THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING!
Field Notes on Russian-American Poets and the Question of Bilingual Poetry; Volume One : Philip Nikolayev, Eugene Ostashevsky, Ilya Bernstein, and Genya Turovskaya
Editor’s Note: This essay is the first installment in an ongoing series of field notes on particular Russian-American poets. Future installments written by Matvei Yankelevich will appear in subsequent issues of Octopus.
The term "Russian-American Poetry" can be applied to such a wide array of aesthetic, generational and linguistic varieties, not to mention differences in bilingual ability or preferred writing language, that its use cannot be but suspect. What would appear to be a small coterie is really a prism reflecting most theoretical debates between poetic schools that exist in the American as well as in the Russian context. It defines a group that is breaking out in different direction through the boundaries of its defining term.
of the Russian Emigration" is usually reserved for Russian language poems
written by Russians in emigration, particularly those in
Then there are bilingual poets, who may or may not write in both native and acquired languages. Some of these poets are bilingual to the degree that it is unclear which language is their native tongue, despite the obvious chronological fact.
But what is bilingual poetry? Can it really exist? There are, of course, multi-lingual poems—the later work of Czech poet Ivan Blatny comes to mind—and yet, it seems that émigré poets choose to write poems in either their native or the host language, taking one or the other more seriously. Some switch back and forth, writing differently in the different languages. Others translate their own work, in effect re-writing it.
The poetry of bilingual poets is often born out of the awareness of bilingual experience—the split, the dichotomy, and double vision. “Russian-American” seems suited, to some degree, to describe a kind of poet that is—more or less—consciously aware of his or her unusual place in English-language literature.
The current investigation is an on-going project. It's hard to imagine where and when it will end, and whether or not its findings will uphold any preliminary postulations. Primarily, it is concerned with Russian-Americans who are writing poetry today, and primarily with their English-language work, the way it relates to their varied Russian backgrounds, the time and circumstances of their emigration, and how it fits into and is influenced by the (very different) poetic traditions of Russian and American poetry. In this and forthcoming installments of this investigation I will choose poets who—in print and in performance—make us wonder about issues of accent, of "Russianness," of bilingual experience, of representations and marketing of identity.
* * *
current situation in Russian-American poetry cannot be surveyed without taking
into account the tremendous and odious celebrity of Joseph Brodsky. Brodsky
Nobel laureate, and U.S. Poet Laureate spoke (and wrote) in English with an
indelible and unapologetic Russian accent. Though clearly rooted in the Russian
Modernist tradition (Akhmatova, Mandelstam, etc.),
and written primarily in Russian, Brodsky's poetry changed definitively in his
Western exile. The Russian word “kabak” became easily
substituted by the English “bar.”
His transitory life continued: in hotels, (like the Barbizon
exiled poet became a medium for Russian readers who could not leave the
Indeed, Joseph Brodsky tried his hand at writing poems in English. Unsurprisingly, his English poems continued the formal preoccupations of his Russian poems, but were less innovative. His attempts at writing poetry in English garnered little attention from critics. In fact, it would be true to say that were these poems not written by the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky, but by some other Russian immigrant, or even by an American author, they would not have garnered interest from either readers or publishers. The maîtres of English poetry for Brodsky were Frost and Auden, and he attempted to imitate—as best he could—their example.
Yet his sensitivity to English is inconsistent. For example in the sentimental poem "A Song," Brodsky uses "I wish you were here, dear" as a refrain—a line that no American poet would even try to pass off for poetry (not without an ironic wink) as it would no doubt elicit in their minds the popular Pink Floyd song, not to mention the cliché sound of the sentiment so expressed. This lack of cultural sensitivity kept Brodsky from becoming a poet of the English language. His rhymes in English are often either trite or awkward, and the whole of his English language output is old fashioned and derivative of other poets. No doubt, Brodsky was aware to some degree of the ineptitude of his English verse, as most of his writing in English took the form of the essay.
Even a great Russian poet like Brodsky, with all his knowledge of English poetry and proficiency in writing English prose and criticism, could not become a Russian-American poet. Nor, perhaps, would he have wanted to—he was content with being a foreigner. The Russian side of his mind outweighed the American. Though he mastered it, English remained foreign to him, like an appendage grafted onto the body, unwieldy and limited in its functions.
* * *
Nikolayev is a bilingual (at least) poet living in
[…] s I become
fluent many language
fountainpen in fact of language
& God I always mean God
since I com
ethnic background in
& I make ye my own English
& I make ye mine type of English
& then some
b&its moon tuna
East European cuisine i.e.
vodka for breakfast on empty stomach
what does your furniture mean to my soul
my Slav root bag problems
& two or three regurgitated stereotype
also to forget
bondage of grammar
which constrain true think
I no prob make myself underst&al
ladies & gentlemen
so now open
wh@ you see your left
2 fly bits of the friendly skies
recline your chair
magic opener of pilots drift
upward in the atmosphere of language yow
I'm taking you couple hundred lexemes higher
into stratosphere of we language
Time, it is typical for a terse metaphysical poem made up of neat quatrains
in short, tight, metrical lines, rhymed in a simple ABAB schema, to be followed by a cacophonic poem made up of chaotic
lists of words—or only parts of words—proper names, vulgar expressions, slang,
snippets of advertising, trademarked products and other refuse of a
contemporary cultural mash. The metaphysical poem, taking "It Never Leaves"
for example, may be reminiscent of Tyutchev,
Dickinson, or Laura Riding. The list poem is more like the poetry of contemporary
lyric poet David Trinidad, or the Language poetry of Bruce Andrews, or a
Burroughs/Gysin cut-up. The immense incongruity of
these two kinds of poems existing side by side in a single collection should
seem natural, or positions itself as self-evident, in the context of postmodern
writing, with which
Yrs, eminently postmodern
and deadly, Philip Nikolayev
In a message to the Buffalo Poetics Listserv,
I don't see myself as a Russian poet because I don't write anything literary in Russian, nor do I particularly identify with any sort of "Russian sensibility" (whatever that means), although people are already beginning to pigeonhole me into that (to my slight annoyance) […] Although [I] love Russian poetry, am on friendly terms with many Russian poets, and am "steeped" (love that word) in Russian culture […] I don't really consider myself a part of any sort of Russian émigré "community" or "identity," although I have no objection to them either. The whole business of national identity/mentality is quite foreign to me. I couldn't care less for such things.
The thought that one might now write "world poetry," especially in English, stands on a slippery slope toward imperial hubris. Unfortunately, one of the holdovers of Russian intelligentsia thinking, in line with Brodsky's worldview, is that poetry might attain to a universal poetic language that transcends the confines of the specific (in this case, Russian) language, its peculiar history, sound, and struggle. (When Velemir Khlebnikov made such a claim for poetry, he had in mind a sound poetry un-attributable to a single language.) During a panel on Russian Diaspora Writing at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver, the acclaimed young poet Ilya Kaminsky made similar gestures toward the falsehood of labels such as "Russian-American," yet his English poems are published in a collection titled "Dancing in Odessa" (Tupelo Press, 2004). It is my opinion that identity may not matter for all immigrant poetries, yet it cannot be ruled out or brushed over in cases where that identity is paramount to the understanding of the poetry or poets in question, and perhaps even to the very rhythms and images and influences which propel its writing.
notion of identity, which
It is understandable that a Russian-American poet might wish to be rid of the stigma and stereotypes of the Russian immigration. However, it is difficult to escape the fact that Russian-American identity and, especially, bilingualism serve as points of departure, as content, providing the background for insurgence or conformity.
…and Mom is taking those tranquilizers because of me, I'm being a pedagogical disaster, you are the only adult I can really talk to, but Mom is against English because she feels it alienates me from her, and she is right, and I stupidly ask her, can't you just learn it yourself so you can understand, and she just cries…
Like this autobiographical poem, the blurbs on the back of Monkey Time contradict Nikolayev's assertion of non-identity, most likely to the authors "annoyance," insisting that Nikolayev's Russian—if not Russian-American—or, at least, foreign identity inform the book's innovative verse.
English is constantly being destabilized by an awareness of Russian, Hindi, Bangla… (W.N. Herbert)
His ears are wide open, international… (Robert Kelly)
His is a poetics in cahoots with a self-created idiomatic Russian-American English that, like Nabokov's, adds to the possibilities of the word, of the line, of the overall form of expression in the text. (John Kinsella)
wonders, were it not for the obviously Russian sound of his name, if Nikolayev would be portrayed as something other than a
Russian or Russian-American poet, since the languages interspersed in these
English poems include French, Latin, Hindi, computer programming languages,
American street-speech, as well as and as
much as Russian. But Russian writers of English, with few exceptions, can't
help being compared to Nabokov, Brodsky and the like,
otherwise their aesthetics and attitudes are seen as outgrowths of Russian
Futurism, or other peculiarly Russian movements. Should the blame fall on the
critics who rely on the poet's connection to
Whatever the case, there seems to be something about the Russian literary tradition that won't let go of its progeny, and won't let them forget where they come from, even if the author should travel thousands of miles to get away from his cloying parent. Of course, Russianness in American poetry, as I will try to show, is not the same across the board. Each poet approaches the problem of his or her Russian-American predicament in a different manner, with varying intents. There are traditionalist Russian-American poets and avant-garde Russian-American poets, of as many colors and shades as perhaps there are in the overall American poetic culture.
* * *
EUGENE OSTASHEVSKY: NO LANGUAGE BUT MANY
Ostashevsky, born in 1968, was 11 when he arrived in
Surprisingly, Ostashevsky bears some resemblance to Brodsky. Not that he falls under Brodsky’s influence—in fact, on one of the many fronts attacked by his writing, Ostashevsky seems to strike against the Brodskian tendency in Russian poetry. But there are curious motifs that are common to the two poets of diametrically opposed generations.
Metaphors involving mathematical figures abound in Ostashevsky’s work (often as an acknowledged echo of OBERIU poetry), as they do in Brodsky’s. Of the horsemen in “Group Portrait with Massacre,” Ostashevsky writes “Our number was circular; if you squared it / It would end in itself, even for the visually impaired.” Later in the poem, he discusses tic-tac-toe in the context of “binary arithmetic” and combinatory math: “It’s like flipping 9 pennies / And 9 is 32, my maties….” The name of one of the horsemen is “17,” a prime number.
Ostashevsky's "DJ Spinoza Fights the Begriffon" contains a battle between two comic-philosophical entities, one of whom is described as follows:
The Begriffon looks like
x² _ y² ‗ 1
Whereas, DJ Spinoza's fighting style is described as "more geometrico."
The poems of Ostashevsky's that could be called love poems favor crassness over delicacy, as do many of Brodsky’s. The effect of “To a Woman Who as a Young Lady was a Frequent Heroine of my Verses,” which contains couplets such as “Your body flopped around like a sturgeon, / though 5 minutes before you were a virgin,” rides on the poet’s frankness about sexual desire and emotional lack. Ostashevsky’s “…like sister & brother / we loved others fiercer than we loved one another,” and “…before we bed / I count the gray hairs on your head,” remind me of Brodsky’s intentionally abrasive manner of speaking of sex, or addressing his past lovers, and the way that crudeness lends energy and meaning to a genre that is for the most part ridden with cliché. The image of the sexual act as “legs placed on shoulders,” for example, occurs unapologetically several times in Brodsky's poems—half-metaphorically in the well-known poem beginning “I have often repeated that fate is a game…” and quite literally in the third part of “Lithuanian Divertisement.” A more subtle example would be the motif of the pants and the light switch in Brodsky’s poem “Love.”
Brodsky’s erudite poetry is replete with references to classical literature and philosophy while incorporating street language and cursing into his delicately crafted verses. Ostashevsky, who holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Stanford, and whose studies were heavy in philosophy with a dissertation on the concept of "zero" in Renaissance culture, peppers his creations with Latin phrases, yet is unfettered in his use of the “lower” lexicon, often adopting for poetic usage the a-grammatical syntax, swear words, and contractions common in rap lyrics and urban ghetto-speak. This taking on of different lexical personas is a central aspect of Ostashevsky’s poetics, and is rooted in his bilingualism, which Ostashevsky describes as having “no native tongue."
opposite of Brodsky's heavy name-dropping, the various academic references and
philosophers’ and writers’ names which pop up in Ostashevsky’s
poems undergo a constant attack of laughter and parody. Often this comic
subversion of the canon occurs through a kind of murder by rhyme: “doing
On Esquiline hill
Death paused on my windowsill
not as the other
a stately lass she had no class
in fact she had nothing even resembling tits and ass
so I must fix my pronoun It was
a common death, a winged skeleton
Down stuck to its bones as if they were gelatin
This technique is also much used in hip-hop lyrics, where the verbal artist will speed up when speaking a many-syllable line in order to match it with its rhyming partner of much shorter length.
Indeed, when performing his own work, Ostashevsky often takes on the persona of a somewhat deranged immigrant rapper, swaying back and forth sometimes in a manner reminiscent simultaneously of davening Jews and hip-hop videos. To this mix he adds a holy-fool intensity, the stagger of either a drunk or a fanatic speaking in tongues, meanwhile stretching his voice to its limits. In performance, Ostashevsky will often employ this speeding up and slowing down, creating dramatic tempo dynamics and metric variation. Or else, Ostashevsky will keep the metrics stoically stable but will mangle English word order to get a rhyme in:
In smashed copses
They burn corpses
No scent worse is
While showing off an erudite knowledge of intellectual history (in poems about Boethius, Sextius Propertius, number theory, etc.) Ostashevsky plays irreverently with the names he drops. Spinoza becomes a DJ and a kind of comic-book hero, who duels with the Begriffon (a combination of Heidegerian concept and fantasy monster). In "The Second Part of This Poem," the Begriffon tries to convince DJ Spinoza as to language's flacidity:
Listen DJ Spinoza I had enough of your logocentrism
Words are justifications only
Only physical power
adjudicates the quizzical hour
Only the fist
differentiates between resist and desist
Did you ever see giraffes
hold a symposium?
The consciousness of animals is pure time
untrammeled by the vagaries of Sic probo
Let us meet man to man
in the style of the whooping crane
or the praying mantis
Let us dismiss words
as the unionized janitors of reality!
DJ Spinoza replies
Listen you, чудо-юдо заморский Begriffon
I don’t care for your praying mantis
your whooping crane
eagle or monkey
Ostashevsky breezily fuses Russian and Latin into English verse. The inter-language rhymes add to the linguistic comedy of the poem. The multi-lingual moments of his poetry heighten the feeling of foreignness that Ostashevsky flings in our face, rather than subdue it.
The Begriffon, who we find out is a stand-in for the author, is dressed as follows:
The front of his T-shirt says
i am ambivalent
The back of his T-shirt says
i am not ambivalent
Ostashevsky often plays with duality, utilizing puns, word play, contradictory statements, verbal ambiguity, as well as double personas. For example, in a poem called "Language," Ostashevsky writes:
Know reads No
That’s all you know
That’s all you do not know
The homonyms of "know" and "no" are one of the more obvious ambiguities of spoken English, one that emigres find baffling. The title of his forthcoming collection, Iterature (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005), is itself a play on words which mixes up oral speech and writing. Ostashevsky is hinting at the classical cohesion of literature and oral culture, playing with the postmodern Derridian debates on the subject of theories of linguistic primacy.
Ostashevsky often throws around bad or obvious rhymes, or slips into children's nursery rhyme. This projection of children's verse onto "serious" literature is much akin with the OBERIU writers of the 1920s and 30s—an important influence on Ostshevsky's work—who transferred their inventions in children's literature to their philosophical poetry. In "Zoe's War," Ostashevsky knowingly makes poor rhymes stacked in a random series for the sake of infantilizing his poetic voice: "Here's an elephant / He is really fat // Here's a hippopotamus / Show your bottom to us." In the same poem: "On the ground mice hurry / They're in a hurry // In the air birds fly / They cry, Bye bye."
For the sake of such "bad" or funny rhymes, Ostashevsky might bend—or break—the rules of English grammar, making himself sound like an immigrant, the immigrant we expect him to be. In the poem, "I Found My Thrill," the narrator describes the scene of his death as follows:
Please God O God pretty pretty please
you who does not exist
make this Death my Death
don’t make me a witness to another’s death
I would rather fall on the floor in my elbow a saber
than figure out life from the agony of my neighbor
Right as I finished just saying No
there appeared a very big Crow
In its beak there was a serrated row
and as it was going to bite me in t.w.o.
I again cried, No!
Take my neighbor, take her for here or to go,
Table on that body I once did know
very intimately, until it grow
into the main ingredient of Sloppy Joe™
Pull out her bluish intestines real slow
chop her up into Caesar so
cheeze fly through the air like crimson snow
barrage of rhymes centered around "No" demands that Ostashevsky go against grammatical constraints with the
phrase "until it grow." The long "o" is a splendid choice,
as the poem sarcastically references Edgar Allen Poe, specifically his poem
about the raven, which here is transformed in to "a very big Crow"
(the letter "C" capitalized in the Romantic fashion). The poem also
references Nancy Reagan's anti-drug campaign and American fast food alongside
classical death-symbolism. The language is anything but—even antagonistic
to—the classical mode we might expect form a poem that begins on one of the
Ostashevsky uses certain techniques in his English writing that come directly from Russian poets whom he has studied closely and translated with great zeal. Most influential, perhaps, has been Alexander Vvedensky, an author of the OBERIU group of the 1920s and 30s. Vvedensky's rhymes are not only aural effects, they in fact move the poem by generating the text. For Vvedensky, the necessity of rhyming was not conformism to traditional verse forms, which were still prevalent in Russian Modernist poetry. Rather, rhyme gave Vvedensky a tool with which to poke fun at the expectations placed on poetry, and to parody traditional verse. By giving us the rhyme as the glue that held the poem together, Vvedensky was able to veer away from typical poetic subject matter, from regular syntax, and logical continuity. In Vvedensky's poems, the first of two lines is the progenitor of the second by way of the end-rhyme. So the second line, having been thus spawned, is often connected to the first by end-rhyme only. One does not follow the other logically, or in image-based continuity. With this technique of the self-generating text, Vvedensky was able to move his poetry beyond logically connected sentences toward an a-logical poetics. Vvedensky understood this project as a "critique of reason more powerful than that of Kant."
We have already seen the effect this method exerts on Ostashevsky's poetry in the form of obviously forced rhymes which trivialize or poke fun at the connections—made by metaphor or otherwise—between one line and the next, like "doing circles around Stuy Park or / studied NAUSEA by Jean-Paul Sartre." Such poetry-making uncovers (or deconstructs) the process of versification and directs the reader's laughter at the poet's revealed ineptitude, pointing to his Emperor's clothes, as it were. In this way, Ostashevsky makes a gesture like that of a man pointing to his own foolishness—and thus kicks the sublime rank of the Poet down a notch or two from his pedestal. (The old-fashioned Russian intelligentsia would frown, and Brodsky would disapprove.) We find examples of this kind of rhyme-play all over Ostashevsky's work:
At the time I was assailed by insects
as well as outsects
My defenses were implausible
would have entertained a turntablist
(from "At a Temp Agency")
In the poem "Zoe's War":
In came a man with long mustaches
Along his pantlines were red sashes
Further in the poem a General appears by the name of Pete.
You got a call from a general named Pete
He says his feet are enveloped in concrete
This move in the poem's narrative could be interpreted as another instance of the same randomizing rhyming game. Yet the "general named Pete" could well be a comic reference to Peter the Great, belittled by the diminutive version of his name and by the banal description of the statuary that is supposed to represent him as "Great," also a hero of Vvedensky's "The Stone Guest" [Kamennyj Gost'] which in turn plays off Pushkin's famous "Bronze Horseman" [Mednyj Vsadnik].
Another effect Ostashevsky has learned and borrowed from Vvedensky is that of using rhyme to justify illogical substitution. The poem "Zoe's War" begins:
She looks over her shoulder
She looks over her older
Later in the poem:
She looks over her boulder
She looks over her colder
This kind of substitution is metaphorically rich at the same time as it shirks logic and syntax. One cannot look over one's "older," or one's "colder" simply because these are comparative adjectives and not nouns. Yet, in the process, the original "shoulder" takes on new qualities, because the shoulder is also heavy as a "boulder," and it is also "older" and "colder"—as in giving somebody "the cold shoulder"— than in its first instance.
Ostashevsky has published his poetry in several American literary journals which focus on what is deemed the "experimental" and "avant-garde" side of American poetry, including Fence, Combo, The Germ, to name a few, as well as in online publications with some reputation in the poetry world. His translations of Alexander Vvedensky and other OBERIU authors have appeared in some of the same magazines, as well as in more academically geared literary journals, like New American Writing. His public face is of a dual nature: both poet and translator. The two seem to go hand-in-hand for this Russian-American poet, translation being a helpful step on the road to publication of such an author's own creative work. And the translations often bear the stylistic markings of Ostashevsky's own poetry, partly because the objects of his translation projects are poets that have influenced his writing and thinking (Alexander Vvedensky, Daniil Kharms, Nikolai Zabolotsky, Osip Mandelstam, Alexei Parshchikov). By using his intimate knowledge of his preferred Russian poets acquired through translation, Ostashevsky is able to bring fresh ideas into the writing of English poetry. And his own poetic talents, thus exercised, help serve his translations, which share with his poems a unique and unusual-sounding English.
In a poem called "Senselessness for Vvedensky," Ostashevsky addresses the poet that has inspired much of his work, a poet whose work is almost unknown to American readers. He ends the poem:
You've lost your ear, you can't distinguish
plosive from surd, Russian from English,
you comprehend nothing. Accept this verse then
The horseman referred to here is the "poor horseman," the hero of Vvedensky's famous "Elegy," in turn modeled on a series of horsemen in Russian literature. The horseman, for Vvedensky and Ostashevsky, is a poet of action. The "you" of the poem is Vvedensky, though at this point in the poem, it stands for Ostashevsky who also has "no native tongue."
The inability to distinguish between languages is a metaphor that Ostashevsky often recreates in his poetry to signify his linguistic and poetic displacement, the mark of a truly bilingual poetics, and a subject of much concern for Russian-American poets. This between-ness breeds self-reflexivity, an almost unhealthy self-consciousness which fuels much of Ostashevsky's poetry about writing poetry, a self-awareness which he uses to invest his lyrical voice with comic insecurity:
In my head I heard melodies,
I deformed rhymes, misscanned syllables,
but I have no native language,
I can't judge, I suspect I write garbage.
In the "Brief Biography" following that poem, Ostashevsky says of himself half-joking, "[h]e refused to take ESL in Junior High and is still trying to catch up." In the last poem of The Unraveller Seasons chapbook, "I Struck Rhetorical Poses," he writes:
I would like to know I would like to know
the difference between yes & no
knight & night, Kurd & curd
what L means in the word WORLD
Most of the world in Ostashevsky's poetry is the world of words. Rather than describing a concrete world, or a concrete experience, the subject of his work is the world as it is represented in language. His poetic vision is more a vision of the page than a vision of the world.
Ostashevsky creates surprising hybrids of humorous, self-questioning lyrical poetry and a more metaphysical and meta-literary poetics derived from his studies in philosophy, as well as the influences of Vvedensky and Russian poetry (with its emphasis on sound) on one hand, and contemporary postmodern poetics on the other. The hybridization of language, the duality of self, processes that mirror the operation of translation, make for the striking oppositions that make Ostashevsky's work dynamic, funny, and yet earnest. He revels in the poem's ability to come so close to being "garbage," yet makes something interesting out of the linguistic detritus. His poetry is always attacking itself, as much as it attacks the conventions and banality of poetry.
* * *
ILYA BERNSTEIN: RE-VERSE
Ilya Bernstein is more “traditional” than Ostashevsky, or
Bernstein’s poetic models are mainly pre-modern: 19th century English poetry, the Transcendentalists, Melville, Classical Greek and Roman poetry, and the Metaphysical poets are all invoked or traceable in his first book, titled with a slightly classical affectation, Attention and Man (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2003). He pays homage to the classics often with a grain of salt, honoring them with his winking eye. One poem in the collection is modeled after Catullus’ Lesbia poems. It builds on the humor of Catullus and his openness to the more animal sides of human behavior, while infusing the Roman rhetoric with modern speech and American jokes. Here is the first stanza:
Let us live, Lesbia, and let us laugh.
Let us crack up at countless jokes,
Asking “How many Neapolitans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
And “Knock knock, who’s there?”
Slapping our knees with our hands and shaking
Under the pressure of laughter.
The naïve insight of some of the poems with their short rhythmic lines verges on children’s poetry. The poem with the slapstick refrain “My body is my buddy,” is pure entertainment, yet underneath the silliness of the poem’s conceit lies a development of the classical materialist philosophy of the skeptics, and of hedonism. The first two stanzas follow:
My body is my buddy
I like to treat it well
And, smiling, always listen
To what it has to tell.
It gives me all the answers
That I could ever need.
My body is my buddy
And my true friend indeed.
My body is my buddy.
It always pleases me
To feel it knocking dumbly
Into a rock or tree.
And there is no disaster
To make me and my buddy
Ever fall out of love.
Bernstein’s take on evolution is set forth in the poem called “Farther Along.” It expresses the poet’s wonderment at nature’s ingenuity—in this case the co-operation of flowers and flying insects—a central scientific (and classical) concern of Bernstein’s poems. Here are the first and last stanzas of “Farther Along”:
From the beginning it had been decreed:
Plants cannot move nor go wherever they please.
Yet plants found ways of piloting the seed
When they attached themselves to beetles and bees.
No longer merely engines for the world,
They managed to rejoin the animal line
Farther along when, in new unions twirled,
Their independent fates were intertwined. 
The collection is full of such work—the poems of an urban naturalist. This attitude toward the natural world is an important factor in 19th century American poetry, and extends from Emerson and Whitman to their unlikely heir, the Russian-American émigré poet Bernstein. Bernstein however steers away from his poetic predecessor’s transcendentalism and romanticism, in favor of more practical, almost scientific reasoning.
By using traditional verse forms, softening them with metrical variations that make for a more relaxed syntax (“beetles and bees” for example), employing the gentle humor of off-rhymes and the bouncing rhythms of children’s poetry, implementing a functional, street-wise vocabulary, and by investing many of the poems with anecdotal structures and common-sense, sometimes Yiddish-inflected humor, Bernstein arrives at a light verse that is devoid of pretension or sarcasm and never hits the reader over the head. One poem, for instance, consists simply of instructions on buying milk at a neighborhood bodega. Another poem addresses the way a young person’s tastes for food change over time. Such light verse, popular in other historical periods is rarely to be found today on the pages of either The New Yorker, or of specialized poetry journals in the United States. The light-verse tradition has remained popular in Russian poetry, and has been famously employed by such poets as Nikolai Oleinikov (with his many pseudo-serious poems about insects) and more recently by the comic poet Igor Irteniev and the "occasional" poems of Timur Kibirov.
Bernstein exhibits a wide palate for humor, which can be traced genetically back to classic American jokers (“My spiritual / Thirst can be relieved / by the Marx Brothers”), to Russian children’s poetry (he has translated Daniil Kharms’ poetry for children), and as far back as the jibes of Catullus. His fable-like poems often have a moral to them, driving home a single astute observation not unlike a rabbi’s well-told joke.
Perhaps because his influences lie so heavily in the poetry of English, very few of Bernstein’s poems directly address the author’s foreign extraction, or his émigré status. Some, however, hint that the poet’s perspective is that of an outsider, or a passer-by. Bernstein begins an untitled poem:
I was walking down a wood road
And I came to a spot, by and by,
Where another road merged with mine
The idea of the two roads is not at all “unexpected” for the American reader. What is unexpected is Bernstein’s courageously direct engagement with the most widely anthologized American poem, Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken.” Perhaps also the phrasing is a little surprising to the English ear: “a wood road” is not a typical English expression. (These little freedoms are simultaneously the freedoms taken by a poet and by a foreigner.)
Not only does Bernstein play with the Frostian rhyme scheme and subject matter, but also with the very essence of the original poem: the matter of choice.
[…] and I thought:
“Someone going the other way
Might someday stop here for the sake
Of deciding which path to take.”
But my direction lay where it lay.
And walking on, I felt a sense
Of wonder at that difference.
Apart from its pleasantly prosaic statement, which in effect deflates the pathos of Frost’s choice of the less traveled path, it can be extrapolated from the poem that Bernstein’s path “lay where it lay” because that path was immigration. And if the two roads are two possible linguistic trajectories, it is in English that he must walk on. If they designate vocational paths, as they do for Frost, then the poetic route is for Bernstein not a choice, but a direction already chosen for him. The poem juxtaposes Frost to Bernstein—“Someone going the other way”—setting up an antinomy between the two. The “difference” in Bernstein’s poem is not the difference made by a choice, as it is in Frost’s, but the difference between the one who chooses and the one who just keeps walking.
* * *
GENYA TUROVSKAYA: HERE AND THERE
Formally and stylistically, Genya Turovskaya, chooses a very different path from that of Bernstein. Her formal influences lie mostly in 20th Century American poetics of the “Language school” orientation. In contrast to many Russian-American poets, her audience (at readings, and in print) is made up of more Americans and few fellow Russian-speakers. She was recently selected by Ann Lauterbach to be featured in Conjunctions as an emerging voice of her generation of American poets.
Turovskaya's poetry is made up of visually sparse, unpunctuated lines of free verse. Its non-narrativity, gaps and breaks, and its use of cut-ups and found language, sets Turovskaya’s poetry firmly in the experimental camp, on the other side of Bernstein’s quirky traditionalism, and completely opposite of Katia Kapovich's stylish storytelling. In sharp contrast with nearly all of the poets I'm investigating here, Turovskaya’s reading style expresses blankness, a truly faint accent lurks behind a placid and barely emotional voice that smoothes over the already serene surface of her poems.
Turovskaya’s poetry addresses far away
subjects, such as an imaginary expedition to Mars in “Red Seaway,” or her
childhood Soviet hero, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, and the space station MIR, in
the poem “Cosmic Naught,
In her poem-series Calendar, childhood is evoked more than once, beginning with the first poem, “January,” which opens
this is the first month also
the month I was born
Already in the first line there is an antithesis created by the sharp line break: “the first month also” contains a subtle paradox, for their cannot be two first months. The next line follows with abrupt autobiographical data, leading the reader into a dead-end of autobiographical references. As if to confound an autobiographical reading, the next line stands alone: “everything is still the same”.
Several childhood memories are stacked atop each other to establish the poet’s difference, or otherness.
in the interim we move across the desert
with our libraries strapped to our backs
valuables hidden in our underwear
These lines refer minutely to a scene that might have occurred during the family’s immigration, a customs inspection, for instance. The desert recalls the predicament of Soviet Jewry in its metaphoric re-enactment of the Exodus.
Next comes a sequence in which the poet remembers emigration through a child’s (and childishly selfish) perspective:
when I was six I pulled my hair out
my parents unlearned how to read
they were no help to me
to board games
The wide spacing between these lines insists on a slow and disjointed reading. The “unlearning” she refers to describes the sudden immersion in a foreign language—a language that is no longer readable. A child of six may just be grasping the idea that there are other languages. The six year old only needs to know how to play the game, but her parents become useless. The poem ends: “this is why I don’t know how // why I have a second face / keeping vigil at the back of my head.” The “I don’t know how” refers to the board games, but is somehow larger than that, since playing the game also connotes the larger problem of integration. The second face is looking back, to the past, and also looking out for danger. It is a sign of vulnerability. And it is a personal description of bilingualism, in which looking back (at the parents and the language left behind) and looking forward (to the new language) are contiguous.
The poem “February” ends with the following exchange:
he asks me how I get from here
to there I answer
seven league boots
modes of travel are taken from children’s stories. The second of them is a
peculiarly Russian one. The question posed thus refers to the travel between
This poem tells of a border guard who “sleeps / in his dog’s / embrace,” an airplane flight, and letters which “always came late.” Turovskaya writes: “there is a moon there,” and the question arises: where? The poem describes with uncertainty, as if describing a dream, the other side, what is seen “through winter / in the window”—and in Turovskaya’s case, I can’t help but think of this other side as Russia, or the uncertain landscape that is childhood, making the two synonymous. Note how Turovskaya's repeats "there," the tone of "there" always implying that the addressee, the "you" that asks the question, is "here" with her – unconsciously mirroring Brodsky's ever-insistent "here" in poems describing "here" for those that are still over "there."
The poem begins in media res:
that would be one way to reenter
through the space
between the ribs
Exactly what “that” way might be remains hidden from view.
Scattered throughout Turovskaya’s work we find direct, literal references to the instruments of the poet: the throat, the mouth, teeth and tongue (which create the voice), and the hand, handwriting, “toothmarks on the stubbed pencil,” pen and paper, the page, the dictionary, the library, words themselves, and even the signature “orphaned of its hand.” The landscape of her poetry is an abstract place (in the mind, or often in a dream) where the physical world is equal to, or even loses out to the linguistic world.
is it snow
the salt plain
the poem “Cosmic Naught,
“I” in her poems is imbedded in a web of maps and the lines that divide them.
“Lines,” “boundaries,” “borders,” and even “border guards,” appear frequently.
In “Five Winters to Vladivostok,” a poem that might be poorly paraphrased as a
love poem addressing the difficult affair between people of different worlds
(Russian and American), Turovskaya writes—referring
to the woman in the equation—“the body reached its border.” The poem continues
describing “his body” which is obviously uncomfortable outside its borders,
abroad his body grows
as a ship
shoaled in the frozen harbor
because he is of there
of that illogical element 
Turovskaya’s poems are fascinated with geographical locations that seem to throw off their maps or avoid delineation, whether on earth or beyond. The landscape of this poetry consists of rooms filled with dense fog (in the poem “Belgium”), a dreamlike Mars with its dried up oceans, interplanetary space, snow covered steppes, and distant Russian cities, like Vladivostok, which bear only their names and seem to swim in a vague dream.
In “Cosmic Naught,
To what extent must we identify the Russian
motifs and myths in Turovskaya's poetry to understand
it? It seems that her poetry addresses larger themes: themes of separation,
boundaries, loss and lost-ness, the nature of inquiry, memory, and writing
itself. Although the poems are often motivated by the specific experience of
Russian-American immigration, travel, and return, the work is not tethered by
it. Certainly, in her presentation of this world, the poet does not try to
teach us anything about the factual
 One such
documentary project is Yurii Terapiano's
work "Meetings" ("Vstrechi"),
published (in Russian) in 1953 by Chekhov Publishing in
 Compare “Elegia” (1968) in Novye Stansy k Avguste, Slovo/Word, 2000, pg. 72, with “Shorokh akacii” (1977) in Uranija, Slovo/Word, 2000, pg. 11.
 Philip Nikolayev, Monkey
Time, Verse Press,
 ibid., pg. 92.
 ibid., pg. 49.
 See "My International," Monkey Time, Verse Press, Amherst, 2003, pg. 32
 Monkey Time, Verse Press,
 The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000.
Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word,
Brodsky, Joseph, Chast’ rechi, Slovo/Word,
Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word,
Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word,
Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word,
Brodsky, Joseph, Konec prekrasnoi epohi, Slovo/Word,
 “Autobiography (hardcore remix),” Noughtbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg. 21.
 "I Found My Thrill," The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 2, and in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.
 "Language," The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 8, and in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.
 "DJ Spinoza fights the Begriffon," in Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.
 "I Found My Thrill," in The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 2-3.
 "To a Woman Who as a Young Lady was a Frequent Heroine of my Verses," Noughtbook 2, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg 19-20.
 In Iterature, manuscript provided by the author.
 In Iterature. Manuscript provided by the author.
 Noughtbook 1, O Press, San Francisco, 1998, pg. 12-13.
 The horseman is a popular motif for writers from Pushkin to Dostoevesky to Khlebnikov. The horseman may have a secondary, occult meaning for Vvedensky derived from Templier legends apparently discussed in a masonic-style circle in Lenignrad.
"Autobiography (Hardcore Remix), Noughbook 2, O
 The Unraveller Seasons, San Francisco, 2000, pg. 18.
 From an interview with Ilya Bernstein conducted by the author of this paper in May, 2003.
 Attention and Man, Ugly Duckling Presse, Eastern European Poets Series #1,
 ibid., pp. 14-15.
 ibid., pg. 45.
 In the history of Russian poetry, this poetic attitude can be traced back to Nikolai Zabolotsky.
"Remember you also need milk", Attention
and Man, Ugly Duckling
 "'Do you like nuts?' 'Not yet, I'm too young…'" ibid., pp.1-2.
 ibid., pg. 42.
 ibid., pg. 33
 Turovskaya’s Calendar was published as a book by Ugly Duckling Presse, in 2003, as #2 in the Eastern European Poets Series.
 This imagistic retelling of immigration differs notably from Katia Kapovich's drier, confessional approach, to be discussed in a future installment.
“Five Winters to
“Five Winters to
"Five Winters to
“Five Winters to