Sunday, January 28, 1990

USSR journal, home again

Jan 28. When I returned home, I feasted most delicately on salmon flambéed with Madeira, garlic and soy, with sautéed red bell peppers, mushrooms, and crisp baby asparagus, washed down with a new Chardonnay. I finished my meal with Russian cognac spiked with Ukrainian cherries—the ones Dr. Shpak’s wife sent me. I was the unfortunate American who was so ill with the Moscow grippe while in Cherkassy, I need shoring up to build up my fortitude. She sent me remnants of deep summer locked in a jar.

I wear an antique embroidered Ukrainian linen dress, freshly laundered, and bleached, the pre-revolutionary stains of age give it character. In this case, it means the bloody revolutionary history of 1917. Coral beads about my neck, and Russian gold hearts on chains in my ears. You can feel spring in the air. And the end of an era.

I’m watching Rumpole of the Bailey on PBS, eating chocolate-filled biscuits, I wonder how soon Oleg would adapt to this lifestyle, this veritable harvest, so easily obtained from the local supermarket where I just had a ridiculous joust with the young greengrocer, asking him when’s the last time he had a real food fight. He said, many years.

The conversation must have released some latent teenage impulse in him because the overripe avocado I handed to him, he lobbed at the poor woman who bakes the breads and cakes I eat. She takes it all in stride. This hijinks. I don’t think she’s had a good food fight in years either. We all laugh. Lob grapes. We Americans are like spoiled children. We easily find mirth in the oddest of circumstances.

In my shopping cart, the evidence of tonight’s meal. I utterly splurged, I was a decadent westerner, and bought $91 worth of food with my valuta, my hard currency—more than what I spent during an entire month in the USSR. I’m in shell shock looking at all the bounty— after a month of deprivation during the darkest time of the year, I want to eat everything. My greed is insatiable and knows no bounds.

Sunday, January 21, 1990

USSR journal, at the Hermitage

21 Jan. The dancers floating in blue air. The musicians on the opposite wall play panpipes and violins while a woman arranges fruit. Fruit trees in full blossom, pears, apples, a wicker-bottom chair. The dancers hide behind each painting. I can’t believe I’m standing in a room with all these Gauguins. A young girl with the basket on her hip, another playing the flute. Islands floating in a vermilion sea. An orange mongrel by the copra jar pricks up his ears, as if listening to the music. An axe by the man’s leg, like a bone. The trees are dancing, supple arms across the distant verdure. A man drinks from a half coconut. In the background, a woman squeezes fruit into her mouth, but she is fully clothed, lying back. Sunset in candy pink and pale chrome greens. How lovely the faces of the women by the cross. Vermilion leaves, breadfruit like large breasts. A woman eating a mango, juice runs down her chin. Lilies like strange goblets, red water lilies drifting in the pond. A child is playing in the blue canoe. One red leaf quivers in the shade, such Tahitian Pastorales. Nature is just a decoration for the painting to exist. I break my reverie, take in the incredible room. This palace. People lived here too. Outside the warped window, falling snow on the winter palace of Leningrad. It fell then, when Peter the Great stood in this room overlooking the Neva River. It’s falling now.

Saturday, January 20, 1990

USSR journal, at the Pushkin Museum

20 Jan. At the Pushkin Museum, I gaze upon Matisse’s still life with a goldfish and I burst into tears. I want to be alone with all that color and eat it from a spoon, midwinter in Moscow where everything is dirty. White and grey. A goldfish mouthing pure color. Goosebumps on my arms, the wash of green philodendron, and that wicker chair. I swoon. Nothing can prepare me for this raw gorgeousness, and the tangerine fish.

Nasturtiums and the dance, the magenta and all that blue, the shadows of dancers on the wall, dancers floating, floating world, the chair knows no other life. Rosseau’s jaguar is still attacking the horse, white blossoms a trinity of birds, and the knowledge of blood. So much for the peaceable kingdom.

I feel like I have found old friends, Matisse, Renoir, Monet. I gaze upon seagulls, a sketch of the Houses of Parliament, Rouan Cathedral. Luncheon in the Open Air.  But I love the approximations of  the titles—translation from English into Russian and back into English. Sometimes I have to guess what the title is in English. Dégas—Rehearsal of the Ballet but they spell it Rechursal. Cezanne’s colors are so bright, peaches and pears abundance. Mt. St. Vittoria. .

Picasso’s a violin and a Spanish woman from Madrid. They embrace. Matisse’s fabric, the children stare at the artist’s studio. Because it was so blue. Maybe Pablo could only afford one color plus black and white. And the wandering acrobats. Zorah on the terrace with the fish, and a pair of slippers.

Matisse’s color palette. Again. Entering into the casbah, ghost figures and all the lights of Morocco is loosened at once on the unsuspecting eye. All that blue. I imagine they will have an after hours party when we are all gone for the night.

Vincent Van Gogh View of Arles after rain. Those red vineyards at Arles, and then Lautrec. Notice details I have never noticed before. Venus is missing her left nipple. Her skin is etched, she has a headache. Why doesn’t she smile? Even her eyebrows are drooping.

Gauguin’s What, are you jealous? A breast raises to the sun. Perhaps the air is cold. On the tree, a carved heart and arrow, A whippet looks around, two bottles, on the eaves, a man leans towards two women. Yes? I begin to understand why the Russians all ran off to Paris and to the south of France—the light, the inescapable light is like a character in a novel.

USSR journal, Moscow

Jan 20. Moscow. We rise late, talking all hours, two curious creatures. Sasha Karpenko‘s apartment with its tall ceilings, white lace curtains, is a place out of time, and outside large snowflakes feathering Moscow, and all of the Russias, is equally unreal.

It’s been days since I’ve written in my journal. As usual, there is never enough time. We have a stolen week together, living like a couple, and he puts his arm around me on the metro, strong, and sure like I had imagined, so the fairytale comes through.

Oleg discusses plans with Sasha who has a performance tonight at the Ministry of Culture. Today we will go to museums. Then to Sasha’s performance. Late start it’s nearly 1 PM but we awoke at 11:30. In winter we are bears under the covers, the animal comfort of bodies touching. We are different together, alone —no Nadia hovering over us. Cherkassy seems so far away indeed.

He gets up to find a phone number, familiar footsteps. We settle down quickly to the business of living. It’s so easy, as if we’ve done it all our lives. I wonder where the lines of division will fall as they always do. Where will the small irritating instances arise? Human nature being what it is. What will make us cross with each other?

I don’t want a relationship like he has with Nadia. I don’t think it’s possible. We were never fall into the same traps. How angry he was when she started treating him like dirt again. I don’t understand the relationship at all. And neither does he. How she alternately hates him than his affectionate it doesn’t make sense.

As Oleg and Sasha talk, I can understand enough Russian to know what they’re saying. Yesterday we went to AlphaGraphics to Xerox some poems. They were Macs and LaserWriter and faxes there. I was in hog heaven. Yesterday was an electronic day. Before that, we went into the  offices of SF/MT to pick up email. We met the general director who assured us we could hook the US Robotics modem up in a couple of weeks—yeah, maybe. Nothing ever works out how you plan it in the Soviet Union.

Jana Janus gave me the phone number of a publisher in Leningrad. Tonight we catch the train to that fabled city. The only way to get things done around here is to go in person, it seems, and it always helps to have a bribe on hand. But never called it a bribe. It’s a gratis gift. Paying it forward as it were.

We wait around for hours in Sasha’s apartment. I finally threw a fit before we can escape to the Pushkin Museum. I did not come all this way to hang out in his apartment. I feel badly, throwing a fit, but because I’m being too polite, and compliant, I get myself into these jams. And then I’m fit to be tied. I hate it when other people control my time. I thought I was going to blow a gasket.

Half the day is gone, and then Sasha wants me to come to an Afghani veterans poetry performance afterwards. My day has been inefficiently planned by someone else. We did manage to get to the Pushkin Museum, and to also attend Sasha’s event. I’m glad we did because it was big deal—a massive hall filled with adulation. For poetry! Sasha is like a rock star. I had no idea.

Friday, January 12, 1990

USSR journal, setting up the modem

12 Jan. The children woke up quarreling today, it’s drizzling, I’m drenched in sweat from the night before. I stayed up late reading and woke early. My back is unstable and keeps popping was it when the chiropractor came over and threw me about like a sack of potatoes. And I feel rotten. Oleg fries eggs and kilbasa each morning for breakfast—it makes me nauseous.

When I was showing Oleg how to use the modem, Nadia came in and was hanging all over him. And he was translating everything I said to him, how it worked, etc., and I was getting furious. I was having a hard enough time showing him, remembering all the steps, and it was a distraction that I didn’t need.

She sensed my anger and left. I felt badly, and explained that when I’m giving technical information I can’t handle a three-way conversation—especially a bilingual one. He apologized kissed my hand. He’s very sick, chills, but we go downtown to make phone calls.

Finally we get through to Pan Am to change my airline tickets to the 26th. Now we have to deal with visas all over again. Verlinski won’t give me the Leningrad visa, or is just seriously stalling, saying if I were here on a personal invitation I could easily get a visa. I’m going insane from all this bureaucracy.

When we finally get through to SF/MT, the original number I had, no one answers. Oleg tries the Institute for audio information and gets the number. We get another bureaucratic run around in supreme Soviet style. I am ready to thrash someone, threatening to make trouble on both sides of the ocean. But getting sick take some of the piss and vinegar out of me.

I manage to write the modem article for Rotor. The photos I wanted to use didn’t come out. I could’ve done more, but being sick definitely cramps my style.

Thursday, January 11, 1990

USSR journal, National Writers’ Union, Cherkassy

11 Jan. We are being taped for a radio show on the importance of cultural dialect and my impressions of the Ukraine. Only two men seem interested in our poetry project, both, Jewish. Oleg complains that the average age when someone joins the Writers’ Union is about 45. Most men are in their 60s. Almost no women, so I’m an odd duck here.

Dr. Shpak introduces us. For some reason he’s adopted me. The only thing is, Oleg  knows more about the project than he does, and I am uninspired. How to handle this so that Oleg interprets without offending anyone. And Dr. Shpak seems to draw considerable respect here. I am drained, feeling off. I didn’t bring my poetry or translations with me.

12 Jan. On Thursday we went to Dr. Shpak‘s for dinner and I threw up the next morning—a combination of alcohol, and the beginnings of a cold but I didn’t know that yet. I thought I was just sore from the chiropractor/surgeon who threw me around the room like a sack of potatoes.

14 Jan. My general low energy has finally declared itself in the form of a cold. La grippe, as they call it. Dr. Shpak came over yesterday with a doctor, armed with a huge Ukrainian care package, pickled watermelon, pears, summer cherries, and raspberry jam for my tea. The local cure.

I ached so much yesterday, there was no relief, and my temperature was way below normal. Turns out Oleg’s cold is bronchitis. The doorbell is always ringing. And I’ve been too tired, too lethargic to record my dreams, but yesterday I woke up to the Andean melody I had heard so much in Cusco, and then I knew I’d come full circle.

When the doctor entered, small pieces of a dream fell into place. And we were talking about the analgesic she had left me and I wanted to know why all these people crowded around the bed, the dream was all coming true, but I was too sick to remember much more. The strange ritual of cupping—glass bubbles are heated with a candle and placed on my back—seems to help ease the congestion. Soviets take illness very seriously here. It’s a matter of life and death.

Wednesday, January 10, 1990

USSR journal, Coup in Baku?

We barter Pepsi for vodka, for lack of hard currency, we barter Marlboro cigarettes for taxis, and hotel rooms. The Soviet Union is in crisis. The newspaper is on strike. From crisis comes new solutions. Five years of political reform. Power translates from the state to the populace. When will people take responsibility? Gorbachev introduces a multiparty system. Ideas, not solutions. Political and economic change is in the air. Someone tells me that Gorbachev is another Abraham Lincoln. Another asks if he will be shot for his beliefs? Each day, so much tension, each day, a blessing. Unrest in Azerbaijan and Armenia. So many dead. A coup in Baku?

USSR journal, Lost in translation

10 January, Igor asks what about money for poetry? He says he needs more Sonoma County poems to translate. He wants a penpal. I think he thinks he’s going to strike it rich with us. Rotor magazine said it will donate a computer to Igor for this project. His self-importance needs no translation.

The club is busy with translating sci-fi stories. Famous people like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke. I tell them that I can publish their Soviet poems translated into English in Green Fuse, Poetry USA and feature their work on KPFA, in a radio review. There is no money in it for them. I tell them that we need 17 to 20 poems that will represent Cherkassy. Everybody is sitting back on their laurels. Rotor promises that it will make a Cherkassy equivalent of Poetry USA, publishing California poets in translation.

Igor’s mother hands him a jar, he fills with piss as they discuss the problems of publishing. I’m so frustrated, I want to scream, and quit the program. His loving parents remove the jar of piss, don’t know what to make of that. Try not to think of it. But it is an apt metaphor.

We drink thick marsala and coffee, eat awful Soviet chocolate and discuss poetry. Oleg calls Professor Shpak who translated Thomas McGrath into Russian, to say that we’re running late. I’ve been a crab all day, snapping at everyone. The doctor who adjusted my back, threw me across the bed as if I were a sack of potatoes. I hurt more now than I did before. We are at loggerheads with so many different systems colluding.

His mother, in a blue house dress, sits on the floor next to the Cyrillic typewriter. I think she thinks she’s his agent. How to explain to them that we poets don’t have groups, we don’t have sponsors, and bank accounts. We poets work alone, without pay. Without censorship. Someone mentions Jesse Helms. I have to convince them that this is an altruistic cultural exchange.

Earlier, Oleg and I worked on a poem. The problems of translation make themselves apparent. I understand a few words like dollar, Marina, conversation. The nuances of language I understand, please—everyone is talking all at once. Everything takes longer than expected. The autonomy of two separate groups standing on a 70-year-old cultural bridge that cannot be crossed. Window to the west, indeed.

I leave Igor’s, dissatisfied. So little was accomplished. They are too afraid to publish our poems for fear of censorship, they become their own worst enemies, censoring themselves. How the hell is perestroika supposed to work if everyone is so timid? What next? I need a publisher here as well, apparently. I’m a little annoyed—getting work published here isn’t my responsibility, it’s their’s.

We are running late for every meeting, getting nowhere fast, we are more and more off schedule. Oleg says it’s fine, we’re on Soviet time. Dr. Shpak is next. Perhaps we will do better with him. We need several pans in the fire to accomplish anything at all which only leads to more confusion.

When John Masura told me about Dr. Shpak it sounded like a good connection. Oleg made a face and suggested that Dr. Shpak was a little bit crazy. Called me a proletariat a American poet, and mentions his book. What the hell is a proletariat American poet anyway?

Maybe Dr. Shpak is crazy, but he did translate Thomas McGrath‘s Letter to an Imaginary Friend, into Ukrainian, which sold a whopping 50,000 copies. That’s not slouching, and he has been working on an anthology, Istoriya Amerikanskoy poesii XX stolitia (1912-1945).

Vetted writers like Whitman, Twain, Frost, and London are accepted in the USSR—McGrath is neither mainstream nor safe. The common denominator is love of land, I think. And Marxism. McGrath was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.Valery mentions an essay of his, A Soviet View on McGrath, published in the North Dakota Quarterly. Tells me to contact Fred Whitehead in Kansas City.

But he is also querying me on the American poets of the 1980s. I share what books I brought, an armload from City Lights, and Zeitgeist Press, including David Eggars. Mostly Beat or street poets vs. the academic, mainstream, or Iowa workshoup poets. Apparently the Beats are contraband.

Later, Oleg realized that Dr. Valery Shpak is OK. And I make a mental note that I mustn’t trust his judgment of people so implicitly. He’s not always right— even if he lives here. Old habits die hard.

(Later they will translate one of my “proletariat American” poems into Ukrainian. I have no idea if it was ever published.)

Tuesday, January 9, 1990

USSR journal, Russian New Year’s, Eve, Scrying the future

Scrying In the mirror at midnight I am waiting for the future to arrive but I don’t know when midnight is. Oleg and Nadja practice traditional witchcraft in the middle of the Ukraine. I light candles and study my face and eyes in the mirror, black as midnight, I’m dressed in Ukrainian clothing.

Midnight eases past us. I see nothing in the mirror except myself. They tell me to look deeper. I am on my own future. This comes as no surprise. Even at 37. Why did I almost write 38? I am beautiful. Age is a transitory process. We are all tunnels of wind embodied into the future.

Oleg comes in. Is he my future? With the camera he records the past – a red light. Power, slow shutter speed. And I am writing sweet nothings, red cheeked. I give him instructions on how to use the camera. It is customary to take a bath at midnight. The only thing moving is this pen. Stillness in the air. Oleg admonishes, never sit with your back to the window, like the advice aJapanese woman once gave me – never sleep with your head at the foot of the bed. Luck is related to good health.

Nadja turns on the TV, hard rock and roll, the ghostly glow of the TV, spirits imprisoned in the past, travel through galaxies. Russian TV, American TV, the plethora of languages equates the soul of space. Andromeda watches this small patch of community via the electromagnetic spectrum. But Oleg came into the room after midnight, so is he Nadja’s future instead?

I am a little drunk, but I spent the morning crying, feeling sorry for myself, and feel I deserve at least this much. We drink cognac and eat German chocolate, telling fortunes. It’s too close for comfort. Sorrow, yes that stuff that epics are made of. Who am I here, again in Russia, in the Ukraine, an Irish-American woman writing small nothings in a journal in red ink at midnight. Bell, book, and candle.

Not sure of the date, Jan 9? 11?

Monday, January 1, 1990



After dark, the plans of thieves are revealed.
Who is the redheaded man tracking me in sleep?
He says, From the back of the moon I've come
to see the unholy light in your eye. My eye?
Besides these words, what beast has escaped
to wrap me in Mobius strips of time?


When I think of life, I think of light.
The I Ching warns: at the solstice,
unexpected darkness returns.
It tells me begin anew at every ending,
to respond to his influence like ripened fruit.
Those who are meant for him come of their own accord.


Sonoma County Community Foundation Literary Fellowship winners

Sonoma County Community Foundation Literary Fellowship winners:  Barbara Foote, Mikle Tuggle, Pat Nolan, Maureen Hurley and Marianne Ware.

I was awarded two SCCF writer's fellowships in 1990 and 1992. Not too sure which one this is. I think it's 1990.

USSR journal, New Year’s Day, 1990

I promised myself I would write in my journal every day – so much has happened, it’s hard to write about life when you’re preoccupied with living it. Pigeons peck at the small curtains of snow. The woman stops to watch, children follow their teacher down the street. Snow falling in large constellations, drifts across uneven pavement, eddies and swirls. In the corrugated iron troughs of roofs, the liberation of snow is an illusion through lace curtains. Cut somewhere between the intersection of prose and poetry, I too am held captive by glass, by my own choosing. Nadja puts her head in her hands, her glasses utter a sharp staccato. I cannot even ask her what is wrong because the man we share has gone off to work. I’m going as stir crazy as she is. His hand, a silk cup thirsty beneath my nightgown. Desperation has developed tiny claws and like burs we transport it from room to room until there is nowhere left to go. Even inside this house, snow collects, migrating slowly towards death. The sugar in my coffee harbors an eventual madness, measured in small increments and hoarded like the coffee, long invisible lines are waiting at our door. Who lined up all the birds in the sky? The dead pigeon on Arbat, feet up, a dark question in the snow. People wander in clusters, shapeless bundles of darkness, mammalian consequences. My camera can only witness so much. The thirsty, dry dust will not drink again until the next fall. The snow cannot enter the heart of winter, indifferent. Snow gathers in the gutter like cottonwood down back home in spring, but I am always comparing one thing to another—even the soft cheese they eat with sugar reminds me of snow.


Another page falls from the calendar.
My ex-lover writes he named the unborn son Isaac.I fall for another man named Isaacson
and dream of a boychild with one arm missing.
During the steep night, owls shift seasons
with the moon. No secrets kept from stones.

When a student asks: do you know Dr. Whitte, the poet?

I'm stunned: a hole slowly fills in on itself.
From that spring visit to his table a half-life time ago,  
small venial stars festered in my womb.
Nearly dying, I've long since paid for my sins.
I no longer trust the sun; we've killed the earth with love.

...missing text

My dreams tell me to dig deeper into the earth 

as if my life depended upon it. I am carnelian & lapis.
Beneath the bridge I find jasper and rare shells.
Tremulous mudflats, every inch alive with invertebrates.
Though no longer in love with the idea of love
I still crave chocolate in late afternoon.

I cannot see ahead, but I remember the past.
I comb the wind with fingers of the dead.
I cannot see the past, but I remember the future.
Is there a reality, and who is to answer?
Seeking islands of refuge, we bleed back into the sea.
Tidal interstice, seasons drift, clouds hold no answers.

This time, I won't open like a flower.
This time, I will endure blossoming stones.


rev. 1992



I am sure of the inner fire burning 
always among the embers of night.
Longing for the clear water of reason,
I migrate upstream, a salmon 
under the moon of the dark sea.
I move among the fury of ideas with the ease of light.
Only I know the meaning of smoke, of asteroids,
of black origins, the honeyed death of topaz,
the first "I am" life uttered from the promordial soup.
No one can diminish me for I am more than
the archer who shoots the flame,
the fire in the head, the saggita
galloping through forests
like an eagle hurling from the east
with eyes of bitter yellow
illuminating the darkness
though the path is not marked.