A Russian Émigré Channels Dorothy Parker: On Zinaida Kovalevsky

My mission to recover the literary legacy of Russian LA is not a lonely one. I’m lucky to have the help of two stalwart comrades, Sasha Razor and Ivan Podvalov. Last Monday I stopped by Ivan’s home to pick up a few books of verse he had salvaged from the dustheap, some by poets I’ve read and translated (Ellis, Ter-Boghossian, Avtamonov), and some by poets whose names I’d seen but whose work I’m now encountering for the first time. The most impressive of these new discoveries is Zinaida Kovalevsky, a poet of genuine wit with a gift for occasional verse — a hallowed tradition in Russian literature, perfected by Pushkin and his circle. Yet there’s a double shadow that hangs over even her lightest poems. For one thing, her life and the lives of her fellow literary émigrés were touched by many tragedies, which she sometimes addresses directly, sometimes indirectly. For another, it’s sad to reflect on the fact that her vers de société were meant for such a small circle to begin with, and now that whole small société is largely gone, having left only a few flimsy traces.

The book that contains Kovalevsky’s poems is one of these flimsy traces. Modestly titled Verses (Stikhi), it’s set in a jumble of awkwardly spaced typewriter fonts, with some words threatening to fall right over the right edge of the page. It was published in Los Angeles in 1996, when the poet was 94. She died the following year, on March 27, and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The brief, enthusiastic preface to the collection — the work of former Soviet political prisoner Yuri Vetokhin — provides the only details we have of Kovalevsky’s life.

Born in Warsaw on October 25, 1902, Kovalevsky (née Sidorova) was raised in Moscow and educated at a prestigious high school. Soon after graduating she married an officer in the Imperial Army with the glorious double-barreled surname of Grotto-Ślepikowski. Towards the end of the Civil War the couple emigrated to Egypt, and from there to Yugoslavia, where they reunited with the poet’s parents. Kovalevsky continued her education in history and philosophy at the University of Belgrade. After her husband’s death in the 1920s she married another former officer, Kovalevsky. When the Second World War broke out, the Kovalevskys wound up in Austria, where they were eventually placed in the Kellerberg DP camp, and where the poet went to work for the International Refugee Organization. Some of the lyrics in her book were written in the camp, while others poignantly revisit the experience. The couple immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, settling in Los Angeles, where she took a position as a secretary at an insurance company. Kovalevsky’s second husband died in 1962, and she seems to have found a great deal of solace and support in the company of other literary Russians.

The poem I’ve chosen to share testifies to Kovalevsky’s strength of character, as well as to the power of irony to banish dark thoughts — or rather, to entertain dark thoughts, to give them a home and so quieten them. It is a kind of Russian émigré version of Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp “Resumé.” My translation is an early birthday homage to this humble, resilient poet.

Life is too hard for me, really.
Rather than dying of boredom,
I think I’ll commit harakiri:
take a deep breath, plunge the sword in.

Cyanide, too, is an option —
so are drowning, the bullet, the rope.
Happiness lay in the offing,
and stayed there. Played us for dopes.

Who needs it? I’ve had enough and
am ending it all. No regrets.
Basta! But first let me puff on
the last of these cigarettes.


Мне тяжело в этом мире,
Я от тоски умираю,
Лучше всего — харакири,
Харакири — как самураи.

Есть и цианистый калий,
Омут, верёвка и пуля.
К счастью путей мы искали,
Нас все пути обманули.

Ну, и не надо. Что толку?
Так надоело всё это.
Баста! Вот выкурю только
Последнюю сигарету.

“Life Backtracks into Death”: Boris Poplavsky’s “Magic Lantern”

On Friday, while presenting on five Russian Angeleno poets, I mentioned that, in his first years as an émigré in Constantinople, Vernon Duke founded a Poets’ Guild with Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935), a Moscow-born poet who is now widely recognized as one of the major talents of the First Wave of Russian emigration. Before his death from an overdose at the age of 32 exactly 86 years ago (accident, murder, or suicide? an open question), Poplavsky managed to publish a few chapters from his novel Apollon Bezobrazov and a single collection of poems, Flags (1931). Both his prose and his verse reflect the influence of European literary movements, from the Symbolism of Rimbaud to the Surrealism of Breton. Reviewing John Kopper’s translation of Apollon Bezobrazov, which was published in 2015, Bryan Karetnyk writes: “Boris Poplavsky was the enfant terrible of the Montparnassians, the set of young Russian émigré writers exiled in Paris in the interwar years. […] Chronicling the riotous adventures, affairs and amusements of a throng of penurious Russians, led by the titular Bezobrazov, Poplavsky’s novel exquisitely captures the zeitgeist of les années folles.” Karetnyk’s translation of the poet’s second novel, Homeward from Heaven, will be published by Columbia University Press in June 2022.

Poplavsky’s poems were no less apt to épater le bourgeois. They even repelled the aesthete Nabokov, whose 1931 review of Flags has been translated by Anastasia Tolstoy and included in Think, Write, Speak (2021): “Rarely, very rarely, does poetry waft through the poems of Poplavsky. […] To be frank, Poplavsky is a bad poet, his poetry an unbearable blend of Severyanin, Vertinsky, and Pasternak (the latter at his worst), on top of which it is seasoned with a kind of awful parochialism, as though the man were permanently living in the same little Estonian town where the book was printed, and printed very badly.” But as he looked back on the shattered world of Russian Paris two decades later, Nabokov changed his tune. In Speak, Memory he writes: “I met many other émigré Russian authors. I did not meet Poplavski who died young, a far violin among near balalaikas. His plangent tonalities I shall never forget, nor shall I ever forgive myself the ill-tempered review in which I attacked him for trivial faults in his unfledged verse.”

One of my favorite poems in Flags adds a surreal touch to a typical émigré scene — a smoke-filled room of the kind Pericles Stavrov describes in his “Café.” Here is my translation:

Magic Lantern

An evil smoker lets loose rings of days
that dangle powerlessly from the ceiling.
A soldier passing through? Digger of graves?
Or just a wastrel, drunken and freewheeling?

His thoughtless art entraps my lazy mind
and I light up — but in the thickening air
he disappears. All that he leaves behind
is just the pipe glowing above his chair.

A country of tobacco floats untethered
beneath an unassuming lampshade’s sun.
From time to time I’m endlessly lighthearted,
but then at times I simply come undone.

How nice to build a solid ground of haze —
a conquest that can bring no fame, no wealth.
Spring floats off into summer, floats and fades…
Incautiously, life backtracks into death.


Волшебный фонарь

Колечки дней пускает злой курильщик,
Свисает дым бессильно с потолка:
Он может быть кутила иль могильщик
Или солдат заезжего полка.

Искусство безрассудное пленяет
Мой ленный ум, и я давай курить,
Но вдруг он в воздухе густом линяет.
И ан на кресле трубка лишь горит.

Плывет, плывет табачная страна
Под солнцем небольшого абажура.
Я счастлив без конца по временам,
По временам кряхтя себя пожурю.

Приятно строить дымовую твердь.
Бесславное завоеванье это.
Весна плывет, весна сползает в лето.
Жизнь пятится неосторожно в смерть.

Cardinal Points, vol. 11

My indefatigable fellow editor, Irina Mashinski, informs me that the latest volume of Cardinal Points, our annual journal of Slavic literature and translation, is available for purchase. As always, I thank Irina for her heroic efforts and Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies for their support. See here for volume 10 (2020), here for volume 9 (2019), here for volume 8 (2018), here for volume 7 (2017), and here for the journal’s website. This year I also thank our new designer, Ruby Miller.

This is the eleventh volume of Cardinal Points, and as we round the bend into 2020s, I want to highlight a number of contributions that both look back on the Soviet experience and speak with uncanny directness to the current moment. In “We’re Terrorists,” a story translated by Sara Jolly and Irina Steinberg, Polina Zherebtsova, who grew up in Chechnya during the wars of the 1990s and is of mixed heritage, recalls how she and her friends playacted acts of terror from both sides of the conflict. (You can read more about Zherebtsova here.) And in “Hostile Territory,” Lena Wolf, who grew up in Soviet Kazakhstan and is of German extraction, remembers her teacher forcing her to bandage her own head during basic military training, because her classmates have a hard time deciding whether they should help a German if war really broke out. Other pieces in the journal revisit the tumultuous years leading up to the 1917 revolutions and the subsequent civil war (an excerpt from Homero Freitas de Andrade’s superb biography of Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kevin Windle), the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (harrowing child’s-eye-view poems by Anna J. Jasinska), the memory of the Leningrad Blockade of 1941-42 (a stately elegy by Svetlana Evdokimova, translated from the Russian by Stephen Capus, as well as James Manteith’s essay on translating the poems of Anna Alekseeva), and offer a portrait of Soviet society coming apart at the seams during Perestroika (an entertaining, colorful excerpt from a novel by Alexei Nikitin, translated by Catherine O’Neil).

Yet this year’s selection also evokes more peaceful moods, pointing to the comforts of nature and community, which may be available to us even under the worst of circumstances. The great literary scholar Avril Pyman chronicles her summers in the Soviet countryside in the 1960s and ’70s, while Kevin Windle translated the nature notes of Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov. Both these moods — terror and consolation, the all-too-real and the transcendentally sublime — appear in two masterpieces of translation, which we are lucky to feature in their entirety: Stephen Capus’s extraordinary version of Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem and Kevin Kearney’s equally extraordinary rendition of Adam Mickiewicz’s The Crimean Sonnets. I will end by quoting the dedication to Requiem:

Mountains are known to bend beneath such sorrow
And mighty rivers to cease to run;
But the prison doors will still stand firm tomorrow,
And behind them the cells will still resemble burrows,
And sadness will long for death to come.
For some cool breezes blow as day is dawning,
Others rejoice in sunsets – but here
Our days are all alike, monotonous, boring:
The hateful grating of keys in locks each morning
And the tramp of boots are all we can hear.
We arose at dawn, as if to pray together;
Through the ravaged city we made our way;
And the morning sun was low in the sky, the Neva
Was veiled in mist as, paler than ghosts, we gathered
And the sound of hope seemed so far away.
The sentence falls… She feels the tears searing
Her eyes, and now she’s all alone;
And they’ll cast her down, their fingers tearing
The life from her heart, coarse and uncaring;
But she’ll stagger on down her lonely road …
We were thrown together in hell – and yet still I miss them,
Those random friends; and I wonder where they are:
What memories crowd the bright full moon, what visions
Haunt them now in their cold Siberian prison?
And I send this farewell greeting from afar.

March 1940

Prose

Homero Freitas de Andrade, “A Writer is Born: An Excerpt from The Devil at Large in Moscow: The Life of Mikhail Bulgakov” (trans. from the Portuguese by Kevin Windle)
Zsuzsa Hetényi, “Lying to Ourselves”
Alexei Nikitin, “Small-time Scammers: An Excerpt from Victory Park” (trans. from the Russian by Catherine O’Neil)
Avril Pyman, “Summers in the Country, USSR 1965-1974”
Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov, “Nature Notes: A Selection of Sketches from Travels and A Hunter’s Stories” (trans. from the Russian by Kevin Windle)
Gaither Stewart, “The Director and the Books (…of the Gogol Library in Rome)”
Yevsey Tseytlin, “Emigration as a Dream” (trans. from the Russian by Veniamin Gushchin)
Lena Wolf, “Hostile Territory”
Polina Zherebtsova, “We’re Terrorists” (trans. from the Russian by Sara Jolly and Irina Steinberg)

Poetry

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (trans. from the Russian by Stephen Capus)
Svetlana Evdokimova, Four Poems (trans. from the Russian by Stephen Capus)
Anna J. Jasinska, “Glass Balloon: A Triptych”
Adam Mickiewicz, The Crimean Sonnets (trans. from the Polish by Kevin Kearney)
Antony Wood, Original English Verse in the Onegin Stanza: Portrait of an Englishman (Excerpts) and “To Stanley”

The Art of Translation

James Manteith, “‘Seeking Ghosts of Clinking Coins’: Shelters and Travels with Anna Alekseeva”

“Off You Roll, You Powder Keg”: Natalya Medvedeva in Los Angeles

Eduard Limonov and Natalya Medvedeva in LA
Photograph by Alexander Polovets

When Eduard Limonov died on March 17, 2020, Russian literature lost one of its most controversial, undeniably original voices. Due to his despicable behavior during the Siege of Sarajevo, Limonov’s pugnacious, affecting, explosively funny novels are no longer sold in the English-speaking world; his poems are completely unknown. He had only himself to blame, of course, but it’s a loss for all of us… There’s nothing quite like his writing. Never mind — I come to bury Limonov, not to praise him. And to recount an adventure in Los Angeles.

Around 1981, after half a decade of slumming with punks and plotting with Trotskyists in New York, the exiled Limonov wound up in LA, where he met the love of his life, Natalya Medvedeva. You may not recognize her name, but you’ve likely seen her face — here it is, on the cover of The Carsself-titled debut.

She had emigrated to Los Angeles from her native Leningrad six years earlier, with her first husband, at the age of 17. Before long, she left the man and struck out on her own, finding work as a model, trying to break into film, and singing — in her deep, soulful voice — “Gypsy romances” and criminal ballads at local Russian restaurants. Luckily, one of her performances is preserved, along with the restaurant, in The Black Marble, a 1980 adaptation of a Joseph Wambaugh novel about an LAPD detective with Russian roots, played here by Robert Foxworth:

It’s easy to imagine Limonov looking up at Medvedeva for the first time just as Foxworth does here. Self-made, beautiful, passionate, sardonic — here was a woman after his own heart. They had another thing in common: both were damned good writers.

Medvedeva’s autobiographical novel about her years in Los Angeles, Hotel California (1989), is begging to be translated. Charles Bukowski has nothing on her. And some of her poems, like the one below, read like a cross between François Villon and Joan Jett, or maybe Kim Addonizio — here with a dash of Bulgakov.

As one might have expected (and I’m sure many did), the Limonov-Medvedeva union was a rocky one, full of wild nights and fights and betrayals. They lived together in Paris throughout the 1980s, split up in the early 1990s, and officially divorced in 1995. Medvedeva, who had transformed herself into a rock star in Russia, drank heavily. She died in her sleep, in 2003, at the age of 44. Reading the poem below, which was composed in LA in the spring of 1981, one wishes the moon had listened to her pleas.

Your tongue’s all blue, a dirty rag…
have you been cleaning toilets?
playing the witch at balls, you hag?
and shtuping halfwits?
whose hat was it you knocked off with your hoof?
whose cheekbones did you fondle with your knuckles?
what guiltless passerby did you accuse? what of?
which filthy joke was it that made you chuckle?

the morning finds you wandering home in tears,
a child all wet after a fever clears,
wringing your hands, you whisper: aren’t you tired?
then sleep till nightfall — and another riot.

that face of yours, though, is an angel’s face
no shadow runs across your forehead —
protect your child from barbarous disgrace,
o moon! and ease her torment
don’t let her kill herself,
she knows not what she does
and either soars like Margarita
or falls head first…
the piano’s dying down,
ending the evening’s revels —
but here comes midnight — toothless crone,
she’s managed to unleash her devils —
and off you roll, you powder keg,
onto the market square to sell your wares,
and in the morning, like a cuckoo chick,
you’ll huddle up in bed and sleep all day
with your angelic face

spring 81 L.A.


Язык твой синий — тряпка половая
какие ты уборные мела?
на чьем балу ты ведьмой танцевала?
с каким вчера юродивым спала?
с кого копытцем шляпу ты сбивала?
кого наотмашь изласкала по скулам?
кого случайных и куда послала?
какую пошлость куковала до утра?

а поутру придешь в рыданьях —
ребёнком мокрым от простуд
заломишь руки, обронишь: ты не устала?
проспишь весь день, а в ночь — опять на бунт?

а личико – подобно ангельскому
ни тень не пробежит по лбу
да сохрани её от варварства
не дай убить себя саму
луна! твоё дитя страдает
куда не знает деть себя —
то маргариткой пролетает
то расшибает лоб в кровя
вот кажется остановилась свистопляска
рука на клавиши – нежней
но полночь тут – беззубая и вязкая
прислать успела всех своих чертей
и ты – пороховою бочкой покатилась
заторговала квасом на сенном
и поутру кукушкиным птенцом в кровать забилась
и проспала весь день ты
с ангельским лицом

весна 81 Л.А.

“Since Your Future Is Shrouded in Black”: Vladislav Ellis’s “Lie, My Friend”

Portrait of Vladislav Ellis
by Vladimir Odinokov

On October 7, at noon PST, the Russian-American Cultural Center and its generous director, Regina Khidekel, will host my talk on the poetry of Russian Los Angeles, which I have titled “We Trample on Our Dusty Stars,” after a line from Richard Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood.” Ter-Boghossian is one of five poets whose work I’ll present in translation. Three of them found their way to California after the Second World War — found their ways, I should say, as the paths they took were different. Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky, who fled Russia during the Civil War, was in Paris when Germany invaded. He joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in 1944, but was eventually freed and remained in France until 1961. Ter-Boghossian, a soldier in the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans at the front; after escaping from their camp, he was forced to flee Soviet territory too, as returning POWs often faced persecution and even death at home. Vladislav Ellis, whose father and brother were both arrested and executed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, was also taken prisoner by the Germans early in the war; unlike Ter-Boghossian, however, he was put to work. A highly trained engineer, he took part in the construction of the German state railway. After the war, together with his wife and young son, Ellis spent several years in a DP camp; eventually he found work in Belgium and, in 1950, moved to Los Angeles.

The portrait above was done in 1945, in the DP camp. The expression on Ellis’s face matches the mood of the poem below, with which he opens his collection of poems from 1968.

Lie, My Friend

Lie about all your great battles
and how you conquered your fear.
Nо need to show me your medals.
We’re all well bemedalled here.

Lie about shooting down warplanes
and the nurse that treated your wounds.
Go on – lie all you want, friend.
When you’re done, I’ll lie a bit too.

Of course, our boasting won’t free us
from what happened or drown all our pain.
Yes, back there, we were all of us heroes,
just not as much as we claim.

When the dirt rises up in your breast,
choke it down, knock a few back:
add a bold ruddy hue to your past,
since your future is shrouded in black…


Ври, мой друг

Ври, кaк рвaлись к последней стaвке
Вы в бою, презирaя стрaх.
Я с тебя не потребую спрaвки
О полученных орденaх.

Кaк косил истребителей стaю,
Кaк любил в лaзaрете сестру.
Ври мой друг, я тебя понимaю,
Ты зaкончишь и я совру.

Этим ухaрски глупым зaпоем,
Боль о прошлом не утолим,
Все мы были когдa-то герои,
Прaвдa, меньше, чем говорим.

Ври мой друг, и в душевной рaне,
Зa бутылкой, утихнет мрaзь.
Коль грядущее в чёрном тумaне,
Тaк прошедшее розовым крaсь!!!

“Like Coming Back Home, I Step Into Myself”: Julia Nemirovskaya’s X-Ray Vision

Image by Lucien Monfils.

Having spent a decade in the enchanting world of Julia Nemirovskaya’s poems, I’ve grown used to coincidences. Usually these take the form of an unexpected resonance between one of my innermost concerns or unresolved feelings and one of her lyrics, to which I happen to turn at just the right moment. Sometimes it’s the arrival of one of her letters just as I finish my latest translation. This week it was the mail carrier’s delivery of her book — the most complete selection of her poems to date — and, within minutes, the appearance of my version of her poem “Coffee at Night” in Nina Kossman’s excellent journal East West Literary Forum. The poem begins:

My hand, flying seaward, will tremble at night,
touch a slipper that’s resting its head on the floor,
and I’m startled – as when, in a book, I catch sight
of “despair” … and it seeps into my very core.

I posted this stanza to Twitter, which I recently joined, saying that Julia’s poems, too, have seeped into my very core, but as an antidote to despair. Not that her verse is free of anguish; rather, by depicting anguish so very precisely she nearly dispels it, loosens its hold. Once named and seen clearly — to quote from the end of “Coffee at Night” — “sorrow loses its power,” its illusory insurmountability.

One of the poems in Julia’s beautiful new Russian book, with a cover designed by her daughter, evokes another disorienting state — that of a patient emerging from anesthesia. It rises, organically (pardon the pun), to a humble yet profound epiphany, merging the body with nature, growth with dissolution, death with rebirth. Coincidentally, a dear friend of mine has just undergone surgery, and so I dedicate this translation to his speedy recovery.

After the Operation

I’m becoming myself again — like coming back home,
I step into myself: pills everywhere, a clock and a comb.
I turn to the window. A shortsighted glass of ice
transforms the leaves into emeralds as I raise the blinds.
I stare at the ice without blinking, noticing how
the tree that had been outside starts to melt rather than grow.
It’s the doctor, clasping an X-ray in hands covered with hair:
the trunk of a spine, branches, and birds whirling in air.


После операции

Я опять становлюсь собой и в себя как в дом
Захожу: гребёнки, часы и таблетки всюду.
Поднимаю жалюзи, близорукий стакан со льдом
Превращает листья в тяжелые изумруды.
Не мигая смотрю на лёд, замечая, как,
Тот платан, что был за окном, не растёт, а тает.
Это врач, он рентген в волосатых зажал руках:
Ствол спины и ветки и птицы кругом летают.

Factory Windows: On Alexander Blok and Vachel Lindsay (and a Few Besides)

The combination of leaden skies over Los Angeles and Aaron Poochigian’s darkly dazzling translations of Baudelaire, accompanied by Dana Gioia’s magisterial essay on the man he calls “the first modern poet,” brought to mind Alexander Blok (1880-1921), the star of the Russian Symbolist movement. In 1917: Stories and Poems of the Russian Revolution, I included Robert Chandler’s and my translation of Blok’s visionary, polyvocal masterpiece, The Twelve (1918), in which the poet channels the spirit of the time and discerns, in the apocalyptic violence upfolding around him, the second coming of Jesus Christ. It was one of the last poems Blok wrote. Growing ill and falling into a deep depression, he would complain to his friend Yuri Annenkov (1889-1974), who illustrated The Twelve, that he was suffocating, that “the Worldwide Revolution had turned into Worldwide Toad on my chest” (“chest toad” is a Russian term for angina pectoris). He died, as the émigré poet Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) put it in his aptly named memoir, Necropolis (1939), “in general” — “because he was sick all over, because he could no longer go on living. He died of death.” (My review of Sarah Vitali’s flawless, stylish translation of Necropolis, from which that quote is taken, appeared in a recent issue of Translation and Literature.)

Blok’s attitude towards the Bolshevik Revolution was complicated and ambiguous; poets are seldom consistent political thinkers (if such a thing is possible). Less ambiguous was the sense of foreboding, the intuition of a coming catastrophe that imbues much of his verse of the 1900s. The poem below, written on November 24, 1903, is an example.

The Factory

The building next door has yellow windows.
When it gets late — when it gets late
the heavy brooding bolts start whining
as people gather at the gate.

The gate is shut as tight as can be.
Atop the wall — atop the wall
someone unmoving, too dark to see,
looks down at the people, counting them all.

From up where I live I can always hear him
shouting commands in his brassy tone,
telling the people huddled beneath him
to bend their tortured backs, stoop low.

They’ll stagger into the building, scatter,
heaving huge sacks and weighty tools,
while the men in the yellow windows cackle,
brag that they play these paupers for fools.

This poem is certainly anti-capitalist, but I wouldn’t call it Marxist. I see no suggestion that the plight of the working poor would be ameliorated, much less eliminated, by ownership of the means of production. The physical position of the poet says a great deal about his aesthetic and spiritual positions: he is to the side of the factory, high above not only the workers but also their exploiters. Yet the factory is close — next door. One feels the yellow-windowed building and all it represents encroaching on the poet; the foreman’s shouting, the whining bolts, the cackling bosses, and the desperate masses are all harbingers of modernity, of mechanization and dehumanization. Here I can simply quote Gioia on Baudelaire:

“What can be more absurd than Progress?” he asked. “Belief in progress is the doctrine of idlers and Belgians.” Baudelaire had genuine compassion for the poor, but he has no confidence that revolution would save them (or any other group) from the sorrows of existence. He often saw the poor and unfortunate as mirror images of his own troubled self.

And these thoughts, unexpectedly, bring me to two wholly original, willfully eccentric, and thoroughly ignored American poets, Peter Viereck (1916-2006) and Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). The more tragic of the two was Lindsay, whose work I first encountered in anthologies discarded by my high school’s library (that discard shelf was one of the finest classes I ever took). A charismatic performer of his intensely rhythmic, musical work, Lindsay achieved extraordinary fame in the 1910s, but by the middle of the 1920s his reputation was in steep decline. He ended his life in a grotesque, heartbreaking way. Decades later, Viereck, too, seemed destined for a bright poetic career. His first collection, Terror and Decorum, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1949, but his unusual personality and contrarian politics seemed to have sidelined him in the 1950s. He spent more than half his life teaching Russian history at Mount Holyoke College.

Peter Viereck and Vachel Lindsay

But it isn’t this Russian connection that summoned Viereck, at least not directly. It’s his essay on Lindsay, whom he characterizes as a poet whose utopian belief in a paradisal American future — localized in his beloved Springfield, Illinois — clashed with his vision of the infernal present. “His Inferno,” writes Viereck in 1960, “was the same as ours: the standardizing side of the America he secretly hated when he affirmed her, secretly loved when he rejected her”:

“Inferno” is not too strong a word for the soul-destroying commercialism whose symbols, in his poetry, were broken factory windows. This occasional bitterness about commercialism reflected the same kind of unadjusted poetic imagination as Baudelaire’s bitterness about l‘esprit belge. In Lindsay that […] reaction produced two of the strongest, leanest lines ever written on the subject.

The lines Viereck points to are the first and last of the following 1914 poem, which chimes strikingly — even in its rhythm — with Blok’s, and also seems to anticipates Brecht:

Factory windows are always broken.
Somebody’s always throwing bricks,
Somebody’s always heaving cinders,
Playing ugly Yahoo tricks.

Factory windows are always broken.
Other windows are left alone.
No one throws through the chapel window
The bitter, snarling, derisive stone.

Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten — I think, in Denmark.
End of the factory-window song.

Lindsay’s unmolested chapel window makes clear what Blok indicates indirectly. Both poets had a sense of what had gone wrong: the desacralization of modern life. And both thirsted for the sacred. This explains the energy Lindsay poured into his widely mocked work of utopian prophesy, The Golden Book of Springfield (1920), as well as the unlikely apparition of Jesus Christ at the head of a squad of Red Guards in Blok’s The Twelve.

Since I’ve broached the subject of the sacred, I might as well offer a third lyric, to round out the trinity. I feel I should pick something from the factory floor, to provide a different perspective — the proletarian poet Mikhail Gerasimov’s (1889-1937) “Iron Flowers”? No, I think I’ll give the final word to the brick-throwing Shane MacGowan and the Pogues, performing Ewan MacColl’s 1949 “Dirty Old Town”:

I met my love by the gas works wall
Dreamed a dream by the old canal
I kissed my girl by the factory wall

Dirty old town
Dirty old town

I’m gonna make me a good sharp axe
Shining steel tempered in the fire
I’ll chop you down like an old dead tree

Dirty old town
Dirty old town


Фабрика

В соседнем доме окна жёлты.
По вечерам — по вечерам
Скрипят задумчивые болты,
Подходят люди к воротам.

И глухо заперты ворота,
А на стене — а на стене
Недвижный кто-то, чёрный кто-то
Людей считает в тишине.

Я слышу всё с моей вершины:
Он медным голосом зовёт
Согнуть измученные спины
Внизу собравшийся народ.

Они войдут и разбредутся,
Навалят на спины кули.
И в жёлтых окнах засмеются,
Что этих нищих провели.

24 ноября 1903

“Mata Hari, Keep Dancing”: On Nina Grachyova (1969-2019)

In marking the death of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 2017, I praised his extraordinary anthology of 20th-century Russian poetry, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), writing: “Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.”

Often, the obscure poets Yevtushenko elevates to Parnassus are his predecessors. This devotion to the work of one’s neglected forebears is admirable, of course. Still more admirable, I feel, is Yevtushenko’s inclusion of much younger poets in his anthology — not those already gaining prestige in the 1990s, but those in whom he believed and for whom, perhaps, he feared.

One such poet is Nina Grachyova, who was born in Moscow in 1969. She showed promise from an early age, joining elite workshops organized by the journal Youth (Yunost’) and, later, enrolling in the Gorky Literary Institute. It was Yevtushenko, however, who took the poet under his wing, writing a preface for what was to be her first collection, Human Speech (Yazyk lyudey). But something went wrong.

According to one of the very few sources I’ve been able to find, the publisher demanded that the preface be removed, Grachyova refused, and the book was scrapped. Then Grachyova fell ill, stopped publishing altogether, and cut herself off from her friends. Her parents passed away in 2005 and 2006, worsening her isolation, and she herself died sometime in 2019. If there is a grave, its location remains unknown.

In his brief biographical note in Stanzas, Yevtushenko seems to hint at the trouble ahead: “It may be that the flaw in Grachyova is that she ignites too easily; on the other hand, she burns completely, leaving nothing behind.” The poem below, addressed to Mata Hari, the exotic dancer executed for espionage during the First World War, is Grachyova’s fiery defense of a woman’s right to live her life any way she wants to, even if it consumes her. It’s also a genuine fireworks display.

Mata Hari, o dancer, o wild one, bursting with pride —
a woman these days is a man’s silly plaything, that’s all.
You look down from cheap posters, poor bird, eyes open wide,
bearing the title and rank of the first femme fatale.
Who dares to demean the sancrosanct beauty of woman?
Spit in their faces and dance your dance of the snake,
your hair flying every which way, undulant, foamy.
I feel sorry for you. I write these lines for your sake.
Beauty is blameless, but the people of earth are malicious.
Mata Hari, keep dancing, hiding your pain in your breast…
While you, who had wanted to squeeze the last living juices
from the poor dancer’s body? I warn you — beat it! get lost!


Мата Хари, танцовщица, гордячка,
В этом времени женщина — лишь безделушка мужчин.
И глядишь ты с полотен заправских, как бедная крачка,
Первой дивной красавицы титул имея и чин.
Кто посмел надругаться над женской святой красотою?
Плюнь в лицо им и снова танцуй этот танец змеи,
Где легко разлетаются волосы пеной густою.
Я жалею тебя, и о том нынче строки мои.
Красота неповинна, а люди земные жестоки.
Мата Хари, танцуй, свою пытку запрятав в груди…
Ты же, кто захотел выжать тела последние соки
У танцовщицы бедной, молю и кричу: “Уходи!”

Maps to the Stars: An Ephemeral History

For exactly one Saturday, in the summer of 1996, I stood on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Ogden Dr. hawking maps to the movie stars’ homes. Earlier in the week, six of us, all immigrants from the former USSR, had been rounded up for the job by a Fagin-like fellow — stringy, squinty, coils of white hair sticking out like fried electrical cords from the back of his baseball cap. I don’t remember whether I had my mother sign a minor’s work permit or simply forged her signature, but I do remember that I sold exactly one map. Unforgettable too was the look of disgust on our Fagin’s face as he peeled a fiver off his soggy roll of bills at 5 pm: my salary. The pay was piddling, the task demeaning. There was little shade on the corner, and I was too easily wounded by the reactions of some of my potential customers, their rude sneers and pitying frowns. To this day I accept every flyer handed to me on the street with a smile, recalling my own unhappy turn as a peddler.

Sellers of star maps were ubiquitous during my early years in Hollywood, but something drove them off the streets in the 2000s. I suppose it was the double threat of the internet, which made celebrity addresses free and easy to find, and reality television, which fed viewers the illusion of round-the-clock access to certain celebrities’ private lives: why drive around in the hope of spotting a star in the distance when you can sit at home and watch them squabble in their own kitchens?

The notion of “Maps to the Stars” — so emblematic of LA that it lent a title to a fine satirical noir by David Cronenberg — is history now, but a history that remains largely unrecorded. I was surprised to discover, in college, that the trade dated back to the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who has his charmingly dissolute hack, Pat Hobby, take an ineffectual stab at it in a story from 1940, “The Homes of the Stars”:

Business was bad or Gus would not have hailed the unprosperous man who stood in the street beside a panting, steaming car, anxiously watching its efforts to cool.

“Hey fella,” said Gus, without much hope. “Wanna visit the homes of the stars?”

The red-rimmed eyes of the watcher turned from the automobile and looked superciliously upon Gus.

“I’m in pictures,” said the man, “I’m in ‘em myself.”

“Actor?”

“No. Writer.”

Pat Hobby turned back to his car, which was whistling like a peanut wagon. He had told the truth — or what was once the truth. Often in the old days his name had flashed on the screen for the few seconds allotted to authorship, but for the past five years his services had been less and less in demand.

Presently Gus Venske shut up shop for lunch by putting his folders and maps into a briefcase and walking off with it under his arm. As the sun grew hotter moment by moment, Pat Hobby took refuge under the faint protection of the umbrella and inspected a soiled folder which had been dropped by Mr. Venske. If Pat had not been down to his last fourteen cents he would have telephoned a garage for aid — as it was, he could only wait.

That umbrella stuck in my mind and popped up some years later when I ran across a photograph in the 1941 Works Progress Administration publication Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and Its Environs, which has since been reprinted by the UC Press with a superb introduction by David Kipen.

Well, I thought, if Fitzgerald’s Gus wasn’t modeled on this Harry, I’ll eat both their crumpled fedoras. But who was Harry, who appeared to have stationed himself right at the mouth of the Sunset Strip? From time to time I’d catch glimmers of this forgotten star of the star-map racket — a photo of him in the rain from 1937, and even, thanks to eBay, his business card.

It wasn’t until this past week, though, that I finally got to hear the man’s story, more or less from his own mouth. It came to me by way of Benjamin Appel, an unsung master of gritty crime fiction and the author of The People Talk (1940), an oral history of the Great Depression. One of the chapters in The People Talk is devoted to “Flickerland People,” and Appel’s first informant is none other than Harry. Describing his stand, Appel writes: “The signs are lettered in red, white and blue; Harry, himself, in the middle of them under a beach umbrella. His tanned shrewd face fits the amusement park atmosphere of this highway office, his blue suit, black bowtie and sun glasses exactly the right uniform.” Cutting to the chase, Appel asks: “How did you become Harry, the Guide?” Harry responds:

“That’s quite a number of years ago. I used to know a lot of Hollywood people. I used to be in the vodvil business myself, I’ve got a game leg.” He glances down at his feet. One of his shoes has been specially constructed. “I can’t get around like you other guys… Friends of mine used to ask me where the stars lived and I used to tell them. Now when they ask me, they pay me.” He leans back in his camp chair. “I was born back in Rhode Island… I’ve been all over the damn world. One time I had plenty of dough. Now I got nothing. I’ve had people here from all over the world. I’ve had from the highest to the lowest, people who had to scrape up the three bucks they paid me to see the stars’ homes. I’ve had men who when they come out of their car were in overalls.”

Harry — who didn’t just sell maps but actually accompanied customers on star safaris in their automobiles — has a lot more to say to Appel, but I got my answer from that passage. Here was the man who had started it all, a broken-down vaudevillian who found a precarious foothold on Sunset Blvd. And at some point he lost that foothold, ceding way to countless imitators — including me, for a day. He loiters on the edges of history, as he did on the edge of the road: in Depression-era guides, in a short story by Fitzgerald, and, just maybe, in Nathanael West’s masterpiece, The Day of the Locust (1939), in which an ill-fated old vaudevillian named Harry Greener goes door to door selling ersatz silver polish.

And what of his old spot? As far as I can tell 8245 Sunset Blvd. is now the parking lot of an overpriced Mexican restaurant. Someone ought to put up a plaque, or at least a pin on Google Maps.

“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?..