Foreword to A Life Replaced
Haunted by exile, longing for linkages between past and present, Olga Livshin’s A Life Replaced is a collection of poetry that wants to spread a “blanket of wild buckwheat / over a meadow”—and does just that. What is the meadow of this book? It is memory, both personal and collective, bringing voices of many poets, spoken through the same mouth to us in English: “it is summer everywhere, except war.”
This is a book where childhood comes alive, and we see Livshin’s parents and various other citizens in a city known for its laughter. There is the legendary Odessa poet Yuri Mikhailik “wrestling with phlox” in the “Soviet Socialist Republic of Tomato Plants.”
And then the page of life is torn from a book: we see immigrants, refugees, pain. What salves this pain? What glues the pages back into books? The love of poets is the connective tissue. Livshin is in conversation with two poetic masters, our contemporary Vladimir Gandelsman, and a great 20th-century poet Anna Akhmatova.
Gandelsman is a much-respected Russian-Jewish poet in exile, a poet of great music and no illusions. “Go ahead, open the door,” he says, “lean your heart against the wall.” Gandelsman knows life in exile, in a “strange American town / with a mysterious capacious name.” He knows that even isolation can be a gift for a lyric poet. In exile, he says, “I flinched and recognized myself.” What saves him? Love, even in the form of elegy. His elegy for his mother is one of the best in Russian in the last few decades.
And then there is the great poetic mother, Anna Akhmatova. A grand poet who is a guiding spirit for many of us, in any language. Livshin’s Akhmatova is both the wise poet and a character in Livshin’s own poems. Even in the United States, under President Winter, in a fugue of Russian-American depressive episodes, the echo of Akhmatova’s formal music and gracious tone is clear: “Here comes my verse, already brazen, tender / for you, for me, for joy.”
This is a book that lays all its cards on the table. We see poetic influences, yes. We see conversations, yes. We see various voices as they enter Livshin’s life. But we also see the music of play, both textual and mundane, play that allows others to enter and tango and transform. This a strange book—hauntingly beautiful and unforgettable.
—Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic