“The Unkillable Poor”: Dana Gioia and Alexander Voloshin at the Crossroads

Last week saw the publication of Dana Gioia’s Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a perfect collection of poems. Dana has been a mentor and a friend to me, but had he and I never met, the pages of this book would have lodged themselves just as firmly in my heart. In fact, we came to know each other through one of its masterpieces, “The Ballad of Jesus Ortiz.” It reached me through a mutual friend, the late Scott Timberg, and I leapt at the chance to publish it in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The ballad tells the true story of Dana’s great-grandfather, a Mexican immigrant to the US who was killed in an argument over a bar tab. It is a poem of the West, and others in Dana’s book — including the titular “Meet Me at the Lighthouse” — bring the reader even closer to the turf (and surf) he and I share, Southern California. I quoted from his psalms and laments for Los Angeles before, but let me do so again:

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.

To celebrate the launch of this book-long, bittersweet song of praise for the generations who made us and made the US, I’ll offer my translation of a buoyant chapter from Alexander Voloshin’s On the Tracks and at Crossroads, which depicts those cast out from the Russian Empire by war and revolution at, well, a crossroads, temporarily establishing themselves in Harlem and learning American ways (paychecks! Coca-Cola! chewing gum!) before they are lured by the weather and the glamour to Dana’s and my old stomping grounds. Incidentally, one of the finest poems in Meet Me at the Lighthouse is titled “At the Crossroads,” and you can read it here.

Chapter Two

Those who don’t work, don’t eat.
— a slogan of 1918

The days turned into weeks and months,
then, bit by bit, not all at once,
old residents of Harlem found
themselves inside a Russian town.
An exile’s heart is quick to heal
with help from a familiar meal 
at one of our new restaurants…

In front of these beloved haunts,
beneath the early evening stars,
you see neat little rows of cars — 
not one of them the latest Ford,
only what exiles can afford…
Still, such a pleasure, in warm May,
to leave town, even for a day,
not in some tram — behind the wheel,
kicking up dust with tons of steel!

Now aunts and uncles, moms and pops
buy all their groceries at “shops,”
and every Saturday they get
their “checks,” earned with abundant sweat…

Old worries have been put aside —
we got dressed up, regained our pride,
put on some weight, even began
acquiring new things again…
Men have umbrellas, suits, and canes,
and watches on their wrists or chains.
Our shelves hold Bunin and Dumas;
our closets — coats, new hats of straw;
our dressers — ironed shirts and ties;
our pockets — coins of every size…
We have our phones and baths and showers,
and sleep serenely — all eight hours…
The ladies too are well attired
in all the finery they desired…
Hard work, installment plans — however,
they got it: better late than never.
Now they’re all draped with fancy boas —
each nail on finger and on toe is
as crimson as a drop of blood…
At evening gatherings, like buds,
they open up and, in full bloom,
go whirling all about the room!
They spin a fine thread of flirtation,
recovering their former station…

And we’ve acquired new tastes, too:
drink Coca-Cola, often chew
what’s known as “gum,” eat grapefruit slices.
Only the finest food suffices:
we claim to be, with some bravado,
true connoisseurs of avocado.
We’ve learned the ways, as you can see,
of this, the nation of the free…

No longer foreigners, we can
almost be called American.
Now, when we exiles meet anew,
we say, “Hello! How do you do?”

Глава вторая

Кто не работает — тот не ест.
Из лозунгов 1918-го года

Катились дни, текли недели,
В Харлеме беженцы осели,
И вырос русский городок:
Не то Лубны, не то — Моздок!…
Закрылись сердца злые раны,
Зато — открылись рестораны,
Столовки, русских клубов ряд…
У клубов вечером стоят
«Первобумажников» машины, —

Пускай у них истерты шины,
Пусть это «Форды» древних лет,
Пусть дребезжат, как «драндулет».
Но как приятно теплым маем
За город ехать — не трамваем,
А свой вести автомобиль,
Гудя и поднимая пыль!…

Все дяди, тети, мамы, папы
Пристроились и ходят в «шапы»,
И каждый русский человек
В субботу получает «чек»…

Тревоги прежняя уснули, —
Мы — приоделись, отдохнули,
Мы — пополнели и опять
Вещами стали обростать…
У всех — костюмы, шляпы, палки,
Зонты, часы и зажигалки,
На полке — Бунин и Готье,
В шкапу — пальто и канотье,
В комоде — галстуки, рубашки,
В карманах — мелочь и бумажки…
Есть ванна, душ и телефон…
И безмятежно сладок сон…
И дамы — счастливы и рады:
У них — чулки, белье, наряды…
Пришлось работать, но зато —
В разсрочку куплено пальто,
Горжетка из какой-то шкуры,
И кровью блещут маникюры
И на руках и на ногах…
На танцевальных вечерах
Им для веселья — ночи мало!…
Оне цветут и в вихре бала —
Сплетают тонко флирта нить,
Чтоб — вновь былое пережить!…

Прошли и вкусовую школу:
Пьем Джинджерел и Кока-Колу,
Едим грейпфруты и жуем
Традиционный «чуинг-гом»…
Учить уж больше нас не надо,
Как нужно кушать «авокадо»,
«Образовались» мы вполне,
Живя в свободной сей стране!…

И мы уже не иностранцы,
И мы — почти американцы,
И мы умеем на ходу
Бросать: «Хелло!… Хав ду ю ду!»…


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