“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.”


“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?..

Thoughts of Odessa in Greece: Pericles Stavrov’s “Café”

Jenny and I spent the last two weeks of June in Greece, in Athens and on the Cycladic isles of Serifos and Sifnos — magical places all. I was nervous to travel after a year of lockdowns, but I also sensed I’d feel entirely at home when we arrived. I am, after all, an Odessan, and Odessa’s past is steeped in Greekdom. Built on the site of one ancient Greek settlement and named after another (Odessos, now Varna, Bulgaria), the city played an important role in the Greek War of Independence exactly two centuries ago, and I remember attending a rousing exhibit on the subject as a child in the 1980s. The children of Hellas left many marks on the city, both on its streets and on its literary legacy. One such literary Greek was Pericles Stavrov (born Stavropoulou, 1895-1955).

Part of the lively circle of Eduard Bagritsky, Anatoly Fioletov, Yury Olesha, and other poets I’ve written about on this blog, Stavrov fled Odessa in 1920 and, after spending some years in Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, settled in Paris, the capital of the Russian emigration, in 1926. There he became a significant figure on the literary scene, founding a bookstore (Sous la lampe), serving as president of the underground Union of Russian Writers and Journalists during the Second World War, translating his fellow Odessans’ Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s beloved satirical masterpiece The Little Golden Calf into French, and publishing two collections of his own poems. The verse Stavrov wrote in the 1930s bears all the spare, subdued hallmarks of the “Paris Note” movement. One of the lyrics from his first book, Without Consequences (Bez posledstvii, 1933), evokes a mood of existential despair that many of that era’s émigrés shared with authors like Sartre and Camus.


Days follow days. The days slip past.
And through the pipe smoke’s acrid cloud,
behind the fogged-up window glass
no face is clear, no smile breaks out.

The newspapers emit their gloom:
hot topicality now reigns.
No hope and no escape — all doomed,
all that is said is said in vain.

No words. The ceiling turns dark blue,
faint rustling overtakes the din.
Just wait: the door will scrape, let through
the gaping void. The void stares in.

Stavrov died in Paris in 1955. One hopes that he found, from time to time, an escape from the void, a reprieve from hot topicality. Jenny’s and my sojourn in Greece provided just such a reprieve, though the weather was plenty steamy. But even the sultriness worked in our favor. The waters of the Aegean were there to refresh us, and in the early morning hours we had the Acropolis all to ourselves.


День ото дня и день за днём
Не разглядеть от дыма трубок,
За отуманенным стеклом
Нерасцветающих улыбок.

А эта тьма газет — газет
Так злободневно торжествует.
Надежды нет. Исхода нет.
И слово молвлено впустую.

Молчат. Синеет потолок,
И звон сменяется шуршаньем.
Того гляди — и скрипнет блок,
И глянет пустота зияньем.


The Ship Café, Venice, California

I’m honored to have three poems and one translation in the Summer 2021 issue of The Georgia Review. The four selections are united by a theme — the Southern Californian émigré experience — and all will appear in a collection, My Hollywood and Other Poems, which the wonderful press Paul Dry Books will bring out in the spring of 2022 (more on that later!). Two of the poems form a diptych of Venice, a fanciful corner of LA developed by the fanciful Abbot Kinney in 1905. The first depicts one of Sarah Bernhardt’s many visits to Los Angeles. After 1905, she always opted to stay in Venice, even though the neighborhood was rapidly losing its initial sheen. On the evening described here, Bernhardt left Venice in a taxi, which then collided with another vehicle on the way to the theater — yet the show went on.

Oil derricks at Venice Beach

The second poem depicts the final showbiz-adjacent act of Alexander Drankov (1886-1949), a Jewish entrepreneur who rose from rags to become the tsar’s official photographer and the first person to produce a feature film in Russia, only to be wiped out by the Revolution. Escaping through Yalta to Constantinople, he eventually landed in Hollywood, where his attempts to break into pictures proved futile. Seeking to capitalize on the fad for Russian culture, he converted the Ship Café, permanently docked at the Venice amusement pier, into the Volga Boat restaurant, but this venture too soon foundered. At the end of his life, he was operating a photolab in San Francisco; he lies buried in Colma, CA, “the City of the Silent.”

Alexander Drankov in his prime

The translation is of a poem by Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), whose work I’ve shared before. Five years before his death in Los Angeles, he envisions an exiled Russian veteran’s posthumous return to his homeland — a return he himself would never have the chance to make.

I want to thank Gerald Maa, a marvelous writer and sensitive editor with a lasting devotion to Californian émigrés, for giving shelter to these poor wanderers. And I also thank my friend Sasha Razor, who shares my passion for Russophone émigré history but is, unlike me, a proper expert; it was she who turned up that wonderful photo of Drankov above.

Venice Beach: A Diptych

I: Sarah Bernhardt, 1913

“Uncertain now, with faltering steps, but indomitable, she played half-hour performances in vaudeville programs…”

             — Lois Foster Rodecape, 1941

Fatigued, divine, she steps out on the boards
of Kinney Pier. The dark Pacific water
waves its white kerchief: foam, at least, accords
due adulation… Not the train that brought her:
it rattled rudely. And this funny town —
a new-world Venice — looks a bit rundown.
When she turns back, her hotel’s drab façade
sends a cold greeting from the esplanade.
Quand même, tonight, in what they call “Camille,”
she’ll die her death and prove herself immortal.
Age cannot blunt her power to transport all
these crowds who come expecting vaudeville.
The sun has set. She must not miss her cue
to bid Los Angeles her last adieu.

II: Alexander Drankov, 1930

“An obscure retoucher in a photographer’s shop in one of the cities in the Jewish Pale of Settlement … he became the first, and for a long time, the only film producer in Russia.”

             — Lou Reech, 1923

“Drankov tried many things — went from high Hollywood hopes to a boardwalk cafe in Venice, California … when I last saw him he operated a small photo-finishing plant in San Francisco.”

             — Jay Leyda, 1960

Oil derricks lower like Petliura’s troops
at Kinney Pier: in Venice, crude is king.
Aboard the Volga Boat, fake Cossacks whoop
in frenzied indigence, real colonels bring
out rafts of breaded chicken and skewered mutton,
enough to stuff the gut of any glutton,
had any gluttons showed… The night’s a flop.
Tomorrow he’ll start over, from the top,
or from the bottom. In Constantinople
he raced cockroaches, in Yalta he shot porn.
(So what? Was “Goldwyn” to the studio born?)
As buoyant as a cork, constantly hopeful,
Drankov sails on, until he lands, at last,
in the vinegary darkrooms of his past.

Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky

Exile’s Return

To perform a final honor,
a sleek cruiser from Kronstadt
sails into the silent harbor
slowly, like a juggernaut.
Ready for its distant journey,
taking leave of foreign lands,
comes a light-weight coffin, swaying
through a sea of lowered heads.
Were we right or wrong? No matter:
flag’s at half-mast on the stern.
With its scrap of Russian glory
in the hold, the vessel turns.
Such great heights, such depths below…
Joyful foam sprays everywhere
and a farewell siren bellows,
lonely, in the azure air.
All those stars and all those countries —
the return he had long sought…
A thick northern fog engorges
the thin-throated Kattegat.
As it nears the Gulf of Finland
through the Baltic — drizzly, dull —
waves, serene yet unrelenting,
beat against the cruiser’s hull.
In the brief glare from the lighthouse,
they rise up and pass away:
clouds and islands, clouds and islands,
blots of smoke, a barren quay.


Владимир Корвин-Пиотровский

«Для последнего парада»

Для последнего парада,
Накреня высокий борт,
Резвый крейсер из Кронштадта
Входит в молчаливый порт.
И с чужой землёй прощаясь,
К дальним странствиям готов,
Лёгкий гроб плывёт, качаясь,
Меж опущенных голов.
Правы были иль неправы —
Флаг приспущен над кормой, —
С малой горстью русской славы
Крейсер повернул домой.
Брызжет радостная пена, —
Высота и глубина, —
Лишь прощальная сирена
В синем воздухе слышна.
Час желанного возврата
(Столько звёзд и столько стран), —
В узком горле Каттегата
Северный залёг туман.
И до Финского залива,
Сквозь балтийский дождь и тьму,
Бьëт волна неторопливо
В молчаливую корму.
И встают, проходят мимо
В беглой вспышке маяка
Берега и пятна дыма,
Острова и облака.


“Hard Without a Friend”: Vladislav Ellis’s “A Mexican Birch”

Postcard of Birch Park, Santa Ana, CA
(named after the Birch family; no birches pictured)

Flipping through vintage postcards of Southern California — as Jenny and I often do at the local swap meet — one quickly picks up on the message the region’s booster’s aimed to broadcast to the world ca. 1910. Here is a place of wonders, went the message, where pine trees rub trunks with palm trees and flowers bloom all year round. And they were right, those old boosters: our arboreal and vegetal melange really is a thing of wonder.

I thought of those hand-tinted postcards while flipping through another vintage item, a book of poems by Vladislav Ellis, whose “Californian Verses” I translated last summer. Since then I’ve made contact with Ellis’s son, who has shared with me a number of touching stories about his father. His first letter ended with a vivid recollection: “I still remember him writing down what had just been sung to his mind, much as a religious would.”

The poem below is another of Ellis’s poignant yet effervescent Californian verses, which infuses a scene fit for a postcard with a dash of émigré sorrow. Anyone at all familiar with Russian culture, let alone with the paintings of Isaac Levitan, knows how important the birch tree is to the Russian sense of self. Here Ellis’s heart goes out to a birch he’s introduced into a strange new world.

A Mexican Birch

We disfigure nature
to disrupt life’s flatness.
I plant a little birch tree
beside a prickly cactus,

and instantly regret it…
How I mourn for her —
an orphan in the desert,
a spindly foreigner.

She’ll dwell here, never hearing
spring’s lighthearted song.
Heat slayed her catkin-earring:
barely burst — now gone.

Fearfully, her slender
trunk bends with the wind.
All migrants understand her:
it’s hard without a friend.

Мексиканская берёзка

Потому природу мучим,
Чтоб развеять прозу.
Рядом с кактусом колючим,
Посадил берёзу.

Без берёзки, было б проще.
Смотришь сердце стынет;
Вот растёт чужою, тощей,
Сиротой в пустыне.

Ей на жизненной дорожке,
Песнь весны не спета,
Прелесть бархатной серёжки,
Зной убил до цвета.

Ствол от ветра гнётся тонкий,
Словно ждёт подвоха.
Ей как всем, в чужой сторонке,
Без подружек плохо.

“Who Says I’ve Lost Her?”: Andrey Klyonov’s “Berlin Is Burning”

Portrait of Andrey Klyenov (1950)
by Telesforas Kulakauskas

It started a decade ago, maybe earlier. Taking walks around my neighborhood I’d notice two or three ownerless Russian books lying face up on a strip of grass, sometimes an entire cardboard box of them under a tree. The children and grandchildren of the older generation of Russian immigrants, who are steadily passing away, are hard-pressed to find better resting places for their parents’ and grandparents’ collections. The émigré library, founded in 1997, is struggling to survive, and even local thrift shops are no longer accepting Russian titles as donations. I don’t blame the shops — there aren’t any takers, so the books eventually end up in the recycling bin anyway.

With all those sad facts in mind, I always stop to sort through the discards on the side of the road, hoping to rescue something special before a sprinkler reduces it to mulch. One time I even pulled a volume from a box under active aquatic assault; its neighbors, entirely soaked through, had managed to shield it. The book is a collection of poems by Andrey Klyonov, titled Revelation and published in New York in 1984.

Klyonov was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1920, to a Jewish family; his real name was Aron Kupershtok. He published his first poem at the age of 15, and his first collection, My Friends, five years later, in 1940. Like so many talented poets of his generation, he studied at Moscow’s Gorky Literary Institute — and, like so many of them, volunteered for the front soon after the Soviet Union was invaded. Some of these poets survived, but many others perished; the finest monument to their legacy in English is Maria Bloshteyn’s extraordinary anthology Russia Is Burning: Poems of the Great Patriotic War.

Klyonov entered the army as a private and rose to the rank of senior lieutenant. While fighting near his native Minsk, he learned that his family had been murdered in the city’s ghetto. The poem below, written in Germany in 1945, is one of dozens in which Klyonov mourns his parents and other victims of the Shoah. This unhealing wound, at once personal and world-historical, is at the center of two full cycles in Revelation, “Jewish Requiem” and “The Book of War,” but it haunts the entire collection. Nowhere is the pain more evident than in “Berlin Is Burning,” which calls to mind Anna Semyonovna’s letter to her son in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

Returning from the war, Klyonov found a place in Moscow’s literary establishment as a poet and translator, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to the regime’s antisemitism. He won the right to immigrate to Israel in 1973 and officially reclaimed his family’s name — Kupershtok. In 1979, he resettled in New York, where he continued to write until his death in 2004.

The flyleaf of my rescued copy of Revelation bears an inscription by the poet, from 1984: “To […], with sincere respect, kind wishes, and a request, if possible, to help me distribute a few copies of this book.” Decades later, in a roundabout way, the recipient honored Klyonov’s request.

Berlin Is Burning

Berlin is burning …
And I dream of home …
White fluff, grey ashes whirl about me …
“Open up, mama …”
I’ve been gone so long.
It’s on a hill, our home,
beyond a bridge …
Who says it’s burnt?
No, no,
it’s fine, it’s fine —
same as I left it …

“Mama, don’t cry.
Calm down, mama, calm down …”
Who says I’ve lost her?
She’s alive, alive …
Behind the house,
cranberries grow,
the Neman flows
against the sky — and I
am still that boy with clear brown eyes …
And you are still the same …
Berlin — who gives a damn?
There’s no Berlin!

Down in a hollow, underneath a bush,
a warbler sleeps.
I bring her crumbs …
“Mama, come sit, please come.
No, I won’t leave you —
I’m back for good, I’m home …”
Outside the window,
flames grow wider, wilder —
a deepening dawn.

Hooves clatter, echo
on the concrete slabs …
I want so badly to go home —
there is no home.
I want to see you —
but they’ve killed you.


Берлин горит

Берлин горит …
Мне снится отчий дом …
Кружится белый пух и серый пепел…
— Открой мне, мама … —
Я давно там не был.
Стоит наш дом
На горке, за мостом …
Кто говорит, что он сгорел?
Он цел!
Он цел, он цел,
Знакомый, тот же самый …

— Не надо, мама.
Успокойся, мама … —
Кто говорит, что я осиротел?
Жива! Жива!
За домом у калин
Струится Неман вровень с небесами.
Я тот же мальчик с чистыми глазами,
И ты все та …
К чему же тут Берлин?
Берлина нет!

В ложбинке за кустом
Ночует славка,
Я принес ей крошек …
— Сядь рядом, мама.
Я тебя не брошу,
Я навсегда вернулся в отчий дом … —
Пожар в окне все шире,
Как рассвет.

На гулких плитках
Цокают копыта …
Мне хочется домой,
А дома нет.
Мне хочется к тебе —
А ты убита.


Raising the Torch of Compassion: Emma Lazarus in Irina Mashinski’s Translation

In the summer of 2019 the poets Alicia Ostriker, Mihaela Moscaliuc, and Tess O’Dwyer initiated an admirable, timely project, calling on poets working in over forty languages, ranging from Ancient Greek to Isthmus Zapotec and Esperanto, to produce translations of Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus.” The project is now shining bright at the website of the American Jewish Historical Society. Each version is prefaced by a brief note relating the poet’s own experience of immigration and laying bare the fact that the ideals embodied in the Statue of Liberty remain beacons in the distance — the journey continues. The awe-inspiring Russian translation is the work of my dear friend Irina Mashinski, and I can’t resist reproducing it in full, along with her note:

Irina Mashinski by Anna Golitsyna

We emigrated in the fall of 1991, right after the coup and two months before the dissolution of the USSR We rode to the airport in a taxi at night, through the brightly illuminated Moscow that was awakening after seventy Soviet years. The first frost made the city seem even brighter. Then, we were airborne. The planet that had been mine from birth, unreachable until now, lay below. The dawn was approaching — twice slower than usual. My five-year-old daughter Sasha was sleeping in my lap, her head on the scratchy sleeve of my winter coat. In the evening, we landed at JFK.

Не дерзкий грек, не воин-покоритель
всех, что охватит взор, земель и вод —
с похищенною молнией встает
она — гонимых покровитель,

отвергнутых, всех тех, что гонит ветер
нужды и распри, рабства гнойный гнет —
к закатной гавани у западных ворот,
и лик ее открыт, а пламень светел.

«Отдайте мне усталых, обделенных,
ненужных, нищих духом — всех приму
бездомных, безъязыких, унесенных

и выброшенных к свету моему.
У двух земель, мостом соединенных,
я состраданья факел подниму».

Irina has also written a model translator’s note — a true miniature masterclass in poetic translation:

I chose to keep the structure of the Italian sonnet, though I did take a few liberties to emphasize ideas of particular relevance in today’s context. The language and the tone are contemporary; I tried to avoid anything that would sound too loud/metallic or too heightened. She, the colossus, is deliberately softer, less mighty and stern; the stress is deliberately more on them, the refugees, than it is on her. I chose to alternate masculine and feminine rhymes to make the poem sound more natural and gender-neutral for the Russian ear. The rhymes are rather simple, not elaborate, though the deep feminine enclosing rhyme of the first and second stanzas — the one that establishes the tone and the thematic opposition between a conqueror (покоритель) and a patron and protector (покровитель) — sounds looser, more contemporary, more free-spirited than the rhymes of the original’s era, both in the English and Russian traditions. 

The main theme is two-fold: compassion and light. The torch/light/fire appears in stanzas 1, 2, 4. The word “земли” (lands) appears in the first and last stanzas: in the first, it relates to a conquest; in the last, to the shore/the island(s)/the harbor. The poem bridges them, and the bridge (“connecting/uniting the two lands/islands”) in the last stanza bears an additional meaning: connecting the Old and the New Worlds. “Соединенных” (connected, united) is the same word as the one we use for the USA: united in compassion. The syntax of the lines in the sestet, especially the enjambment of the sentence in lines 11-12, resembles waves; it sustains the constant movement, the consistency of the tradition (of acceptance) — and also marks the endpoints of the journey. Yet another liberty I took is “нищих духом” in line 10While the first word of­­­ the phrase means “poor” (as in the original), the full phrase has a ­­­­­­­­­­biblical origin – “the poor in spirit” of Matthew 5:3, who are “blessed,” and who have a claim to “the kingdom of heaven.” For a Russian reader, the word “безъязыких” (tongue/language-less), added to line 11, alludes to “Without Language” (1895), a well-known novella by the Ukrainian-Russian writer Vladimir Korolenko, which chronicles the struggles of a Ukrainian peasant in Manhattan. 

The verbs in the translation are given in the future or, in the concluding line, future/present continuous tense. The last line literally means: I am/will be raising the torch of compassion.

“Bargain Circus” in THE HOPKINS REVIEW

The Winter 2021 issue of The Hopkins Review features my ode to another relic of LA’s past, Bargain Circus on La Brea Blvd., where my mother, grandmother, and I did much of our shopping when we first immigrated to the city. The poem was promoted by Valery Skorov’s song “Garbage,” which I translated last July. My great thanks to the journal’s editor, the wonderful poet David Yezzi, for responding so warmly to the submission.

One look at the Circus’s façade suggests what an odd place it was — odd and carnivalesque. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 1997, Danny Feingold captured the scene:

The eclectic selection of goods and guilt-inducing low prices draw a melange of Orthodox Jews, Russians, Armenians and Westside connoisseurs. And the wallet-friendly policy seems to inspire a relaxed, congenial atmosphere. “Where are you going to find eggs for $1.09?” says Anya, an 88-year-old regular who comes by bus from Santa Monica and recites her movie credits while stocking up on cottage cheese.

Where indeed… The big tent folded in 1999, ceding way to a cookie-cutter 99 Cents Only store, but the memories persist.

“How I Saw the Sky”: On Maxim Osipov and Ivan Elagin

It seems hard to believe but, in just a few days, Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I will be turning in our manuscript of Kilometer 101, a collection of stories and essays by Maxim Osipov. Working on this volume — a followup to Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories — has been an engrossing pleasure, as well as a means of intellectual and sensory escape during various phases of lockdown. Maxim’s cool yet sympathetic observations of human nature, his pointillistic, instantly evocative descriptions of both rural and urban landscapes drew me in as I translated my share of the pieces and read through Alex’s and Nicolas’s versions; now the work is behind us, but Maxim’s prose won’t let me go.

You can read one of the longer pieces from the collection, “The Children of Dzhankoy,” at Hazlitt, whose wonderful editor, Jordan Ginsberg, was kind enough not only to publish it but to commission a beautifully fitting illustration by Elena Cabitza (see above). We have been lucky with our editors. The equally wonderful and perceptive Emily Nemens, outgoing editor of the Paris Review, included the first essay I translated for the book, “Sventa,” in the spring issue of the magazine — her last, unfortunately.

In “Sventa,” Maxim revisits a town in Lithuania where he and his family spent many summers when he was a boy. Though only a few pages long, the essay, like all of Maxim’s work, is full of twists and turns — some subtle, others quite sudden. Early on, Maxim quotes a line by the émigré poet Ivan Elagin, whose work I’ve shared here before. The poem he draws on suits the essay’s subject perfectly, but it is another of Elagin’s poems that came back to me recently — a poem about the value of poetry and, by extension, of any literary work that captures the seemingly ineffable nuances of an individual’s experience of the world. And that is exactly what Maxim accomplishes in his prose.

Perhaps there will, someday, appear a note —
or a whole article — in which someone
sets down a thorough, accurate account
of every little thing I’ve ever done:

the services I rendered, gifts I gave;
where I excelled, or didn’t rate at all;
what ailment finally put me in my grave;
which priest presided at my funeral.

This someone will be sure to add citations —
a proper scholar with a well-stocked shelf.
But how I saw the sky… That they won’t tell you.
I couldn’t even tell you that myself.

Who can transmit the temperature I sense
inside my body as I write these lines?
Nobody gives a damn about my hands —
nobody cares about my lips, my eyes.

And this is why I struggle to impart
to all my verse, with all the strength I have,
my very breath, the beating of my heart —
so that it breathes and lives on my behalf.

Наверное, появится заметка,
А может быть, и целая статья,
В которой обстоятельно и метко
Определят, чем занимался я.

Какие человечеству услуги
Я оказал. В чем был велик, в чем мал.
Какие в гроб свели меня недуги,
Какой меня священник отпевал.

Цитаты к биографии привяжут,
Научно проследят за пядью пядь.
А как я видел небо — не расскажут,
Я сам не мог об этом рассказать.

Кто передаст температуру тела,
Которую я чувствую сейчас?
Ведь никому нет никакого дела
До рук моих, до губ моих, до глаз.

Я в каждое мое стихотворенье
Укладывал, по мере сил своих,
Мое дыханье и сердцебиенье,
Чтоб за меня дышал и жил мой стих.