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Essay

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE to young writers?” an audience member in Ypsilanti asked Russian poet Sergey Gandlevsky, at the denouement of another bilingual reading on our coast-to-coast American tour. For ten years, with my inexpert Russian and inelegant English, I’d suffered over translations of Gandlevsky’s poems until they slowly became a full-length collection, A Kindred Orphanhood. At the end of readings, the Q and A sessions always made for a sweaty dance, since I had to translate a whole worldview into a different worldview with my shaky Russian for Gandlevsky, who spoke not a word of English. It was like dancing while trying to carry a heavy box, on ice skates. And you’re pretty rusty at skating.

“Once,” Gandlevsky replied, “a writer came to Dostoyevsky and asked what he needed to do to become a better writer.”

He paused, I translated. There was a rhythm to this ice dance, and Gandlevsky was a professional, knowing when to pause mid-sentence for dramatic effect.

“Dostoyevsky said,” Gandlevsky continued, “you need”—and here I took a header—“to try really hard.”

Afterward, a college student who happened to be Russian came up to me and said, “I think he meant, ‘You need to suffer.’”

I died a little from my mistake.

Of course that’s what Dostoyevsky said. I’d forgotten about suffering. There are so many words for suffering in Russian, each of them compounded by countless possible prefixes. Stradat’: to suffer, labor under, writhe. Terpet’: to suffer, endure, bear up. Perezhit’: to suffer, to live through.

I’d somehow made Gandlevsky’s words American: that all that’s necessary to be a great writer is hard work, just a bit of Calvinist discipline and gumption.

Not that I could ever forget suffering during my time in Russia. The idea that suffering dilates and grows the soul is shared by so many writers and thinkers that it’s either true or intellectual catnip. Suffering is a trial that awakens us to our ultimate end, the sickness unto death (a salute to you, dour Kierkegaard). The suffering-as-seed-of-transformation trope is absolutely fundamental to Christian thinking, so it’s not surprising that Orthodox Russia would be shaped by it. I was shaped by it, of course, growing up Catholic and longing that my hardships and toil would have some meaning, would bring me closer to eternity. And who wouldn’t, really? The idea of meaningless suffering feels almost too painful to bear.

But the fervor with which Russians metabolized the idea that suffering could make us saints and poets, and the ways in which Soviet reality encouraged it, magnified through the American prism of the Cold War, deserve special mention. It seemed as if all the great poets and writers suffered copiously under the tsars and communists; if they weren’t sent before firing squads, they were sent to Siberia. And even those who were not martyred, like Pasternak, suffered in their own ways; Stalin once phoned Pasternak in the middle of the night to ask what he’d heard about Osip Mandelstam’s arrest for a mocking ode about the dictator. Pasternak denied knowing anything and distanced himself from Mandelstam’s idea of poetry. Stalin replied, “I see you just aren’t able to stick up for a comrade,” and hung up.

What Pasternak didn’t say may have led to the great poet’s death.

In my notebook right before I left for Russia, I’d copied down a quote from Dostoyevsky, a writer who faced a firing squad only to receive a last-minute stay from the tsar, then endured six years of exile in Siberia: “Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.”

If Dostoyevsky was any indication, Russia would be a place where such thoughts were possible—that suffering and sadness were not only part of human life, but inevitable for those who were truly alive. If you wanted to be a writer, I must have believed, then you wanted life at its most concentrated—the joys and sorrows overflowing. And if the images beamed to our television screens and in our newspapers were any indication, then bleak weather, waiting in gray lines for bread, and sheer difficulty—well, the raw ingredients for suffering were in abundance.

I write again, I must have believed.

I don’t know why I went, but like a drunk who’s trying to reconstruct a long blackout, I know that I went. I studied Russian in college because I was fascinated by the strange idea of an “evil empire.” I received a fellowship to study Russian poetry and its relationship to historical change. I went to interview poets and translate their work. But all of these reasons feel too pat. There must have been some dark logic somewhere in the blackout shrouding my memory. I want to say again: Fate brought me there. Fate and its dozen secret reasons.

 

Like some splintery board I had to lie on nightly, fate filled me with hot slivers of memory. Every now and then, another memory pricks through the skin, tastes the air. For example: Give us this day our daily bread, and then I was in line, doing that slow-rocking penitential shuffle, shifting my unholy weight from leg to leg, my body cramped and chilly, in yet another line for bread, this time waiting for the bread-turned-body. At the only English-language Christmas Mass in Moscow, Christmas Eve, I stood next to Colonel Paul Nelson and his family. I’d met the colonel through a friend, and we’d occasionally see each other at the embassy after pick-up basketball games and for occasional visits and meals. I was struck by how, during phases of the Mass, the colonel would bow his head and back so deeply that he looked like a Muslim doing prostrations. I knew that what brought him to Russia, what consumed his working days, was traveling from nuclear site to nuclear site, making sure that the old Soviet stockpiles were being dismantled, delivering us from evil. I’d heard unsettling stories of nuclear sites left unguarded—just a padlock and a babushka separating a warhead from a potential terrorist. Was it the weight of possible nuclear annihilation that bent him double? Was it some unspeakable sin? I would not disturb his peace or his turbulence to ask. His wife, always by his side, caressed his back, leaning quietly into whatever agonized him.

I’d stood in a hundred Russian churches, studying the walls of holy faces gazing upon us with their slow smolder, obsessed with their fire. The word icon in Russian means both image and way, a way of being and a path to become. Open books to remind us of God, someone had written about icons. When I’d first arrived in Russia, my host family and I took the train to Sergiyev Posad, home of the fourteenth-century Trinity Lavra monastery, which had remained vital despite being shuttered for a quarter-century of the early communist era, and where the legendary iconographer Andrei Rublev once painted his Trinity and other masterpieces. In the dim cathedral, lit only by thin candles and the hauntingly sweet singing of old women, we stood together, the staunchly secular Maslovs and I, reeling from its strangeness. Svetlana Maslov walked around stiffly, looking over her shoulder, gripping her handbag tightly under her arm as if she were afraid it might get stolen in this weird dark place. On the way, she kept insisting on calling the city by its Soviet-era name, Zagorsk, which I thought was strangely rigid, but I didn’t know then that it had been called Zagorsk until 1991, the year before I arrived. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be in that newly named but ancient place to that good Soviet woman, born entirely free of the pungent candle-lit mysticism of religion, who’d only known the staunchly scientific mythology of communism.

I felt strangely at home in this otherworld. For handfuls of Sundays, home from college, I’d donned a gold-threaded cassock to carry a gold fan in the processions around Saint John the Baptist, the Chicago-area Melkite church my father discovered during my teenage years, which cast us among fellow Arab Christians and the lilting honey of Arabic singing, stern iconography and incense bathing the entire Mass. That place, in all its strangeness, seemed to bring me closer to God than all my years attending Roman Catholic Mass, with its sweetly awkward organ-wheezing choirs and reasoned homilies. Here in Russia, the dim choir’s voices rose and fell, rose and fell, a rising and falling prayer, a wave that cascaded over my open face as I neared the wall of stern faces framed in gold, the great hammered-gold doors to the inner sanctum, a wave of gratitude and awe, as if it were an answer to a question I didn’t know I’d been asking my whole life, a wave that woke me to the self that I’d never known but always wanted to be, soaking me with my own salt, my senses flooded with incense and chorus and myrrh. Later, trying to find words to explain that feeling, I’d stumbled across one formulation of the beautiful possibility of the divine dwelling in everyday life, the union of word and flesh, of heaven on earth: “The boundless Word was altogether with the earthly ones, but not absent at all from the heavenly ones.”

But months later, in the dark of this dark season, on the eve of Christmas, I knew I was not at home, nor was I in heaven. Whatever awe had held me in its thrall during the first days in Russia, visiting its churches and subways and cemeteries and theaters, the awe that had kept from me the great suffering of the people all around me, and my own utter loneliness—that awe was gone, like a child’s balloon accidentally let go, and suddenly so high it could not be reached, it could only be seen, in smaller and smaller iterations of itself, each time reminding me of what had been a flying plaything in my hands and would never again.

I’d come to learn how to be writer, and now I could not write a single line of a poem. Poetry was closed for repairs. This world was too much with me, my vain attempts to spend meeting my inability to get, laying waste my powers, all words turned to dry paper and now my head was aflame, some hidden fire feeding itself, growing through the day and now, near midnight, in the pew again, I couldn’t stop weeping, as if to put out whatever was burning inside me, burning the waiting for buses and the waiting for trains, burning, burning the bashed and hurting faces rocking in the buses and trains, burning, burning the cocktail of sweat and cigarette smoke and gas fumes and perfumes and garlic and flowers that rose from the smoldering bodies on the trains, burning the leaves bright and burning on the lindens and birches, then tearing away and now burning in bonfires on the outskirts of the city, burning the gypsy begging in front of Pushkin Square’s McDonald’s, offering her babies for my rubles, burning the longing eyes of Svetlana, burning the roaches scurrying to dark corners to hide from the sudden light, burning the borscht and the kasha, the zakuski and vodka burning my throat, burning the letters drowned in the local pond by the drunk mailman who’d delivered them to a watery grave for ten years, burning the mailman, burning Red Square and its cobbles that have held up the Red Army and Ozzy Osbourne, burning the dilapidated apartment entrances like bashed mouths that I’d been entering for months, burning the stench of loneliness and sadness and ache that had become me, burning the thousands of miles between me and everyone I loved, burning America, burning the me inside me, burning faith, burning poetry, burning God, burning the absence of God, burning, burning, burning.

Next to me, an old babushka saw that I was surrounded by flames and took my hand in her wrinkled papery hands, her skin softer than silk, and rubbed her finger between my thumb and forefinger, a spell to break the throbbing in my head. I disappeared into this caress….

Somehow I made it back to the apartment, but the flowing cursive of narrative stopped. I must have taken off my coat and shoes and collapsed into bed, but I don’t remember anything.

In my notebook, after days of steady-handed cursive, trying to hold back the feeling that everything I knew was collapsing, a dwarf star sucking all energy into itself, now a loose scrawl spidered diagonally across the page. Another scrawl, also diagonal. Barely legible.

But something. Then a cluster of lines. Word strung alongside word. I swam in my own fevers, sweating through four sets of clothes in a few hours, the fever dream of day-night-day-night locked in my burning, my heart pounding against the walls of my chest like a prisoner against the door of his bondage, my face swollen and now covered with red spots, my feet like blocks of frozen meat, the room aflame in my illness, until something like words returned. And the walls met and pointed to heaven and earth. And the birds sang for us somewhere far. And the thunder portioned in our hands. And I drank until I hated the taste of water. And this came, not knowing what it meant:

 

Icon

We did not know

if we were in heaven

or on earth.

                —First Muscovite emissaries to Constantinople, tenth century

The room was bare.

Dust suspended in webs

of light. Along them, song

streamed in from rocky outcroppings.

He bent to undo our shoes.

When he stood, light

behind him first blinded us

to his face, then revealed him

human, but past tragedy, lines

burned smooth. Words said

I cannot remember, like water,

somehow a tasteless quenching.

When he steeped brown irises

of tea, we felt everything at once

go bronze: his life passing fast

in painted scenes, miracles

the weight of his palm opened

on shoulders. No questions, we left

a silence that became him, flickering

like the fire he tended, ember by ember.

All we could give was our watching.

One day, a couple of years after having come back to the States, I sat in my one-bedroom apartment in Philly after a long day at a bullshit temp job in the insurance claims department of a large business that was shedding full-timers to increase its bottom line. I spent half the time either translating poems or absconding with incriminating files to dress up beer cans in the mode of the avant-garde artist Dmitri Prigov, while angrily arguing with NPR on a radio turned down to a murmur. At the office, I felt as if I were an alien in a world without walls, in some sort of dry refrigerated aquarium, all of us drowning to death in some invisible water. So in the summer swelter of a second-floor one-bedroom, I pulled off my dress shoes with my opposite foot and unsheathed a videotape. It was a chance to escape the misery of another day earning money as a minor cog in a corporation, to immerse myself in someone else’s life. In the dark room, with my girlfriend gone, I would watch a film I’d heard about, Moscow on the Hudson. The VCR swallowed the book-shaped pill and produced a vision: Robin Williams playing Volodya, a Russian immigrant riding a New York City bus, watching a recent immigrant who is totally lost. He jumps to the man’s rescue and carefully describes the way he needs to go.

I felt the strange unease of déjà vu. It was as if I were watching my own life, but was I the foreigner needing directions, or the wise immigrant lending a hand to the one just off the boat?

And later, when Volodya is sent on a mission by his hosts to the local supermarket for coffee and, amid so many choices, grows overwhelmed and dizzy, pulling down an entire row of coffee on his head, I thought of my own burning vertigo before the plate-glass window of that American-style supermarket in downtown Moscow.

Was I now, or had I always been, a foreigner in my own land?

Late in Moscow on the Hudson, Volodya and Lionel (the black man who took him in when he defected in a department store) lament their secret sorrows, how they are separated from their kin—Lionel from a son he’s never met, Volodya from his entire family back behind the Iron Curtain.

Volodya confesses, “When I was in Russia, I did not love my life…but I loved my misery. You know why? Because it was my misery. I could hold it. I could caress it. I loved my misery.”

I sat up, stirred from my stupor. Picked up the remote control and pressed rewind.

I loved my misery. You know why? Because it was my misery.

Rewound again.

Because it was my misery.

My misery was mine. My head started to swim, prickly hot, that feeling you get when you’ve gone so far during your run that your skull surges with the body’s self-made cocktail of light. Had I been in love with the idea of a people who saw their unhappiness, their suffering, as what made them most themselves?

In that dark, the light of the screen flickering before me, paused, I remembered. Once, when I was seven years old, I was biking with some neighborhood boys (boys who had greeted me with the word “spic” and a hail of crabapples a few months before) on some winding dirt trails near the river. On a tricky bunny hop, I pulled up too quickly, flipped over my handlebars, and smacked my body on the ground. Woozy and star-brained, I sat up. I touched my face with an open hand. I passed it before my still-bargled eyes. It was covered with blood. My bike was too mangled to ride, so I limped back home, opened the door to a quiet house, and went into the bathroom. In the mirror, on my cheek beneath my left eye, the skin was sheared away, a gash raw and seething with blood.

I went to my parents’ closed door—it was Saturday, when they usually napped—and said quietly, “Mom?”

I didn’t want to disturb them, but I thought they should know.

“Mom, I don’t want you to worry. There’s nothing to worry about, but I fell on my bike.”

She emerged from the bedroom in her nightgown and uttered a cry, pulling me to her chest, and then off to the emergency room.

For years, she’d circle back to that story. In the retelling, it seemed to underscore what a sensitive boy I was, how thoughtful I was, how I didn’t want to trouble her with my pain, even though I was bleeding. It’s alright, Ma, as Dylan once sang. Now, I wonder if somewhere in my mother’s milk, I’d swallowed a secret message that I should be happy, and that my pain would cause my parents pain. And over the years, when I was hurting from the typical hurts of young adulthood, I often kept it to myself, fixing my face into a smile and my voice into a positive tone before I said hello to my parents on the phone. They’d listen carefully, like the psychologists they were at work and at home, trying to hear any signs of distress—and comment positively if I sounded energetic and happy.

I wore the mask. Behind the mask, there was some dark flood. There was something in me that always felt homeless, wracked with my own inexplicable incompleteness, some undiagnosable pain. I can’t explain it otherwise, but I held onto it like it was the only thing I had. Russia gave me a place where I could nurture this hurt, an unhappiness that was entirely my own. I could hold it and caress it, as if it were a genie lamp, some empty vessel that held an invisible spirit. And no one else—not my loving and sometimes overwhelming parents who wanted me to be happy, who worried anxiously over all my worry; not my teachers, who wanted me to succeed and pushed me to the limits of my need for perfection; not my friends, who held their own hurts close; not my judges or enemies; not America, with its demands to “Enjoy!” and “Have Fun!”—no one could touch it. Keep the bullet safe inside, as Richard Buckner sang.

What if this hurt was what opened me to the world, the way a window is sawed out of a blank wall? In Russia, I’d found a line by Ivan Zhdanov that I carried with me like a talisman: “what outside is a cross / inside is a window.” Maybe I could raise this hurt inside me beyond its prosaic meaningless to poetry, to art.

I know now, in a way that I couldn’t completely then, that Joseph Brodsky is also right. It is “an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills…. Basically, talent doesn’t need history.” Suffering in itself is just suffering. It isolates us, alienates us, and grinds us down. How much suffering has been endured for no good reason, for religion’s pie in the sky by and by, for the promise of artistic transcendence?

How many times in Russia did I regret choosing Russia, which, when it revealed itself in cruel and broad stereotypes, was full of sadistic cashiers and greedy police, desperate women and brutal men—a place of damaged and demanding grandeur? I could be in Italy right now, I’d write to my parents, eating pasta and drinking red wine at an outdoor café, not trudging through the ice and snow with frost-bitten feet in order to discover that the train would not leave for another two hours because of the midday break?

But I could not help myself. I wanted suffering. I wanted dark inexplicable churches. I wanted the Vale of Soul-Making, I wanted mad Russia to hurt me into poetry, not to bathe blithely under a Tuscan sun.

 

Back in America, Gandlevsky kept turning questions back on themselves, like Dylan in the documentary Dont Look Back. The cynicism of repeating answers to the same stock questions at reading after reading suddenly becomes too revolting. The only way to remove yourself from the vicious circle of mindless repetitions is to question the questions themselves.

Though this tactic is another kind of performance, is it not the poet’s duty to stick to the particulars, against all the generalizers and biographers and critics, whose questions cast the poet as defendant, whose crime is the poem itself? If not you, then who? What? When? How? Why?

After the Q and A in Ypsilanti, an impeccably dressed Russian-speaking woman came up to Gandlevsky and said: “Your poems are so dark. Don’t you have anything a bit lighter, something about love, for example?”

Gandlevsky reddened, clearly upset. “My poems have many colors and tones. They do have darkness, but they contain other colors as well.”

That’s what I loved about his poems, of course. Not the darkness, but that the darkness was singing. Though Brodsky was right, what I loved then and love now about Russian literature is that it sings the darkness. Gandlevsky’s poetry is full of this rich Russian paradox; if the poetry delves deep into the darkness and misery and mystery of human existence, its music is so undeniable, so playful, so often ecstatic, and has persisted for so long. It suggests the secret pleasures of a people who have been seen in the West as the stern patrons of unhappiness (“every unhappy family…”). It is what makes translating Russian poetry most difficult, and why readers of Russian poetry in translation—say, the English versions of Anna Akhmatova or Osip Mandelstam—mainly receive a picture of a grim and absurd reality but not much of a sense of what it sounds like when a pure music collides with the grim or the absurd.

Of course, it’s not just Russian to acknowledge that life is both light and dark, pleasurable and painful. And come to think of it: wasn’t it from John Keats that I’d learned about the inextricability of joy and sorrow—that the Chamber of Maiden Thought and its “pleasant wonders” is revealed to be surrounded by dark passages, the Burden of the Mystery, “of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression”? But that somewhere beyond it, the Chamber of Life awaits, with the “wine of love—and the Bread of Friendship.”

Most Russians I’ve met thought it was crazy that I ever wanted to suffer the exhaustions and deficits of their lives. That I wanted to live like them. Many of them didn’t want to live the way they had to live, of course. Dima, my Russian teacher and then co-translator, thought it was foolish and would shake his head like an exasperated dad when I revealed to him that I came with leaky boots and a cashmere dress coat to the country whose winter defeated Napoleon and Hitler. He promptly chaperoned me off to an open market to buy a red and black Chinese down coat that made me look like an oversized matryoshka doll. I’m not saying that I chose to bring leaky boots to Russia because I wanted to suffer. But I was living in the clouds of high ideas, where Russia’s rains and snows were theoretical. Russia brought me back to earth and met my dammed-up inner flood with its own darker wave, a wave so high it blotted out the sky, crested, and then fell and fell and fell.

 


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