Friday, January 31, 1997

Sleeping with the Enemy

LOST or abandoned thoughts often re-emerged like ghosts in a country not my own. Sleepless nights even the cats deserted me because my tossing and turning like a crazed narwhal reminded them of the bilious sea. Water is not their favorite subject, unless fish are involved.

(Actress Tallulah Bankhead said, I nevah drink the watah, dahling, fish fhuck in it. By the time her story reached me, it was phiss versus fhuck. As if piss were preferable to fucking. Tell me why society wasn’t ready for that Anglo-Saxon word.

My first opera: Tallulah was in a peacock-sequined gown, brandishing a cigarette holder longer than her arm, her sotto voice carried across the marble lobby into the streets where the homeless peered in from the pages of a Dostoyevsky novel, City Hall’s verdigree breast thrust in the mouth of the hungry sky. Fresh from the hills, I was wide-eyed in amazement, but that’s another story.)

Nocturnal epistolic documents produced by an obsessive urge to write, or an unwillingness to let go. Images of wheels spinning in the muddied ruts in the backroads of the mind. Self-indulgence is fine, as long as it goes no farther than the page, but writing demands an audience, that’s the other half of the Faustian pact. The monks had it right: indulgences. 

When death came to visit, language abandoned me, I practiced stillness. Called ambivalence. After the silence that followed the deaths of my parents and uncles, and when the raven sat on my shoulder, the words themselves abandoned me and fell silent: this prose, my indulgence—not poems, but practice in the marginalia of what may become a poem if one is lucky. Josip Brodsky said time loves language. A writer is caught up by the centrifugal nature of language [where] ambivalence and open-endedness as the essence of endeavor.

My lover from the Ukraine wrote: we dissidents are called white ravens—varonas. Our letters rarely reached their destination. The KGB (or NKVD—they changed the acronym every decade or so, but not their technique, their headquarters, the Lubiyanka, cold solemn stone fortress in the krasnaya heart of Moscow); they intercepted love letters complicated by poetry between the sheets.

We wrote in triplicate, mailing a copy, sending the others via “couriers.” I received mail postmarked from the cities of the free world, and calls from homesick Russian friends of friends wanting any contact, no matter how tenuous. 

The system was good because of the many delegations of people led by William Mandel, Armand Hammer and Henry Daiken opening up the East. They allowed me to communicate with my lover—who eventually emigrated to New York and shared afternoon coffees with Brodsky—who, in turn, gave his Nobel Prize money away to émigré Russians, including Oleg Atbashian.

Strange offerings I received—antique peasant dresses, marriage proposals, coral & amber necklaces, USSR army watches and pins—the Russians sent things of value to the West to raise valuta to buy an airline ticket, or to pay for delivering packets and letters.

Once I flew back from St. Petersburg smuggling out letters, lacy silver spoons and tea cup holders, and more US currency than I arrived with: I was afraid to get caught red-handed, so to speak. A counter-counter-revolutionary of sorts, I said No when they wanted me to take an old icon. Mary’s beatific almond-eyed face with rosebud lips anointed in gold was a bridging of East and West.

I chased elusive dreams to distant countries because they were forbidden, I slept with the enemy because in school I learned of a mythical Russia, troikas in the snow. In love with horses, I couldn’t let go of the image, I didn’t know it was tied to the frozen canals of Holland —Hans Brinker’s mythical silver skates.

I lived a winter in St. Petersburg with the pop singer, (Valeriy) Valera Stupachenko of the Leningrad Rok Opera (Singing Guitars) who performed Andrei Vosnesenski's   (J)Yunona and Avos/Juno & Avos at Fort Ross. Small patches of ice-free water beneath the bridges relentlessly patrolled by ducks who knew: to let go of the open pond was to let death in.

Oleg said he was jealous of my happiness. When he saw me with Valera, suddenly it was all very real. But he wouldn't leave his wife, like the way Valera couldn't leave his God. Or throw away his dead wife's clothes. Ghosts of Lady Haversham shrines in and out of the closet. Who could compete with that?
Valeriy Stupachenko

Friends are everything in Russia; without them survival is impossible. I am haunted by fragments of memory: On the Field of Mars I stood overlooking the converted palaces, children sledding down the steps, and really, it was no different than in Amsterdam. Tzar Peter modeled St. Petersburg after a city that inhabits my writing. Czaar Peterstraat and the birth of the Russian Navy; Amsterdam, his window to the west. 

I was sentenced to spend time looking out those same windows, letting go of the myths, only to reinvent them in the poem. I perversely learned history through the back door, a traveler in search of the elusive mystery. Why do we write, and for whom?



© 1997, revised 2000 what month was this written?

Leningrad Rock Opera visits US; the Soviet research ship, the Akademic Shirshov celebrates the 250th anniversary of Bering's voyage to America,  retraces the same route from Vladivostok to San Francisco,  August 1991.

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