Rusanna and I sit at my linoleum-topped kitchen table with the oven door propped open for heat. On the table in front of us are half-drunk cups of sugared tea and copies of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem Uzh Skol’ko Ikh (Already how many). Rusanna is coaching me to read it in Russian. She is a painstaking teacher of pronunciation, correcting all of my soft and hard ts, my improperly rounded vowels, my strewn accents. But she is also moody and distractible. She interrupts our lesson to say, “Tell me about how American men make love.” When I confess that, at twenty-one, I have never had any lovers, American or otherwise, she scoffs and then pouts, “Why don’t you tell me the truth? I tell you everything. Everyone knows that American girls have more lovers than anyone.”
Disappointed in love, Rusanna imagines that the country of Montana and John Wayne has men to equal her passion. She takes my reticence on the subject as selfish — I want all the men for myself, she says. We reach this impasse again and again. In our youth and vanity, we are like the poem’s speaker:
All will grow coldthat once sang and struggledglistened and rejoicedthe green of my eyes,the gold of my hairmy gentle voice
Rusanna is Armenian. My kitchen table is in Estonia, where Rusanna is raising her daughter and I am teaching English. We are studying Russian almost covertly because both of us know that Estonian would be more useful and certainly more politically correct. But both of us have also become obsessed with the idea that I might pronounce myagkiznak with just the right softness. Truth be told, Rusanna hates the Estonian language, Estonian winters, and not least of all, Estonian men, whom she finds cold and unfeeling. I have become her repository for these complaints on the long, dark nights of winter, and in the meantime I recite and memorize Uzh Skol’ko Ikh until its forms are so familiar I feel they have entered my cells. The door to the Russian language creaks open under Rusanna’s instruction, and I whisper the words of the poem on the bus, at the market, and as I fall asleep.
I did not grasp at first that Russian would be best learned through its poetry. I memorized grammar structures and vocabulary lists. I treated the language like a fill-in-the-blank exercise, but when I arrived in Russia for the first time in my junior year of college, communication eluded me. After two years of study, no one understood me when I ordered bread at a bakery or wished a friend happy birthday. Near despair, I sat one day in phonetics class while the teacher tried to prod her American students to hear the melodies of the Russian language. We rehearsed the same sentence over and over again, testing different intonation patterns. Suddenly I understood. Russian was first and foremost a music. To speak it, you had to learn to sing it.
The Russian language and Russian poetry are inextricably linked. Russians memorize dozens of poems. They employ poems in arguments and recite them on street corners. Their poets are beloved authorities on any subject. In 1991, when I went to study in a provincial Russian city, I was invited to an elementary school so that the children could meet an actual American. “Be alert, children,” the teacher said. “This will be the only opportunity you may ever have to see an American.” Then she demanded that I recite a poem in English so they could hear my “American speech.” I did not know how to explain that Americans don’t typically recite poems — maybe nursery rhymes, maybe a line or two memorized in high school. But beyond “Hickory Dickory Dock,” we are an impoverished people.
To my relief, I had recently, in a lovesick state, memorized Robert Frost’s “To Earthward,” and I was able to recite at least part of it while the children stared at me uncomprehendingly. They sensed the lack of authority I brought to the recitation. It was that, as much as the foreign language, that befuddled them.
I have never stopped turning to Russian poems. Tsvetaeva was the first. But like a dog with a bone, I bury Russian poems in my subconscious and bring them out to chew on. I’ve buried Anna Akhmatova’s simple, earthy phrases like those she wrote upon learning of the arrest of her son:
U menya sevodnya mnogo delo:Nado pamyat’ do kontsa ubit’,Nado, chtob dusha okamenelaNado snova nauchit’sya zhit’Today I have a lot to doI must destroy all my memoryI must turn my soul to stoneI must learn again how to live—From The Sentence
Or Mandelstam’s aching fluidity, or the poem-songs of Yuri Shevchuk from the rock group DDT. Whenever I am lonely or tired, have a painful commute, cannot sleep, or lose the thread of my life, these poems, written in a language that even after two decades of study I only slightly comprehend, serve as touchstones. My very inability to master their meanings or even to perfect my ts serves a mysterious, orienting purpose beyond the knowledge of my mouth or consciousness. These poems stir what the visionary Julian of Norwich called my “love-longing.” They remain always just beyond my reach.