Bagritsky, the early poems of Vera Inber and Zinaida Shishova without a twinge of guilt. To my mind, they have about as much to do with Putin’s “Russian World” as Heinrich Heine does with Hitler’s Third Reich. 

Add to that list a living link to Odessan greatness, Lev Mak, with whom I had the great pleasure of chatting and reading some poems at the Wende Museum yesterday afternoon. Lev, now 82, was once the weightlifting champion of Ukraine and is still no one you’d care to mess with. Just ask the head of the Odessan KGB in 1973. That was the year that an article was planted in the newspaper Evening Odessa calling Lev a parasite and blaming his father, a professor at the Odessa Polytechnic Institute, for raising such a son. Lev’s father was relieved of his duties, while Lev marched over to the newspaper office and spat in the editor’s face. It was this that led to his final arrest, imprisonment, and forced emigration in 1974. Earlier he had been fired from the Odessa Film Studio for surreptitiously recording the secret trial of a woman charged with making samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Between that and exile, when he found work as a clean-up man at sites of suicide, he got in trouble for photographing the notes left behind, in which those who had taken their lives almost invariably blamed the Soviet regime. And did I mention he’d also worked as a stevedore at the port? Can you get more Odessan than that? And if you’d like to know where Lev stands on the current war, let’s just say that, thanks to him, the defenders of Ukraine have a few more machine guns at their disposal.

In short, Lev is a character — a character straight out of Babel — but he also writes verse no less moving, no less invigorating than Bagritsky’s. And for the past few decades he’s made his home in Los Angeles, at a house so close to the beach that he can hear the waves lapping at the shore at night. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, LA is just Odessa on a different scale.

Below are my translations of two of Lev’s poems, the first a surreal evocation of Jewish Odessa, with all its glinting dangers and shimmering wonders, the second a sharp little satire, in the classical mode, of those who seek fame in our adopted home.

August in Odessa

Stars pour down on the town
like jewels into safes.
A streetlamp sways over
a thief who’s been knifed.
Hemmed in by the walls
of homes locked up tight,
the Milky Way glimmers
like a moat in moonlight.

From behind milky furrows
people burr, roll their r’s.
Up above Jewish courtyards
glow menorahs of stars:
on this night, old Jehovah
condemns those he chose
to suffer through hunger,
with the post office closed.

Life’s a lottery pouch:
stick your hand in the hole —
the God of Soviet Jews
will bend over your soul
like a doctor; far off
in the distance you’ll see
the slovenly earth,
the snow’s clemency.

1974

Hollywood

That holy grove, wherein the Gorgon Fame,
a bandage covering her suppurating eyes,
lows shamefully, enticing mortals
to copulate with her.
                                 The waxen idols
of Madame Tussauds speak of the moment
when that bandage is torn off
and the insatiable beast’s fury
floods her intolerable pupils with white heat.

1981


Август в Одессе

Звезды сыплются в город
Будто яхонты в ларь.
Над зарезанным вором
Раскачался фонарь.
Окруженный стеною
Неприступных домов,
Млечный путь над тобою,
Как светящийся ров.

Слышен говор картавый
Из-за млечных борозд.
Над еврейским кварталом —
Семисвечники звезд:
Свой народ Иегова
В августовскую ночь
Обрекает на голод
И закрытие почт,

Ибо жизнь — лотерея:
Сунешь руку в мешок —
Бог советских евреев
Над твоею душой
Наклонится, как лекарь, —
Замаячат вдали
Милосердие снега,
Неприбранность земли.

1974

Голливуд

Святая роща, где Горгона-слава
С повязкой на гноящихся глазах
Мычит постыдно, призывая смертных
Совокупиться с нею.
                   Истуканы
мадам Тюссо расскажут о мгновеньи,
Когда повязка сорвана и ярость
Ненасытимой твари раскаляет
Ее невыносимые зрачки.

1981

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13 thoughts on ““The God of Soviet Jews”: Lev Mak in Odessa and Los Angeles

  1. I’ve been far more aware of Ukrainian art as distinct from Russian than I realized about literature, where unfortunately that hasn’t been the case, but the common moniker of ‘Little Russia’ should have been more of a tip-off.

    Thank you for the background on Lev Mak, he sounds like a person the saying ‘gives no quarter’, might have been invented for.

    p.s. – Have you had a chance to see the piece in The Irish Times book section (republished from the NYT), on poet Ihor Kalynets? Very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with much of what you say, yet I want to add that it’s particularly important now to look closer and deeper at the work of everyone who has been publishing in Russia WITHOUT the support of the Russian state: for instance, so many brave feminist and LGBT+ writers. Many, like Galina Rymbu, are outside of Russia by now, but many do remain in Russia and have very little choice about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Languages are land mines in our mouths. Though my favorite poets and musicians are German, I still bristle at the sound of it. Working for a volunteer organization many of the Ukranians who speak Russian refuse to use it and so…the boycott begins. What do we lose by abandoning art not born of terror? It’s all a mixed bag to me. I only hope we can find peace soon. I keep hope open 24/7.

    Thank you for August in Odessa. Gorgeous and unforgettable. Stay as beautiful as you are my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

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