A Cloud of Voices
A conversation and twenty cigarettes with Katia Kapovich
In her first English-language collection, Gogol in Rome (Salt Publishing, 2004), Katia Kapovich, wrestles with the trauma of dissident life. In her second, Cossacks and Bandits (Salt Publishing, 2008), she attempts to reinvent herself as an American, yet somehow can’t quite seem to untangle herself from her Soviet past.
Katia Kapovich sees herself as deeply flawed, and perhaps this is precisely where the strength of her poems are embedded. Miniature—at times marginalized— narratives reflect loss, trauma, heartache, but embrace a slightly watered-down version of the American dream. Like Joseph Brodsky or Nabokov, Kapovich is a late English-language poet who teases the unexpected out of her adopted tongue. And, like Chekhov, she is adept at crystallizing minute detail, human flaws, ticks and wrinkles; capable of delivering great quivering moments of flux.
This is Kapovich’s not-so-ideal world, straight from her own cloud of voices: real and imagined, shadow and light, drizzle and rain.
During your student years in the Soviet Union your literary circle was under close scrutiny by the KGB. Your father, a leading architect, was imprisoned for crimes against the state. Tell me about that period in your life and how it drew you into poetry.
I have been writing poetry since I was 7 years old, but it all started for me when I met the wonderful poet Evgenii Khorvat. In 1978, I was eighteen; he was a year younger but ages older as a poet. We were surrounded by many random people, drank a lot, wandered from house to house. There was nothing specifically dissident on our minds. We were just free from the inside and disobedient on the outside.
We read Mandelshtam and Brodsky, and Russian philosophers of the turn of century such as Berdyaev, Shestov, Frorensky, etc. The only real “anti-state” activity we were engaged in was sharing their works with our friends. That was the case until January 1980. At that time, Evgenii and I happened to be in Leningrad, where a friend asked us to help him with a “little” political action that involved disseminating an anti-Soviet manifesto in the ten major Leningrad universities. At the Academy of Arts we got arrested, but managed to escape, or so we believed. In fact, the escape turned out to be illusory—we learnt later that the authorities continued following us. Evgenii insisted that I return to Kishinev, which I did. His plan was to find a job and call me when he had sorted things out, but three days later he was arrested by the Leningrad KGB and exiled to the city of Petrazavodsk where his mother and sister lived at the time. There he stayed until his departure to the West in 1981. I visited him three times, and on the third time I was deported under KGB escort to Kishinev. I’d better stop here before my answer starts sounding like a movie review.
Recently I wrote a documentary fiction called “Three Samizdat Winters.” Originally written in Russian, it was published in the St. Petersburg magazine “Zvezda” and translated into English by Philip Nikolayev. Based on the tumultuous events of these three years, it gives a full account of the 80s lifestyle of young intellectuals from the south of the USSR.
In Soviet Moldova, in your own hometown Kishinev, the KGB finally forced you to undergo treatment in a psychiatric hospital because you wouldn’t give up writing poetry. It became the subject of your first English poem, “A Paper Plane to Nowhere,” which appears in Gogol in Rome. I understand that somehow that poem came to you in English—from nowhere. When did you actually write that poem?
Well, that’s not exactly the case. I wasn’t forced into the psychiatric hospital as the poem suggests. A poem is a poem, and not a page from an autobiography. But neither is it a blunt lie. I was there because things went really bad. Thus, during the interrogation, I was strongly “recommended” to resort to the help of medicine, and gently reminded that my father was a prisoner. In real life a path from A to B sometimes involves visiting Y and Z. Such detours can and will burden a poem.
The poem was written in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1997. Nothing in particular seems to have triggered it.
Before coming to the USA in 1992, you lived in Israel for close to 2 years. You published your first Russian collection Day and Night of the Angel there. Was that first period after leaving the USSR particularly productive for you? How was émigré life in Israel compared to where you had come from?
I spent two and a half years in Israel, but it wasn’t an émigré life—it was just life. There was no emergency in my departure because it happened on the wave of Perestroika. In the consulate, in answer to the question, “Why do you want to immigrate?” I wrote, “I want to smoke American cigarettes and to meet Joseph Brodsky.”
I had two very happy years in Israel, met poets and writers from all over the Soviet Union, and worked as editor for a Russian magazine. Then I felt that it was time to go somewhere again, and I did. I came to the States and settled down in Boston.
Richard McKane, who edited the anthology 10 Russian Poets: Surviving the Twentieth Century, notes that your Russian verse novel, The Prompter (1998), (which was under consideration for the Booker Prize) was inspired by the Polish/Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam. Tell me a little about him—I know he died in a camp in Vladivostok in 1938—and how he affected your work.
I don’t quite recognize this, but perhaps… Mandelshtam’s verse is always a sensation for me. He is unpredictable and fresh, whether you take his language or his thought, and he is more daring than any other poet I ever read.
There’s one small problem with his poems as with any great poems: they are untranslatable. Auden, when he read them, exclaimed: “I have to rely on authoritative voices to believe that he is as amazing as they say!”
How do you feel about the classification of your work as “Survivors’ Poetry?”
Aren’t we all survivors? A friend’s betrayal? A father’s death? A bad breakup with a lover? Politics, philosophy, human rights can find better spokesmen than poets. There are more appropriate genres for that. Pushkin once said: “Poetry, God, forgive me, must be a little silly. I sign under this phrase with ink, not with blood.”
You once said that a repressive totalitarian regime like Soviet Russia forces the poet to distil everything into every word spent; and that, freedom can paralyze the poetic voice, since there is little to oppose.
You point this out in your poem, “Something to Oppose,” which ends: “A classic ‘60s’ dissident, my father couldn’t/live in the West. There’s nothing to oppose there./He says the atmosphere of freedom makes him shrink.”
Two separate observations. In Russia the best poetry is very distilled for economy in contrast to fruity Soviet rhetoric.
But that’s not really what I’m talking about in “Something to Oppose.” The character (my father) feels that he cannot live without the outside pressure, rather like a fish cannot live without the pressure of the water. He doesn’t talk theory, only facts; it’s his personal opposition, not everyone’s, not even mine.
To me, the transition into the West was a blessing.
Mandelshtam himself once said: ‘Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed.
It’s said with a grain of irony, you realize it, right?
Of course, but doesn’t irony always underline the truth?
It wasn’t only poets who got that “respect.” In Stalin’s era, a peasant, a worker, a bureaucrat—anybody could have been sent to the concentration camp. And poets too, even the most loyal.
Sometimes I almost believe that it’s not the something “anti” that angers authorities but the difference in languages. A poet allows himself to ignore a dictator. What can be a bigger insult for the dictator’s dictatorial ego?
You’ve said before that you’ve felt the goal of many American poets is to find magic in everyday life, whilst Russian poets have this inclination to create poems that transcend, that compress all the magic into one moment. You’ve called it the ‘orphic’ poem. Could you elaborate on that?
American poetry strikes me as balanced with occasional sparkles and revelations about everyday magic. My explanation for this is American individualism and its “normal” texture of life. Russian poetry, in comparison, might look somewhat outwardly, manic-depressive and “orphic”—a self-coined term—meaning that it’s always “de profundis.” It’s about life and death, war and peace, crime and punishment, in other words, about the extremes with which the Russian novel was preoccupied in the nineteenth century.
You’ve mentioned that there is a strange process taking place in modern Russia after Gorbachev. How do you perceive your homeland, Moldova, and modern day Russia now? Would you ever consider moving back yourself?
You know what process is taking place there now—it’s called Putin. I understand that the history will not reverse itself to an age of absolute totalitarianism, but a state mafia is bad enough. As much as I love the country and people there, moving back is out of the question.
I haven’t been to Moldova since I left it in 1990. I miss something there, but not a lot. Actually, my occasional nostalgia is easily cured with much more frequent nightmares that I’ve had for years in which some evil force brings me back and makes me live there again. What I enjoy most is writing about it…
In your first collection in English, Gogol in Rome, (2004) you reflected much upon the past in the Soviet Union. A fundamental, and much discussed poem in this collection is “Painting a Room.”
I was surprised myself when the book turned so “Russian,” so to speak. “Painting A Room” was the poem that was supposed to draw the curtain after a few such poems.
I have found a number of recurring themes; or shall we say, thematic approaches in your poetry. One is the concept of barriers—physical, psychological or metaphorical. “The Ferry”, from Cossacks and Bandits is a real view from no-man’s land.
No, it’s just a ship poem. Almost every poet I love has at least one poem about a ship, and so I wrote mine.
The second, and perhaps most intriguing, is the sense that meaning and significance can easily be misinterpreted—almost a feeling that life can lead in a strange direction if meaning is acquired though chance or circumstance: a kind of metaphysical mistake based on coincidence (or destiny?). A good is example of this, is your poem from Gogol in Rome, “Privacy.”
You know how Nabokov said the word “privacy” is untranslatable into Russian? It’s true, we don’t have the notion. So this poem is about how we’re getting punished for not having the notion. I thought it was awfully lonely, that man not answering the phone.
In fact, many of your poems are distilled lyric narratives, character vignettes; and in keeping with the rich Russian narrative literary traditions (Chekhov, Isaac Babel) you have an acute attention to detail.
Chekhov is my favorite writer. If it’s his stories that my verse is associated with, it makes me absolutely happy. So God bless him—metaphorically speaking, since I’m an atheist.
Do you ever find the audiences of the two different nations react differently to your works?
I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. I write in two languages for a reason. There are things that I’m unable to write in Russian. For example, I can’t write free verse, somehow it doesn’t come out well.
Do you think you will always write in Russian, or as with Nabokov, do you think you might one day not be able to return to it?
Everything is more placid when I write in English. I guess it’s natural because English is the language of my adulthood. But it’s only a poem in Russian that cuts through all layers of my persona and shows me what a wonderful piece of dirt I am. I hope I will proceed till the final destination, but if I stop writing in Russian, I will probably stop writing poetry altogether.
In Cossacks and Bandits, you deal more with assimilation. In Gogol in Rome, I feel more of the exile poet. Yet within both collections there is this—I hate to say it—sense of loss, of alienation. Alexei Tsvetkov once wrote: “Brodsky’s best poetry is the voice of someone who deliberately positions himself between and above two mighty empires. When one of those empires collapsed, he was left groping.” Tsvetkov implies that a common conception—or misconception—is that Russian writers “wither from nostalgia in exile.” Do you see yourself like Brodsky, somehow always sitting on a proverbial fence?
Sense of loss, of alienation? Between these two evils lies a battlefield on which we are very much alike. The earlier we poets realize it, the better. As a poet I’m more interested in individual flaws. Mine are countless, thank God. But on the topic of alienation, some people feel alienated anywhere, some feel at home on this planet. What does our presence or absence in some motherland have to do with it? In the Soviet Union that kind of alienation spiced with disgust had no physical body. I emigrated to make it more physical. Similarly, people punch the wall when they are in pain.
Brodsky made some use of his partition with Russia: “I sit by the window. The dishes are done./ I was happy here. But I won’t be again.” Auden didn’t; being a poet of high principle, he said: “What difference does it make where I sit and read a book?” Or something like that.
How do you see your own metamorphosis between the two collections? As a poet risen from the ashes, so to speak, is it possible to move on from the Soviet past?
It just happened that in Gogol in Rome I turned back to look at something in the past, something there that I wanted to check out for a minute and couldn’t stop looking until I wrote it all down. I wasn’t nostalgic—it’s too precious for me. In general I felt great writing that stuff down, thinking about things anew.
One little problem was that I became an insomniac. It was as if I was living in both hemispheres, and when a day finished here I started the day there. Here’s a family anecdote about that period of time. My aunt felt alarmed about my condition and got me an appointment with a psychiatrist who was known for his severe methods. His name was doctor Pinsky, an American Jew in his seventies, a real soul expert. God knows what she had told him, but he put on a gloomy air when I entered the room.
“How do you feel? Your aunt talked to me about your insomniac condition. So what happened? Tell me everything, you can be open, you’re not in Russia!”
I told him that he didn’t need to worry, that I felt better than ever and just stopped by to tell him this and go home. As I said this, I saw his eyes getting round with concern. But that was the fact.
And in Cossacks and Bandits I wrote more about the here-and-now because it was what had me interested at that time. Occasionally I resorted to some moments and characters in the past but with a different goal in mind than in my first book. In Gogol in Rome I painted all the details slowly and carefully. In the second book I wanted characters to move and to talk for themselves, like they do in the theatre or in the movies. That’s why I used so much montage gluing the past to present.
For me, one of the great strengths of your poems is the subtlety of your imagery, rhythm and tone; although many of your poems are clear, poignant narratives, there is an underlying layer of symbolism which provides for a far deeper reading. Is this concerted?
Everything comes spontaneously.
I only know “the cloud,” the shape of what I’m about to say.
You’ve said before that you feel physically ill when you don’t write for a long period. Joseph Brodsky once wrote: “[Poets] fall into dependency of this process, the way others fall into dependency of drugs and alcohol.”
And on his fifteen years of poetic silence and subsequent return to writing poetry, Tsvetkov said: “It is the only way I know not to lie—provided, that is, I stay far enough away from the halls of heroes.”
Tsvetkov’s comment is very perceptive. I keep saying something similar… It’s not philosophy, but literature (not only poetry, fiction too) that provides the best language for a conversation about a modern man and modernity in general. It’s the only genre that makes room for and actually benefits from our contradictions and personal flaws.
Contradictions and personal flaws are what make us recognizable, aren’t they?
As a uniformed herd we are pretty boring, but if you pull us by the hair out of our flock and shake us, we can actually surprise. The question is: who is going to take on the task of pulling one? That’s when professional addiction comes in handy.
Tell me a little about your poetic relationships with Joseph Brodsky, Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin; and, of course, Gogol, the key protagonist in your first English collection.
I admire Brodsky’s poetry and I like his essays. I don’t care much about Akhmatova. Too much is understated in her poems. Instead of naming the thing, she hints and sighs, readdressing her readers to some important context that we supposedly know. It’s silly, we aren’t in the ballroom. I used to like several of her poems for their clarity and good prosody, but I haven’t checked them out in a long time. Maybe I wouldn’t like them now.
Of course, Pushkin is the greatest Russian poet that ever lived, and the founder of the modern Russian language. He is for Russia what Shakespeare is for the English-speaking world. Fortunately, I’m not unique in thinking that; several million Russian readers would say the same.
Gogol’s eye for oddity doesn’t have parallels. The inconsistency of his genius (when he didn’t write like a maniac he was a scared man full of the most boring retrogressive ideas) has always struck me as extreme, but yet symbolic. That’s how writers and poets think—while and when writing.
And what of English-language poets? Is there any one in particular who has inspired you?
I can say who I love in contemporary poetry: Joe Green, John Hennessy, Ben Mazer, Philip Nikolayev, Stephen Sturgeon, Jennifer Barber, Don Share, Jeet Thayil, Simon Armitage and Glynn Maxwell.
On the surface, many of your poems seem extremely personal, almost like fragments of diary entries; as a reader, one often has the feeling of going deep under your skin. “Golden Fleece,” documents your real, yet short-lived career as a sheepskin smuggler. Isn’t there sometimes a danger of being too close to one’s art? Perhaps there is also a kind of self-exorcism going on here.
I’m just trying to do my best with the debris. Like Robinson Crusoe. Compared to the others, I’m a lucky bastard.
I recall reading somewhere that you said that while writing in English as opposed to Russian, you are able to achieve a certain distance from your subject matter that allows you to expose things you mightn’t in your mother tongue. Do you decide which poem should be written in English or Russian?
Usually I know exactly in what language I want to write—in the one in which the first line comes.
Many poets maintain they write from the subconscious without any subject or theme in mind, but that the words, phrases, music or images find each other over time. Robin Robertson has equated this to shepherding ‘partners looking for a new family;’ that on those magical occasions, suddenly everything clicks and the words almost slot themselves into place. How do you perceive this process, what impulses do you think bring about the impetus for a specific poem—and in particular the ones that sing?
Isn’t it the case that when speaking about the psychology of writing we resort to metaphors… I wonder why? Is it because we don’t really know what’s going on in the brain at the actual moment of writing? And I have no need to know, better to use all one’s mental power on the writing process.
Looking back at the process, I might speculate that in my case it’s intonation/tone/tune that talks first, and words are very quiet until that certain moment when they become magnetized by the above-mentioned trinity, then nod and pronounce their little speeches.
You and your husband, the poet Philip Nikolayev, are both highly supportive of each other as artists, and in-fact even co-edit the literary journal Fulcrum together. Interestingly enough, you are both bi-lingual poets. I would imagine, in some form or other, that poetry constitutes much of your waking moments. How is it to have a fellow poet at one’s side day and night?
Philip is an amazing poet, very stimulating, very generous to others, to me. If he weren’t my friend, I wouldn’t write most of my poems. Also, I can always rely on his charm, and when he makes his appearance in some of my writing as a character, I know I’m saved.
Many poets say that have no ulterior motive in writing poetry, rather that they write because they are compelled to do so; and—secretly—that their prime concern is not their audience.
Some people can think with their heads, some cannot. We all occasionally observe these odd individuals with moving lips. They’re not all necessarily crazies. They might be normal respectable folks who simply think with their mouths. I’m one of those.
Without my translation, reality would remain as vague and unintelligible as it is to most of us. And then, before going further and putting it into a poem, I ask: would it be interesting to anybody else besides me. That’s my second serious concern.
If not poetry, which would be your next art form of choice?
Second comes fiction, which I also write.
You have a following on both in Russia and in the English-speaking world. I understand that it is a fertile time for young Russian poets. Yet, unlike yourself, few seem to have made the transition across the Atlantic. Of course, in the US, or so I’m told, translations still account for less than 3% of published literature.
I don’t care about translation. Great poetry is untranslatable, and I don’t have the recipe for making a poet globally known. I wish people had the time and means (reading poetry demands certain leisure) to read a poet that lives next door to them.
With the internet, do you feel that poetry has at chance of becoming more—global?
I revere the internet, computers, any means of communication. Statistics also show that access to computers reduces cases of suicide.
What is your feeling about the American institution of the MFA program? That kind of culture of learning the poetic craft must have seemed quite alien to you when you first arrived in the States.
A brilliant idea, hopefully it will be delegated to the brilliant people in the field. A mediocre teaching of poetry is an oxymoron.
How did you go about finding a publisher for your first collection of English-language poems? A UK-based publisher seems an unusual choice.
I’d known John Kinsella as a poet and editor of Salt magazine for quite a while, and when he asked me to send him and Chris Emery a manuscript, I just did.
How do you see the US versus British poetry scene and your own scheme in it?
Both countries have amazing poets that I love. The British publishers’ attitude to the new, diverse, and risky better fits my temperament as an editor and publisher. Seems to me, the Americans are too careful. Of course my judgments are based on my narrow experience. But still, why would I, an American poet, get so much attention there and not in my own country?
When might we expect to see your next collection in English?
When we are young, it’s our passions that take command of us; we follow them fearlessly and sometimes win, because passions know shortcuts. That’s been good enough for many years. Now it’s experience and lots of thinking that I want to guide me and guard me. No more haste. In poetry hastiness is inappropriate. A lyrical poem is a small thing that can travel a long way. I slow myself down; I measure and weigh it in the palm again and again. Here’s my only chance, I tell myself. I have one arrow, so it better be perfect.
Are there any emerging poets you feel we should be on the look out for?
Keep an eye on Stephen Sturgeon.
I used to undertake those strange journeys
with an empty bag and a pocketful of cash,
leaving home early as the Kishinev chimneys
were coughing up their first smoke into the winter air.
The bus went from village to village across fields.
Peasant passengers slept with their heads on their bags,
waking up from time to time for a gulp of water from a bottle
or to nurse a crying baby to sleep.
I, a smuggler with a Nabokov in my hands,
was going to buy sheepskins by the Bulgarian border
and carry them back to Kishinev, where a few friends
sewed ladies coats from them for the black market.
Two years after graduating from college,
where I had studied language and literature, I couldn’t
land any other job. This one was seasonal
and paid very little, but enough to permit me to live alone.
I liked my secret trips to the south of the land:
it was less settled, the hilly steppe more empty.
After six hours of bus time my feet felt heavy
as I walked toward a row of whitewashed huts.
I would find the right door and knock. They’d let me in,
treat me to wine and cheese and fill my bag
with tough-smelling golden sheepskins. We gossiped
about life in the capital, local life and life in general.
They knew my father was a dissident and in prison
and gave me a good discount out of respect.
They were well-to-do, but I appreciated
their compassion. They hated the Soviets too.
Once a policeman stopped me at a bus stop,
opened my bag and extracted the skins,
but the strangers around us began to shout
that I was one of them, from their village.
An old Moldovan man swore I was his niece
and those skins were not for sale. The policeman
didn’t believe him, but stepped out of my path,
letting me get away with my golden fleece.
A Paper Plane to Nowhere
There was one autumn vulnerable light
locked in the transparent and fragile objects
of a mental hospital within my sight.
I took my medicine without progress,
which made me meditative but not bright.
Each day I woke at seven, ate bland food,
drank weak cold tea and walked under the escort
of a physician in an unfriendly mood
to a remote section. Here my imprisonment
became almost inanimate, absurd.
Among some loonies in the corridor
I’d wait in a silent line for the door
to open wide and let me in again.
The male nurse called with a phonetic flaw:
the stress fell either after or before,
but not in the golden mean of my strange name.
I was eighteen, morose, a little blind,
bereft of glasses after that fistfight
with a policeman. Thus I was arrested
and woke up on a rough asylum bed.
Evil regimes must kill, but understand
who has an Achilles’ heel, who an Achilles’ head.
Slow as a turtle after taking pills,
I walked to the “art therapy” ward, where patients
made paper boxes or “developed new skills,”
e.g. cleaning rusty irons, knitting mittens
and socks for patient nurses and impatient docs.
But I would always doze or, playing hooky,
read a forbidden book under the desk
with nurses in the background watching hockey.
Then one good day they brought a bunch of kids,
who limped, and drooled, and smiled with their wry mouths.
They looked at us from behind heavy eyelids
and couldn’t do a thing. After two hours
they were all taken back. Some fellows said:
“Those kids looked really, really sad.”
Another day they came again and stared
at us, the other patients. No one cared.
They were mumbling a dark stifled cry,
sometimes they touched the paper, gave a shy
and happy sound of comprehension. Weird!
They had no difference, but their clothes did.
There were skirts and pants. A female child
came close and bestowed on me a glance
of admiration in her greenish eyes.
I looked in them and saw an abyss of sadness,
the asylum of our mutual madness.
I looked into her eyes and saw my face
and yellow spots of Russian swamps in April,
a chain of golden lights, a lace of days,
while she stood still, a little ugly angel.
I made a box out of gray paper. That
was all that I could give instead
of wisdom to myself and to that orphan.
But she seemed happy with my paper coffin.
Her name was Carmen. Colorless and sloppy,
her flesh was older than her mind.
To stare at nothing seemed to be her hobby,
as well as mine.
That autumn, just to meet her expectations,
I learned to make all kinds of paper things:
planes, boxes, trains and even railway stations,
and white, white ships, and cranes with widespread wings…
They flew and swam across the dirty table,
across the lakes of glue, and seas of paint
toward the window with its yellow maple,
whose autumn brushes always were so wet.
That eighteenth autumn, all those ugly ducklings
taught me to laugh at the slapstick universe.
Forgiveness and forgetfulness, my darling,
oh my Carmen! My life is also scarce
and made of paper.
In the evening, nurses
would take them back to the orphanage and I
would walk across the park which mumbled verses
in the blind alleys for a lullaby.
Something to Oppose
As the third generation of dandelions is turning gray,
I’ll visit Moscow, where my father and his friends
still prod kitchen walls with their shoulders,
drink cheap wine, chat politics, grow older
than their own fathers. The great wars are over;
death does not draft us into the defense of death.
A domestic paradise of ancient photos,
on several of which
I’m one of those sunny spots without features
in Eastern Europe’s twilight.
The ceilings are so low they make you stoop
in this early-’60s-built “Khrushchev home” type of
block of flats. On the kitchen table
I find my father’s “victim of repressions”
special privileges card. Fully exonerated.
“So what privileges does it grant you?
Can you get a visa and visit me in the States?”—
“No, but I can ride the subway all day for free,
if I ever get that bored.” Of Putin he says,
“Shitty government but its very shittiness
contributes to the development of political culture,
because at least there is something to oppose.”
A classic ’60s dissident, my father couldn’t
live in the West. There’s nothing to oppose there.
He says the atmosphere of freedom makes him shrink.
Yellow bamboo shoots stand in a pool of water
like sharpened pencils, ready for winter.
An electric mower leans black against the wall
on a bed of mud.
“No trespassing!” sounds like an invitation
to share a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade
with the spirits of this deserted space.
The old Victorian house wears black curtains
mourning the deceased owner. We open the gate
held together by a rusty bar, and in the driveway
stumble on a heap of old Sunday Times
wrapped in blue plastic.
Death animates the most inanimate objects.
“No trespassing” sounds like “Be my guest!”
We can finally see everything
that was invisible through the dense fence:
a rain-battered rose on a battlefield of weeds
points out toward a star.
The silence seems unbearable,
but as we sit down on the high porch
a telephone rings inside the house
and the answering machine picks up
in an old man’s voice.
Painting a Room
For Irina Kendall
Here on a March day in ’89
I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime.
Drop cloths and old newspapers hide
the hardwood floors. All my furniture has been sold,
or given away to bohemian friends.
There is nothing to eat but bread and wine.
An immigration visa in my pocket, I paint
the small apartment where I’ve lived for ten years.
Taking a break around 4 p.m.,
I sit on the last chair in the empty kitchen,
smoke a cigarette and wipe my tears
with the sleeve of my old pullover.
I am free from regrets but not from pain.
Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs,
of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line.
I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine
into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs
in my right palm when I pick up the brush again.
For ten years the window’s turquoise square
has held my eyes in its simple frame.
Now, face to face with the darkening sky,
what more can I say to the glass but thanks
for being transparent, seamless, wide
and stretching perspective across the size
of the visible.
Then I wash the brushes and turn off the light.
This is my last night before moving abroad.
I lie down on the floor, a rolled-up coat
under my head. This is the last night.
Freedom smells of a freshly painted room,
of wooden floors swept with a willow broom.
and of stale raisin bread.
My CV would be incomplete without mention
of this Russian kid with Down’s syndrome
whom I taught English. Having come to the States
just recently, I had placed an ad in the Russian bulletin,
and there he was. He arrived with his mother,
who also had a speech impediment and frog eyes.
They were both very sweet, brought me a box of chocolates,
which they themselves finished together in no time
while slurping tea Russian style from their saucers.
Back in Rostov the kid had attended till age 17
a school for mentally retarded adolescents.
He had zero English, and his Russian
was not without problems either. Never mind
syntax, spelling, and punctuation, he wrote
in a telegraphic style. Now he set about learning English:
The sky is blue. The grass is green. The paper is white.
Sometimes he would go into a kind of trance
and stare at pigeons fornicating on a roof
with long voluptuous cooing. Then his face would become
almost handsome, his white puffy cheeks gained a bit of pink,
and by the dreamlike glint in his colorless eyes without eyelashes
I knew that he thought of love. He was eighteen after all
and all chivalry, even with perpetual chocolate on his lips.
I felt bad that our studies never advanced much beyond
those simplistic statements. Blessed, on the other hand,
with a perfect ear, he learned to pronounce them
without a trace of Russian accent, much better that I ever could.
The next thing I knew, he was dating an American girl.
“Anton, my goodness, how did that happen?”
He looked at me seriously. “I told her, ‘Look! The sky is blue!
The grass is green! The paper is white! What is your name?’”
I’m jotting down these lines,
having borrowed a pen from a waitress
in this roadside restaurant. Three rusty pines
prod up the sky in the windows.
My soup gets cold, which implies
I’ll eat it cold. Soon I too
will leave a tip on the table, merge
into the beehive of travelers
and board one of the ferries,
where there’s always a line to the loo
and no one knows where the captain is.
Slightly seasick, I keep on writing
of the wind-rose and lobster traps,
seagulls, if any—and there always are.
Check the air and you’ll see them
above straw hats and caps.
The sun at noon glides like a monstrous star–
fish through clouds. Others drink iced tea,
training binoculars on a tugboat.
When I finish this letter, I’ll take a gulp
from the flask you gave me for the road
in days when I was too young to care about
those on the pier who waved goodbye.
I miss them now: cousins in linen dresses,
my mother, you, boys in light summer shirts.
Life is too long. The compass needle dances.
Everything passes by. The ferry passes
by ragged yellow shores.
Katia Kapovich is a bilingual poet writing in English and Russian. She is the author of five collections of Russian verse and two books of poetry in English. Her first, Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004), was shortlisted for the Jerwood Alderburgh Prize 2005 in England. Her English poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Independent, Harvard Review, and Ploughshares. She received the 2001 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the US Library of Congress.
Marc Vincenz is of Swiss-British descent, was born in Hong Kong, and worked in China for many years. Recently based out of Iceland, he writes a featured column for The Reykjavik Grapevine, Iceland’s English language newspaper and for Australia’s Trespass Magazine. His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in various journals, including: Poetry Salzburg Review, nth position, the nervous breakdown, MiPo: Poets & Artists, FRiGG, Prick of the Spindle, Ducts, and Danse Macabre. He is currently putting the finishing touches on two collections of poetry, and a spoken-word CD.
“Golden Fleece,” “A Paper Plane to Nowhere,” “Something to Oppose,” “Privacy,” and “Painting a Room” all received book publication in Gogol in Rome (Salt, 2004). “Tutor” and “The Ferry” received book publication in Cossacks and Bandits (Salt, 2008). Copyright 2004, 2008 Katia Kapovich.