Katherine E. Young



I.  Eight poems from Day of the Border Guards, finalist for the Miller Williams Prize (University of Arkansas Press, 2014):


Speaking Russian

When she saw the cat's ears, the vet blanched


Gololeditsa, naked ice. Nuts spill from cloth sacks

Mushrooms: forests to be gathered


casually, beside the burned-out tanks


In the early morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan

greeted by cheering delegations of workers and World War II veterans

women and children were thrown in the river


sleeves embroidered with seed pearls


Russian poetry died of self-consciousness in 1840


Wearing a stylish brown cloche in the sepia-toned photo


I take the trolley to the homeopathic pharmacy, clutching my


Fur hat? Genuine Red Army knife? Lacquer box?

Baidarka: two-man kayak


Machine-gunned, their bodies rolled down the ravine


black swans on a burdock-choked pond


So cold men's fingers froze


Blend almond oil with yellow dock root extract


I'm still unsure of instrumental plurals


The antechamber of learning is the knowledge of languages


the cat pays for my mistakes



The Parrot Flaubert

That spring she couldn't rid herself of him:
his essence lingered in the rows of boxwood,
the balky lawn mower, the wheelbarrow
with the flat tire he'd propped against the porch. 
Magazines, bills kept coming in his name.
Ants still overran the pantry, bait
untouched, as if she'd never set it out.
She had to remind herself he'd really gone.
Those last months he'd sequestered himself
in the basement, flitting from channel to channel,
crowds of celluloid Welleses and Garbos
repelling all her efforts to engage him.
Unhappiness sprouted thorns, muscled in
among the end tables.  The words of a Russian
cabaret song lodged in her brain, evoking
fine china, Chantilly spoons, hand-knotted rugs.
She recalled the stillness in which he'd sat—
he'd seemed impervious—while the final
verse played out around him: the once-plucky
heroine, driven to hysterics, smashing
plates; the old cat saucer-eyed beneath
the sofa; and the parrot Flaubert, sobbing
uncontrollably again en français.


Yellow Flowers
after Mikhail Bulgakov
I buttoned my long black coat, settled
yellow flowers in my arms,
struck out along Tverskaya, scanning
the shop windows, the faces, the cars: 

it was either that, or poison myself. 
I'd never met you—I'd known you all
my life.  I turned down an alley
the moment I saw you.  You knew me, too: 

we met, as if by chance, among
dumpsters and coal chutes.  You liked
roses, you said, but not these flowers—
Yellow's an evil color, you said.

Love caught us suddenly, leaped
at us like a murderer.  I tossed
my yellow signal in the gutter,
tucked my hand beneath your arm.


Names for Snow

There are hundreds of names for snow, you say,
unlatching the fortochka in morning light.
Let's name them all, love, along the way.


Last
night snow danced its boreal ballet
of whorls and swirls, fine arabesques in white—
you know hundreds of names for snow, you say.

Down crystalline paths we slip and spin, surveying
ice falls, tall drifts, single flakes in flight—
my love and I count them along the way.

In my head, sparkling visions start to play:
once love's begun, who knows?  Perhaps we might—
There are hundreds of names for snow, you say,

gently, their meanings subtle, hard to convey—
elusive as love's many meanings last night.

I wait.  You walk—silent—along your way.

Feeling foolish, unschooled, I whisk away
a sudden, childish tear obscuring my sight.
You know hundreds of names for love, you say:
I'll learn them all, love, along my way.


What's Left

Only the murmur of gathering snow,
and, far off, the squeal of teeth

shearing steel, and the ashy scent
of solder riding the air; only

the blue-hooded crow, scolding
from an archway at us below;

only the thin-lipped solstice sun,
glancing anxiously across

your shoulder as you turn away;
only your voice, too faint for an echo:

How fine you are!  Only turnstile,
platform, tracks seaming sudden fractures

in the earth; only this seat astride
my suitcase, train hastening on.


Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary.  What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing.  Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer's chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish.  On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.


Thirty Years Later
                   
Evening and snow: the bus draws
a line feathered in lead, the forest
flickers with indifferent flakes. 
The season feels fresh, forgiving. 

Behind us, now, the stone-toothed hills,
the broken-back churches, convents
and stations where women were shorn: 
all safely behind, all shriven. 

Before us the city, white licking
the brick, the stone shoulders, lips
stiffened to bronze—and Volodya
Kornilov, back bent in sentence,

clearing snow from the pavement. 
Why couldn't I see?  All my life
I've plied the sidelines, doubting idols,
seeking out frauds: the fartsovchik

dealing icons for jeans, the girl
trading friendship for my winter
coat, the boy who flirted and smirked,
wanting to meet somewhere just

us two.  I've believed in no one—
everyday saints were alien
to me.  Volodya, you know better
than most how long it takes to nourish

a soul: seed languishing in wintry
soil, sprouting in secret, thrusting up
a new, green shoot when least expected. 
Sometimes it takes thirty years:

snow spattering the windshield, shovel
scraping the curb, papery rasp
of a workman's song, crisp, visible,
suspended in the freezing air.
Vladimir Kornilov, in memoriam

The Percussive Quality of Light
June 1993
The earth begins to breathe again.
Twilight mottles the hands of a woman
reclining in a book-lined alcove,
shelves crammed with photos, thick-spined journals,
African masks.  Proffering tea
and homemade jam, she recollects
the time Nadezhda Mandelstam
brought her husband new, warm boots.
Back then we whispered forbidden verses
that's how he wooed me, she confides.
Nights like this they'd walk and talk
along Patriarch's Pond—one met
everyone there.  Imagine: click
and whistle of the mating call,
illicit rhythms masquerading
as footfalls, petty treasons concealed
by the crowds, leaves, the filaments
of pukh festooning the pebble path.

The more one loves, the more's to lose:
no wonder, then, in times of trouble
wise hearts slink down the nearest drain.
Those days, it seemed the hearts of Moscow
clustered like diamonds in metro tunnels,
waiting to be mined by the few
holy fools who weren't afraid
to smile at strangers riding the train. 
Hearts flickered in the ring of gas
where a kettle steamed, tinkled against
the paper-thin rims of tea glasses,
dissolved into desire—if only,
if only
—while their erstwhile possessors
shrugged their shoulders, shifting the load.
Later, the one who'd laughed loudest
dreamed of exploding suns, light
stabbing through keyholes, flinging open
long-closed cupboards, flushing its prey.

Nothing's turned out the way we'd hoped—
no lustration, no truth commission.
The old informants lounge in silk;
their girlfriends accessorize the bath.
The light that figured in all our dreams
proved puny, dull, its purifying
power just an old wives' tale. 
Daylight fades across the relics,
testaments to a touching faith: 
paintings eschewing official style,
books inscribed by vanished poets,
boots peeking out from beneath the coats. 
The air burrs with the murmurings
of untamed minds.  Scattered around
the room, spilling from ledges, tables,
the narrow sill: buds, sprays, bouquets
of dead flowers, left dangling in
their vases now the water's all gone.
Nadezhda Mirova, in memoriam

II.  The Editor recently interviewed Katherine Young:


G.M.  Your new book, Day of the Border Guards, arises from long periods over a number of years spent in the Soviet Union, and then Russia, as a journalist, diplomat, and businesswoman. What is the origin of your interest in Russia and in Russian poetry? Which came first?

K.Y. True story: when I was 12, I had a beautiful young teacher who taught me the rudiments of the Russian alphabet.  She was also interested in poetry.  One night James Dickey gave a reading at the local college—I saw her there—and the next morning both of them were gone.  She never came back to my school, disappeared completely.  Even the principal didn’t know where she’d gone.  So a mysterious connection between Russian and poetry began to take shape in my mind.  In college I finally got to study Russian and spend a semester in Moscow.  And in the mid-1990s I lived in Moscow for a few years; there I found a remarkable teacher, Nadezhda Mirova, whose family had links to Nadezhda Mandelstam and many others in the literary intelligentsia. For two years we read Russian poetry together, line by line and poet by poet.  She didn’t speak English, so we worked solely with the Russian texts.  It was really exciting for me as a poet to work purely with sound, especially the sound of a language that wasn’t my native language—it shook up the way I heard sound in English.  Language is a major theme in this book, as well as speaking, communicating, the tongue itself.


G.M.  What is the origin of the book's title?


K.Y.  The title poem describes the arrival of Mathias Rust, the young German aviator who piloted his airplane unchallenged across much of European Russia and landed near Red Square in 1987—on the very holiday devoted to celebrating the prowess of the Soviet Border Guards (Soviet citizens enjoyed the irony even more than the rest of us).  I had been in Red Square that morning—some friends of mine were there when Rust landed his plane.  Of course, Rust’s flight came to symbolize the fatal weakness of the Soviet Union, which fell apart four years later.


G.M.  When did you begin writing poetry? Do you remember what initially drew you to the form?

K.Y.  I’ve always had a “feel” for words, which ones went together and which ones didn’t.  Like a lot of people, I wrote through high school and even into college, but my timid attempts to show my poems to people who could have helped me generally ended badly.  I was didn’t dare apply for the poetry seminar being taught at my own college—Richard Wilbur was the poet in residence—or at the college down the road, where Joseph Brodsky was teaching.  And then I stopped writing for a decade, did other things. 


G.M.  Has a particular teacher been of special help or inspiration to you?

K.Y.  I’ve studied under such poets as Stanley Plumly and Hillary Tham, many of them generous teachers and mentors.  But my work in Moscow with Nadezhda Mirova was probably the most important in helping me understand, first, the power of language and, second, the social function of poetry.  That sounds pretty grandiose in the American context, but Russian poets, of course, have traditionally played a prominent role in Russian society and are often anointed as “prophets.”  There’s even an important strain of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian poetry about poetry as prophesy.  I’m really interested in the poet as social critic, conscience, witness—ideas that go back to ancient Greece—and what those ideas mean for a practicing American poet.


G.M. What contemporary poets do you most admire? How have they influenced your own work?

K.Y.  I tend to respond to writers—many of them women—who explore the individual’s connectedness to other humans and the larger world.  Among recent releases, I just love Mary-Sherman Willis’ Graffiti Calculus and Shelley Puhak’s Guinevere in Baltimore.  Anything by Terrance Hayes.  Robin Robertson, especially Swithering.  Eavan Boland.  Tom Sleigh.  I’m a huge fan of Inna Kabysh, the contemporary Russian poet I’m currently translating.  But I also admire “badass.”  My teenage son plays a lot of Eminem—his lyrics can be infuriating, but just look at the skill with which he manipulates the language to say exactly what he wants.  I also have a soft spot for spoken word poetry, the way repetition and refrain shape the poem; I’ve tried writing some—it’s hard to get that form right!


G.M. Same question with regard to poets of the past.

K.Y. Among the Russians, I’m drawn to Pushkin, Lermontov, and Akhmatova.  I value clarity and purity of vision; I’m not big on ornate or “showy” language.  Pushkin, for example, uses almost no adjectives or adverbs—his lines are clean, precise, timeless.  I’m always conscious of Pushkin when I’m weighing “frills,” asking myself if I really need an adjective in a particular spot or whether I could choose a better noun to do the work of that adjective.  Among English-language writers, Elizabeth Bishop, whose Geography III might be my favorite poetry book of all time.  Emily Dickinson.  Some of Wallace Stevens.  W.S. Merwin’s work from the 1970s and 1980s.  Joni Mitchell from that same period.  Jack Gilbert’s Monolithos.  And I love Tennyson for the range of his intellect and the way he makes writing look effortless.  Even his flawed work—The Princess, for example—is gorgeous.


G.M. Describe your writing process. Catch-as-catch-can or disciplined?

K.Y.  For me the hardest part is capturing the feeling and translating enough of it into rough words to keep going—if I’m interrupted, the poem is stillborn and I have to let it go.  Once I get that first rough cut, though, I can polish and refine literally for years.  I’ve read that Bishop would thumbtack nearly-finished poems to her bulletin board and let them hang there, sometimes for years, until the one missing word came to her.  I have poems still waiting for a word, too.


G.M  What prompted this book?

K.Y  I write to make sense out of things.  I was lucky enough to be a young American who spent time in the Soviet Union in the final decades of the Cold War, and I found that the Soviets I met didn’t scare me any more than the grownups I knew back home in America.  Maybe less.  For one thing, nothing worked in the Soviet Union!  Like everybody else, I stood in lines.  One time in the 1980s I spent an entire day going from store to store in Moscow, neighborhood after neighborhood, looking for a carton of sour cream, a staple of Russian cuisine—I never did find one.  And then I witnessed first-hand the incredible mess Russians made of the post-Soviet transition—that was heartbreaking.  My illusions about what ordinary human beings could do when freed of their shackles died a hard death.  The poems just came.


G.M.  What are some of the subjects that appear in the book?

K.Y.  I don’t really think these are “travel” poems, you know, let’s look at the exotic scenery, except for one or two poems about Central Asia. Nor are there many “American abroad” poems, although there is a “Little House on the Siberian Prairie” poem that begins with Laura Ingalls Wilder.  But there are some curiosities in the book: poems that describe sixteenth-century beauty secrets of Russian women, homeopathic pharmacies for pets, things that are clearly unique to a particular time and place.  In one poem, the female speaker hangs out with a Russian mafioso.  In another, a woman discovers what not to read when stuck in a Russian jail.  Mostly, though, the poems are about peace, love, and (mis)understanding: the usual suspects.




Katherine E. Young's poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and many others. She has published two chapbooks and was a finalist for the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize (U.S.). Young's translation of Russian poet Inna Kabysh won a share of the 2011 Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender Prize; a dual-language iPad edition of Kabysh's poetry that includes text, audio, and video is forthcoming from Artist's Proof Editions. Her website is here: http://katherine-young-poet.com/  Day of the Border Guards is available here: http://www.uapress.com/titles/sp14/young.html

 

  








                                    

 

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