Thursday, August 20, 1992


(Or why I didn't go to Russia to marry the singer)
                                    —from paintings by Kandinsky

The birds sing a blue tic-tac-toe with the moon
and ideals carve themselves into oars
to row us across the crest of the 20th century.
Myth and language are buried
in the algebraic equation of the sun,
and the artist's palette. Private symbols explode,
sawhetting across the industrial calligraphy of the sky.
Einstein was right: gravity bends light.
All this deliberation on the natural state
and the shadow of our eventual death
feeds my guilt; I am trapped into accepting
the evolution of air, the shifting of time,
grace notes on the telephone wires,
the piano's thoughts colliding with dust motes—

The hunger of a dream waking
a contextual tableau we punctuated
with molecular definitions
and artificial boundaries
between nations, peoples, lovers.
But I tire of explaining how the open-
armed lover on the Street of Painters  waits with shackles.
When the storyline gets tangled in barbed wire,
the politic wind merely teases it into shape;
it knows no boundaries, no border guards maintaining order
by calling it love, or sings arias til death do us part.
xox       is how the game is played out       
xxo            with illiterate kisses and hugs on ransom notes
xy                    so that chromosomes may evenly divide.

Blue segment, white center:
a flock of birds painted on the channel wall,
suspended flight across the water.
In the muddied clarity between shoreline
and hidden river, distant ships trick the eye
into believing they navigate the land too
their masts, thin reeds in the autumn wind.
Sinking its teeth upon a reflection
of the moon, how easily the swamp
is placated by its own origin,
its own death.

Schiphol, Amsterdam

Tuesday, August 4, 1992

Budapest Nights

Sultry Búdapest nights: as clichéd as it might sound, during the dog days of summer, 1992, I walked along a parapet of the fish market at sunset listening to the distant wild strains of someone playing gypsy violins.

I'd walked several miles from the Pest (Pesht) side of town all the way up to the top of the ancient walled hillfort of old Búda (Obúda). But as perverse luck would have it, my friend, theater critic, Ken Bullock, was with his Hungarian girlfriend on the Pest side of the river leaving me stranded.

It seems we were always on opposite shores of the Danube most of that summer. I wasn't picking up any survival Magyar, my German was non-existent and so I was pretty lonely. Búda and Pest are two separate cities conjoined by modern bridges. But this whole trip was filled with turned tables, burnt bridges, and switched alliances.

During most of August of 1992, I lived across from the Houses of Parliament on the Pest side of the river, while Ken was staying in a pied–à–terre near Boulevard Bartok in Búda proper. I loved looking at the Houses of Parliament, modeled after Westminister. The spires and steeples were constantly changing moods, it was like living within a Turner painting at sunset with the glassy Danube changing its négligé.

Calling Ken's cramped quarters a pied–à–terre was generous, Ken had a closet-sized flat, nothing more than a bookshelf and a murphy bed in a room so small you had to step into the hall just to change your mind. Let alone, your shoes. This was a country still suffering from the throes of communism. No amenities, no phones. And we were both living on frayed shoestring budgets.

My free housing arrangements in Búdapest had fallen through at the last minute and I was afraid of spending too much money before I got to Russia as I was planning on spending six months to a year in Leningrad and dollars were the only stable currency. So what was supposed to be cash for my meager food budget went into renting a dark little hovel of a room on the other side of the river. Walking to Ken's instead of taking the tram meant I had some spare coins for morning caffè latte. My only indulgence.

Búdapest is the city of romance, and I was there all alone, thinking—trying to imagine myself as the wife of a devoutly religious Russian man, living in Russia, leaving my homeland, my family and friends—perhaps forever—and I just couldn't get the pictures and reality to merge.

These were not exactly the thoughts of a woman ready to meet her lover after an absence of seven months. I was in limbo, feeling quite lost. But I'd been in limbo since my former boyfriend John Oliver Simon and I had split up—though the parting distance between us was longer than the length of the relationship.

But my friend Celia Woloch knew of such things because, as she said before I left home, "we are not swans" mating for life—though I swam in the Duna, the Donau, the Danube with the other wild birds.

The afternoons were ours—we often met at Santo's Espresso café on the utca across from my room. Ken is my polar twin; unable to commit to his girlfriend, we endlessly fulminated over the myriad problems between cultures in regards to marriage.

Ken said the idea of Hungary and America merging was not such a stretch of the imagination—his girlfriend spoke English, and is in the same business as Ken (the theater), and she has lived in California. Yet he was extremely cautious.

Obscure guardian angel—Ken said he wanted me to see an Eastern Block country that was full of joy and prosperous—not like the Slavic dolorosa I knew so well. And my folly seemed to be an extreme form of madness under the clarity of these extraordinary Budapest skies.

My plan was to Eurail from Hungary to Helsinki (changing trains in Amsterdam, visit college classmate Vinz van Neerven a week) and then from Helsinki, I would take the St. Petersburg train into Russia, and return to Amsterdam via Moscow to catch my flight home some six months later.

I was really in a quandary over what to do about Valera.

In my suitcases—I had myriad letters and gifts from Russians living in America, I had tele-communications devices and tele-connector wires, Mac programs, even an Apple printer to trade/barter with Valentine Yemelin for an airline ticket for Valera (Valeriy) Stupachenko to come to the States… But he had no desire to live in America. His world was the Leningrad Rok Opera and serving as a deacon in a church.

It all came down to valuta. Valuta. (Hard currency). Because I had so much luggage with me, I mailed three boxes of books and two boxes of luggage and cigarettes to Valera in St. Petersburg from Búdapest. Books, cigarettes and western clothing—especially jeans—were invaluable barter currency in the former USSR. Worth a small fortune. No guarantee it would ever arrive in Russia but I was tired of lugging it around.

Ken had left a day earlier for Vienna to visit another friend, I was learning to navigate quite nicely in Búdapest on my own—even without a language. So I was really on my own to navigate the trials of travel.

Right before the end of my Búdapest stay, I visited László Tabóri and Irén Kiss's home in Búda to co-translate poetry into English for a poetry periodical I edited with Herman Berlandt, Mother Earth News.

After my first visit to the Ukraine in 1989, I came back with so much translated Russian poetry, Herman and I had concocted the idea of doing a contemporary poetry anthology in newspaper format that covered the seven continents. (See Soviet Poetry Since Glasnost.)

László, a poet and playwright and his wife Irén, a poet teaching at the university, agreed to be the Hungarian editors for the Eastern Bloc issue of Mother Earth News.

We discovered that even when English-speaking poets translated poems into English, poems needed a second translation into poetic English. Metaphor doesn't travel well. That's where I came in. I had a real knack for wrestling their broken English into poetry.

Whenever possible, I worked directly with the poets and a translator together as well. So I found myself in otherwise improbable triadic situations all for the sake of poetry. Like at the Széchenyi baths or the Houses of Parliamant.

László and Irén had a big going-away party for me with all the intelligensci and literati of Búdapest in tow. A Rumanian woman playwright was trying to converse with me over a glass of Bull's Blood to no avail. Kiss Anna vagyok. So we slid through what languages we knew and out of the six languages we attempted, we found the only tongue we had in common was—Russian. I found myself apologizing to her in the language of the oppressor!

The famous Hungarian poet Anna Kiss had overheard me speaking in Russian and with that liberation of language, we found ourselves gleefully talking of poetry in halting Russian until we were utterly exhausted by the strain of thinking in languages not our own. Smiles and gestures became our conversation when our brains and tongues grew weary. We raised our glasses high.

I still love the Russians, and the language, and wouldn't trade my experiences in the Soviet Union for anything in the world. I hope my guilt over abandoning Valera Stupachenko won't cut me off from that experience. (Am I burning my bridges?)

Russia was my attempt to fill a vacuum in my own life— a parallel to what I experienced with John Oliver Simon's Latin American connections. And I gained some invaluable experiences from it—my writing took a giant leap forward. And I did create some excitement in my life, in fact, much, much more than I bargained for.

My college friend Vinz met me in Amsterdam what was to be a short week's stay. He often complained that I was always going to Russia, but I never came to visit him. So this time I was amending that problem. It was so wonderful to be in Amsterdam. I loved it and I could see how Peter the Great, who lived in Amsterdam for a while, was influenced by its architecture. St. Peterbourg (Leningrad) was modeled after Amsterdam.

But as the final day approached where I had to make my train reservation to Helsinki and St. Petersburg, the fears began to return full force; I was absolutely crazed. My friend Vinz was amazed when I announced I wasn't going to Russia as we went up the last escalator to the train station at the eleventh hour. More like 11:59.

I think that snap-decision was like a good game of poker, bluffing yourself (and your opponents) with a weak hand in order to win the jackpot by chance. When caught in a quandry, I often procrastinate to the last possible minute. And I often don't know how I feel or want until after the fact. Going into Russia was like that. But I'm getting ahead of my narrative. And out of sequence. In medias res.

Though I'd mailed several parcels on ahead, I was enroute to Russia with enough luggage to founder and bog a truck in the mud. My printer and laptop each had their own baggage requirements with converters and wallwarts the size and weight of bricks. Then there were my cameras. This was the pre digital camera age. I was NOT traveling light.

A lot of this baggage was my dowry—so to speak. I could sell most of it on the Black Market for ten times what it was worth stateside. I went several hours early to the Búdapest train station to get my Eurail pass stamped to Vienna where Ken was waiting with Claire.

But first, I needed to activate my Eurail Pass. So I got in line three hours early. And stood. And Stood. And Stood. Soviet "efficiency" still very much in operation in this former Eastern Block country; two minutes before my train to Vienna was to leave, I was still 5th in line at the ticket cassa.

Swearing like a sailor, I gave up trying to validate my Eurail ticket (ignoring warnings of severe penalties—your hair will fall out, we'll throw you from the moving train, excommunicate you, take all your money and revoke the ticket—threats didn't deter me). I decided to take my chances with the conductor because my friend Ken was meeting me on this train, not the later one. And we had no way of reaching each other. No phones. No addresses.

I grabbed my two wheelies laden with baggage and raced to the platform: the girl in front of me turned and said to her friend in English, "car 270." Where it was going, I wasn't sure. I didn't even have time to check. The gods must be crazy, I looked at my ticket, the numbers checked, I threw my backpack, my two bags (with computer, cameras and printer) and wheelie luggage rack onto the moving train as it pulled away from the platform.

I made a leap for the caboose, my waterbottle, loosened from my daypack, clunketed onto the spinning tracks, leaving me little time to ponder if I could really fight both gravity and physics at the same time. I was literally teetering on the brink of indecision.

The weight of the daypack on my back was literally pulling me backwards out the door. All those camera lenses. My luggage aboard, my corporal body was fighting both centrifical force and gravity at the same time. I thought, "Uh-oh, I'm not going to make it. I'm going to die horribly beneath a train just like Anna Karenina."

Running alongside the train, the train attendant literally lent me a helping hand, he shoved my protuding ass hard up the stairs and over my luggage, shutting the door behind me.

I lay sprawled in a heap over my luggage, stunned, taking a panicked personal inventory of luggage, passport, tickets, arms and toes.


I stumbled into my train compartment which occupied by a henna-wigged Hungarian woman well on the other side of fifty, replete with false eyelashes and carmine claws. She was dressed like an overstuffed canary silk couch and had enough luggage to go into business retail perched on four of the six seats.

I asked to sit in the only vacant seat. Crabbily, she said in an accent more outrageous than the famous Gabor sisters, "No! Zis ees not smokingk compartment; zat's MY seat! I haf ticket." She waived it menancingly in my face.

But I was in a dangerous mood after having nearly fallen off the train as I boarded it, and with an adrenalin rush, I told her she couldn't have tickets for the whole compartment. She begrudgingly moved one of her Louis Vuitton makeup bags two inches closer to make room for me.

Trying to ameliorate our hostile beginnings, as Vienna was a long train ride away, I made some small talk, and eventually won her over. Unbelievably, we became friends by the time it took her goose liver (a whole, unadorned mountainous pale goose liver the size of Mt. Rushmore) sandwich to thaw; my pocketknife slicing neat pink cutlets from its generous slopes for breakfast.

As we began to unravel the theads that clothed our lives, Sylvia Tota told me that in 1954, when she was 19, she escaped Búdapest with her first husband via the underground railway. She described leaving home in the dead of the night, crawling through a hole under the border fence. Heavy midwinter fog, barbed wire, faces smudged with coal. Her face, too much a Jewish map for her to safely stay behind as the Soviets marched across her homeland.

They were smuggled into Austria, where she lived for a time in a refugee camp until safe passage was made on a ship destined for Canada. There weren't many places for Hungarian refugees to go. Canada was one safe harbour.

In Toronto, Sylvia learned English, she got a job waitressing, life was hard. She eventually divorced her Hungarian husband, leaving him for an Italian immigrant, which is how she wound up in New York, and then later, Miami. Her husband died so she was on her own, a wealthy widow.

Sylvia was a literary agent for the late Fedor Ágnes, a famous Hungarian writer who wrote "Sárga Nárcisz," and "Különös Karnevál," or "Strange Carnival," which she hoped to get printed in Hungarian, a challenge as Jewish Holocaust writing was banned in Hungary for so long.

Jewish Hungarian writers were truly a lost generation, lost to Hungary, lost to Israel, lost to America. She wanted to rekindle the flame, to get the book published in Hungary so that she could entice an American publishing house to print a bilingual edition.

In "Women’s Voices in Hungarian Holocaust Literature," Dr. Katalin Pécsi, Director of Education at the Holocaust Memorial and Documentation Center in Budapest, wrote, "Although quite a few personal memoirs had been published directly after the war, they did not become well known for some reason – so they did not become part of the Jewish canon either." (Alas, I found only this one link.)

Ágnes Fedor’s interview-style novel chronicles the story of her family living in hiding a la Anne Frank. Fedor’s article 'Bevilaqua' from the Esti Hírlap newspaper informs us that “Bela Borsody Bevilaqua was a patron saint of journalists… By chance, I think he saved my life…"
Fedor wrote, "When I interviewed Bevilaqua in 1939 about the origin of Hungarian Jews, whom he considered to be Khazar based on evidence of geographic and family names, he looked at me and asked, ‘Doesn't this anti-Semitic law apply to you as well?’ I nodded. ‘But you’re a typical Khazar!’ he said.
He stared at me drawing an inventory of my features—but he did so with the purpose of saving my life. Then he said, ‘With your features, complexion and bone structure, you could pass as a Slovakian maid servant. It’s only your eyebrows that you have to dye fair!’It was snowing in March 1944, just like today. I dyed my eyebrows fair in the danger of death. And I survived.”
Sylvia and I chitchat about the literary world, contracts, and rights as I was in Hungary to meet poets. I told her about one poet whose poems I'd worked on, polishing them into poetic English for an upcoming Mother Earth issue on Eastern Block poetry after Glasnost. I was to meet Gyula Kodolányi, who was Hungary's Secretary of State. I never did meet with him, except to briefly shake his hand as he descended the steps of the Hungarian House of Parliament, he was a very busy man—though I talked to his wife several times.

Everything moved slowly in Hungary—the manãna complex was alive and well. It took me a week just to get his phone number from Ken's friend, playwright László Tabóri, a former student of Kodolányi's. László's wife, Irén Kiss, also a poet, was a former editor of "The New Hungarian Review," and held Kodolányi's old job at the University. Irén informed me everything is corrupt in Hungary.

She told me Kodolányi married a famous poet's daughter; Gyula Setijis—I'd never heard of him either, but then, I know little about Hungary to begin with. I was armed with a few random poet's names and a lot of faith in optimism and sychronicity.

Irén said she had quit "The New Hungarian Review" because it was a communist party organ; she said they had an editorial parting of the ways. That was a huge blow as I had counted on getting poems from their archives.

Irén studied with Italian poet Edouardo Sanguinetti (whom I later met in Holland at Poetry International); we translated several of her poems done in the Italian style. Like in Russia, everything is 10 to 20 years behind the times. Kodolányi was paradoxically a member of the old guard, and of the new wave at the same time. I wanted to meet poets from the other side but I had trouble finding them.

Sylvia told me, "There's no money in writing. At least not in America". I said, "Tell me something I don't know." I was floored—nay my flabber was ghasted—when she told me a friend of hers was Isaac Bashevis Singer. Sylvia said, that when he received the Nobel prize for literature, she called him up to congratulate him and he despaired, "Here I am, a famous writer, and all I get is rejected manuscripts in the mail. This is no life for a writer." Amen to that.

When the conductor came into our carriage to check our tickets, Sylvia explained the circumstances to him in Magyar. I was relieved to have this unlikely angel come to my rescue.

The conductor gave me a closer look and remembered me. He laughed and said, "Yes, I remember her. I saw her board the train at the last minute with all her baggage. If I validate the ticket on the train there'll be a severe penalty, but she looks like a nice, poor girl. Tell her to take care of it in Vienna." And so I rode to Vienna for free. Since Sylvia was translating this, I had only her word—but I do know they had a good laugh at my expense about my ass literally hanging out of the train.

When I told Sylvia the story of going to Moscow to meet Valera (Valeriy) Stupachenko, the Russian pop singer of the Leningrad Rok Opera, and formerly of Singing Guitars—Payush Guitara, at first she said very yenta-ishly, "Don't marry him if he can't support you and take care of you. Marriage is a business transaction."

When I showed her Valera's picture, she looked at it a long time, perhaps remembering something of her own past. I told her of the unusual circumstances of how we'd met during the August coup/putchst aboard the Soviet research vessel, the Akademik Shirshov, she said, "I see. It's very romantic, just marry him, if you wait, you'll rationalize. Don't let it spoil by waiting."

Valeriy Stupachenko, Akademik Shirshov, SF, CA 1991

Bewildered and bolstered by her advice, I prepared to leave. We kissed three times, she saw me off the train as if I was family. I was remembering other trains, seeing off the Soviet students at Kiev, staying behind with my Ukranian lover Oleg Atbashian. Ken meeting me in both times in Vienna.

I am always grateful by how special it is to be met at the train or plane; like when Ken met me at the airport before my last trip to Russia. These passages, or transitions, travel are often lonely ventures. We never come back to what we were. And we will never pass this way again.

But Peter the Great's beloved city upon which he modeled Peter'burg, Amsterdam, the city of his youth, had other plans for me. My dreams of Russia dissipated into the Baltic mist.

Maureen Hurley, Amsterdam,