Jennifer Croft Makes News

Photograph by Magdalena Wosinska

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned, as they say in the news biz!

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

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

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

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


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

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

Victor Mall: A Suprematist in Southern California

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

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

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

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

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

Homage to Malevich

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

August 8, 1986

* * *

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

July 5, 1987


Дань Малевичу

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

8 августа 1986

* * *

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

5 июля 1987

“One Against All, All Against One”: Alexander Voloshin, Rolfe Humphries, and the Quarrels of Émigrés

Reading Alexander Voloshin’s On the Tracks brings me the pleasure of recognition tinged with a sad frisson. Some things in the émigré experience never change… I admire his ability to coat his exilic disappointments in sweet humor, which doesn’t drain them of their essential bitterness, just makes them easier to stomach. In the passage below, written in the early 1930s, he bemoans the fractiousness of the diasporic community (a refrain in émigré writing), enumerating the strange political allegiances of certain desperate Hollywood Russians. Any movement that held out the faintest promise of return — the “legitimists” who backed Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the Italian fascists, even the Nazis — was good enough for some.

In Balta, Petersburg, and Tomsk,
Odessa, Vologda, and Omsk,
on Lake Baikal, the Dnieper River,
our countrymen huddled together —
then, from each corner of Great Russia,
our vast and varied band came rushing…
Somehow it seems that every road
led to provincial Hollywood!

Now that some fourteen years have passed,
what do we see?… Firm proof, alas,
that, though the days of war are gone,
we Russians still can’t get along!
Son versus father and grandfather —
they all devour one another!
It’s true that man is wolf to man,
but this is getting out of hand…

Anarchists feud with democrats
amid loud nationalist spats…
Some think Grand Duke Kirill’s our future…
Others (go figure!) like Il Duce…
Enthralled by wild Nazi orations,
some yearn for wars and occupations…
A few are willing to appease
the power-hungry Japanese!…
[…] Russians forget, in Hollywood,
of friendship, love, and brotherhood.

These verses reminded me of a more solemn, existential treatment of the same theme by the American poet and translator Rolfe Humphries (1894-1969), who was himself a committed leftist. Published towards the end of the global catastrophe that the Nazis had unleashed, the poem describes the life of political exiles but expands its focus to take in the whole of the human condition.

The Exiles

Lie in the darkened room and hear
The voices in the street at night
Beyond the open window, talk
In a foreign language, and a strange
Foreign cadence in the walk.

Or look at half a dozen coins
Counting them carefully and slow
To pay for magazines or meals;
This does not seem like money, though,
Nor feel the way real money feels.

Nor is it any longer true
They change the sky, but not the mind,
Who run across the sea, and live
Expatriated, fugitive,
Leaving their land behind.

For the mind changes more than sky,
Becomes infected, covets grief,
Craves, but rejects, the newer loam,
Still clinging to the old belief
Of some day going home.

The resolute, who used to form
Firm ranks against the old regime,
Move in a nightmare kind of dream
Where every comrade is a spy,
Each new report another lie.

And those most sensitive and tall,
By that same virtue, dwindle more;
Having a longer way to fall,
Become much worse than men who were
Below their worth before.

The nerves are bad, and tempers flare
In petty quarrels, mean intrigue:
Jealousy and suspicion leer,
Organization is undone,
One against all, all against one.

Talent becomes a show-off ape,
Honesty sickens, having had
No offer to betray the cause:
Why not? Corruption feeds the poor —
If poor enough, all men turn bad.

Demoralized by shattering fears,
Braced against pressure night and day,
The last collapse surprises most;
Disintegration makes the ghost
Even from himself an émigré.

This is what happens, not alone
To men from Germany and Spain
And other lands remoter far, —
We have this sickness, wish in vain
We were not exiles. But we are.

1944


Из Вологды, Одессы, Томска,
Из Балты, Петербурга, Омска,
С Байкала и с Днепра-реки –
Сюда сбежались «земляки»…
Со всех сторон Руси Великой
Собрался табор многоликий, –
Как видно – все пути ведут
В «Уездный Город Холливуд»!

Годков четырнадцать промчалось…
И что-ж в итоге?… Оказалось,
Что даже после стольких лет, –
Средь русских – дружбы нет, как нет!…
Отцы и дети, внуки, деды –
Все оказались «людоеды», –
Волками злобными глядят,
Друг дружку поедом едят…

Тот – «демократ»… Те – «анархисты»…
Те – «нео-националисты»…
Тем люб Великий Князь Кирилл…
Тем – почему-то – «Дуче» мил!…
Те – признают одних лишь «наци»
И жаждут войн и оккупаций…
А есть такие чудаки,
Что ждут «японские штыки»!…
[…] В Холливуде
Российские забыли люди
О «дружбе, братстве и любви».

“There’s No Free Lunch in Hollywood”: Alexander Voloshin and the Plight of Russian Extras

Back by popular demand is Alexander Voloshin! Today’s excerpt from his mock epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, introduces us to the crowds of émigrés who sought, if not stardom, then at least a little pocket money on the sets of Paramount, Universal, and other studios around town. Among them was Voloshin himself, and the tale he has to tell is a cautionary one. Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of the opening scenes of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which Emil Jannings appears as an exiled White General on his uppers, scraping together a living as an extra in films.

Jannings’s character is based loosely on a real Hollywood émigré, Theodore Lodijensky (1876-1947), who appeared in films under the name Theodore Lodi. You can learn more about Lodi — as well as his Russian Eagle café — in an old essay of mine. But you’ll get a good sense of the texture of his days from the lines below.

Just about half the émigrés
are in the movies, where they “play”
jigits and knights, both noblemen
and jolly serfs who work the land,
soldiers and officers and sailors,
both men of means and simple tailors,
both courtly ladies and their maids…
Early each morning, at the gates
of studios, “our crowd” amasses —
mothers and fathers, lads and lasses —
a proper family affair…

Friends, I won’t lie: you’ll find me there —
not very often, no, but still…
Why be ashamed? What’s the big deal?
I earn a little “pocket money,”
which keeps my disposition sunny…

Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies…
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more…
You’ll have to “sweeten” every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait… and wait… and wait…
The sad thing is, they’ll never get it,
poor fools — they might as well forget it…

Reader, it’s time you understood:
there’s no free lunch in Hollywood!…


Ну а примерно половина
Колонии – «играет» в кино:
Джигитов, рыцарей, дворян,
Весёлых русских поселян,
Солдат, матросов, офицеров,
Галантных, светских кавалеров,
Торговок, баб, придворных дам…
И ежедневно, по утрам,
У студий можно видеть «наших», –
Тут и мамаши и папаши,
И дети – словом – вся семья…
Бываю там, друзья, и я.

Не очень часто, но – бываю …
А впрочем – я не унываю:
Хватает «мелочи» прожить,
Так значит – нечего тужить!…

Из русских «выплыло» немного, –
Весьма тернистая дорога
Ведёт на «звёздные пути»…
Необходимо «пул» найти,
Просить, канючить, унижаться,
За хвостик чей-нибудь держаться,
Пороги студий обивать,
Подарки к праздникам давать…
«Борзых щенков» здесь очень любят,
Без них – безжалостно погубят,
И если кто не хочет «дать»,
Так будет «ждать»… и «ждать»… и «ждать»…
И драма в том, что – не дождётся, –
Напрасно мучится и бьётся…

Да… Не легко, читатель, тут, –
Жестокий город Холливуд!…

“With the Help of Hunger”: Alexander Voloshin’s Mock Epic of Russian Hollywood

My quest to round up the hidden literary treasures of Russian LA has turned up something like a Holy Grail — or rather, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is an honest-to-goodness mock epic of the First Wave of immigration in fifteen chapters (not counting the prologue and epilogue), more than half of which is dedicated to the life of the Russian colony in Hollywood. Handsomely printed in San Francisco in 1953, the poem’s title is On the Tracks and at Crossroads, and its author is Alexander Alexandrovich Voloshin (1886-1960).

Born in Ananiv, Ukraine, about two hours north of Odessa, Voloshin was drawn to the theatre at an early age and, apparently, enjoyed a successful career as an actor before the start of the First World War. After the Revolution he became an officer in the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, took part in the infamous retreat known as the “Ice March,” and eventually sailed from Crimea with other White émigrés. The first stop was Gallipoli, but soon Voloshin found his way to Berlin, where he took to the stage once more and also edited an anthology of Russian poetry titled Evenings Beneath the Green Lamp (1922).

By 1926, Voloshin was in Hollywood, working as a waiter and an extra in films. Some of his roles, mostly uncredited, can be found on IMDB, under the name “Alex Woloshin.” They include those of “Assistant Bartender” in 1939’s Destry Rides Again, of “Janitor” in 1929’s The Case of Lena Smith (now lost), of “Hotel Clerk” in 1928’s His Private Life, and, most appropriately, of “Russian General in Jail” in 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You. His screen career clearly didn’t come to much — but it did feed into his genuinely funny and touching poem, in which the daily travails of Russian immigrants are depicted down to the last humiliation. I’ll surely end up translating a number of passages from On the Tracks, but I’ll begin with this one, which sets the scene as effectively as any Hollywood script.

Things weren’t looking good at first,
but — with the help of hunger, thirst —
the Russians soon found new professions.
Look here: a seasoned barrister
no longer bothers with confessions —
instead he copies out film scores
for studios… One officer
is now a butler and chauffeur…
Sure, there were many lamentations,
but also countless transformations:
with enviable sleight of hand,
our science lecturers began
to “beautify” the local ladies…
Their past anxiety now fading,
without a worry or a care
our “aunties” skillfully prepare
embroidered silk, satin, and tulle;
meanwhile, a Major General
repairs your footwear “while you wait”…
Forgetting brilliant parades,
our brave Brigade Commanders mow
your lawn, make sure your roses grow.
A lauded senior engineer
is a mechanic (shifting gears)…
An actor of the Russian theatre
has opened a café… serves beer or
Żubrówka, cutlets or grilled beef…
No stage for him, and no relief:
all day he stands behind the bar —
but these hot goods can get you far…
He slings his cocktails to the throngs
of patrons, even sings old songs
with a guitar for company.
The actor’s happy as can be!
He needs no fame now that he’s found
respect — and has a bank account.


Сначала всем здесь было жутко.
Но – под влиянием желудка, –
Профессий новых вырос ряд:
Вот старый русский адвокат
Забыл судебные заботы
И переписывает ноты
Для кино-студий… Офицер –
Теперь он «ботлер» и щоффер…
Не скрою – были дни мучений, –
Зато – десятки превращений:
С завидной ловкостию рук,
Доцент каких-то там наук, –
На женщин «красоту наводит»…
Тревоги – в прошлое уходят
И – о былом забыв тоску –
Крестом и гладью на шелку, –
Успешно вышивают «тёти»…
Там – чинит вам – «пока вы ждёте» –
Ботинки Генерал-Майор…
Стрижет траву и чистит двор,
Забыв блестящие парады, –
Садовник – Командир Бригады,
А инженер – лет двадцать стаж –
Пошел механиком в гараж…
Актёр Российской Оперетты –
Открыл кафе… Шашлык, котлеты,
Зубровка, пиво и вино…
Пусть вместо сцены суждено
Ему торчать весь день за «баром», –
Торгует ходким он товаром,
Коктейли бойко продает,
По вечерам – гостям поет…
Звенят гитары переливы,
И у актёра вид счастливый, –
Что в славе – если есть почёт,
Клиенты и текущий счёт!…

A Russian Émigré Channels Dorothy Parker: On Zinaida Kovalevsky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Eduard Limonov and Natalya Medvedeva in LA
Photograph by Alexander Polovets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

spring 81 L.A.


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

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

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

весна 81 Л.А.

Maps to the Stars: An Ephemeral History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Actor?”

“No. Writer.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All My Life I Kept on Spinning”: Igor Avtamonov and Edwin Arlington Robinson

I’ve posted many lyric poems by Russian Angelenos on this blog, but some of my fellow SoCal émigrés, like the Sevastopol-born Igor Avtamonov (also spelled Awtamonow, 1913-1995), also wrote book-length epics. At the end of the Russian Civil War, Avtamonov’s father, a captain in the Black Sea fleet, managed to evacuate his family to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then one of the largest centers of Russian emigration. In Yugoslavia the young Avtamonov discovered a passion for aviation, joining a Russian aeroclub, flying gliders, and eventually training as an aircraft designer and engineer. After emigrating to the United States with his wife in 1947, he found work in Los Angeles at North American Aviation (later Rockwell International), where he helped develop the electromechanical control systems of the F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter, the F-107 fighter-bomber, the Х-15 rocket plane, and the Space Shuttle orbiter.

This most impressive career in engineering went hand in hand with Avtamonov’s efforts on behalf of the Russian community. He occupied prominent positions in various émigré organizations and was also a sought-after lecturer on Russian culture and history — subjects that inspired his two long poems of the 1970s and ‘80s, Rogneda (Ragnheiðr) and Vladimir Monomakh and Gytha Garoldovna (Gytha of Wessex). Both poems, now available online, were published as attractively illustrated standalone books. On me, at least, they make a sad impression; the electromechanical engineer’s long lonely labor over these lines of antiquated verse, all in hopes of kindling patriotic feelings among the children and grandchildren of exiles, could only be called quixotic. The whole thing smacks somewhat of Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Miniver Cheevy,” that modern “child of scorn” who “missed the mediæval grace / Of iron clothing.”

And I can’t help but think that despite his great American success and his constant activity, Avtamonov occasionally gave in to the sense of futility that trails the exile like a hungry stray. My evidence? The ironic lyric below, which seems so unlike the work of a poet steeped in medieval lore. Then again, E. A. Robinson himself was the author Merlin and Tristram. The last line of my translation was influenced by a refrain from another of Robinson’s poems, “Mr. Flood’s Party,” which is dearer to me even than “Cheevy,” “Richard Cory,” and all his other anthology pieces.

A little ball hits the roulette wheel
and rattles, as if cutting ice.
Circling its motley prison, it will
bring someone some small happiness…

While all my life I kept on spinning
and happiness played hard to get…
Days pass away… My hair is thinning…
Well, then — perhaps I’ll place a bet?..


Пустили шарик по рулетке, —
Шуршит, как будто режет лёд,
Бежит, бежит в цветистой клетке,
Кому-то счастье принесёт…

А я кручусь всю жизнь, всё время,
И счастье всё хочу догнать…
Уходят дни… Лысеет темя…
В рулетку, что ли, поиграть?..

Four LA Poems in THE GEORGIA REVIEW

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.

            1961


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.

            1961