I came to the United States with my parents during what seemed to be the aftermath of the only cold war, and what turned out to be only an interlude. It is clear, in 2019, that we are living during a new, more inventive cold war--and in a quiet, episodic civil war.
My collection, A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman, is an attempt to see the US as a complex country, a place of compassion and tribalism and social justice and intense hatred. And hope, for specific people with their specific actions.
Millions of perfect strangers--perfectly wonderful strangers--welcome us, and each other. And yet there is, was, and may always be another America, the one with its own historical wounds as well as xenophobic aspirations--and, lately, outcries and crimes. These days, when even naturalized citizens of the United States are being denaturalized, my American life can be revoked at any time. The America this book attempts to describe is not hateful; neither do I picture it as Janus-faced. It includes immigrants and our own oversized emotional baggage. And the gyrations of nativist fear. And the possibility of this country as a refuge, only enabled by individuals, never by governments as a whole.
The poems I selected for this collection speak to me at this time of hatred, in our country. Akhmatova (1889–1966) provides inspiration for moral strength at times of terror: this, after all, is what Requiem, her tale of sorrow and survival in Stalin’s time is known for in the West. Less obviously, Akhmatova is also painstakingly honest in facing her own vulnerability and desperation at such periods in history. The intensity with which she admits her fear and her defeat amaze me. Rather than paint our own attempts at resistance as heroic, Akhmatova can teach us a kind of lucid humility.
Gandelsman is very much the literary child of the poets of the Russian Silver Age such as Akhmatova: he draws on their dramatic, spiritually intense version of modernism. Born in 1948, he is another poet from St. Petersburg (born in what was, then, post-war Leningrad). For many years, Gandelsman wrote in the oblivion of the literary underground; after coming to the United States in 1991, he was first able to publish his work, and is now highly acclaimed in Russia, where he won the Moscow Reckoning Prize, the highest award for poetry. He now divides his time between New York and St. Petersburg.
I especially admire Gandelsman’s poetry that explores the thorny aspects of early years in immigration. It is with candor and acmeistically expressive detail that he treats the slow dying of the self that happens to many middle-aged immigrants in the United States—a topic Akhmatova would never need to touch, since she stayed in Soviet Russia through its many torturous decades. Gandelsman was forty-two when he came to the U.S., the same age as my mother when she arrived. For an adult steeped in his original culture—and a representative of that culture—it can be extremely hard to adapt. Gandelsman’s speaker cannot identify with the American cultural landscape. What he does, instead, is map a world of immigrant push-and-pull—of alienation and attraction to the new home. It is there that darkly comical Russian-English mixtures (“beeldeeng,” “feefty-feefty”) belie the integrity of the speaker’s lofty poetic diction.