Of Poetry, Politics, and Pandemics

By Maxim D. ShrayerOctober 30, 2020

Of Poetry, Politics, and Pandemics
Why is our country going through such a terrible patch of history? Is the world on the brink of an epidemiological catastrophe? Those cursed, Dostoevskian questions…

Between December 2019 and May 2020 I composed a series of English-language poems about the election year politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. A Jewish-Russian immigrant, for more than three decades I had lived with — and within — a language gap: while English had taken over as the language of prose, Russian had retained the special status of the language of poetry. And then it all quickly changed. Why was I suddenly moved to write topical verse and to do so in English? The explanation is simpler in existential terms and more tangled along cultural lines.

At the end of 2019 I experienced a surge of political hopelessness—mainly in response to the failed presidential impeachment and the lackluster performance of the then-Democratic presidential candidates. I abhorred the sitting president and lamented what had become of the Republican party of Reagan and elder Bush. Since coming to America as a political refugee from the former USSR in 1987, I had shared much of the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal values. And yet, as a survivor of a totalitarian regime, I feared not only the growing right-wing retrenchment but also the increasing left-wing tilt in the Democratic Party, a tilt betokened by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A gripping sense of despondency and angst found a spontaneous expression in English-language satirical verse:

The Democrats, my old fortress —
divided, tired, superweak —
I’ll vote, of course, but who to vote for?
My Super Tuesday’s looking bleak.

However, as my father and teacher, the writer David Shrayer-Petrov likes to say, “Life made its own arrangements.” With COVID-19 holding us captive, by the end of March 2020 I was writing about the pandemic:

Meanwhile the Ides of March augured disaster…
The crown prince of death had crossed the Styx
and from the underworld returned to spread death faster

than doctors could invent a medical fix.
The Trump was useless. Congress dragged its feet.
And I forgot about politics.

As life retreated and turned inward under the yoke of the deadly virus, my poems became less satirical and more lyrical. By summer I had found myself with almost 40 poems, set in Boston and on Cape Cod and chronicling the way politics and pandemics erode the fabric of our society. I named the new book Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant, and a Boston-based publisher agreed to release it in time for the presidential election.

In composing these poems I needed the English-language voice of a Russian expatriate alter ego who could live astride two languages and cultures and fluidly transition from the satirical to the confessional mode. I don’t want to be coy and pretend that “A Russian Immigrant” and I don’t share a great deal. Central to the book is a reflection on that remarkably intensive experience of family love that so many of us lived — are still living — in isolation. While I would never go so far as to speak of the artistic beneficence of this pandemic, I also know that I wouldn’t have written the new book without having sheltered in place with my American–born wife and daughters.

In the poem titled “Warding Off Despair,” I mused:

And so what’s left? The pharmacy, the bank,
the Russian store, take out: Japanese,
the park, the soccer field, the riverbank,

the puffy clouds, the sun, the ocean breeze…
I’m still alive. Not down on my knees.

Brought to life by extreme political and epidemiological circumstances, these English-language poems became my method of survival. It was also a way of proving to myself that poetry can offer a modicum of faith and even a small dose of relief. How can one write poetry today without harboring hope that these rimes shall lead one out of the labyrinth of political aggression, illness, and despair?


Maxim D. Shrayer is a пrofessor at Boston College and the author of A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and, most recently, Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant. He lives in Brookline and South Chatham with his wife, Dr. Karen E. Lasser, and their daughters Mira and Tatiana.

LARB Contributor

Maxim D. Shrayer, a bilingual author, scholar, and translator, is a professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College. Born in 1967 to a writer’s family, Shrayer grew up in Moscow and immigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored and edited almost twenty books of scholarship, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and translation in English and Russian among them The World of Nabokov’s Stories (2000), Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature (2018), Genrikh Sapgir: An Avant-Garde Classic (2004; with David Shrayer-Petrov), Yom Kippur in Amsterdam: StoriesWaiting for America: A Story of Emigration (2009), and A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. Shrayer’s works have been translated into ten languages. His Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature (2007) won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shrayer’s most recent book is Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant. Follow him at @MaximDShrayer.


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