The Formality of Nostalgia: On Boris Dralyuk’s “My Hollywood and Other Poems”

Art Beck considers “My Hollywood and Other Poems” by Boris Dralyuk.

By Art BeckJuly 2, 2022

The Formality of Nostalgia: On Boris Dralyuk’s “My Hollywood and Other Poems”

My Hollywood and Other Poems by Boris Dralyuk. Paul Dry Books. 69 pages.

I. THE HOLLYWOOD DREAM


Technically, the poet and translator Boris Dralyuk (the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books) falls into the category of a first-generation immigrant, but he was brought to the United States from Odessa in the ’90s by his mother at the tender age of eight. So, culturally and linguistically, Dralyuk’s life and educational experience are arguably closer to a “second-generation” profile. In either case, the poems in his first collection meditate on evanescent California immigrant dreams. The first poem describes a now-neglected De Longpre Park statue dedicated to the 1920s screen idol Rudolph Valentino:


This much is clear: the good old days have passed.
Some giant fig trees, a few pygmy palms
drop broken shade on disenfranchised grass;
dogs loping, limping; vagrants begging alms;
and in the center — ludicrously named
Aspiration — face uplifted, framed
by dusty fronds, he stands on tippy-toe …


If any immigrant could be said to experience the fleeting Hollywood dream, Valentino would be near the top of the list. His early death — from a burst appendix at 31 — was tragic. But his Hollywood life also had more than its share of disillusioned romance, both marital and professional. A fiery Italian married to a stormy Russian, his tinsel-town Eden seemed replete with snakes. The modernist abstract statue of a nude man with his face lifted skyward is titled Aspiration, as is Dralyuk’s poem, which ends: “The Sheik sinks deep into the dunes of time. / A crow clacks in the branches overhead, / like a projector slowly going dead.”


The Valentino poem is part of an opening “Triptych,” all of whose subjects are immigrants whose lives ended in Los Angeles. The second poem, “The Flower Painter,” broods on Paul de Longpré, a turn-of-the-20th-century French artist for whom the Park and De Longpre Avenue are named. His popularity enabled him to acquire three adjoining lots in what is now West Hollywood in exchange for three of his paintings. There, he built a great “chateau” surrounded by legendary gardens.


De Longpré died in 1911. In the mid-1920s, the property was demolished and subdivided for tract homes. Dralyuk’s poem addresses an apartment along the street named after the painter:


A scruffy rose bush puts on airs out front
a big beige box — two stories, caked in stucco —
that bears the name, in flaking cursive font,
of Paul de Longpré. Fainter than an echo,
the long-departed flower painter’s ghost …


The Triptych ends with “The Garden of Allah,” recalling another legendary, now nonexistent, West Hollywood Eden. A member of Valentino’s circle, the Russian immigrant actress Alla Nazimova, acquired the estate in 1919 and then converted it into a bungalow hotel, punnily named for herself. Over nearly 40 years, it hosted guests and residents whose names read like a who’s who of Hollywood notables, ancillaries, and visitors. Among them: Bogart, Bacall, and Errol Flynn. Writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, W. Somerset Maugham, and Dorothy Parker. Musicians ranging from Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw to Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Stokowski, and Rachmaninoff.


After some 10 years, Nazimova, a quietly bisexual, sexual icon, notorious for her role in the suppressed 1923 film Salomé, returned to New York and the legitimate stage, where her iconic portrayals of Hedda Gabler had defined the role for a generation. In 1938, health and career fading, she moved back to reside in villa 24 of the Garden of Allah until she died in 1945.


Dralyuk’s My Hollywood conflates two Hollywoods: the city of Los Angeles’s movie-studio Hollywood and the neighboring city of West Hollywood (incorporated in 1984, before which it was a Los Angeles County suburb). In Nazimova’s time, West Hollywood was a loosely regulated nightclub district and studio Hollywood’s playground. But beginning in the 1970s, West Hollywood came to be a West Coast magnet for Soviet Jewish emigrants — a sort of California Brighton Beach. The Garden of Allah was razed in the late ’50s. But the West Hollywood of Dralyuk’s childhood is also fading as he muses on Nazimova:


And now I watch another era fade,
Cyrillic letters scraped from shuttered storefronts,
tar-crusted bread, stale fish, stiff marmalade
sit sulking on the shelves, unchosen orphans
in what were once the bustling little shops
of Russian Hollywood […]


[…] There’s nothing new in this.
Think of Nazimova and of her short-lived bliss
beside her pool — her private Black Sea beach …
She died a tenant in a bungalow
of a hotel razed sixty years ago.


II. Emigration/Immigration


By total coincidence, My Hollywood appears in the midst of a sudden new Eastern European refugee crisis that evokes last-century horrors Europe thought long left behind. Dralyuk’s poems neither reflect nor anticipate this upheaval. Part of its shock is that not many people did. But the extended community that populates many of these poems are its generational forebears, and it’s hard to shut out the shudder of each day’s news as you read them. In another oblique synchronicity, many of the poems in My Hollywood circle themes of nostalgia. Dralyuk’s nostalgia is gentler, shyer. But isn’t the current Russian Federation leadership’s revanchist nostalgia cited as a trigger for the current unfolding disaster?


The word émigré entered English from French during the French Revolution and has stuck around since. Its English relatives “emigrant” and “expat” share the sense of relocations compelled more by the problems of the old than the lure of the new. “Pantoum of Plummer Park,” substitutes another French origin term, “deracinated” (uprooted), for a group of old men who find themselves exiled from a life no longer possible — and lost without that life.


Felled patriarchs, deracinated, lame,
they plant themselves at parks on folding chairs […]


They plant themselves at parks on folding chairs,
who once could not have spared a daylit hour,
and pass the time, and whist or bid misère,
like spellbound warriors robbed of their power.


[…] their idle hands:
those muted throbs, those twitches they restrain
tell of the futile draw of distant lands […]


Plummer Park, where this scene is set, is a West Hollywood park that became a gathering place for the Russian-speaking enclave of Dralyuk’s youth. The poem implies a good level of “old country” success for the “patriarchs,” who nonetheless emigrated. On the surface, this runs counter to the American mythos of entrepreneurial immigrants drawn by a “land of opportunity,” Valentino’s nascent 1917 Hollywood, say. Or Nazimova’s 1905 New York. But whatever advantages the late-20th-century Soviet Union offered the Plummer Park dwellers, they chose to, in effect, reduce their station in life.


The poem’s imagery also calls to mind the wave of 1920s Russian émigrés who found themselves on the wrong side of a revolution. The poem is presented in French “Pantoum” form, the old men play the French-named Eastern European card game, Préférence, evoking an aura of the original 18th-century émigrés. But Dralyuk’s Plummer Park patriarchs were escaping something other than violent upheaval. Are they just lamenting younger days tinted rosy by the sterile banalities of starting over too late in life? Whatever the specific case, the formality of Dralyuk’s “futile” nostalgia also speaks more broadly, conjuring émigration as something almost akin to a self-propagating organism.


III. Reinvention and Translation


“Babel at the Kibitz,” one of the most enjoyable poems in My Hollywood, treats us to both a taste of Babel (Dralyuk has produced two volumes of Isaac Babel translations: Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories) along with Dralyuk’s imagined conversation with Babel’s reprobate uncle, an immigrant to Los Angeles. It begins with an excerpt from Babel’s Odessa Stories:


My uncle Lev, my father's brother, had studied at the Yeshiva in Volozhin. In 1892 he escaped conscription and abducted the daughter of a quartermaster serving in the Kiev military district. Uncle Lev took this woman to California, to Los Angeles, abandoned her there, and died in a madhouse among Negroes and Malays. After his death, the American police sent us our inheritance from Los Angeles — a big trunk bound with brown iron hoops. This trunk held dumbbells, locks of women’s hair, Uncle’s tallith, whips with gilded handles, and herbal tea in little boxes trimmed with cheap pearls.


— Isaac Babel, “The Story of My Dovecot”


I see you now, a scrawny Levantine
swilling the rotgut on the Calle de los Negros
shoulder to shoulder with the Chinese and Malays —
the great black sheep of the Odessa Babels.


Lassoed by day-dreams, sped along by whips
with gilded handles, tall tales from Mayne Reid,
you quit the Pale and lit out for the States
with all the chutzpah of a one-eyed drayman.


Shaking the Keystone Kops of Kiev — that was rich.
But the poor shiksa, how you left her twisting
in her first Santa Anas — not a stitch
of decent clothes, and not a word of English …


And there you were, with whores and panel-thieves,
the sundry chiselers of every crumbling seaside.
You find what you were after, Uncle Lev?
You ditched Odessa for a new Odessa.


A syphilitic luftmensch run to ground,
weighed down by dumbbells in a Boyle Heights madhouse,
forever stuck between two sweetly rotten towns.
I hope you’re proud. I hope you’re shepping naches


over your nephew, who did good with your big trunk.
But let’s not kvetch. Let’s go and hit the Kibitz.
We’ve got no urgent business. Let’s get drunk
where ACs burr and wheeze like old hasidim.


The LA sky’s a quinceañera by Chagall.
Schlemiels like us — we never quit the Pale.


Apart from interjecting the now-obscure Mayne Reid, a 19th-century American West adventure novelist, popular in Russian translation, the poem places yet another failed immigrant into a timeless City that’s as much a migration capital as it is an entertainment one. Not just Lev Babel’s 1890s outpost, but a Los Angeles also not unlike today’s or the Los Angeles of the hard-boiled 1930s noir novels Dralyuk is fond of. Even the Yiddishisms tilt poetically more to American slang than exotica. Lev’s downfall was not an untypical L.A. failure. Even if — similar to the addressee in Cavafy’s poem “The City” — he brought his failure with him, luggage waiting to be unpacked.


IV. Formality and Song


My Hollywood’s 70-some pages contain much more than the few poems covered above and includes a section of translated poems written in Russian by 20th-century Los Angeles figures, among them the songwriter/composer Vernon Duke, formerly Vladimir Dukelsky. These all read as if born in English with no trace of translatorese. They admirably exemplify Dralyuk’s thoughts on poetry translation as expressed in a 2020 interview on the blog Punctured Lines:


I now translate only those poems that speak to me, that won’t let me go; and after I complete a draft, I share it with my most trusted readers, read it after the first blush of inspiration fades, let it sit as I wait for the second and third blushes to arrive, revisit it again — I put the poem through its paces. To sum up, I now have more faith in my personal taste in literature and less faith in my initial satisfaction with my own work.


Or as more briefly stated in this My Hollywood poem:


The Catch: On Translation


I draw you out, faint voice, from rippled pages:
a famished angler reeling in a fish,
the kind that, in the folktale, grants a wish —
a golden thing, imbued with living magic.


Between us is the taut line of attention,
imperiled by the current and the wind.
Slowly but willfully, I reel you in.
We hold each other, for a moment, in suspension.


That process implicitly acknowledges that to translate poetry is to write poetry. Given the practiced precision of his original poems, one imagines Dralyuk following a similar method with his own poems as he does with translation. Like the “taut line” Dralyuk approaches, most of his poems in My Hollywood utilize rhyme schemes and received forms. That’s primarily noteworthy only because Anglophone poetry since the modernist era has valued variations and departures into freer verse to the point where strict form has become no longer norm, but anomaly.


On the other hand, as a knowledgeable publisher of Russian translations recently wrote me: “This was much less the case in Russian poetry where the modernist revolution didn’t jettison rhyme schemes to the extent it did in Western Europe. And where even some avant-garde Russian poetry is still written in a style English might identify as neo-formalist.”


But neo doesn't seem quite the right term to describe Dralyuk’s formalism here. Rhyme as a tool and a “means of” rather than “end of” expression will always resonate with readers. For the most part, Dralyuk’s rhymes don’t impart an imitative feel and don’t seem to be searching for abandoned models. The opening of this sonnet, “The Passing of the Bungalows,” feels written “out of” not “into” the form:


They held their courts from here to Pasadena,
not in regalia but in plainer clothes,
withholding judgment on our misdemeanors,
warm, down-to-earth, arrayed in close-knit rows —


The unforced musicality of the aural but not visual, abab pattern isn’t an “exercise in” but rather an unobtrusive “utilization of” rhyme to further the narrative. And it’s reminiscent of George Seferis’s observation on another traditional form — Byzantine icon painting: “In this art the excellent artist excels by a minute deviation from the traditional.” As in the opening quatrains of another Dralyuk sonnet, “Jonah”:


Was this the end? He couldn’t rightly say.
There was no light. He lost all track of time.
If there was rumbling, it was too sublimely
steady to discern. Senses betrayed him.


Except, of course, there was the mealy smell
of his unlucky neighbors. Scales and slime
stuck to his fingers, too. He thought the climate
was hellish, even for a fish’s belly.


In a seminal 1917 essay on vers libre, T. S. Eliot opined that mastering “technique to the extent of being able to take liberties with it” was “everything.” Not all of Dralyuk’s formalities play at that level, but few feel particularly retro. And, given the book’s migrating theme, I also find myself wondering whether Dralyuk’s formality, rather than reaching back, is better viewed as a kind of conversation with mores still current and fertile in the contemporary Russophone poetry he translates. It is perhaps also a way for Dralyuk’s Californian “poetry voice” to transplant its own emigrant roots with an echo of his earliest childhood speech, in a language that early-20th-century émigré Vladimir Nabokov nostalgically termed his “softest of tongues.”


¤


Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward.

LARB Contributor

Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward. His Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone — versions of the sixth-century CE North African Roman poet Luxorius, published by Otis Books — won the 2013 Northern California Book Award for translated poetry. Mea Roma, a 130-some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018. The Insistent Island, an Odyssey-themed original poetry chapbook, was published by Paul Vangelisti's Magra Books in 2019. From 2009 through 2012, he was a twice yearly contributor to Rattle since discontinued e-issues with a series of essays on translating poetry under the byline The Impertinent Duet.

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