“Without Touching the Ground”: Julia Nemirovskaya’s Free Explorations

Photograph of Julia Nemirovskaya by Lizka Vaintrob.

Today is my mother’s birthday, and, serendipitously, this morning’s mail brought us both a gift: five poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, with my translations, just published by Caesura. In my introductory note, I try to account for the enlivening power of Julia’s poems and conclude that they “work their refreshing magic by awakening our impulse not only to see but to sympathize with the world around us, to feel the subtle energies coursing through it — an impulse that too often retreats and withers after childhood ends”: “In Julia’s imaginative oasis, discarded objects and the subjects of myth all speak for themselves, humbly voicing their pains, pleasures, and desires. Their voices are haunting because we recognize them — we’ve all heard them, before we ceased to listen.”

Today I am especially moved by “Eves,” in which Julia speaks in the pained, yearning voice of the Biblical mother’s descendants:


Underneath us the stones seem to weep.
We’re a burden to all, even snow.
Oh to run without touching the ground with our feet,
our selves never touching a soul.

Black specks from above and slim lines from the side:
we’ll be small – we won’t clog the Lord’s eyes.
And then He will say to us: Daughters, oh why
did I oust you from Paradise?

Last year Julia was asked to share her thoughts on the status of women in the arts and sciences, both in Russia and in the West. I wish I had time to translate the entire interview for this post, but I’ll satisfy myself with this wise and touching observation:

I think the main thing is that every girl should have confidence in herself, confidence that she can choose her own path. You probably know what the “glass ceiling” is — invisible obstacles. In their first years of life, little boys are expected to be funny, curious, adventurous, while little girls are expected to be obedient, sweet, helpful. We all like to be liked and try to meet the expectations of adults, even if these expectations go against our nature. This early experience, imbibed with mother’s milk, should be different. Adults should like boys and girls for who they are: nothing should be imposed on them — let them explore the world freely.

This commitment to free exploration uplifts each line of Julia’s verse. In my piece at Caesura, I mention some other poets who managed to keep their childlike curiosity alive, including Walter de la Mare, who, in his lecture on Rupert Brooke, describes the inner worlds of children with great warmth and understanding: “Children are in a sense butterflies. […] They are not bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. Between their dream and their reality looms no impassable abyss.”

I offer these translations to Julia, to my mother, who never imposed anything on me, and to my wonderful Jenny, who lets no impassable abyss or invisible obstacle stand in her way.


Эти камни как будто бы плачут под нами,
Всем мы в тягость, и даже снегу.
Вот бы тихо бежать, не касаясь ногами
Земли, а собой – человеков.

Сверху будем мы просто как чёрные точки,
Божьи очи не засоряя,
И как черточки сбоку, и скажет Он: дочки
Зачем я вас выгнал из рая?


“Where Kindness Can Still Be Found”: On Andrey Kurkov and Boris Khersonsky

This week’s issue of the TLS (5 February) carries Uilleam Blacker’s beautifully written review of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which homes in on precisely what makes the book so appealing to me personally. Blacker calls the protagonist, Sergey Sergeyich, “at once a war-weary adventurer and a fairy-tale innocent, a cross between Odysseus and a Slavic holy fool”:

As he overcomes various obstacles, from traumatized Ukrainian veterans to Russian mercenaries and propaganda television crews, his naive gaze allows Kurkov to get to the heart of a country bewildered by crisis and war, but where kindness can still be found.

Blacker is himself a skilled translator (see his elegant rendition of Oleg Sentsov’s Life Went on Anyway), as well as one of the keenest, most erudite Anglophone scholars of Ukrainian writing today, so it brings me great joy to know that he approves of both the book and my translation. His verdict also matches those of other readers, like the Amazon reviewer who (to my own delight!) judged the book to be “delightful,” calling it a “story of a piece of true gold and his bees, thoroughly recommended for its charm and naivety in recounting occupation.”

The promise of kindness that Blacker discerned in Andrey’s pages brought to mind a cautionary poem by another Russophone Ukrainian author, the contemporary Odessan poet Boris Khersonsky, a handful of whose syntactically intricate and psychologically subtle verses I’ve recently translated for a forthcoming collection (my great thanks to Ilya Kaminsky for the invitation!). In this poem from 2015, written at the height of the conflict that also lies at the heart of Kurkov’s novel, Khersonsky envisions with chilling clarity the cruel aftershocks of military victory. A victory without kindness can be every bit as dehumanizing as war itself.

When victory is ours — the postwar executions start.
The hasty meetings, the tribunals passing sentence.
We need to thin the ranks of all these prisoners of war.
Why should we feed the generals we’ve vanquished?

They’ve got as much blood on their hands as all the rest.
We have the orders that they gave their men.
The urge to murder is a form of sexual lust.
You just can’t stop — you want to, but you can’t.

And so it’s up the ladder, hands behind their backs,
with pastors — priests, if they should happen to be Catholics —
bags on their heads, nooses around their necks.
Die, scum. In seven decades, you’ll get YouTube clicks.

Five minutes — and a man is a dead body.
Another five — the coffin is nailed shut.
War criminals deserve no hint of pity.
A strong rope is enough, or a sure shot.

The executioner — his skill — is our great hope.
Prison’s expensive — killing simply costs less.
The only justice is the bullet and the rope.
The postwar era knows no other justice.

Those of you who would like to hear Andrey and myself discuss war, kindness, and everything else to be found in Grey Bees can sign up for an event sponsored by the Ukrainian Institute London, to be held on February 24.

После победы — эпоха казней послевоенных.
Скоротечные заседания и решения трибуналов.
Необходимо уменьшить поголовье военнопленных.
Не кормить же в тюрьме побежденных вражеских генералов!

Тем более, что у каждого руки в крови по локоть.
И сохранились приказы, что они отдавали солдатам.
Ибо страсть к убийству — та же сексуальная похоть.
Начнешь и не остановишься, и хотелось бы — да куда там!

И теперь вверх по лесенкам, руки связаны за спиною,
в сопровождении пасторов, или ксендзов — если католик,
и — мешок на голову, петлю на шею, умирай со своею виною,
через семьдесят лет в ютубе выложат ролик.

Пять минут и живой человек теперь уже мертвое тело.
Еще пять минут и гроб уже заколочен.
Жалеть военных преступников — это последнее дело.
Была бы веревка прочна или выстрел точен.

Все дело теперь в палаче и его сноровке.
Лишение жизни дешевле, чем лишенье свободы.
И вся справедливость мира в пуле или веревке.
А другой справедливости нет в послевоенные годы.

“The Bureau of Street Lighting” in THE RAINTOWN REVIEW

I remember, but only vaguely, the first time I saw the squat brick building of the Bureau of Street Lighting, fronted by its motley curving colonnade of lampposts. It caught my eye through a car’s passenger side window — or maybe through the tinted window of a bus — as I was making my way up Santa Monica Boulevard. What I remember distinctly is the impression the words made: the elegant block letters on the midcentury sign, spelling out a promise at once radiantly positive and shadily Kafkaesque. “Bureau” and “Lighting” didn’t seem to belong to the same realm of ideas. Nor could I pass over the uncanny suitability of the cross street, Virgil Avenue: yet another bold promise of guidance, another meeting point of the enlightened and the infernal.

It was only years later that I got my hands on a copy of Eddy S. Feldman’s The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (1972), obviously the fruit of obsessive devotion. I read it cover to cover. Feldman’s enthusiasm, his narrow focus, and the book’s scarcity sparked conspiratorial feelings, the way the works of poets sometimes do, though this was prose of the driest sort; it was as if I was being initiated into a club for two, the mysteries of which would be lost without its members. That, of course, isn’t actually true. LA’s streetlights have been the subjects of two popular installations, Chris Burden’s Urban Light (2008) and, a decade and a half earlier, Sheila Klein’s Vermonica (1993), which has — luckily, coincidentally — just been restored. You can see some lovely shots of Vermonica on the artist’s site.

Shortly after I finished Feldman’s book, I posed a question — to the Bureau, but really to myself — and the answer took the form of a little poem, which has just appeared in the latest issue of The Raintown Review, edited, as I’ve only recently found out, by another Angeleno, the poet Quincy R. Lehr. (I think I even recognize the van in the cover photo from my walks to work.)

The Bureau of Street Lighting

“A Bureau of Street Lighting was created within the Department of Public Works in 1925, which establishes criteria for all street lighting and determines locations of the lighting units.”
— Eddy S. Feldman, The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles (1972)

What would we be without the light you lend us?
Hard to imagine what we were back when…
A desert pueblo, sleepy haciendas
with smoke-stained lanterns blinking out by ten.

Yes, I suppose I’ll thank you for the darkness
your light supports: the luring night-bound streets,
the anonymity of motels and apartments,
all the small trade that’s done without receipts.

Yes, for the city limit, for your tactless,
incessant focus on just who we are.
You will not let the zodiac distract us —
you make our private misery the star.

The issue is full of great poems — far better than this one — by Maryann Corbett, William Virgil Davis, Ernest Holbert, Charlotte Innes, and many others. It’s a small journal with a great history, and with a bright future well worth supporting!

“The Great Heart of Proud Shulamith”: Adelina Adalis’s Feverish Truthfulness

The roster of Odessa’s “Poets’ Collective,” which effloresced during the lean final years of the Russian Civil War (1920-1922), was heavy on men — Eduard Bagritsky, Anatoly Fioletov, Yuri Olesha, Osip Kolychev, Georgy Shengeli, Valentin Katayev, etc. But it also featured at least four highly original women authors: Vera Inber, Zinaida Shishova, Nina Gernet, and Adelina Adalis (1900-1969).

Adelina Adalis in 1919.

A great deal can be said about the last of these, the striking Adalis, who was born in St. Petersburg but spent her formative years — from 1902 through 1920 — in Odessa. After her move to Moscow, she fell under the spell of Valery Bryusov (1873-1924), the decadent impresario of Russian Symbolism, who dedicated a number of poems to her. Unlike his less fortunate muses, she was able to establish her own reputation as a poet, novelist, and translator. Both Marina Tsvetaeva and Osip Mandelstam valued her work, and at one point Mandelstam even deemed her to be Tsvetaeva’s superior.

In 1922, Mandelstam saw in her verse a “muscular strength and truth,” and in reviewing her first collection of poems in 1934, he vividly described their impact: “Adalis writes easily, feverishly, as if with a pencil on postcards, starting on one and continuing on another.” There was indeed a feverish truthfulness in her verse, as well as in her personal conduct. Yevgeny Yevtushenko tells a moving story about the 1958 session of the Soviet Writers’ Union at which Pasternak was expelled from the organization for having published Doctor Zhivago abroad. When the man leading the meeting asked whether anyone wished to abstain from the vote, a woman’s voice from the back of the hall responded: “I abstain and I demand that you write that down.” His face twitching, the man declared: “The decision is unanimous. Meeting adjourned.” But again the voice piped up: “No, write down that I abstained.” The objection, says Yevtushenko, was “drowned out by the slamming of chairs and the sound of feet marching away.” The woman behind the voice was Adalis.

I feel Adalis’s truthfulness also comes through in the poem below, in which she captures with unflinching accuracy the misery of an old Jewish man in a Leningrad tenement, yet also glimpses in this misery the great dignity of his people’s tradition. The Shulamith mentioned at the end is, of course, the Shulammite of the Song of Songs — a symbol of grace and beauty. The name is rendered as “Sulamif’‘” in Russian, and I have chosen the spelling “Shulamith” under the influence of John Felstiner’s brilliant translation of Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue.”

A pair of spattered, torn galoshes,
an old hood, creased and brown with grime,
even his lips are worn and ashy:
a greying frock coat’s tattered hem.

Not for love’s torment — hungry, eager,
which forges miracles and joys —
do I now kiss his stiff, cold fingers
and try to dry his tearful eyes.

Wise Solomon passed down no powers;
his Song was not composed for him.
Down to this moldy floor, like flowers,
descends the Bible’s ancient dream.

And I behold: up a steep staircase —
which reeks of cats, soup, human filth —
he carries, like old, yellowed sedges,
the great heart of proud Shulamith.


Забрызганные, рваные галоши,
Коричневые складки башлыка,
И даже рот мучительно изношен,
Как полы серенького сюртука.

Не для любовной, ненасытной муки,
Кующей радостные чудеса,
Целую отмороженные руки,
Слезящиеся трогаю глаза.

Не для него слагалась Песня Песней,
Но дал ему премудрость Соломон.
И вот на этот пол, покрытый плесенью,
Цветами падает библейский сон.

И вижу я: по лестнице высокой,
Пропахшей щами, кошками, людьми,
Проносит он желтеющей осокой —
Большое сердце гордой Суламифь.


Together Again: Events and Celebrations

As befits the holiday season, this month has been full of warm reunions. First and foremost, on the domestic front, Jenny has returned after two and a half mind-bogglingly productive months at a “treehouse” in Switzerland. The cats and I threw her a little party, of course, to celebrate not only her homecoming but also her latest award — the William Saroyan International Prize, which was given to Homesick, a book that is, in the words of one of the judges, “brilliant and lovely and breaks the boundaries of traditional memoir in ways that are exciting and human and real.” A child of Armenian immigrants, Saroyan was a Californian through and through. When I first read his exuberant prose as a teenager — not so long after immigrating but already in love with my Californian home — I felt understood. Now I feel that Jenny’s story, Saroyan’s story, and my story are part of one natural circle of understanding.

And I am happy to say that the circle holds more than the three of us. A few hours before Jenny landed at LAX, I participated in a Zoom event that drew together a solar system of dedicated translators around Julia Nemirovskaya, who radiant verse and prose awed everyone in attendance. It was a great honor to share my translations of Julia’s poems, and a humbling surprise to hear Julia read her brilliant translation of one of mine, which puts the original to shame.

How lucky I am to be a contemporary of great Russian poets like Julia Nemirovskaya and Irina Mashinski, whose first book of poems in English, Giornata, will feature the astonishingly supple translations of Maria Bloshteyn, as well as a few of my own. And how lucky I am to be a contemporary of Maxim Osipov, in whose beautifully structured, psychologically nuanced stories and essays I get to dwell for months on end. Maxim, my supremely talented co-translator Alex Fleming, and I got the chance to reunite as part of Russian Literature Week, organized by Peter Kaufman of Read Russia.

The set topic was “Literature, Medicine, and the Pandemic,” but our conversation ranged widely. Maxim, whose English might convince you that he needs no translators, had an insight for every question that popped into my head. When I asked him whether he, like me, felt that fiction was generally slower to respond to crises like the one we’re now facing than poetry or expository prose, he put it this way: “War literature has almost always been written after the war,” and added, “It’s hard to write a love story being inside this story.” Every conversation with Maxim brings me a handful of maxims. His calls from Tarusa have made my life in lockdown seem far freer than it is.

War and freedom are themes without which no Russian Literature Week would be complete, and both come came up during a mesmerizing presentation by Robert Chandler, who introduced and read, strikingly as always, passages from Vasily Grossman’s “The Dog” and Andrey Platonov’s “Among Animals and Plants.” In his opening remarks, Robert elaborated on the circle of understanding between these two great writers, who at first blush seem so very different.

Over the course of several decades, Robert and his wife Elizabeth have worked painstakingly to bring the varied greatness of Platonov and Grossman to an English-speaking audience, and it is a true joy to see their work rewarded. This week, their magisterial rendition of Grossman’s Stalingrad received the MLA’s Lois Roth Award. Here’s to righteous literary causes and big victories!

“To Safeguard the World”: Julia Nemirovskaya’s “At a Glance”

Ivan Shishkin, Old Oak (1866)

At around this time in 2019 I posted my translation of a poem by Julia Nemirovskaya in which the speaker journeys to Hades with gifts for Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva. My translation must have pleased the gods, because, throughout this rather miserly year, I’ve been rewarded with the opportunity to collaborate with Julia on many more poems, which I’ve shared when they were published.

The poem I’d like to offer now also concerns a gift, which can sometimes feel like a curse — the gift of creativity. In one of her essays, Eudora Welty speaks of the writer’s “self-assignment”: “to achieve, by a cultivated sensitivity for observing life, a capacity for receiving its impressions, a lonely, unremitting, unaided, unaidable vision.” She’s addressing creators of fiction here, but I suspect many poets would gladly endorse this as a description of their task too. All art is born of observation, be it of the outer or the inner world. But sometimes the act of observation becomes so absorbing that it threatens to overwhelm the sensitive observer, to overload her — she may even come to feel that she isn’t so much absorbed by the world as she is absorbing it. This is the experience Julia captures in the lines below. Can you blame her for wanting a little time away from the writer’s “self-assignment”? Fortunately for us, art won’t let her get away. This Thursday, at 6pm EST, she will present some of her latest poems via Zoom, through the Russian American Cultural Center, and I’ll join her to read a few translations.

At a Glance

I glance at an oak, with its honeyed leaves,
and soak it right up.
The hill where it stood for a thousand years
I drain like a cup.

As the seas swallow ships with their masts
and gems without price,
whole landscapes succumb to the thirst
of my bright greedy eyes.

To safeguard the world, I look down at my feet,
pretend to be blind.
I try to be someone other than me,
to exist on the sly.


Посмотрю на дуб с медовыми листьями
И стечёт он в меня, как сок.
Опустеет гора, на которой он выстоял
Тысячелетний срок.

Как в моря затягивает всё важное –
Корабль, коралл, алмаз –
Исчезают окрестности из-за жажды
Моих жадных горящих глаз.

Чтобы всё спасти, притворясь слепою
Я под ноги себе смотрю,
Я стараюсь быть не самой собою,
И живу как будто хитрю.

Cardinal Points, vol. 10

Thanks to the hard work of my fellow editor, Irina Mashinski, the latest volume of Cardinal Points is ready for purchase, just in time for Thanksgiving! The journal has reached a milestone — this is its tenth volume — and as befits that round number, the contents are pleasingly well-rounded, balanced between new and old, classical and experimental, lyrical and prickly. The journal is also full of doublings and echoes: Yulia Kartalova O Doherty and Veniamin Gushchin offer two zestful translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky from different periods of his career; Ilya Kutik and Reginald Gibbons expertly contextualize Marina Tsvetaeva’s last poem (addressed to Arseny Tarkovsky), while Olga Zaslavsky examines the poet’s final letter from France (addressed to her friend Anna Tesková); and James Manteith introduces his delicate, inventive translations of the song-poems of Alexander Vertinsky, Novella Matveyeva, and Oleg Woolf (CP’s founding editor), while Simon Nicholls, a specialist in Alexander Scriabin, offers an exquisite rendition of Konstantin Balmont’s “Elf” (1917), which depicts the great composer at the piano. I’ll share Nicholls’s translation in full, by way of overture:

First, fairies in a moonlit dance you’d see.
The manly sharps and soft flats feminine,
They acted out a kiss, an aching pain.
The right hand purled their tiny courtoisies.

Enchanter-sounds then broke through in the left,
The will, a cry of wills entwined, sang out.
The king of harmonies, the radiant elf,
Was carving subtle cameos from sounds.

His stream of sound set faces all awhirl —
They radiated light, now gold, now steel,
Expressed both joy and sorrow interfurled.

And thunder sang, and crowds were on the march,
And man and god as equals were arrayed…
All this is what I saw when Scriabin played.

You can find Balmont’s original here. Other highlights include Kevin Windle’s essay on translating Valery Bryusov and Randi Anderson’s on reproducing the metrical music of Pushkin and Tsvetaeva. But the centerpieces of the journal are two rediscovered treasures from the second half of the 20th century, Windle’s versions of four short stories by the Polish author Sławomir Mrożek and Daphne Skillen’s interview with the Soviet countercultural icon Venedikt Yerofeyev, skillfully translated by Seth Graham and annotated by Ilya Simanovsky and Svetlana Shnitman-McMillin. Russian-speakers can listen to the original here and read it here. A part of the interview seems calculated to please a certain contingent of the Anglophone audience:

I like England very much. I even like its geographic shape on the map [both laugh]. There’s just something about it! Compare it to the ridiculous shape of Iran, for example. Or even Belgium… There’s a kind of awkwardness in the very configuration of the country. Britain’s very close to my heart, and the Brits generally… The British have had almost too much influence on all of us, if we leave aside the sphere of music. Who is indifferent to the British?

Yerofeyev also has some choice words for the Argentinian “hooligans” who went after the Falkland Islands. His infatuation with Margaret Thatcher serves as a valuable reminder: for all that they shared in terms of lifestyle and artistic sensibility, the countercultures in the USSR and in the West didn’t exactly see eye to eye on all political matters. “I was very, very happy for Margaret Thatcher,” Yerofeyev tells Skillen. “I applauded every one of her speeches, and even every bodily movement she made.” (I can’t help but think of Fred Armisen’s parody of a punk rocker’s conservative turn.)

Venedikt Yerofeyev lighting up.

There are many more surprises in Yerofeyev’s interview and in the volume as a whole. The full contents are below. As always, I thank Irina for her tireless work and Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies for their support. See here for volume 9 (2019), here for volume 8 (2018), here for volume 7 (2017), and here for the journal’s website.


Vladimir Batshev, “One on One: An Excerpt from Descendant of Bathsheba” (trans. from the Russian by Will Firth)
Alex Couprin, “Hello, Cat” (trans. from the Russian by Yura Dashevsky)
Yelena Lembersky, “Bears Came to Town”
Anatoly Movshevich, “The Old Railway Carriage” (trans. from the Russian by Nicolas Pasternak Slater)
Sławomir Mrożek, Four Short Stories (trans. from the Polish by Kevin Windle)
Sergei Skarupo, “Tendernob”


Venedikt Yerofeyev: A Recovered Interview with Daphne Skillen, transcribed, introduced and annotated by Ilya Simanovsky and Svetlana Shnitman-Mcmillin, trans. from the Russian by Seth Graham


Konstantin Balmont, “Elf” (trans. from the Russian by Simon Nicholls)
Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Listen!” (trans. from the Russian by Yulia Kartalova O Doherty)
Vladimir Mayakovsky, “American Russians” (trans. from the Russian by Veniamin Gushchin)
Anna Prismanova, Two Poems (trans. from the Russian by Nora Moseman)
Viktor Shirali, Three Poems (trans. from the Russian by J. Kates)
Alexander Veytsman, Two Poems

The Art of Translation

Randi Anderson, “‘If Only You Could Hear the Music!’: Translating Pushkin and Tsvetaeva with Rhyme and Meter”
James Manteith, “Aligning with Eccentrics: Alexander Vertinsky and Novella Matveyeva”
James Manteith, “Thriving by Thirsty Grasp: Oleg Woolf’s ‘Nightingale’”
Kevin Windle, “The Total Effect of Valery Bryusov”
Ilya Kutik and Reginald Gibbons, “Marina Tsvetaeva’s Last Poem”
Olga Zaslavsky, “Marina Tsvetaeva’s Farewell Letter”

“To Live Means a Life Being Lived”: Andrey Kurkov’s Lonely Beekeeper and Julia Nemirovskaya’s Reflective Poems

On October 30, which seems a lifetime ago, the always-thoughtful editors of Punctured Lines posted a brief interview with me, in which I mentioned three current projects:

I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees — a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. […] Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me.

I’ll have much more to say about Maxim’s stories in the coming months, but I can now offer an update on Andrey’s novel and Julia’s verse. This past Thursday, Grey Bees finally spread its wings, and to mark the occasion the team at MacLehose Press shared my translation of Andrey’s foreword, which describes the ongoing war in Ukraine with admirable clarity:

Since the winter of 2015, less than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict, I have taken three journeys through Donbas, the eastern region that contains Donetsk, Luhansk and the grey zone. There I witnessed the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour. This all made such a deep impression on me that I decided to write a novel. It would focus not on military operations and heroic soldiers, but on ordinary people whom the war had failed to force from their homes.

The protagonist of Andrey’s novel, a beekeeper named Sergey Sergeyich, is one of these resigned residents of the grey zone, who only quits his attempts to make peace with the war when it threatens his apian dependents. And if you think that premise is far-fetched, I invite you to listen to the following story, shared by the Ukrainian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross:

I found it to be a moving confirmation of Andrey’s novelistic intuition. And having spent a full year with Sergeyich, visualizing his every move, I was also delighted to see how closely the images in my head matched a set of photographs from the Ukrainian stage adaptation of Grey Bees, on now at the Theater on Podol.

Bohdan Benyuk in the lead role.

Sergeyich is a lonely man who gradually breaks out of his shell-shocked shell by reflecting on what he and others have in common, though he never loses sight of the particularity of each person’s experience. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly sound policy for a translator: focus on the commonality but don’t ignore individuating differences.

In a note accompanying my translations of three poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, which have just been published in the elegant, Dantesquely named journal La Piccioletta Barca, I speak about the mirroring effect of literature — the way the writing of others reveals us to ourselves. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll let you gaze into Julia’s “Mirror,” one of the three poems.


My father left me his face
and all that was his to give.
I’ll carry this mirror always —
in it, father still lives.

My father left me my home
and everything it contains.
I enter for half an hour —
a wasp beats against the panes.

On his birthday we’ll sit a while,
silently drinking wine.
To live means a life being lived —
not necessarily mine.


Папа оставил мне лицо,
И всё, что было его.
Зеркало буду носить с собой,
В зеркале он живой.

Папа оставил мне мой дом,
И всё, что в доме моём.
В дом свой зайду я на полчаса —
Бьётся в окно оса.

В день рожденья его посидим,
Молча попьём вино.
Слово жить — значит быть живым.
Необязательно мной.

“Shut Our Mouths, Then We’ll Talk”: The Late Mikhail Zhvanetsky’s Lesson for the Day

It’s been a rollercoaster of a week in the United States, and has culminated, at last, in the election of Joe Biden to the Presidency. The streets in my LA neighborhood resound with blaring car horns and cheers of joy. The pent-up nervousness was palpable; the sense of relief is hard to describe. For those who wished to see Donald Trump defeated quickly and decisively, Tuesday night was a disappointment. One commentator compared the feeling of watching the national map turn red on the major news networks to the chilling sentiment Osip Mandelstam expressed in his infamous, fatal Stalin Epigram: “We live without sensing the country beneath us.” A strong reaction. My own was best captured by the words of a fellow Odessan, the satirist Mikhail Zhvanetsky: “You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually.”

It was gradual, alright, but today we got something. It’s just too bad that Zhvanetsky wasn’t here to crack wise about it. He passed away yesterday, at the age of 86.

I said “fellow Odessan” up there, but what I should have said was “the Odessan,” or maybe: “Odessa incarnate.” No one since Babel was a purer product of the city, a purer expression of its sardonic yet sentimental, warm yet pugnacious character. My first words on this planet were “Mama Anna,” but considering how often my mother spoke of and quoted Mikhail Mikhailovich, I’m surprised they weren’t: “Like Zhvanetsky says…”

Born in Odessa in 1934 and trained as a mechanical engineer, he took a job at the port in the 1950s, where he met one of his lifelong collaborators, Viktor Ilchenko. The two of them began to perfrom skits and monologues at a student theater, where they met another mechanic, Roman Kartsev — at which point the greatest comic trio of the late Soviet period was complete. I picture the moment: the clouds parting, the angels singing… But it was probably just a couple of chuckles at first, followed by a few belly laughs. Soon enough, though, one sixth of the world’s landmass was in stitches. The trio found work and steady support at the Leningrad theater of the older Soviet comedian Arkady Raikin, whom Zhvanetsky supplied with a steady stream of monologues.

Indeed, Zhvanetsky remained mostly behind the scenes, ceding the spotlight first to Raikin, then to Kartsev and Ilchenko. By the 1980s, however, he was taking the stage — short, plump, bald, toting a beat-up briefcase full of tattered pages, but so witty, so devilishly charming, so irresistible… Like a mix of Wallace Shawn and Tony Soprano. Could you imagine a more Odessan combo?

What accounted for Zhvanetsky’s popularity? His exposure of the absurdity of Soviet life, with its food shortages, its censorship, its hypocrisy, its systemic antisemitism? Sure. But it was also the intimacy of his viewpoint, the particularity of his observations, which struck nearly every Russian-speaker of his generation exactly where they lived. He was a kitchen-table existentialist, as well as a great artist of the word. No one had a sharper ear for the speech- and thought-patterns of Soviet citizens. Perhaps his only peer in this regard was Vladimir Vysotsky, another lover of Odessa. Their output, taken together, can serve as the Encyclopedia Sovietica.

Of course it’s also much more than that. The lessons of Vysotsky’s songs and Zhvanetsky’s monologues are easy to swallow but hard to digest. It isn’t just the cruel contradictions of Soviet life they expose, it’s the inescapable contradictions of human nature. There’s more than a dash of Kafka and Beckett in Zhvanetsky’s most famous, seemingly transparent skit. In it, Kartsev — in his mouthwateringly perfect Odessan accent — complains to an unseen interlocutor about the crayfish on offer at the local market: Yesterday, the crayfish were big, I mean BIG — but for five rubles. Today they’re for three — but small… Boy, but they’re small…  You shoulda seen the ones yesterday — huge beasts! But for five. Today they’re itty-bitty, just nothing… On the other hand, only three rubles… Not that he has any money at all, mind you. But only three rubles. So small, though… Now yesterday…

What’s the target here? Shortages? Yes. A worker’s poverty in a workers’ paradise? Yes. But also the human condition. You want everything all at once, but you get nothing, gradually… Which doesn’t mean you should stop wanting, complaining, or laughing. That’s our condition’s saving grace.

One of my favorite Zhvanetsky monologues concerns another human contradiction that’s been much on my mind lately: the way our desire for freedom often depends on the perception of strong opposition. Now that the majority of my fellow citizens have rendered a final verdict on the last four years, I hope they will not fall silent. There is a lot to talk about.

Shut Our Mouths, Then We’ll Talk


“But you won’t let me.”

“That’s not true. You can say anything you want.”

“Why would you forbid me to speak?”

“We wouldn’t. Speak your mind.”

“How can I speak my mind when it’s forbidden?”

“Nothing’s forbidden. Speak.”

“I distinctly remember your forbidding me to speak…”

“That was then. Now you can talk all you like.”

“Sure, ‘talk all you like’ — that’s what you say now, but I remember…”

“Have you got anything besides memories to share?”

“Oh, so now there’s a ban on memories?”


“As I was saying… When I was banned from speaking, I liked to talk.”

“Listen, can you say something — anything — without mentioning bans?”

“So you’re saying I can’t mention bans?”

“That’s right.”

“Ah, now you’re talking! Your ban on bans is so goddamned stupid. You think you can gag me, do you?  Well, I won’t stay gagged!”

“Take him away.”

“My voice will be heard! You won’t shut me up. Our mouths are wide open. Free speech will break out through clenched teeth, pull apart the bars of any cage… It will raise the banner of freedom the whole world over!”

“That’s a different story…”

“O Verdant Town of Sinful Passions”: Richard Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood”

It’s another sultry day in Los Angeles, though we’re well into fall. After a morning and afternoon full of Zoom meetings, I took a long walk, just as the sun was beginning to set, and thought about what I’d witnessed this past weekend. On the evening of Sunday, October 11, my neighborhood began to fill with protesters — some on foot, others in cars, but all proudly flying the flags of Armenia and of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh). Fighting has again broken out in that beautiful mountainous region, which is no stranger to bloodshed, and LA’s large Armenian-American population took to the streets, voicing their solidarity with the people of Artsakh and calling for an immediate stop to the violence.

I wrote about our city’s diverse yet tight-knit Armenian diasporic community earlier this summer, when sharing my translation of a poem by Peter Vegin. Today, at this difficult time for my Armenian-American neighbors, I’d like to share a lyric by another Russian-language poet of Armenian descent, Richard Ter-Boghossian (1911-2005), who emigrated to the United States in 1960 and lies buried, beside his wife, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can learn a good deal about Ter-Boghossian’s life and his difficult journey to Los Angeles by following that last link; it will take you to John Freedman’s interesting blog entry, and if your scroll down to the comments, you’ll find a touching biographical sketch by the poet’s son, Edouard Boghossian.

Ter-Boghossian fought in the Second World War and was captured by the Germans; after escaping from the POW camp, he had to flee once more — this time from Soviet territory, for fear that he might be shot as a suspected spy. Some of the poems in the three books of his that I own confront those traumatic war years directly, while many more look back wistfully on the poet’s youth in Russia. The song-like lyric below, however — drawn from Ter-Boghossian’s fifth collection of verse, Evening Bell (Vechernii zvon, 1995) — sums up his impressions of his adoptive homeland. Although it’s far lighter fare, it brought to mind some of the themes expressed with shattering power in two exquisite recent poems by Dana Gioia, “Psalm and Lament for Los Angeles” and, especially, “Psalm to Our Lady Queen of the Angels.” In the latter, Gioia, a grandson of immigrants from Mexico and Sicily, writes:

I praise myself, a mutt of mestizo and mezzogiorno,
The seed of exiles and violent men,
Disfigured by the burdens they shouldered to survive.
Broken or bent, their boast was their suffering.

I praise my ancestors, the unkillable poor,
The few who escaped disease or despair —
The restless, the hungry, the stubborn, the scarred.
Let us praise the dignity of their destitution.

I offer my translation of Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood” in homage to the poet’s people and to all Angelenos who have faced their struggles with dignity, without giving in to despair.


Your air, Los Angeles, is poisoned
with the exhaust of countless cars.
You’re famous — yes, the whole world knows you,
knows all your grand and minor stars.

Gangsters of every form and fashion
drift through your bars, your parks, your streets.
O verdant town of sinful passions,
forever drenched in sunlight, heat.

Lush greenery hides handsome villas —
I loved them at first sight, still do.
True, subterranean forces quiver —
man can endure a fright or two.

City of Angels… Standing guard
are rows of palms, stately and thin.
But we — we trample on our dusty stars,
and that is Hollywood’s great sin.


Воздух, Лос-Анджелес, весь твой отравлен
Дымом от разных машин.
Ты на весь мир достойно прославлен
Звёздами всех величин.

Улицы, парки и бары набиты
Гангстерами всех мастей.
Вечно зелёный и солнцем залитый,
Город греховных страстей.

В зелени пышной красивые виллы,
Я полюбил их навек!
Часто пугают подземные силы,
Но терпелив человек.

Тонкие, стройные пальмы над нами,
Город святой берегут.
Топчем мы пыльные звёзды ногами —
Грешный на то Голливуд.