A Nursery Rehearsal of Emigration

by Svetlana Lavochkina

On a Sunday in late sleety March, 1984, my clan was celebrating Grandmother’s seventieth anniversary. We lived in Zaporozhye, a failed industrial giant in the south-east of Ukraine. There was a deluge of toasts, vodka, champagne, red caviar, and homemade poems.

The toasts and the poems were all pompous nonsense, the caviar too salty. My cousin Shurik and I were exiled to the nursery because we had crawled under the dinner table, moving the white linen cloth dangerously while taking off the guests’ shoes. We were ordered to occupy ourselves with quiet games until they called us in for tea and cake. In the nursery, Shurik and I had exhausted both classic Scrabble and table football; then the less Orthodox, self-invented “Beat the Lazy Fool” and “Husband and Wife Are Looking for a Treasure under the Bed.” Still, there was no news of the dessert, and we were getting bored yet again. So I took a sketch book and some felt tips and drew a jagged oval in the middle of the page.

I told Shurik, “This is the Island of Poovia in the Souporific Ocean.”

“Is it mine?” Shurik asked. “Only half of it, but you are President,” I said, generously giving the younger sibling priority and ascribing myself the post of the Chancellor.

While the President was draining the blue felt tip to color the Souporific Ocean, the Chancellor distributed the remaining political power on Poovia among the members of the family. We knew no one else who we could command to fulfill state duties and practice the pronunciation of their new names, far too convoluted even for Ukrainian tongues.

Thus, in 1984, behind the Iron Curtain, we suddenly had a whole island to ourselves, and it was a most tropical one. Tangerines that we could only eat on the New Year’s Eve in real life, were served to the President first thing every morning. Many a felt tip was spent depicting the President’s palace, beaches, palm groves, and on designing the gorgeous Chancellor’s dresses.

The only goal of Poovarian politics was fostering a huge, harmless, and humorous cult of the President’s personality—oh that girl who had had an operation to engrave his name on her ventricle; oh that funny fat man who had stolen the President’s night pot.

For me, the beauty of Poovia was in creating a new language. I compiled a dictionary of Poovarian, about two hundred splendid words—verbs, nouns, adjectives, idioms that existed, I could swear, in no other language (for example, to compliment a beautiful woman, one would have to say, “What bald teeth you have!”) The grammar of Poovarian resembled Russian, with a tinge, as I discovered only not long ago, of French and Turkish. I wrote the National Poovarian Anthem, some songs for pop-stars, and many articles for the quality newspapers and tabloids—all that at the expense of homework.

With the help of a primitive cassette recorder, we broadcast important balls and receptions. Poovia thrived for three years, five cassettes and fifteen sketch books. Then Shurik and I were blown away from the island, estranged from each other by puberty.

Now I see Poovia as a nursery presentiment of emigration: a dress rehearsal a decade in advance; an intuition, naïve but not entirely wrong, of western life as we perceived it later. For me, it was also a dress rehearsal of writing in a language not my own.

Shurik and I still remember each other’s birthdays. “Are your teeth still bald?” he always asks me instead of congratulating.

Little did we know then that Shurik would become one of the first high school graduates in the ex-USSR to go to study abroad, first in Switzerland, then in England, and end up working in a renowned London bank. The floor of his living-room is the size of a football field and wears a snow-white carpet.

I was very happy to escape the 1990s chaos and corruption of the post-Soviet Ukraine—nothing would ever change and I didn’t feel responsible for improving things at the cost of my personal goals. I entered the period of a decade-long denial of my motherland, busy building a new life from scratch. Leipzig, Germany became my new home. To my parents, my carpetless living-room seems the size of a tennis court. When they visit me, I tell them that when we go to Cyprus in March, ripe tangerines fall down from the trees, and no one cares to pick them.

It was in 2014 that Ukraine pulled me back into its courageous, fiery orbit of the Maidan and the War of Independence with its terrible toll. I scarcely believed my ears and eyes when the world news uttered the name of Donetsk, my alma mater city in the east, and its adjacent towns, and showed those tranquil, drowsy places in fire and chaos. I could do little about it, apart from feeling acute empathy and shame. The only thing that made up for my denial was translating wonderful, inimitable contemporary Ukrainian poetry into English for publication in American and British literary magazines and anthologies.

Last year, I broke my self-imposed moratorium and flew to Kiev. I met my old college mates who’d had to flee the war-afflicted territories where they had enjoyed well-established lives. The airplane was landing, and I looked down from the window in impatient, torn anticipation. The blue Dnieper River sparkled in the light of the setting sun and in its middle, it wasn’t the ancient capital of Kiev I saw. It was my Island of Poovia that stretched under the plane wings in all its 1984 splendor.

AGNI Monkey

AGNI SLSvetlana Lavochkina is a Ukrainian-born novelist, poet and translator, now residing in Germany. In 2013, her novella Dam Duchess was chosen runner-up in the Paris Literary Prize. Her debut novel, Zap, was shortlisted for Tibor & Jones’ Pageturner Prize 2015 and published in September 2017 by a NYC press, Whisk(e)y Tit. Svetlana’s work has appeared in AGNI, New Humanist, Words for War, Eclectica, POEM, Witness, Straylight, Circumference, Superstition Review, Sixfold, Drunken Boat and elsewhere. See what she’s published in AGNI here.

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Mine Own Neruda

by William Archila

I was ten and my father was gone, already living here in the States, when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night to listen to a strange voice coming out of the transistor radio. It was Pablo Neruda reciting his love poems while violins and guitars played in the background. For two years I fell asleep to the voice of Neruda rising and falling like waves in the distance, like seagulls swooping down, my head filling with poetry.

The broadcast was interrupted in November, 1980, when I fled El Salvador and the war that was tearing my country apart. I was twelve years old. I arrived in Los Angeles, California, with many questions unanswered, conversations unfinished and years of my young life unfulfilled. I gave up much of my national culture and Spanish language to learn a new culture and language. My English was full of street vernacular and strong raw accents—my words squashed, shredded, forced to dance a Shakespearian rag. I became part of the growing immigrant community, speaking ghetto Spanish. “Go back to your country” echoed throughout these years. Ahead a long road stretched into darkness.

In high school I began writing long before I read any poetry that excited me. My writings were fragments—verses and scribbles not meant to be taken seriously or shared. I pursued this calling in secret, writing only for myself. In college I tried to read the masters of the English language: Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, but none of them spoke to me—or maybe I wasn’t ready to listen. It wasn’t until I read Ginsberg’s “Howl” that I was amazed to discover I was not the only young man who saw the best minds of his generation destroyed.

In 1992, after a peace treaty was signed, I returned to El Salvador hoping to find a home, but instead found a war-torn country full of poverty, death, illiteracy, and crime. All my friends and family members were gone, especially those who were capable of changing a society. I was searching for something that no longer existed—a quality remembered from childhood, a sense of belonging to a country and a language. But these had changed. And I had changed. I found myself a stranger in a strange land.

I returned to California and bounced between LA and San Francisco, feeling rootless and without home. Yet that yearning for a sense of home—for union with my country, my family, for other Central American immigrants—grew deep inside me. To cope with these feelings of exile, I needed to write what I could not voice. That’s when I consciously began to write poems.

Within a year of discovering Ginsberg, I rediscovered Pablo Neruda. From poems such as “Walking Alone,” I learned to take the pencil and run across the pages, like a horse galloping across Latin America. I could remember the tree outside my childhood window, the fragile eggs boxed in my mother’s store, the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, and the moon bending over the neighborhood. I could go outside, feel the cracks of the street and remember my small country of El Salvador.

Neruda demanded more breadth, more precision, more memory of home in my reading and writing. I became interested in writers who sense home as a source of identity more than as a refuge: Pessoa’s Portugal, Neruda’s Chile, Rushdie’s India, Levine’s Detroit, Whitman’s American soil, and Roethke’s North America.

Neruda’s “Residence on Earth” helped me understand that the identity of the exile writer is homelessness and its attendant loneliness. As an exile writer you try to recreate your home in your work. Of course, you never can. You create fictions instead. But in this trajectory, in this country, I never travel alone. I travel with Neruda.

AGNI Monkey

W.ArchilaWilliam Archila earned his MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon. His first collection of poetry, The Art of Exile (Bilingual Review Press, 2009) won an International Latino Book Award in 2010. His Second book, The Gravedigger’s Archaeology (Red Hen Press), won the 2013 Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize. He has been published in American Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, AGNl, and Los Angeles Review of Books, and the anthologies Theatre Under My Skin: Contemporary Salvadoran Poetry, and The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. He also has poems forthcoming in Prairie Schooner and Tin House. See what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

Fostered Alike By Beauty and By Fear: Montale, Wordsworth and the Landscapes of Childhood

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by Ralph Sneeden

When you love a place and lose your foothold in it through self-exile, or the inevitable economics that annihilate real estate across a family’s generations, or simply because it has changed, what you write about it risks whiny longing, the tang of sour grapes. A whiff of elegy, however, seems OK, as long as it doesn’t idealize. Years ago, I wrote a poem about the Little Peconic Bay, and I’m pretty certain the path I took back to it changed my writing for the better.

As a kid, I’d spent a lot of time on the South Fork of Long Island; the setting had been a wellspring in my earlier work, but with the poem “Peconic” arrived a new impulse that seemed governed by memories that were more eerie, their descriptors’ tone shaped by desolation, danger, and death. Abandoned fishing nets, the viscera of fish in a kitchen sink, severed deer feet in the dunes, terrifying myths about horseshoe crabs, the competing shame and relief of being land-bound while others embark on a menacing sea. Settling on these particular moments was an important aesthetic juncture; wherever this project seemed to lead, each increment tended to veer from nostalgia into more mysterious, unexplainable realms. As I approached the closure of the sequence (ten seven-line, numbered cantos in trimeter), I realized that I was reclaiming while trying to say goodbye to a beloved and evocative landscape by conjuring its most haunting moments. Beauty was now accompanied by a sketchy sidekick.

The challenge of writing “Peconic,” however, wasn’t in deciding over which images to hang spotlights; rather, it was in mustering the faith—as I felt my way along—that they might reveal some unintended cargo in being reconjured. Though a writer’s receptiveness to new or dormant emotions that memories might broach sounds pretty boiler-plate, shaping their nuanced spiritual freight in ways that are neither saccharine nor too gothic needs mentoring. At certain junctures in my development as a writer, I admired, absorbed, and parroted poems that evoked in the settings of their childhood narratives some proximity to general creepiness, horrors embedded in the everyday. Poems in Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City, and Dave Smith’s The Roundhouse Voices provided gritty inspiration propelled by contemporary voices that I could emulate, poets who were neither sentimental nor interested in beating themselves up, wallowing in angst. To be sure, the Peconic Bay in the late 1960’s-early 70’s was my favorite place on earth. It was paradise, and that was the problem. Especially when it came to writing about it.

During the last decade, however, it was William Wordsworth and Eugenio Montale who nudged me closer to a way of remembering Long Island that was neither unrealistically dark nor selectively euphoric. As an adult trying to dial in the perceptions of a self long gone, my return to mine the aesthetic discord of childhood (via those two poets) also taught me about the roots of aspiration, how these muses—these homes—shape the future.

Wordsworth and Montale shared the blessing of growing up in spectacular natural environments. For Wordsworth, it was the peaks and vales of the Lake District in the northwestern portion of England known as Cumbria; and for Montale, the Ligurian coast of Italy’s northwest extremity, the string of towns known as the Cinque Terre. Reverberating through the work of both was the echo of that parental binary Wordsworth describes three-hundred lines into his great poem, that he, “…grew up / Fostered alike by beauty and by fear.”

Translator William Arrowsmith said that although Montale’s decision to leave his childhood home in Monterosso for the urban literary bustle and intellectual cafés of Florence was deliberate, the poems in Ossi di Seppia (Cuttlefish Bones) prove that, “Liguria is not, could not, be abandoned.” Though it wasn’t exactly beauty he had exhausted, Dave Smith says in “Cumberland Station,” his poem about returning to the ancestral railyards in his native Cumberland County, Virginia: “I hope I never have to go through this place again.” Even though we are looking over his shoulder as he grimly, compellingly writes his way back there as if in a dream.

Arguably, the anchor of Wordsworth’s investigation of memory and one of the most frequently cited segments of The Prelude is the “spots of time” sequence. What makes it so provocative is its foundational scene of the thirteen-year-old Wordsworth waiting on a desolate hillside above Hawkshead for his brothers to bring him home from school for Christmas vacation. It is a landscape and climate cinched to his memory by three sensory bolts: a stonewall, a sheep, and a hawthorn tree, which he characterizes as “companions.” The trinity of images is explicit enough, but the auditory experience seems just as formative. The blasted tree “whistles,” the wall has its own “bleak music,” and we can only imagine the implicit bleating of the sheep on the windy fell, the only other warm-blooded agent in the scene. By its end, we learn that a few days after Wordsworth arrived home to Cockermouth, his forty-two year old father died, and the three brothers “followed his body to the grave.” The aesthetic miracle of this memory and its details is that they have become, despite their origins, a healing force in later years, a mysterious “beneficent influence.”

Montale’s and Wordsworth’s poems from Ossi and sections of The Prelude share the plaintive refrains of debt, where any attempt to evoke is buttressed by the poets’ doubting their worthiness as the recipients of such gifts, no matter how terrifying some of them should have been (see Wordsworth’s narratives about watching the authorities drag a corpse from the lake or his being hounded by the shadow of a mountain after he stole a boat). The persuasive rawness of thought in each convinces me that the poets are deciding within the construction of the line, despite frustration, what they need to do with their art, and what these places have done for it. Montale writes,

If only I could force
some fragment of your ecstasy
into this clumsy music of mine;
had I the talent to match your voices
with my stammering speech—
I who once dreamed of acquiring
those salt sea words of yours
where nature fuses with art—
and with your vast language proclaim the sadness
of an aging boy who shouldn’t have learned how to think.

“Mediterraneo” is a sequence of almost epistolary dramatic monologues, addressed to the paternal sea, the recipient of Montale’s churning thoughts and images. Wordsworth turns to the River Derwent, which ran, as the poem explains, in back of his childhood house at Cockermouth. What is unmistakable in the lyric prayers of both poets is a cathartic energy that both describes while it addresses; evoking and invoking these bodies of water and their surroundings in memory ultimately brings the poets closer to themselves, their ambitions for their art. In his poem “End of Childhood” Montale seems less satisfied with the ambiguities and acknowledges the chore of remembering (which, in “The Prelude” seems so facile, so fluent). Of being a child-denizen of the Ligurian coast, he writes,

We rarely crossed the nearest ridges
of those peaks; even now our memory, exhausted,
lacks the courage to cross them…

…But we came back home from those mountain paths.
For us they became a flickering
alternation of strange realities,
but governed by an elusive rhythm.
Each instant, burning
into future instants, left no trace.
Just being alive was adventure, fresh, too fresh,
hour by hour, and the heart racing, always faster.
There were no rules,
no measure, no sure way
of dividing joy from sadness.

Reconciling or appreciating in our memories the tensions between “beauty and fear” or “joy and sadness” are as difficult as contending with those skirmishes between confession and complaint, elegy and anthem, or grief and grievance (a paring I steal happily from Dave Smith). Especially when it comes to physical environments, and even more so when we’re thinking about a time when time didn’t matter. Montale’s longing for oblivion, escape, or passage to another plane of being is more elusive than Wordsworth’s faith in the paradoxically restorative value of fear or trauma and how they are transformed in imagination over time (the fulcrum of all of his great works). Though both poets suggest that memories are not immune to the ravages of subsequent experiences, something in their essence—simultaneously melancholic and ecstatic—endures to enhance their aspirations as artists. As I committed myself to “Peconic,” I remember being seduced by the glimmer of this redemption in one of Montale’s earliest poems, “Seacoasts” (“Riviere”), with which he chose to conclude Cuttlefish Bones:

Today I come home to you
a stronger man (or I deceive myself), although
my heart almost melts in memories, happy
but also bitter. Sad soul of my past,
and you, fresh purpose summoning me now.

AGNI Monkey

www.SteveLewisPhoto.com
SteveLewisPhoto@gmail.comRalph Sneeden’s poems and essays have appeared most recently in The Adroit Journal, The Common,  Ecotone, Southwest Review, and The Surfer’s Journal. The title poem of his book, Evidence of the Journey, received the Friends of Literature Prize from Poetry magazine. He lives and teaches in New Hampshire. See what he’s published in AGNI here.