Letter to Tolik: Rostov-on-Don, Russia
You won’t remember me: I’m not the person you wanted to know back then, in 1987, in Rostov-on-Don, city founded by Peter the Great several defunct empires ago. But you, your wife Tanya, and your two young daughters wanted to befriend my American colleague, and we Americans weren’t allowed to visit Soviet citizens on our own, so I was my colleague’s babysitter. Although I wasn’t that kind of babysitter: I didn’t report to anyone about who I met or what we said or did together (though when I eventually got back to America, I was invited to a basement room in Washington to share anything I thought might be “useful”). Maybe you don’t even remember the times we came to dinner in your first-floor apartment cut into the bank of the Don River – apartment with a brownish water line three feet above the floor that marked where the Don flooded every spring. Apartment where your daughters suffered from dampness and asthma, suffered so much that you were willing to do anything, risk anything, to get them to a warmer, drier home. It’s unlikely that you’re here to remember anything at all: you told us how you’d volunteered to fight the fire at Chernobyl when the reactor blew, did it of your own free will in those first desperate days. You thought doing so would earn you a better apartment for your girls. That was the Soviet Union, Tolik, we know how it was: no one worked, no one managed, cataclysms somehow just happened, and people threw themselves into the inferno. It was heroes who were needed, not Geiger counters or lead shields. Heroes were supposed to get new apartments. Heroes like you, who gave everything for love, their blackened, radiation-wasted bodies buried hastily in sealed caskets in a closed Moscow cemetery. Tolik, I’ve written poems about that time and place, about everyday Soviet people who were my friends, about not-friends like you, about those I did not know, “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….” Sure, I’m a writer. I hung around with refuseniks and intellectuals in Moscow, I had season tickets to the Conservatory and, like Pasternak, a seat by the columns. But like you, too, I trudged through the November mud, slogged through the eternally dug-up streets where in the year of our lord 1987 they were still trying to bring indoor plumbing to the good citizens of Rostov. Past the boarded-up church and the sleek Communist Party HQ, past the little museum where they preserve a ticket from the night Rachmaninoff played Rostov back before the 1917 Revolution: I leaned, like you, into the pitiless wind that rolls in from the steppe. Later, I myself drove through the Chernobyl zone. I thought of you there, you and Tanya and your daughters. What place on earth should signify more to me than your apartment with the water-stained walls, smelling of fried fish and potatoes? Apartment where two little girls could not stop coughing as Russian snow piled high against the windows. It’s me, Tolik, with just a notebook and a handful of words that to this day I haven’t managed to tame to tell of the most beautiful and terrible sacrifice I’ve ever seen: yours. This is your book.
Hope you are well,
Day of the Border Guards, a 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist (U of Arkansas Press), poems set entirely in Russia and the former Soviet Union, can be ordered here. Links to individual poems from the collection can be found here.
Katherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist (U of Arkansas Press) and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and others. Young is also the translator of Two Poems by Inna Kabysh (Artist’s Proof Editions); her translations of Russian poets Xenia Emelyanova and Inna Kabysh won third prize in the Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender competitions in 2014 and 2011, respectively. A full-length collection of Inna Kabysh’s poems was a finalist for the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. In 2015 Young was named a Hawthornden Fellow. http://katherine-young-poet.com/
About the “On Place” Series:
In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.
For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.