“A Russian soul”

No, no…not me. I very much love this city and the people I’ve come to know in it, but I would never be so bold as to assign myself a Русская душа. That’s a term that comes with some pretty serious connotations at various points in time and space in Russian culture and even though I’ve studied this place for a couple of decades, have now visited Saint Petersburg for a total of nearly two months over the course of three years, and absolutely feel at home here while I’m in residence, I am in no way qualified to be bestowing such titles, least of all on myself.

No, the person to whom the title of this post pertains is pictured in the photo at the top of it: Maurice Kenny. That photo is from June of 2012, when he and I went together on a series of poetry readings (and, in my case, a series of introductions to poetry readings) that took us from Munich to Regensburg to Prague to Berlin and finally to Namur in Belgium (though he and I went our separate ways in Liége just prior to that).

In the photo, we are sitting on a train in the Munich Hauptbahnhof, waiting for it to leave for Regensburg. We had arrived about thirty-six hours prior to this moment and hadn’t slept for many of them, partly because of jet-lag and partly because Air France had managed to lose our luggage in transit and had only managed to get it to us about two hours before we were scheduled to move on to Regensburg. We found a little store that advertised itself as a “hip-hop shop” but was largely a clearinghouse for remaindered off-brand clothing and purchased some hoodies and hats to supplement the white t-shirts that Air France provided for us as a stopgap until our luggage arrived. What Maurice has on — a “Zoo York” zip-up hoodie and a Yankees ballcap — is so far from his usual attire that it makes me chuckle to see him in it now.

During the time we were underslept and poorly dressed, Maurice had also delivered a virtuosic reading and discussion of his poetry to students and faculty at the University of Munich and we had gone on a somewhat extended, caffeine-fueled amble through the city center that by complete accident ended up in a gallery that happened to be displaying Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” in front of which Maurice parked himself for a solid ten minutes.

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By the time Air France dropped our bags off at our hotel, we were exhausted and could barely crawl into the cab to the train station to move on to our next destination. I got Maurice onto the train. Seeing that we had another twenty minutes or so before it moved off, I left him thumbing through the onboard magazine and went out into the station to see if I could find anything that we could eat during our two-hour ride to Regensburg. As it turned out, I found a luscious pile of cherries for sale at a fruit stand and the white plastic bag you see on the table in front of Maurice is filled with them. Reader, we ate the entire bag (probably at least a kilo) during the trip, coming back to life with each infusion of dark, red sweetness. In nearly fifteen years of good memories from our friendship, this one is among my absolute favorites.

Maurice has been very much on my mind while I’ve been here in Saint Petersburg this time. He was last year, too, but there was a major difference when I was here last year: he was still alive. Maurice died at the age of 86 this past April, a passing that was something of a relief after protracted struggles with a number of physical ailments that had severely reduced a man who at one point in his life spent entire years at a time riding Greyhound buses around North America, giving readings of his poetry in every corner of the continent. Though it was undoubtedly a mercy for his suffering to end, I find that only now have I fully realized that it’s impossible for me to e-mail him a photograph of the pigeon-perch/statue of Pushkin…

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…or any of the other writers immortalized in bronze or stone or wood throughout this hyper-literary city.

I must have done so a hundred times last summer and each time I got back a brief note from him…

Mauricemail

…indicating his happiness to travel vicariously to a country in which his work had been published in translation, but to which he never got the opportunity to travel.

So…about that “Russian soul” of his. That comment originates from my colleague Polly Gannon’s class during last year’s NYI. She was teaching a course on poetry and one of the class-meetings was an “open mic” session…

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…at which everyone was invited to read some work of poetry that they found especially poignant, beautiful, etc. I took the opportunity to bring and share Maurice’s poem “Wild Strawberries,” which is wonderful in its own right but also written with a style and vocabulary that would be readily accessible to pretty much any one of our students, regardless of their command of English poetic idiom (which is generally fantastic, mind you).

“Wild Strawberry”

For Helene

And I rode the Greyhound down to Brooklyn
where I sit now eating woody strawberries
grown on the backs of Mexican farmers
imported from the fields of their hands
juices without color or sweetness

my wild blood berries of spring meadows
sucked by June bees and protected by hawks
have stained my face and honeyed
my tongue…healed the sorrow in my flesh

vines crawl across the grassy floor
of the north, scatter to the world
seeking the light of the sun and innocent
tap of rain to feed the roots
and bud small white flowers that in June
will burst fruit and announce spring
when wolf will drop winter fur
and wrens will break the egg

my blood, blood berries that brought laughter
and the ache in the stooped back that vied
with dandelions for the plucking,
and the winds nourished our youth and herald
iris, corn and summer melon

we fought bluebirds for the seeds
armed against garter snakes, field mice;
won the battle with the burning sun
which blinded our eyes and froze our hands
to the vines and the earth where knees knelt
and we laughed in the morning dew like worms
and grubs; we scented age and wisdom

my mother wrapped the wounds of the world
with a sassafras poultice and we ate
wild berries with their juices running
down the roofs of our mouths and our joy

I sat here in Brooklyn eating Mexican
berries which I did not pick, nor do
I know the hands which did, nor their stories…
January snow falls, listen…

The students really seemed to enjoy the poem and I could hardly contain my excitement when one of them compared his work to Sergei Esenin’s and another to Anton Chekhov’s, saying “He has a very Russian soul, this poet.” As I recall, I sent Maurice an e-mail reporting this comment before that class was finished (my apologies to anyone whose poem I missed out on while typing it…) because I knew how touched and flattered he would be by that assessment. He not only knew his poetic history but also deeply felt his poetic affinities, and was both humbled and giddy to be appreciated within a culture that takes its poetry much more seriously to this day than the United States ever has.

Sadly, I can’t make any such report back to him this year, but I’ve been able to communicate with him still in a way. You see, he left behind an absolute trove of writing upon his death, including several manuscripts that were already in various stages of the publication process. The most pressing of these is actually a lengthy memoir entitled Angry Rain, which covers the first four decades of his life.

The manuscript, currently under contract for publication by SUNY Press, was finished and had been reviewed and provisionally accepted, but it still needed a lot of cleanup and revision based on the comments made by the press’s outside reviewers and by the editorial staff. In the last few months of his life, Maurice worked with his two wonderful students assistants on trying to get some of these changes made; likewise, he and I went through the manuscript on a couple of occasions, clarifying some points and adding/removing some material where appropriate. It was, however, very much still a collection of thoughts, reflections, and commentaries rather than a fully integrated story of his early life and development as a poet and a person.

Happily, the external reviewers from the press recognized the diamonds within the rough, rather than just rejecting it out of hand because of its somewhat haphazard state. Looking at the manuscript now, I have a much better sense of just how bad his health had become…he was desperately trying to get his thoughts down on paper before they slipped away from him and made few of the persnickety — as one would expect from an accomplished poet — decisions about style and usage that were his hallmark in his professional writing.

It has been a labor of love (and, honestly, part of my way of abstractly processing the grief I’ve felt at his absence) since mid-May for me. I’ve been working in painstaking fashion through the entire 225-plus-page manuscript and performing the often-difficult task of reworking it as a story without changing it substantively. Thankfully, I knew his voice when it was at the impressive peak of its power and can make reasonable and defensible decisions about how he would likely phrase his ideas. We worked together on several written projects and I even published an interview with him a few years after I met him (an occasion that marked the first time he really let me into some of the deeper caverns inside his immensely complicated mind…) I’ve moved entire chapters, cut sentences from the last page and moved them to the front, lifted passages from one section and grafted them onto a stray clause from a hundred pages later and come to know this book better than I know any of my own writing. In the process of doing so, I have also revisited the friend I knew so well and for nearly a third of my life (though only for about a sixth of his…).

Yesterday was Saturday, the first real day “off” that I’ve had since last Saturday (which was my body-acclimatization day). It was a really fun, really energetic first week, about which I will have more to write later, but I was also pretty mentally and physically drained, especially after a strangely difficult night of sleep on Thursday/Friday. Mitja had invited me to accompany him and a group of students out to what looked like (and turned out to be, from Mitja’s report) a pretty amazing museum of street art in a still-working factory out on the eastern edge of the city, but I had to reluctantly decline the invitation in favor of a “mental-health day.”

What that day actually ended up consisting of was working on his manuscript while sitting  in the lovely nook in the corner of this apartment’s living room…

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…with a cup of coffee (and later a cup of tea…and later a glass of beer). As much as I love the terrace, with its views and its sunshiny breakfasts, I think if I could take one small part of the space-time continuum from this apartment and put it into a pouch to take back home with me, it would be this little corner. There are pigeons on the roof right outside the window, the sounds and smells of communal life coming through the open window (along, it must be said, with the occasional mosquito…), and a constant view of the inconstant Saint Petersburg sky. During the twelve or so hours I sat and worked on the book — with a couple of excursions out into the sunny afternoon/evening for groceries and a stretch of the legs — the day went from pouring rain, to brilliant blue sky, to a dusky evening sky in which fireworks were going off back towards the city center, to as close to pitch-darkness as one can get in mid-July here, and finally back to a significant glimmer of sunlight off in the northeast as I wrapped up a chapter around 2 a.m.

It was a good way to spend the day, even if it pretty much could have taken place (physically, at least) just about anywhere. Metaphysically, though, I think it needed to take place right here and right now. Maurice’s Russian-Mohawk-Irish-Seneca-American-frequently mistaken for Jewish soul insisted upon it and if I learned anything from my years of friendship with him it is not to argue with him about such matters. I’ve got a couple more days’ worth of work left on it, but I’d like to get it done while I’m here as a tribute both to him and to the city.

In closing, let me just add one of the poems that he wrote after our trip to Prague in 2012. I was fortunate enough to see him read it a few times in public and it always moved the audience immensely; it seems very pertinent in the wake of the awful things that have happened in Nice and Turkey just in the time I’ve been here. The print version of his poem will have to suffice.

“Židovské muzeum v Praze (Prague Jewish Museum”

We’d been hunting Kafka for days…
sun burning and street stones
fire to flip flop sandals. We found his
cemetery and stood silent in awe of this
incredible artist who had long kept
our brains to his words. His favorite
café was gone from the street, but we bought
postcards and a book or two in the Kafka shop
and spent time in the dark museum.

Under
light rain we stood for tickets to the Museum
and fear rose to what we would find.
Antiquity for sure, but not expecting
Sitting Bull’s name on the wall, nor Geronimo’s,
nor Chief Hendricks, or Roman Nose, never
Crazy Horse or Big Foot or Rain-in-the-Face.
There on the walls I saw Red Jacket, Gowane,
and name after name after name: Native
men and women who struggled against church
and government to live peacefully in their
country. Big Foot and Yellow Bird, Gladys
Bissonette, Roman Nose, and these names
went on ad infinitum.

For every Weitzmann carved
into the walls of this ancient synagogue
there was a Rokwaho, a John Mohawk,
a Diane Decorah or Diane Burns, Ellen
Moves Camp, a Sally Benedict, a Jim Welch,
a Black Kettle. I stood at the railing shaking
in terror, sobbing in horror for the souls
behind all names, children, babes in arms
burnt in an oven or on the blade of an army
bayonet. For every Schwartz suffocating in a gas
chamber…the name written on the Temple walls
of this ancient tomb…there were Native
names painted on the buffalo robe calendars:
Pedro Bissonette – Lakota drunk in a NYC
gutter who went home to fight for his people
now sleeps in an unmarked grave at Wounded
Knee, or Chief Pontiac – assassinated
for protecting his home and children.
Manny (Papago) – shot on Tucson bar steps
by seven white boys who don’t like Indians
or Jews, or Blacks or Gays or Chinks
or big noses, small feet or rich
lands, or poems by Peter Blue Cloud,
or Hillary Cooper’s beautiful wife who
escaped Auschwitz to the Adirondacks:
Ginsberg, Levertov, Steinberg, Hauser…
names etched into books of the century’s
horror, madness; names like Little Belly,
Young King, Phillip Deere…oh! glory, hundreds
of thousands, millions remembered,
ignored, wiped from the earth: Loveman
or Lorne Simon.

I stood at the rail
angry, ashamed of what humans have
inflicted on their own species; hate
wasted when love and understanding
is infinitely less expensive. Huxley’s
Roman Circus prevails, Kafka’s world
we should fear, Hitler/Custer’s stand
on corners of every city, each town
flourishing in this wide world.
Jesus, even though you may not be the son
of God we welcome you back to earth.

When I was a mere boy of nine I chased
ice trucks for slivers of ice on hot
afternoons, lagged behind fruit/vegetable
wagons hoping I might grab a grape/berry.
One of my favorite games to play was follow
Ol’ Sam’s (he had no other names but Ol’
and Sam) rag wagon as he sullenly shouted:
“Ol’ rags, ol’ shoes, ol’ black suits.” My mom
always thought he was a gypsy and would
steal us and drag us into the rags, later
sell us. Oh little do we know of other folks.

Recently I re-read Orwell’s famous blast,
warning of the future to come. It came!
Waits here among us. Huxley’s
Circus is stronger and “soma” has worked
its way into every brain and dream,
the sheer thought of which should be
a nightmare as the merry-go-round
whirls and whirls us into blindness

I shall weep for the Jew
and I shall weep for the Native,
and all the poor bastards, peoples
hated and slaughtered. I shall weep
for Lazarus as I weep for Black Elk,
Audre Lorde, the young Chinese
student who faced the China tank.

I shall continue until my day
is dark and my night is new
with moon. For we shall suffer
and I shall weep for us all.

Niá:wen and ó:nen, my friend.

 

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