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From Poetry Magazine

Crimea, Mon Amour

By Valzhyna Mort

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[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Since Harriet will be filled with guest bloggers for the month of April, we're posting this one a day early. Valzhyna Mort’s “A Judgment Tale” appears in the April 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]

As a teenager I felt particularly blessed with my skinny arms. I liked to imagine myself walking along the streets of Feodosia, just like Marina Tsvetaeva does in one of her many Crimean poems, “alone, without a thought, with two skinny arms hanging by each side.” I’d recite these lines and my arms would appear so strange in their swaying uselessness, two swan necks hanging head-down.

I went to Crimea only once, ten years ago, with two boys from school, neither for the sun nor to trace my mother’s steps (“When I was your age,” she liked to say many years ago, “I’d fly to Crimea every weekend.”). We went so that we could, after Mandelshtam, after honey and tea, “walk out into a brown garden, the eyelash-curtains lowered on the windows, and go along white columns to look at the ripening grapes.” Russian Crimean poetry could be easily reenacted, rewalked, reseen, retouched. Its land has been romanticized and sentimentalized, the Black Sea drowned in the sea of poetry written on its shores. Crimea is a place where geopolitics meets geopoetics. Starting with Alexander Pushkin’s Black Sea sojourn in 1820 and culminating with a silver mine of Russian Silver Age, Maximilian Voloshin’s Koktebel dacha, which received about 600 artist-guests per year, Crimea has been a place where Russian poets came to be initiated into poetry, to write, to love, to fight death with better climate, and to die.

Sightseeing: here is Crimean landscape eroticized and orientalized by Pushkin, here is the hair Crimean authorities tore out of their own heads when they were worried that Lev Tolstoy was going to die there, here is Anton Chekhov’s lady with her lapdog, here is a cemetery where Tsvetaeva French-kissed Mandelshtam (Mandelshtam: since then, every landscape reminds me of those hills), here is Andrei Bely’s lost shoelace, here’s where he met his young admirer Vladimir Nabokov, here is the sea that Mayakovsky in a yellow sweater compared to a blue blouse, the same Mayakovsky who called Crimean literary critics wether-heads, here is a little shop where Joseph Brodsky bought postcards he sent from Yalta to his Russian ballerina.

For three Belarusian teenagers Ukrainian Crimea was a neutral territory where we could meet our Russian literary step-parents. There, all of us were neither locals nor tourists, but vacationers, getawayers. We were after white houses with white columns, surrounded by vineyards and cypresses sweating with its tangy distinct aroma, after black horses grazing on endless hills against the blue horizon. We stayed just outside of Sudak, in a ten dollars a night shack, without windows, but in the morning, cracks in the door let in blades of sun slicing through the room—it was like sleeping in a magician’s black box. On the street corner a woman sold peaches and I went to buy them straight from sleep. Their skins were like ice—strong, cracking, bursting with juice once broken. In the evenings, the seventh century fortress standing on fossilized coral reefs, our backs to its walls, we drank wines with thirty percent sugar in them. Their names: Black Doctor Massandra, Ancient Nectar, The Seventh Sky of Prince Golitsyn, Livadia. We balanced out the sugar with the salt from the Black Sea.

A few years later I would change course and start reading Belarusian poetry, but the white houses by the sea would catch me by surprise again. The first Belarusian modernist poet, that is the first Belarusian city poet rather than a peasant-poet, interested in a place of a human being in the universe rather than his place in the ideological national myth, Maxim Bahdanovich died in Yalta at the age of 25, leaving by his deathbed this note:

In a country of light, where I’m dying
in a white house by a blue bay,
I’m not sad, I have a book
from the Marcin Kukhta press.

I’m going to make a leap now, from this sudden yet quiet death to the Soviet mass purging that started in the Crimea that same year, in 1917. Maximilian Voloshin, genius loci, whose dacha in Koktebel would become the happiest memory of Russia’s best poets, wrote this poem on April 21, 1921 with the same matter-of-fact diction Anna Swirszczynska would later use to write about the siege of Warsaw:

Worked nights. Read
informers’ reports, personal files.
In a hurry signed sentences.
Sighed. Drank wine.

In the morning gave soldiers vodka.
In the evening, by candlelight
called the roll, men and women.
Herded them into a dark courtyard.

Took off their shoes, underwear, clothing.
Bundled it.
Loaded them into carts. Sent off.
Shared watches and rings.

In the night huddled them barefoot, naked,
over ice-cold stones,
in the north-west wind
into the waste land.

Huddled with clubs to the edge of a cliff.
Lit with a flashlight.
For half a minute machine-guns worked.
Finished up with bayonets.

Dumped the barely dead into a hole.
Buried in a hurry.
Then with a sweeping Russian song
returned to the city.

Before dawn, staggered to the same hills
wives, mothers, dogs.
Dug the ground. Fought for the bones.
Kissed dear flesh.

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Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Monday, March 31st, 2014 by Valzhyna Mort.