“All of Me Won’t Die”: Sergei Skarupo’s “Angel”

Every now and again this little website brings me pleasant surprises in the form of comments and letters from readers. In March, it brought me a shock. The letter from Charlotte Buchen Khadra was lovely, but the news it bore knocked me off balance. “I had a dear dear friend in Berkeley,” she wrote, “who was a Ukrainian Jew from Kyiv, and a poet, engineer, and musician. Unfortunately he died from a brain tumor in September. I wonder if by chance you two were ever in touch? His name was Sergei Skarupo (or sometimes spelled Shkarupo).”

I responded that I had indeed been in touch with Sergei. I didn’t know him at all well, but I had published a story of his in the 2020 volume of Cardinal Points. The last time we’d corresponded was in late June 2021, when he sent me another short story — a novella, actually — that he had just finished, and asked whether I might want it for the next volume of the journal. I told him that, unfortunately, the 2021 volume was already in layout, and that I would be happy to consider the piece in 2022. He responded kindly and wittily: “By that time the novella will be even more finished.”

After I received Charlotte’s note, I searched the internet for details. Sergei passed away on September 9, 2021, at the age of 47, and a service was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland a few days later. The tributes on the Chapel’s page filled me with regret. I wish I had had the chance to speak to him, even once, and to hear him play his guitar. I’ll quote one friend’s comment in full:

My husband was a coworker of Sergei’s and for a short but memorable span of months we lived within walking distance of his Berkeley apartment. Sergei quickly became a good friend and a fixture in our social life. I was always a little bit in awe of him — he was so brilliant, a serious person, a complete person, but he was also fun to be around, especially when there was music involved. He was also one of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever met — if you visited his apartment, he couldn’t relax until he’d served you tea and food. I remember eating ice cream in his living room just to satisfy this requirement, and that memory makes me smile. 

As Sergei’s cancer progressed, he told us that his experience of music changed dramatically. Music, which had always been a source of pleasure, became ineffably more beautiful, complex, and absorbing. I hope that wherever Sergei is now, he’s close to that music.

I share her hope. Charlotte was good enough to mail me a copy of Sergei’s collection of poems, written in Russian and titled Fire (Ogon’). Published in the last year of his life, it contains 32 lively, imaginative lyrics, beautifully illustrated by the Kharkiv-born artist Asya Livshits. Below is my own tribute to Sergei — a translation of the last poem in the book, with Livshits’s drawing.

Angel

My angel floats on high, hidden behind the clouds, 
and gazes at the earth just like a cosmonaut.
He sends me messages — some cryptic and profound,
some simple as can be — yet I can’t make them out.

My star burns bright on high, hidden behind the clouds, 
yet it’s so very hard to bid this world goodbye.
As sunshine dries me up and breezes leave me bowed,
I whisper to myself that all of me won’t die:

that I’ll sprout up as grass, come drizzling down as rain,
and, as a furious bee, will give some nose a sting —
will fall as fluffy snow upon a wintry plain
to thaw and overflow as water in the spring.

Ангел

Вдали за облаками летает ангел мой,
Подобно космонавту, глядит на шар земной.
Он шлёт мне сообщенья, но я не слышу их,
Загадочных и важных, понятных и простых.

Вдали за облаками горит моя звезда,
Но с этим миром сложно расстаться навсегда.
На солнце высыхая, сгибаясь на ветру,
Шепчу себе чуть слышно, что весь я не умру:

Я прорасту травой и дождиком прольюсь,
Рассерженной пчелой в случайный нос вопьюсь,
Пушистым белым снегом просыплюсь на луга
И вешнем водою заполню берега.

“What a Violent Muddle You’ve Made of Death”: On Alexander Esenin-Volpin

Today is the birthday of Alexander Esenin-Volpin (1924-2016), a major leader of the Soviet civil rights movement, a renowned mathematician, and, like his father Sergei Yesenin, a poet with a distinct vision and voice. His mother, Nadezhda Volpin, was herself a poet and translator from an accomplished Jewish family. Her relationship with Yesenin was brief and stormy, and the couple separated before their son was born, a year before Yesenin’s suicide.

Esenin-Volpin showed a talent for mathematics early on and earned his doctorate from Moscow State University in 1949. Later that year he was arrested for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” for reading his poems to a circle of friends, one of whom denounced him to the authorities. This was the first in a long series of arrests and forced psychiatric hospitalizations — a practice Soviet authorities frequently employed when dealing with dissidents, and the subject of Rebecca Reich’s thorough and penetrating study, State of Madness, which I reviewed for the TLS in 2018.

Esenin-Volpin’s most dramatic act of resistance, which attracted international attention, was the “glasnost meeting” that took place at Pushkin Square in Moscow on December 5, 1965, in response to the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel for publishing their satirical work abroad. Esenin-Volpin and the roughly 200 other participants in the rally were arrested. Three years later, in February 1968, Esenin-Volpin was again arrested at a protest in response to the so-called “Trial of the Four” and forcibly hospitalized; that same year he composed and circulated a guide for his fellow dissidents, “Memorandum for Those Who Expect to Be Interrogated.”

After emigrating to the United States in May 1972, he continued to antagonize Soviet authorities by threatening to sue them for violations of human rights. He died on March 16, 2016. A few months earlier my friend Irina Mashinski sent me a copy of his little book of poems, inscribed in a shaky hand. It is one of my prized possessions.

Below is a poem Esenin-Volpin wrote in the final year of the Second World War, in which he was not allowed to serve due to psychiatric illness. A good poem is no indication of the poet’s mental health, but this one certainly represents what I would consider a healthy response to the horrors of war, which pervert death itself.

A soldier’s corpse lies in a ditch
beside the road.
His naked feet no longer twitch,
as still as wood —
a warped beam in a violet puddle,
soggy and stiff …
… Cruel soldiers, what a violent muddle
you’ve made of death.
The horses race to distant lands.
They’d run all day,
but they are sickened by the stench
just versts away —
earth rotting underneath the dead,
wet crimson stones.
Jackals will get those left behind,
gnaw at their bones …
… A radiant fear from childhood days:
Church lamps glowed dim —
ringed round by flowers, a girl lay 
beneath the dome …
A crowd was waiting for the priest
to sing the dirge,
while I stood staring at her face,
watching it change —
it seemed her heart had given out,
her flesh fought on …
A voice, so patient and and so warm,
began its song.
And, calmly, death shone in the girl —
agate’s dark gleam …
… A soldier in a fetid pool —
a bare warped beam.

January 20, 1945


Лежит неубранный солдат
В канаве у дороги,
Как деревянные торчат
Его босые ноги.
Лежит, как вымокшая жердь,
Он в луже лиловатой …
… Во что вы превратили смерть,
Жестокие солдаты!
… Стремглав за тридевять земель
Толпой несутся кони;
Но и за тридцать вёрст отсель
Коней мутит от вони,
Гниёт под мёртвыми земля,
Сырые камни алы,
И всех не сложат в штабеля —
Иных съедят шакалы …
… Я вспомнил светлый детский страх.
В тиши лампады меркли.
Лежала девочка в цветах
Среди высокой церкви…
И все стояли у крыльца
И ждали отпеванья, —
А я смотрел, как у лица
Менялись очертанья,
Как будто сердце умерло,
А ткань ещё боролась …
И терпеливо и тепло
Запел протяжный голос,
И тихо в ней светила смерть,
Как тёмный блеск агата …
… В гнилой воде лежит, как жердь,
Разутый труп солдата …

20 января 1945

“Symbol of Pain and Hope”: On Pyotr Buturlin’s “The Grave of Shevchenko”

Pyotr Buturlin (1859-1895), little read today, may be the most cosmopolitan Russophone poet of the 19th century. The son of a Russian count and a Portuguese noblewoman, Buturlin was born and raised in Florence and educated at St. Mary’s College, Oscott. It was in England that he began to write — and in English. Unfortunately, his 1878 Anglophone debut, First Trials, which was published in Florence, is lost to history. I was, however, able to find a poem he published in the September 13, 1884, issue of the (London) Academy, under the pseudonym Francis Earle.

After completing his education, he returned to the Russian Empire and settled at his family estate at Tahancha in central Ukraine, not far from Kaniv, where Ukraine’s greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko, lies buried.

Buturlin died young, of tuberculosis, but he left behind a number of accomplished poems, especially sonnets, which won the admiration of the formally dextrous Yevgeny Yevtushenko. A Parnassian at heart, Buturlin translated José-Maria de Heredia, and seems to have seen it as his mission to bring the sonnet firmly into the Russophone literary tradition. It is bitterly sad to revisit what is perhaps his best-known Russian-language sonnet, “The Grave of Shevchenko,” which celebrates the indomitable, deathless spirit of freedom embodied by Ukraine’s bard, who overcame serfdom, survived exile, and continues to inspire his people, more than two months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. I think of the bust of Shevchenko in Borodyanka, near Bucha, with a Russian bullet in the poet’s head.

The Grave of Shevchenko

A mountain-tomb rises above the steppe —
earth merges with the earthly, dust with dust —
and only in its ever-quiet depths
has a tormented strength found peace at last.

But song has broken free from death’s grim cage.
Enflamed with passion, like a southern gust,
it bears those precious words into the ages
with which it once breathed life into the past.

Come closer, stranger — bow your head and pray.
Unfettered joy will make your soul feel light,
though in your eyes the heavy tears well up.

Around you, shining blue, is vast Ukraine,
below the Dnipro flows with measured might,
and here, a cross — symbol of pain and hope.

September 5, 1885
Kaniv


Могила Шевченко

Над степью высится гора-могила.
С землёю в ней опять слилось земное,
И лишь в её незыблемом покое
Покой нашла измученная сила.

Но песнь законы смерти победила
И страстная, как ветер в южном зное,
Векам несёт то слово дорогое,
Которым прошлое она бодрила.

Склони чело, молись, пришлец случайный!
Душе легко от радости свободной,
Хотя от слёз здесь тяжелеют вежды.

Кругом — синеющий раздол Украйны,
Внизу — спокойный Днепр широководный,
Здесь — крест, здесь — знак страданья и надежды.

5 сентября 1885
Канев

“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

“Why Show Up Armed? What Did You Hope to Gain?”: Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “An Afghan Ant”

Despite his Ukrainian surname, the Siberian-born Yevgeny Yevtushenko did not identify as Ukrainian. He did have Ukrainian ancestry — his great-grandmother was sent into Siberian exile with her Polish husband — but was also part Tatar, part Belarusian, and part Baltic German. In the 1970s, Yevtushenko’s readings in the United States were sometimes interrupted by Ukrainian-American protesters who demanded that he speak out against the repression and imprisonment of Ukrainian intellectuals in the Soviet Union, and after the Soviet Union’s collapse he showed no support for Ukrainian culture or Ukrainian independence — quite the opposite.

Neither, I assume, was Yevtushenko particularly interested in Afghan culture or independence. And yet in 1983 he wrote a poem that couldn’t be published for a number of years — a poem about the disastrous Soviet-Afghan War, which stretched from 1979 to 1989, cost Afghanistan up to 12% of its population, and expedited the fall of the USSR. The poem seems newly relevant now, in connection with both Putin’s monstrous, idiotic invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.

An Afghan Ant

A Russian lad lies dead on Afghan soil.
A Muslim ant climbs up his stubbly cheek —
an awful slog — and as he toils and toils
along the soldier’s face, he softly speaks:
“You don’t know where exactly you were slain.
You only know one thing — Iran’s next door.
Why show up armed? What did you hope to gain?
You’d never heard the word ‘Islam’ before…
What could you give our poor, our starving land,
when you queue up for sausages at home?
Weren’t enough of you killed off back then?
Why add more to the twenty million?”

On Afghan soil a Russian lad lies dead.
A Muslim ant climbs up and down his head;
he’d like to ask ants that are Orthodox
how he might resurrect him, mend this loss…
But all are orphaned, widowed, and bereft
of hope. Few wise and faithful ants are left.

1983


Афганский муравей

Русский парень лежит на афганской земле.
Муравей-мусульманин ползёт по скуле.
Очень трудно ползти… Мёртвый слишком небрит,
и тихонько ему муравей говорит:
«Ты не знаешь, где точно скончался от ран.
Знаешь только одно — где-то рядом Иран.
Почему ты явился с оружием к нам,
здесь впервые услышавший слово «ислам»?
Что ты дашь нашей родине — нищей, босой,
если в собственной — очередь за колбасой?
Разве мало убитых вам, — чтобы опять
к двадцати миллионам ещё прибавлять?»

Русский парень лежит на афганской земле.
Муравей-мусульманин ползёт по скуле,
и о том, как его бы поднять, воскресить,
муравьёв православных он хочет спросить,
но на северной родине сирот и вдов
маловато осталось таких муравьёв.

1983

Jennifer Croft Makes News

Photograph by Magdalena Wosinska

Today the paper of record, the gray lady — yes, The New York Times — ran Alexandra Alter’s deep and wide-ranging profile of my beautiful wife, Jenny Croft. And how could one profile Jenny without ranging widely? She is equally accomplished as an author and translator, and her activism has helped change the face of publishing, (almost) literally:

Croft published an open letter with the novelist Mark Haddon, calling on publishers to credit translators on covers. The letter has drawn nearly 2,600 signatures, including from writers like Lauren Groff, Katie Kitamura, Philip Pullman, Sigrid Nunez and Neil Gaiman, as well as prominent translators, among them Robin Myers, Martin Aitken, Jen Calleja, Margaret Jull Costa and John Keene. Her campaign prompted some publishers, among them Pan Macmillan in Britain and the independent European press Lolli Editions, to begin naming all translators on book covers.

A significant part of the profile, of course, concerns Jenny’s latest feat, her heroic translation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, which has received scores of glowing reviews and this week became a New York Times best seller — a rare achievement for any translation. In an email to Alter, Olga herself pointed to what makes Jenny the master that she is:

She is incredibly linguistically gifted[.] Jenny does not focus on language at all, but on what is underneath the language and what the language is trying to express. So she explains the author’s intention, not just the words standing in a row one by one. There is also a lot of empathy here, the ability to enter the whole idiolect of the writer.

This empathy, this preternatural sensitivity to what lies beneath words, is also evident in Jenny’s fiction, and the most exciting section of Alter’s piece for me personally announces a work-in-progress:

Croft, who lives between Los Angeles and Tulsa, is now working on a novel about translation, titled Amadou. The story takes place in the primeval forests of Poland, where a group of translators have gathered to work together on the latest opus from a celebrated female Polish novelist. The translators are stunned when the author undergoes an otherworldly transformation and disappears into the forest, leaving them alone to puzzle out what her new novel means.

Stay tuned, as they say in the news biz!

As I shameless pilfer bits and bobs from Alter’s well-shaped piece, I think of a passage from my man Alexander Voloshin’s epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, concerning the dreary quality and shoddy ethics of émigré newspapers in California.

Culture has only barely grazed us.
We have the local papers, yes,
but I regret to say our press
leaves quite a lot to be desired…
Its publishers have never tired
of cutting, pasting — what we get
is reprints; nothing new as yet.
Their job, they feel, is to serve food
that has been thoroughly pre-chewed.
These gentlemen take inventories
of other publications’ stories …

They steal from strangers as they please
and think it silly to pay fees
for every line … They’d rather buy
five or six pairs of scissors. Why
slave away when you can reap
what others sow — and do it cheap?

Kudos to Alexandra Alter and to all the journalists and editors who serve up fresh food — stories worth telling that have gone untold for far too long!


Культурой мы слегка задеты, —
Есть в Калифорнии газеты,
Однако очень много «но» —
С печатью нашей сплетено …
У «прессы» — странные повадки —
Из всех газет перепечатки
Нам здесь издатели дают,
И весь редакционный труд
Свели к тому, чтобы задаром
Нас пичкать «жёваным» товаром,
Черпая повизну вестей
Из сводки «старых новостей» …

Они сотрудников не знают
И предрассудками считают —
Платить построчный гонорар…
Купивши ножниц пять-шесть пар, —
Они садятся и — за дело:
Читают … режут … клеят смело
И … жнут чужое без стыда, —
Не сея — эти господа! …

“Blessed Is She Who Sees”: Presenting Irina Mashinski’s “The Naked World”

At 11am PST / 2pm EST on February 10, I’ll have the great pleasure of helping Irina Mashinski launch The Naked World, a work in which prose and verse, intimate family stories and world-historical events are seamlessly interwoven, at a virtual event hosted by Globus Books. In his preface to The Naked World, Ilya Kaminsky calls it “magical”:

a story of four generations of one family, told through poems and cut through with accounts of Stalin’s Great Terror of the Thirties, wide-ranging meditations, and flashes of childhood memories from the Thaw of the Sixties and the post-Thaw Seventies. Divided into four parts — “Patterns,” “The Myth,” “In the Right-of-Way,” and “Borders” — it is also a symphonic book, with themes and variations. […] We explore the ‘tessellating pattern’ of a life — of movement across borders, of the myths that carry us along, of grief transformed into resilience, of déjà vu. […] This is a soul-making book, one that doesn’t rest easy on the conventional narrative of one refugee’s escape, but probes deeper into the music our days make, sometimes against our will.

Like everything Irina writes, The Naked World is exhilaratingly original. The translations of a few of the poems are credited to me and Maria Bloshteyn — who will also join us for the launch, along with Robert Chandler — but Irina guided our work carefully, and the results (we hope) sound distinctly Mashinskian notes. Below I’ll share one of these collaborations, and I hope you’ll join us a week from now to hear more.

Morning at Cape Cod

Toward the wave and back,
amid the flock, behind it —
    dear little sandpiper,
    my darling shorebird.

I’ll walk along the sand,
I’ll walk along the sandbar,
    toward the far-off dark —
    then reach it — and turn back.

No bridge, no pier, no dock —
abutments in the distance,
    like people in a queue,
    stare at unseen vistas.

their evenly spaced chain
keeps not a thing at bay.
    Around their rotten legs,
    waves follow other waves.

The world is turquoise-white —
blessed is she who sees
    the limpid net of waves,
    the rot of firm wet beams,

who walks right up to them —
to those familiar wrecks —
    and gently puts her palm
    atop their sultry necks,

who sees how strong they are,
emerging from the waves,
    both on their rotten sides
    and on their sultry sides.

With you – away from you,
with you – and after you,
    along the gleaming line,
    amid the sandpipers,

trapped in the past, brand new,
mindful and not at all,
    within myself, without.
    A swim – and I am whole.

“For One Now Forever Gone”: Anna Akhmatova’s White Flock

I rang in the New Year with Tsvetaeva’s 1921 greeting to the White Army refugees in Gallipoli, and now that the Russian Old New Year is behind us, I’d like to bracket the holidays by sharing my translation of a wartime poem by Anna Akhmatova, written in 1915. These two lyrics have something besides war in common: both feature phrases that would serve as titles for collections — phrases that conjure images of white birds. Tsvetaeva refers to her vanquished soldiers as “the demesne of swans,” while Akhmatova describes as a “white flock” the verses she addresses to the artist Boris Anrep, whom she loved deeply and who was then fighting in the Imperial Army. When I think of these poems, I picture tired but gallant soldiers in white gimnasterkas or officers in white kitel tunics

Vasily Vereshchagin,
Turkestan Officer (1873)

Akhmatova’s poem appeared in and lent a name to her 1917 collection White Flock. My translation of it was partly motivated by A. E. Stalling’s excellent TLS review of a new edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse, Poems and Satires, edited by Tristram Fane Saunders. In the review Stallings quotes in full what is perhaps Millay’s finest sonnet, “If I should learn, in some quite casual way,” and rereading it I was reminded of the degree to which Millay’s coolly contained passions — her banked fires — sometimes resemble Akhmatova’s.

I don’t know if you’re dead or living.
Should I look for you, carry on,
or fervently grieve in the evening
for one now forever gone?

All for you: my blue flaming eyes,
insomnia’s melting heat,
the white flock of my lines,
the prayer I repeat and repeat.

There was no one to me more important,
no one who wearied me so —
not the man who consigned me to torment,
not the man who caressed, then let go.

1915


Я не знаю, ты жив или умер, —
На земле тебя можно искать
Или только в вечерней думе
По усопшем светло горевать.

Всё тебе: и молитва дневная,
И бессонницы млеющий жар,
И стихов моих белая стая,
И очей моих синий пожар.

Мне никто сокровенней не был,
Так меня никто не томил,
Даже тот, кто на муку предал,
Даже тот, кто ласкал и забыл.

1915

“Scattered Shards of Glory”: Marina Tsvetaeva’s New Year’s Greeting to the Losing Side

White Army Monument in Gallipoli

In January 1921, Moscow was no place to be writing mournful panegyrics to the vanquished White Army, yet that’s precisely what Marina Tsvetaeva was moved to do. This should really come as no surprise: the poet’s heart was always with the underdog. As Victor Erlich writes in Modernism and Revolution (1994), “One suspects that even at the peak of her infatuation with the White cause , she was drawn to it not so much because she thought it right as because she sensed it was doomed . She was singularly vulnerable to the romance of lost causes.” For my anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, I translated a wind-swept poem from the Civil War-era cycle that would eventually be collected under the title The Demesne of Swans in 1957, sixteen years after Tsvetaeva’s death. Now I offer her New Year’s greeting to the White exiles on Gallipoli, who had escaped Crimea by the skin of their teeth — a flight memorialized in a heartbreaking lyric by Nikolay Turoverov.

Here Tsvetaeva alludes to the historical Prince Igor, whose failed raid again the Polovtsians became the basis of an epic poem that may date back to the twelfth century, as well as of Alexander Borodin’s opera of 1890. You can hear Tatyana Tugarinova’s 1969 performance of the lament of Yaroslavna, Igor’s wife, below the poem.

Happy New Year, o demesne of swans!
Scattered shards of glory!
Happy New Year — roaming foreign lands —
knapsack-bearing warriors!

Red pursuers nearly chased you down,
frothing at the lips!
Happy New Year — broken, on the run —
homeland on the skids!

You can hear it, bending to the ground —
earth sings to your health.
Listen, Igor — Yaroslavna moans —
Russia’s shattered self.

“O my prince! My darling son! My brother!” —
grief’s exhausting pleas.
“Youthful Rus, I bid you happy New Year,
over deep blue seas!”

Moscow, January 13, 1921


С Новым Годом, Лебединый стан!
Славные обломки!
С Новым Годом — по чужим местам —
Воины с котомкой!

С пеной у́ рта пляшет, не догнав,
Красная погоня!
С Новым Годом — битая — в бегах
Родина с ладонью!

Приклонись к земле — и вся земля
Песнею заздравной.
Это, Игорь, — Русь через моря
Плачет Ярославной.

Томным стоном утомляет грусть:
— Брат мой! — Князь мой! — Сын мой!
— С Новым Годом, молодая Русь
За́ морем за синим!

Москва, 13 января 1921

Victor Mall: A Suprematist in Southern California

It stands to reason that the most visually striking collections of Russian LA poetry in my possession contain the work of a professional painter, Victor Mall (whose surname is spelled “Moll” in Russian, and was originally Malakhov). Born in Odessa on April 30, 1901, where his musician father was on tour, Mall was raised in Omsk. According to the letters and brief autobiographical sketches included in these posthumous volumes prepared by his widow, Mall’s talent for drawing inspired his father to find him a tutor, who eventually recommended that the boy continue his studies with Kazimir Malevich. And so, in 1919, he found himself in Vitebsk, Belarus, the most unlikely of artistic capitals, taking classes with Malevich and observing Chagall and El Lissitzky. His experience there was short but formative, though it would be a long time before he felt its full impact not only on his art but also on his spiritual worldview, which finds expression in his verse.

In one of his letters from the mid-1980s, he writes: “On most days, as he entered the classroom, Malevich would raise his arms over his head and cross his palms. When we asked what this meant, he replied: ‘It’s a sign — a symbol of the fourth dimension.’ I couldn’t understand it, like much of what he said. It took me many years to make sense of his philosophy. Now I realize that he was more of a philosopher than a painter. His approach and his system were completely different from those of other art instructors. He spoke of things that I couldn’t grasp at all, but the seeds of his philosophy remained inside me and sprouted later in life.” Here Mall mimics Malevich’s gesture of greeting.

In 1920 Mall was back in Omsk with his father, mother, and twin brother, Nikolay. After the confiscation of the family’s property — including Mall’s art, which was lost forever — they fled to Vladivostok, where Mall met another important avant-gardist, David Burliuk. From there the family emigrated to Harbin, where the American consul took a special interest in Mall’s work and secured him a visa for the United States. He left for Seattle in 1923, never to see his parents or his brother again. All three would return to the Soviet Union, where Nikolay would be swept up in the Stalinist purges, accused of spying for Japan, and executed in 1937.

Mall would not learn of any of this until the 1970s, when his wife managed to make contact with Nikolay’s daughter. By that time the couple had been living in Los Angeles for decades, where Mall had worked as a designer and art director for ad agencies, including one headquartered on the Sunset Strip. It’s pleasantly odd to imagine the seeds of Suprematism sprouting in Southern California advertising art.

Mall’s poems, which he began to write in the 1950s, reveal a deeply spiritual sensibility and a view of art as a repository of living energy and thought. The lyrics below were written just a few years before Mall’s death on June 5, 1989. His eyesight was failing, but his memories of Malevich were as vivid as ever.

Homage to Malevich

I write this for the sake of truth —
I’m in my past, newly arisen,
youthful, arrayed in rainbow hues,
my hands upon Suprematism.
Back then we shared a love for peace
and Kazimir’s philosophies.
So I believe…
                           No, so it was!
Our thoughts in sync, harmonious —
it seemed to me I could divine
his consciousness, could read his mind.
I stood beside him, demonstrating
what lay within me, growing, waiting.
Later I fabricated, lied:
my punishment is loss of sight.

August 8, 1986

* * *

I thicken music’s
colors on the canvas.
The olive underpainting
comes to life with ochre,
while cinnabar
shines on the nose,
remembering Rublev.
The drying oil
stiffens upon the icon
and music’s colors
now will never cease —
like a crown’s glow,
or love’s resounding
chimes.

July 5, 1987


Дань Малевичу

Пишу теперь я правды ради , —
Я будто юношей проснулся:
Я в прошлом, в радужном наряде,
K супрематизму прикоснулся.
Была любовь к идее мира
И к философьи Казимира.
Как будто было…
                     Это факт!
Ведь с ним я думал в звучный такт.
Казалось — что читаю мысли
Малевича — сознанья числа.
Как будто рядом с ним стоял,
Непроявлённость проявлял.
А за обман и вымышленья
Потерей я наказан зренья.

8 августа 1986

* * *

Я краски музыки
Метаю по холсту.
Оливковый санкирь
От охры оживает.
А киноварь сияет
На носу,
Рублёва вспоминает.
Олифой покроется
Ковчег иконы,
И краски музыки
Не остановятся —
Как блеск короны,
Набат любви,
И звоны.

5 июля 1987