“An Eagle’s Heart Lies in the Dunes”: Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky at the Colorado River

We’re at the end of the second week of the LARB Publishing Workshop, which its peerless director, Irene Yoon, has taken online this year with the help of her quick-thinking and nimble-fingered crew. I’ve played only a small part so far, moderating a few enjoyable sessions — one with the delightful Adam and Ashley Levy of Transit Books — and hosting an informal discussion on translation. Even so, my eyes are already feeling the strain. I really don’t know how Irene and her team manage it, day in and day out… All this small-screen time makes me long for distant vistas, of which Southern California has its share.

The thought of those vast landscapes sent me back to a lyric by Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky (1891-1966), a Ukrainian-born Russian poet who twice narrowly escaped execution (first as a White officer captured by the Bolsheviks, then as a member of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo) and spent his last years in Los Angeles. He first entered the literary world in the early 1920s, as a member of the Berlin Poets’ Club, along with V. Sirin — better known as Vladimir Nabokov — who remained his friend. The poet moved his family to Paris just before the start of the Second World War; there he grew close to Anna Prismanova (1892-1960), one of the most original voices of the emigration, though his own verse was highly traditional in both form and content, often echoing the tones and moods of Pushkin and Baratynsky.

The same tones and moods — intimate, melancholic, philosophically cool — dominate his Californian cycle, much of which appeared in journals between 1961 and 1966. In it I recognize an existentialist resignation to loneliness that is typical both of Los Angeles literature and of Russian émigré verse. The poem below, however, stands out. Never published in his lifetime, it describes a fishing trip to the Colorado River. The change of scenery reignites Korvin-Piotrovsky’s imagination, restores his warrior spirit, and, in the end, reminds him of what he will never regain, and yet can never abandon.

We’re going fishing. Early morning.
The overheated engine whines.
Quivering layers of desert air
float off toward the hills beyond.
A sandy wasteland — lifeless, bare —
but it’s a joy to watch the sky.
Where fearless Native chiefs once roamed,
death strikes no fear. Let arrows fly.
An eagle’s heart lies in the dunes,
mourned by the desiccated steppe.
Our driver points: a chain of trees,
all green, already looms ahead.
Ridge after ridge. The Colorado
lures with its unseen depths of blue…
O Russia — you’re so far away now
that I can never part with you.

June 1, 1961, Los Angeles

Мы едем на рыбную ловлю с утра,
Гудит перегретый мотор, —
В пустыне слоями сплывает жара
К подножью отчётливых гор.
Песчаная глушь. Ни зверей, ни людей,
Но весело в небо смотреть, —
На родине храбрых индейских вождей
Не страшно от стрел умереть.
Орлиное сердце зарыто в песке,
Вздыхает безводная степь, —
Шофёр указал уже нам вдалеке
Деревьев зелёную цепь.
Гора за горой, — Колорадо-река
Влечёт глубиной голубой —
Россия, Россия, — ты так далека,
Что мне не расстаться с тобой.

1.VI.1961, Los Angeles

“True Love for Women or for Mountains”: Peter Vegin Sees Ararat in Los Angeles

I grew up in LA’s diverse Russian-speaking community — that is, among people who shared a language, but who had come from all parts of the former USSR. Among my closest friends in college were Armenian Americans, many of whom spoke Russian because they or their parents had emigrated from Soviet Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moscow, etc. Meanwhile, other friends of mine, whose roots reached back to the historical region of Western Armenia, didn’t speak Russian at all. Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Armenians outside Armenia, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to 1,000,000. I loved learning about their culture — or cultures, rather — about what the Eastern and Western Armenians had in common, about what separated them.

One of the things my friends (and especially their émigré families) had in common was a reverence for Mount Ararat, whose breathtaking snow-capped peaks rise to roughly 13,000 and 17,000 feet near the intersection of Turkey, Armenia, Iran, and Azerbaijan. Very recently I came across a Russian poem that expressed this reverence with such witty candor, such sweet music that I just had to translate it. The author is Peter Vegin (1939-2007), a poet and painter who had rubbed elbows with Andrei Voznesensky and other leading figures of Thaw-era Soviet culture in the 1960s. He emigrated to the United States in 1989 and soon settled in Los Angeles, where, throughout the 1990s, he was a major contributor to the Russian-language press. But a series of setbacks in the 2000s — including a fire that destroyed a number of his manuscripts and canvases — plunged him into depression. He passed away on August 10, 2007, at the age of 68.

Vegin was half-Armenian (his father’s surname was Mnatsakanyan), and in the poem below he finds himself bonding, from a balcony’s remove, with the denizens of Hollywood’s Little Armenia. The sights and smells of Transcaucasian delicacies like lavash and khinkali bring him back to Ararat — or do they bring the mountain to him?

July 21st would have been Vegin’s 81st birthday, and Tuesday is my 38th. My translation is my own early gift for the both us.

Armenians unhurriedly
walk through the streets of Hollywood,
bearing lavash, khinkali, greens,
all that they’d grown accustomed to
where Ararat blocks half the sky,
where Ararat fills up your soul
so that you never can escape,
even halfway around the world.

True love for women or for mountains
is all the same — a sacred poison —
no matter what, there’s no deliverance.
Go on, then: live, try to remember,
and if your memory should fail you,
your loved one will still find you, always.

This morning I awoke in Hollywood
to springtime, hummingbirds, magnolias,
and from my balcony I spotted
my dear Armenians, unhurried…
While in the sky above — what’s that?
The great, the holy Ararat…

Неторопливые армяне
фланируют по Голливуду,
несут лаваш, хинкали, зелень
и всё, к чему привыкли там,
где застит Арарат полнеба,
где застит Арарат всю душу
и от чего нет избавленья
на этом свете никому.

Любовь не знает избавленья,
Она — священная отрава —
что женщина или гора.
Живи и постарайся помнить,
а если вдруг откажет память,
они везде тебя найдут.

Я просыпаюсь в Голливуде.
Весна, магнолии, колибри
и выйдя на балкон, я вижу
моих армян неторопливых,
а в знойном небе, воспаряя,
стоит великий Арарат…

Screen Time: A Busy Week and a Silent Treat

This week featured an usual amount of “screen time” for yours truly, all of it immensely enjoyable but, in the end, quite tiring. From Sunday to Thursday, by invitation of the wonderful Mindl Cohen, Jenny and I led a translation workshop for the Yiddish Book Center over Zoom. This year’s fellows brought in a mouthwatering mishmash of texts, ranging from modernist poetry to children’s plays to comic depictions of the criminal underworld. Although I was there to lead the workshop, I actually made out like a bandit, having learned far more from the participants than I could ever have taught them.

And the same goes for my other Zoomings. On Monday, the 79th anniversary of German invasion of the Soviet Union, I was virtually reunited with three dear friends and constant collaborators, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and Maria Bloshteyn, for an event hosted by Globus Books in San Francisco. The occasion was the launch of Maria’s monumental anthology of Russian poetry from and about the Second World War, Russia Is Burning, which will officially appear from Smokestack Books on August 1 and can now be ordered directly from the press’s unsurpassably discerning publisher, poet Andy Croft <info@smokestack-books.co.uk>. Writer Zarina Zabrisky, who manages Globus and curates the series, has uploaded our presentation to YouTube. As I rewatched it, I was struck anew by the power of the poems Robert, Irina, and Maria chose to share, and by the sensitivity of their recitations. Much of the collection is translated by Maria herself, and in her masterful handling these distillations of raw experience and deep reflection, of triumph and lasting trauma, of humanity’s shocking resilience and baffling complexity read as if they were written today, for us alone.

The surprising relevance of the preceding century’s masterpieces was the theme of the week. It emerged again on Wednesday, during a panel discussion (this time over StreamYard) of Elia Kazan’s 1950 classic Panic in the Streets — the second entry in the LAYKA Lens screening series, organized by Yiddishkayt in partnership with LARB. My conversation with legendary cultural critic J. Hoberman, Yiddishkayt’s Rob Adler Peckerar, and Tulane University’s Karen Zumhagen-Yeklé is also now on YouTube. We touched on the symbolism of contagious disease, the scapegoating of foreigners and members of the lower classes, as well as the violation of civil rights and the suppression of journalists in the interest of “public safety” — as construed by men in uniform. It seems everything old is new again.

I must admit, as stimulated as I was by all the brilliance around me, I now feel pretty talked-out. My longing for silence led me back to a little lyric by the Odessan poet Semyon Keselman (1889-1940), about whom I’ve written before. Please join me as I wind up my Victrola and wait for the curtains to part…

At the Cinema

Winter is tedious. Where can we hide?
There — in the bluish-black velvet of night
someone has hung a white screen.

Across that white plane, in pairs or alone,
ghosts wander past, pale and wan;
swaying, as if on a halcyon pond,
towns float away like white swans.

Pierrette and Pierrot from the boulevard keen
for a Countess who’s heart has been shattered.
Oh, how they hiss whenever the screen
is shadowed by your hat’s soft feathers…

Tedious winter will not relent.
My misery knows but one balm —
and that is the delicate trace of your scent,
which lingers awhile on my palm.


В кино

Куда спастись нам от скучной зимы?
Там в иссиня-чёрном бархате тьмы
Вырезан белый квадрат.

На белом квадрате пройдут чередой
Призраки бледных людей;
Словно колеблемы тихой водой,
Проплывут города, как стая лебедей.

Над графиней, погибшей от сердечных ран,
Прослезятся тротуарные Пьеретта и Пьеро.
И как зашипят они, когда на экран
Бросит тень ваше гибкое, нежное перо!

Ах, от скучной зимы нам не уйти, —
И лишь оттого станет легче тоска,
Что Вашими духами на обратном пути
Будет пахнуть моя рука.


A Day on Fairfax: Ernie Barnes at Home

About two years ago there was a knock at the door of my mother’s apartment. When she answered, she found two young men on the threshold, both stooping slightly to meet her eyes (she’s very petite and they were quite tall). They introduced themselves as aspiring filmmakers from Durham, North Carolina, who were visiting Los Angeles to lay the groundwork for a documentary about Ernie Barnes, an African-American football player-turned-painter who was born in their hometown but built his artistic career out West. Not just out West, actually, but in West Hollywood. And not just in West Hollywood, but inside the very apartment my mother now called home.

Although she had never heard of Barnes, she was delighted to learn of her apartment’s brush with fame, and was excited to share the news. She phoned me and I came right over. The young men stuck around until I got there and we all had a long chat — more of a show-and-tell, really, as they had brought with them a big binder of photos and clippings. I myself couldn’t quite place Barnes’s name until they opened that binder to a color reproduction of his iconic, thrillingly frenetic The Sugar Shack. I know the word “iconic” is grossly overused, but how else would you describe this sultry depiction of a rocking roadhouse, which appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You (1976)?

Other Barnes paintings caught my eye as I flipped through the binder — a late-night DJ spinning platters and cooing into a microphone, a lean young man suspended beneath a basketball hoop with a farmhouse in the distant background, a raucous service at a Baptist church — but the photo that stopped me cold was of Barnes himself, huddled with his family in the little kitchen I recognized so well. That photo had appeared in the March 1973 issue of Ebony magazine, and it meant so much to me that I just had to track the issue down.

Apartment living is by its very nature isolating. It takes effort to establish a connection with one’s current neighbors, and one hardly ever gets the chance to connect with tenants past. But here was Barnes, vibrantly present, larger than the life — the subject of museum retrospectives in California and North Carolina, and of a lovely picture book for youngsters.

My connection to him was mostly circumstantial, of course. We’d just happened to walk the same carpeted ground, decades apart. But there was a little more to it, I learned. Barnes began painting scenes of African-American life in the early 1970s, after moving to West Hollywood, which borders the Fairfax District. At the time, the neighborhood was still the center of LA’s Jewish community, packed with refugees and immigrants, speakers of Yiddish and Russian, some religious, some secular, none very shy. Big chunks of their lives took place out on the street, for everyone to see — including Barnes.

Sam & Sidney (1988)

Reflecting on this period years later, Barnes said: “Fairfax enlivened me to everyday life themes and forced me to look at my life — the way I had grown up, the customs within my community.” Like the people he knew back home, here too were survivors who hadn’t lost their capacity for joy, their sense of humor. The drawings and paintings he made of his Jewish neighbors inspired his series The Beauty of the Ghetto, which focused on African-American themes. As Colony Little points out in her article at Hyperallergic, the link between the two communities is made explicit in Barnes’s penciled comment on the drawing below, A Day on Fairfax (1973): “There is not much difference between Willard St. and Fairfax.” Little explains: “Willard Street is where Barnes grew up in Durham.”

In Barnes’s drawing I see all the proud babushkas of Fairfax — some of whom had, like mine, come over from Odessa. After all, every town has its Willard Street, and every Willard Street has a lot to be proud of.

Hollywood Neighbors: Memories of Nola Thorp

There is too much to say about the events of the last two weeks, but the important things are being said more cogently elsewhere. What I’d like to share is a tangential reflection, triggered by an unexpected vigil. Jenny and I live in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, which was the site of one of the earliest and most volatile protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd. On the afternoon of May 30, columns of smoke rose up all around us. Early the next morning we went to survey the damage and saw dozens of people sweeping up shattered glass, painting over graffiti, and comforting each other. These weren’t just store-owners and employees — they were neighbors, doing their neighborly duty.

Over the days that followed, the protests continued and, gradually, grew less volatile. On Wednesday evening, we received a group text message from a neighbor in our building, asking us to participate in a simple gesture of mourning and solidarity: all we needed to do was to go outside and shine a light at the sky for eight minutes and forty-six seconds — that now infamous length of time. One by one, we gathered in front of our building, sources of light in hand. The talk was, at first, cool and tense, but it soon grew warm. Then it stopped, and the lights went on. A long — very long — eight minutes and forty-six seconds later, the street was dark once more. It was at this point that voices reached us from up the block. Small crowds had formed in front of other buildings. They pooled together and called out to our group. We approached, formed a socially distanced circle, and introduced ourselves.

Must it take something like this to bring a neighborhood together? I don’t think so. But this certainly did. And it brought back memories — memories of the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and of September 11, 2001. My next-door neighbor for both those traumas was Nola Thorp — a name that, to my immigrant ears, might as well have been “Miss America.” And, as it turned out, Nola had been something of a beauty queen. I learned this on the day of the Quake, which had thrown me out of bed in the middle of the night. I was 12, Nola was 61, and though we had probably uttered no more than 20 words to each other in the two years prior, we spent all of January 17 — all of it — chatting on foldable chairs between our respective doors and shuddering at each aftershock.

What I learned was that Nola (who, I should say, was still very beautiful, still very queenly) had come out to Hollywood from Wisconsin in the late ‘50s, having landed a co-starring role in a Roger Corman picture titled T-Bird Gang. I had no idea what kind of plumage a “T-Bird” sported, much less what kind of schlock Corman produced. All movies were movies to me: invariably glamorous. Still, some titles sounded more glamorous than others — and so my eyes bulged when I heard that Nola had appeared on the big screen as Cinderella herself! (I ignored the fact that she had played the fairytale princess in something called Cinderfella, opposite Jerry Lewis, whom I knew only as a pudgy, wizened, and wheezing telethon host.) Her promising start led to a string of bit parts in TV shows. Eventually she gave up on acting, but never on Hollywood; she attended just about every Tuesday matinee at the little movie theater on Sunset at Crescent Heights, on the site where, decades earlier, Lana Turner had gotten her big break at the Schwab’s Pharmacy soda counter.

As the sun set on that day in ‘94, Nola brought out her albums of clippings — stills from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Cheyenne. The mesmeric effect of those glossy photos drove all thought of plate tectonics from my mind. Freed of my fear and pleasantly weary, I went home, crawled into bed, and fell right asleep. The next time Nola and I spent the day together was 9/11. I moved soon after, and though I didn’t go very far, we fell out of touch. Many years later, an internet search conducted on a whim informed me that Nola had passed away in 2011.

The faded female star is a stock figure in the Hollywood myth — and, of course, that myth has some basis in truth. The forgotten Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard, you’ll remember, is played by Gloria Swanson, who was herself all but forgotten for at least a decade. Yet as Swanson’s case shows, glory can return. And in my mind, Nola Thorp will never be less than glorious. I wish I had thought to bring her flowers.

Ruminating on all this, I remembered another of Vernon Duke’s Los Angeles poems. I dedicate my translation to Nola, who defied the Hollywood myth and shone bright for her neighbors when they needed it most.

Sunset Strip

Poor lady is in tatters,
disheveled and distressed —
a star of yesterday.

Abandoned by the cameras,
no wonder she’s depressed:
her heart is drained away.

Look all you like, no matter —
won’t guess how old she is…
Her dress is dull and gray:

despite her stately manners,
she can’t keep up appearances
without her former pay.

Her days drag on, relentless,
her eyes look tired and lifeless,
her furs are worn and frayed…

O Hollywood, how horrid…
Lord, work your little wonders:
restore her faded fame.

Sunset Strip

Растрёпанная женщина,
Развинчена, развенчана —
Вчерашняя звезда.

Экранами покинута —
Недаром сердце вынуто
Из тела навсегда.

Девчонка ли, старуха ли, —
Таких мы и не нюхали;
Одета кое-как,

Повадка горделивая —
Но трудно быть красивою
Без денег, натощак.

Ее глаза усталые,
Ее меха — линялые —
Ползут за днями дни.

О, гнусный Холливудишко!
О, Боже, — сделай чудишко
И славу ей верни.

“The Young, the Handsome, the Brave”: Odessan Football in Verse

Championship-Winning Odessan Lineup, 1913

My maternal grandfather, after whom I was named but whom I never had the chance to meet, looms large in my imagination. In 1919, at the age of nine, he went to work at a smithy to support his parents and put his siblings through school. When my mother was a little girl, he ran a semi-illicit confectionery factory and would come home smelling of vanilla, the pockets of his linen suit stuffed with sweets. He rescued sparrows who fell down on our balcony every winter and nursed them back to health; he loved to watch them perch on the edge of his dinner plate and peck at his food. I could go on, but you get the gist: this man I knew only through stories and photographs was my childhood hero. Alas, every hero has his tragic flaw…

For my grandfather, as for so many Odessan men, that flaw was excessive zeal. And in his case, the zeal was for football (that’s soccer, of course). Not long after my mother was born, he stopped attending matches altogether and followed the progress of his beloved FC Chornomorets strictly via the airwaves. Why? Because, on what turned out to be his last trip to the stadium, he had become so engrossed in the game that he allowed his cigarette to slip from his fingers. Before he knew it, his trousers were on fire and a neighbor in the stands was swatting at his thighs. Not quite rock bottom for a football fanatic, but it would do. From that point on, he’d have to satisfy himself with radio broadcasts.

Can you blame my grandfather for getting carried away at the stadium? In Odessa, football is almost a religion — one brought by missionaries from the United Kingdom in the late 19th century. You can read Volodymyr Gutsol’s nice little article about the Odessa British Athletic Club (OBAC), which introduced football to the city (and, likely, to Imperial Russia as a whole), at The Odessa Review. Interest in the sport spread like (forgive me!) wildfire, and Odessan players burned bright on the national scene. In 1913, the city’s team took the Russian Empire’s second championship, defeating St. Petersburg 4 to 2. True to form, the pernickety Petersburgers tried to get the Odessans disqualified because they had fielded too many foreign-born players. Their effort was unsuccessful — Odessa had won fair and square…

And just to make sure everyone remembered, poet-turned-epidemiologist Alexander Krantsfeld (1897-1942) immortalized two of the stars of that glorious lineup — the Englishman Ernest Jacobs and the Ukrainian Yuri Dykhno — in an sprightly, springy lyric:

Agile of body, how swiftly they run —
springtime sings out in each kick.
Here every shout is a shot from a gun.
The fans, as if drunk, sway and quake.

Under bright skies, cries of approval
and censure blend into one.
Heavenly rapture, ardent upheaval:
“Go Jacobs! Go Dykhno! Come on!”

Feathery grass, turquoise horizon,
eyes on the crystalline vault:
over the field on which Hellen has risen,
a rook glides close to the ball.

Strong bodies clash, bathed in the sun,
as the crowds roar and rave.
Each woman’s smile gleams like a coin
for the young, the handsome, the brave…


Тела упруги, движенья быстры,
В порывах мощных поёт весна.
И каждый возглас, как будто выстрел.
Толпа трепещет, толпа пьяна.

Под ярким небом крик одобренья,
Крик порицанья слились в одно.
Здесь все в экстазе, здесь все в гореньи:
«Поддай-ка Джекобс! Урра, Дыхно!..»

Вся в бирюзовой оправе зелень.
В прозрачный купол уходит мяч.
Над мягким полем, где ожил эллин,
К мячу так близко летает грач.

Толпа рокочет, залита солнцем,
Звенят удары могучих тел.
Улыбки женщин горят червонцем
Тому, кто молод, красив и смел…


Maxim Osipov and the Tarusa Hospital

A few months ago, together with my colleagues Alex Fleming and Nicolas Pasternak Slater, I began work on a new volume of stories and essays by Maxim Osipov, whose debut collection in English, Rock, Paper, Scissor, appeared from NYRB Classic in April of 2019. On his autumn book tour, Maxim was able to spend a few days in Los Angeles. Those few days were, for me, one of the greatest pleasures of a very pleasant 2019. Jenny and I were hoping to visit Maxim in Tarusa, Russia, in 2020, but the pandemic intervened. We’re all disappointed, of course, but there are far more important things to worry about.

Maxim is not only an author. He is also a highly qualified cardiologist, as well as the founder of the Endowment in Support of Tarusa Hospital. Joshua Yaffa, who profiled Maxim for The New Yorker, describes this well-staffed small-town facility as “one of the leading medical centers of its kind in the region, an example and inspiration for what health-care in provincial Russia can be — if led by a strong cadre of local doctors and supported by the generosity of a wide circle of well-wishers.” Now, in the face of the growing COVID-19 crisis, the hospital needs every bit of support it can get. Please visit this English-language page and help in any way you can, if only by spreading the word.

In the meantime, Alex, Nicolas, and I will continue to translate Maxim’s moving, multidimensional fiction and nonfiction. And if you’d like to hear him read his prose in Russian, you can do so live, via YouTube, in just over two hours. He’ll present his stories “Good People” (“Добрые люди”) and “Objects in Mirror” (“Фантазия”), which are both featured in Rock, Paper, Scissors, as well as the travelogue “Sventa,” which we’ll include in the forthcoming volume.

Julia Nemirovskaya, Irina Mashinski, and Maria Bloshteyn Take Center Stage

Clock Odessa.jpg

Photographed in Odessa by Jennifer Croft.

The editors of Exchanges, a jewel of a literary journal that focuses on the art of translation, have just launched their Spring 2020 issue, which includes five poems by Julia Nemirovskaya. I was pleased to be able to contribute a brief translator’s note, in which I write, “In order to understand anything from the inside — be it an inanimate object like a pencil, or the concept of time, or (most difficult of all) a fellow human being — she must imagine herself into the very core of the matter. When translating her work, I take my cue from Nemirovskaya and imagine myself into the core of each poem.” All of the lyrics in the selection are dear to me, but the last one, titled “For Boris,” is, of course, of special personal significance. That said, it’s the first in the batch that I’ll offer here as a teaser, since the sentiment it expresses is truly universal and never not timely:


Time takes center stage appearing
Rounded like the letter O
And the whole time screaming O
This makes life so very dreary
For me and everyone I know

O if only time were different
For example like a square
Life for me and everybody
Would be grand beyond compare

I’d hide in a corner and
Never make a sound again

Do visit the journal’s page for the other four poems, as well as the Russian originals. And if you, like me, simply can’t get enough of Nemirovskaya’s voice, the Spring 2020 issue of the esteemed Washington Square Review features my translation of her piercingly beautiful ars poetica, “Verse.” (I send a special thanks to David M. Smith and Sasha Burshteyn, my excellent editors at Exchanges and WSR, respectively.)

Believe it or not, we’ve yet to exhaust this week’s Russian-American treasures. On “Translation Tuesday,” Asymptote published a poignant lyrical essay by my dear friend Irina Mashinki, who shines in every genre, rendered into an English every bit as supple and inventive as the original Russian by another dear friend, Maria Bloshteyn. I’ll quote a single sentence, which magically recreates the dizzying experience of leaving home for good: “You won’t believe how quickly things will start to happen then, how nimbly the glinting sun will twist and turn to face you, like a polished coin’s head, balancing on its ribbed edge, and the next moment the sailors are already peering mistrustfully into your documents, as if they’re looking out at some finely enamelled horizon, and then the timeworn propeller winds up, and the movie projector begins to whir, and then the phantom called city M disappears in the foam of salty snow whipped up by the trolley buses.”

“The Stunted Cactus on the Windowsill”: Maria Moravskaya’s Adventures in Life and Verse

In these days of lockdowns and travel restrictions I find myself turning with sympathy and appreciation to Alexander Grin (1880-1932), whose tales of adventure in exotic locales have recently appeared in a fetching new edition from Columbia University Press’s Russian Library. In my endorsement of Fandango and Other Stories, I called Bryan Karetnyk’s translations “sparkling,” which hardly does them justice. Karen Langley (Kaggsy, for the uninitiated) characterizes the experience of reading Grin with far greater gusto in her review for Shiny New Books: “His descriptions are so good that the scene is alive in front of your eyes, and at times I rather felt as if I was about to step into Grinlandia myself! This is language to savour, with vivid imagery which is almost hallucinogenic in places, and it’s really unlike the other Russian authors I’ve read.”


Cover of Alexander Grin’s Scarlet Sails (1923)

“Grinlandia” refers to the imaginary foreign setting of much of Grin’s fiction. Coined by a Soviet critic shortly after Grin’s death, the term has stuck. In truth, the only time Grin ever left the Russian Empire was in 1897, when a cargo ship he was working on docked in Alexandria. The great Slavic scholar Barry Scherr offers a concise, eloquent account of his rather sad life — full of arrests and other hardships — in the introduction to Fandango.

I think of Grin in internal exile in the Ural Mountains or, late in life, ill and impoverished in Crimea, all the while dreaming of faraway lands… And I think of another, almost completely forgotten author, Maria Moravskaya (1890-1947 — or is it 1958?), who was prey to the same wanderlust but, unlike Grin, did set out for the larger world. First, it must be said that Moravskaya’s English-language Wikipedia entry is a masterpiece of incompetence, a mulligan stew of malapropisms and mistranslations, and I cannot imagine a more fitting container for the life it struggles to contain. Take, for instance, the list of her spouses in the sidebar:

somebody unknown in Russia (approx. 1906–1907)
Edward “Ted” M. Coughlan (approx. 1920s–1940s)
unknown Chilean postman (possible 1950s)


Like Grin, Moravskaya was of Polish origin (Grin was born Grinevsky, a Russianizaion of Hryniewski), and, like Grin, she spent some of her formative years in Odessa. Moravskaya’s father Ludwig was, by her account, a kind, dreamy man, who could never hold down a job. It was from him that she inherited her hunger for adventure. That hunger — as well as her fraught relationship with her stepmother — led Moravskaya to leave home at fifteen and throw herself headlong into literary and political activity, first in Odessa, then in St.Petersburg. Her politics landed her in jail on two occasions (a badge of honor at the time), while her poems won the admiration of literary titans like Maximilian Voloshin, Zinaida Gippius, and Nikolay Gumilev.

Up to this point, Moravskaya’s trajectory resembles that of any number of budding Silver Age poets — even her mysterious, short-lived marriage is one of the standard variations — but after the February Revolution of 1917 that trajectory takes a wild turn. She travels to Japan, then makes her way (via Latin America) to New York, where she quickly masters English and begins a new career as a writer of prose; in the States, she learns, poetry doesn’t sell.

An excellent brief essay on the site Tellers of Weird Tales picks up the story: dozens of publications in venues ranging from The Atlantic Monthly to G-Man Detective, some cowritten with her second husband, Edward M. “Ted” Coughlan; a move to Florida, where the couple establish a home-cum-publishing house called “Fiction Farm”; and — according to a 1944 article in the Miami Daily News — no end of “arts, trades, and floral and faunal activities.” As Tellers tells it:

“Diversified hobbies are nerve tonics,” she said, and Maria Coughlan was diversified. In addition to making garden furniture; growing coffee, vanilla, and aloe vera; practicing hydroponic gardening; raising ducks; and breeding lovebirds, Maria used a small hand press to print her own books of poetry, illustrated with linoleum-block prints she made herself.

According to this article — and most reliable sources — Moravskaya-Coughlan died of a brain hemorrhage on June 6, 1947, in Miami. But at least one of her old Russian acquaintances, the great translator and writer of children’s verse Korney Chukovsky, claimed to have received a letter from the poet-turned-lovebird-breeder in the late 1950s, in which she supposedly told him that fate had tossed her down to Chile, where she was living out her days as a postman’s wife.


I bet Moravskaya’s dreamy father would have preferred the Chilean ending… That, at least, is the impression I get from the touching poem his daughter dedicated to him in 1913, titled “The Prisoner.” I offer my translation below, along with one of Moravskaya’s poems for children from 1914, “The Fugitive,” about a boy in whose footsteps she herself was to follow a few years later.

The Prisoner

When off from work he’d sit at home all day
atop his tin-bound wooden trunk and pout.
This town was too familiar, he’d complain:
he knew each square, each house inside and out.

Yes, he’d go somewhere far away, and soon:
maybe he’d try the hide trade in Siberia.
Mother would listen with a knowing grin
and never lift her head from her embroidery.

While we’d cling to his knees, climb higher, higher…
So many little hands, so tight our grip!
He would fall silent, and the little fire
would die out slowly in his meerschaum pipe…

Of course we knew he’d stay. No foreign country
would ever rob us of our papa. Still,
his melancholy eyes were always watching
the stunted cactus on the windowsill.


The Fugitive

Grishka ran off to the States!
When they saw that he’d gone missing,
Mom and Grandma sure had fits!
They forgot about my dress and
all about my piano lesson…
How they searched! Oh, what a pain!
Found him waiting for a train…
Papa really gave him hell!
Grishka bit his nails and shook,
but he said nothing at all…
Though he’s clumsy and still small,
he’s a hero in my book!
And I’ll make a bookmark, too —
red silk letters stitched on blue —
that’ll give him quite a thrill:
“A hero held against his will.”


По праздникам он с утра был дома,
Садился на окованный сундук
И жаловался, как здесь всё знакомо:
И все дома, и в скверах каждый сук… 

Да, он уедет, далеко и скоро:
Он будет шкурками в Сибири торговать.
И, вышивая на канве узоры,
Насмешливо улыбалась мать. 

А мы цеплялись за его колени…
Ах, много маленьких и цепких рук!
Он умолкал, и в мундштуке из пены
Огонёк медленно тух…

И все мы знали: папа будет с нами.
Не отдадим его чужой стране.
А он разглядывал печальными глазами
Всё тот же чахлый кактус на окне.



Утром Гришка удрал в Америку.
Боже мой, как его искали!
Мама с бабушкой впали в истерику,
Мне забыли на платье снять мерку
И не звали играть на рояле…
Гришку целые сутки искали —
И нашли на Приморском вокзале.
Папа долго его ругал,
Путешествия называл ерундой…
Гриша ногти кусал и молчал, —
Гриша очень неловок и мал,
Но я знаю, что он — герой.
И в подарок бесстрашному Гришке
Вышиваю закладку для книжки,
Красным шелком по синему полю:
«Герою, попавшему в неволю».

Meetings of Minds: The Sierra Poetry Festival, the ATA Conference, and “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry”

Sierra Poetry Festival.jpg

Over the past couple of months my friends in education have been telling me about their experiences with distance learning — some good, some unfortunate. My own Zoom sessions have also been a mixed bag, but shut-ins can’t be choosers, and I remain deeply grateful for any chance to connect with my friends and colleagues.

It was only yesterday, though, that I had my first taste of a mass Zoom event: the Sierra Poetry Festival, which is now in its fourth year. What can I say? It left me hungry for more! Thanks to the efforts of its organizers — and especially its indefatigable chief, Eliza Tudor — the Festival went virtual without a hitch. I was deeply honored to take part in a discussion of California poetry with Dana Gioia, one of the state’s greatest poets and proudest sons, who was, until recently, its official laureate. Almost twenty years ago, Dana compiled California Poetry: From the Gold Rush to the Present, the first anthology of its kind and — as he himself lamented during our talk — still the only comprehensive gathering of the state’s poetic legacy, which remains woefully understudied. With that in mind, Dana urged the hundreds of poets and poetry fans in attendance to document the poetic activities of their own communities. Addressing the current global crisis, we noted that Californians have long been accustomed to precarious living — to fires and floods, to the quaking ground beneath our feet. Since few poets have captured this sensibility better than  Robinson Jeffers, Dana ended our session by reciting one of the stony inhumanist’s most striking lines: “This coast crying out for tragedy like all beautiful places…”

Directly after we closed the book on California poetry, I was shuffled into a breakout Zoom panel to lead a workshop on translating poetry. We had about an hour on our hands, which was just enough time to look closely at two poems: one by Julia Nemirovskaya, the other by Marina Tsvetaeva. The small group of attendees could not have been more attentive and generous, and could not have asked more stimulating questions! It really was as successful a workshop as any I’ve led.

Still, I do hope I get to lead a similar workshop in person next year. As I closed the screen, I thought of the great time I had in Palm Springs last year, attending the American Translators Association (ATA) conference. My talks on the language of Odessa and on mentorship were recently covered in the ATA Slavic Division’s newsletter, the SlavFile, and reading these pieces warmed my heart. Eugenia Tietz-Sokolskaya makes excellent sense of my Odessan babble, and concludes: “Boris’ presentation of his native culture was informative, witty, and engaging. An audience member behind me said at the end of the session that it was ‘the fastest that 50 minutes have ever gone by at the conference’ — that’s how engrossed we all were.” I’m kvelling! While Ryan Green eloquently summarizes my debt to my mentors:

The final “mentorship” Dralyuk mentioned was a collection of poetry done with a group of translators that included Robert Chandler. Over the course of this project, he said, they tweaked and edited each other’s work to a degree that, although every poem featured a single byline, each translation was the product of an editorial chain reaction that made it hard to pinpoint what wordings were whose! I have always found the idea of collaboration in translation fascinating, but I never imagined collaboration as an act of mentorship.

I’ll add that other poet-translator most deeply involved in this process of collaborative refinement was Irina Mashinski. The years Robert, Irina, and I spent compiling The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry were, for me, as important as any university program. And, come to think of it, most of the work was done remotely, over email — yet more proof, like the the Sierra Festival, that it’s the meeting of minds that matters most.