JANUARY 11, 2020
WHEN ANNA AKHMATOVA wrote, in her fifth Northern Elegy, that her life “had been replaced,” she had recently turned down a marriage proposal. She returned to Leningrad to find that her lover had married someone else, a woman who was now carrying what could have been Akhmatova’s “only legal name.” The prospect of replacing her own “funny moniker” of a pen name (she had been born with the surname Gorenko) was one of the main things that had attracted the poetess to the match. But she decided to go another way. She chose a different life, yet still longed for the one she had refused. She kept imagining what it would be like to have both the man and the name.
“Like a river, / I was deflected by this bitter era,” Akhmatova wrote, in Olga Livshin’s elegant translation. It was 1945, the midpoint of a century that she wrote was “worse than any before it.” To be “deflected” is to be intercepted, to be forced to change course by someone or something. It is to never arrive at a foretold destination. These are the opening lines of Akhmatova’s fifth Northern Elegy, in which she traces the direction her life could have taken: “The spectacles that I was forced to miss: / o, how the curtain rose without me, fell / the same way.” The contours of her unlived life emerge in painful clarity before her. “This life which might have been lived is very concretely realized, taking on nearly as much solidity as the life which the persona does live, which is almost exclusively conveyed by descriptions of what it is not,” Alexandra Harrington writes of the poem. Akhmatova mourns the loss of her almost-life alongside the continuous, monumental loss of her era. She lives across and in between her two lives, real and imagined. The world unfurls before her and she tries not to think only of what could have been.
Two new works by Russian-American authors reinterpret Akhmatova’s fifth elegy. In her inventive new collection of “poems with translations,” A Life Replaced, Olga Livshin writes in conversation with Akhmatova, using the older poet’s grief as a guide to navigate the depressing present. In a poem titled “Newscast Akhmatova,” Livshin addresses our “great poetic mother,” wondering what news she would like to receive from this darkening century:
Her century swelled with the inequities of all the previous
ones. — I grew up there — at the end of a revolution that
overflowed for seventy years — was rocked with the tight-lipped
grief of her poems — quoted by my mother, who had her face —
whose face I now wear.
What news for her would make an adequate reply?
The news infiltrates Livshin’s poems: she writes of immigrants dying at the border, bomb threats at school, shooting after shooting. “When a Russian-American walks away from her American home / […] When she stops by a church and American God is out to lunch,” begins another one of her poems. She wonders what it means to be “Russian-American” in a nation where the word “Russian” has become a simple stand-in for all manner of sins. The displacement Akhmatova wrote of becomes, for Livshin, a way of exploring the experience of Soviet immigrants in the United States. Like Akhmatova, they were deflected from their anticipated futures. Like Akhmatova, they made a choice. A Life Replaced explores the contours of this shared condition, considering how Livshin’s own Soviet past, and the pasts of her fellow-travelers, inflect their shared American present. The futures-that-could-have-been follow them along their westward journey.
“This book is an attempt to see the United States as a complex country, a place of compassion and tribalism and social justice and intense hatred,” Livshin writes in the preface. She sets out to explore — and perhaps reclaim — “what certain versions of my native culture might mean.” Examining how Americans think of Russia and Russianness tells her more about her new country than her old one. She speaks of Russian life and culture with affection, and with a wink: “I do not mean to suggest that it is possible to forget the Russia that intervenes in other countries under the slogan of pan-Slavism. I do not wish to push it all aside and start celebrating Russian tea and cookies and — dare I say — ballet?”
A Life Replaced is an impressive feat of translation. Livshin’s original poems appear between and in conversation with her renderings of work by Akhmatova and contemporary émigré poet Vladimir Gandelsman. Both writers “cherish the wild authenticity of childhood and adolescence,” she writes. “They see those years as a rich source of the sensual feeling of life-as-is.” Their voices allow her to reclaim the past that was once hers. The time of their childhoods was a time before the end of history, a time when joy and lightness could expressively accompany Russianness without much explanation. Translating them, she writes, sparked a fire that is helping her “survive this particular winter.”
Gandelsman writes of life in chosen exile, playing with the particular intonations of Russian-American English. “Now, this, / as they call it, is a beeldeeng, / this is garbage; nothing — this,” goes his “Immigrant Ditty.” On the next page is Livshin’s riff on Gandelsman’s poem. The immigrants in her story come not from Moscow but from Latakia, Syria, and find themselves in the “ass-crack / of exile, the beak of flight, light turned around / by running webbed feet.” Their faces have “the signature look of exile, that patina-coated profile.” Whenever and wherever they arrive, they will always be too late. Livshin writes, of Gandelsman, that he “treats the slow dying of the self that happens to so many middle-aged immigrants in the United States” with “candor and acmeistically expressive detail,” referring to the early 20th-century Russian poetic movement, Acmeism, of which Akhmatova was a prominent representative. This “slow dying” stems from a failure of translation. Generation zero cannot pass down everything — mushrooms, kasha varnishkes, cheburashkas — to generation one. During one of their Russian lessons, Livshin imagines how her own child might question the direction in which she steered their lives: “I read in Russian, my son asks in English,” she writes. “Why did you leave that wonderful place?”
What should one tell one’s children of a former life? How much should be passed down? How much can be? These questions also animate Olga Zilberbourg’s new book of short fiction, Like Water and Other Stories, her first collection published in the United States. In her artist statement, Zilberbourg explains that she wrote these stories shortly after giving birth to her first child, and that, accordingly, “[t]hey invite the reader to consider the way becoming a parent turns one’s lived experience into a battleground for potential identities.” Her protagonists are all young women, many of them Russian, most of them living in the United States and finding themselves hitting a wall. They are graduate students in comparative literature, adjunct professors, new lawyers, medical residents, and headhunters. They miscarry, mother, and strive; they watch their lovers and parents and mentors come and go. One of Zilberbourg’s heroines, newly graduated from college and desiring to learn more about her heritage, goes to live with an elderly Russian woman in a nearby town. When that experience does not suffice, she goes to St. Petersburg, where she catches the flu, gets groped, and feels alienated and stonewalled by the city’s bureaucracy. “I was back in the United States within a month,” our heroine admits. She discovers that the city of her parents owes her nothing, that it is not required to open itself up to those who were deflected from its path.
Zilberbourg relentlessly confronts her characters with the lives they could have had. These women come into focus only when they encounter figures from their abandoned pasts. Elsewhere they can appear slightly underdeveloped; their many similarities sometimes make their story lines blur a bit. One story follows Oksana, a young Russian single mother who has built a new life in San Francisco. One day, the father of her child shows up in town. “Here’s how Californian Oksana has become: she meets him for coffee,” Zilberbourg writes. The man asks about the child and then requests that Oksana help him with his job hunt. In another story, a nameless heroine considers how to reply to a tasteless email from a childhood friend who still lives in the Russian town where they both grew up. The friend apparently thinks she might still enjoy a good Jewish joke. “I am to this day the only Jew she knows or thinks she knows well enough,” our heroine thinks to herself. Is this Oksana, or someone else? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: “I do not now nor have I ever practiced Judaism; if, in my Soviet passport, ‘Jewish’ was listed as my ‘nationality,’ she, of all people, might remember how little meaning there was for me in this accident of my biography. I haven’t even suffered for it.” She considers replying with a gentle admonishment, but then sends just a wry “I love you too” and an emoji.
In the titular story, “Like Water,” another nameless heroine, an adjunct lecturer in Russian literature and culture, remembers what it was like to watch a terrible performance of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with her school friends in Leningrad. “[E]ven as a fifteen-year-old […] I knew that the joy my friends and I shared was the other side of terror, born of the spectacle of degradation and loss,” she thinks. “A star bursts, an empire falls, a ball of fire streaks across the sky. For us, its witnesses, this could be a once-in-a-lifetime event […] The year was 1990, the future, impossible to tell.” Twenty-seven years later, on Pushkin’s birthday, our narrator finds herself at an Akhmatovian impasse, reflecting upon the spectacles that she was forced to miss. To mark the occasion, she posts a story to her Facebook wall about that day at the theater in Leningrad. Her friends respond, reliably and amiably. All are now émigrés scattered around the globe — except for one. Tatiana, one of her oldest friends, makes a confession: that day at the theater, she writes, “was the moment I fell in love with you.” She means it. How could it be? Once upon a time, as girls, they had imagined building a house on an island and living there together. At 42, with a husband and children and housework, our heroine considers what her life might have become if only she had considered that women did not need to be with men. She looks up tickets to Tatiana’s home.
Another story nests inside this narrative. In this story, an elderly couple of Soviet immigrants are ordered by their doctor to drink 16 ounces of water per day. The couple resists — plain water makes them “queasy.” But they try to follow the doctor’s advice: they fill a mug with water, put it on their kitchen table, and take turns sipping it throughout the day. They return to the doctor and report: “[W]e’re afraid your advice comes too late. Water is not for us. We drink tea.” It is too late for them to assimilate to the American way, just as it is too late for our heroine to experiment with Tatiana. “Water isn’t for me,” she concludes. But she cannot forget that “water” is there, an unexplored option, an unlived life. Like Akhmatova, she cannot help but imagine all that could have been. For both Livshin and Zilberbourg, the immigrant condition is this kind of permanent deflection. Their words remind the reader that the dream of assimilation is first a fantasy and then a triumph before it is — finally — a loss.