If there is a border —
it’s this transparent, braided, quick
between that grass
and more grass to the west
With a shy nod to acknowledge her audience, the pianist’s hands linger momentarily over the keyboard, then with a burst unleash the fire of awakening, leading without pause into an interlude of bittersweet contemplation, giving way to a gentle mantra that dissolves into nothingness. These are the movements of Irina Mashinski’s symphonic work of remembrance and discovery, The Naked World, which chronicles the author’s journey to freedom from the collapsing Soviet Union in shimmering original English prose interspersed with lyrical poems translated from Russian, with music being the thread that binds them together.
Born in 1958, “five years one month and four days” after the death of Stalin, the anno domini that splits the Soviet era in two, Mashinski witnesses the end of the brief post-Stalinist “thaw,” the Brezhnev regime’s calcification, and empire’s last breaths. The author’s strong yearning to escape state oppression is rooted in the experience of her Jewish family, whose stories of arrests, imprisonment, deportations, and executions during the Stalin years are relayed to the young poet by Alexandra, her grandmother and her friend:
[We] sampled Russian chocolates, taking them out of their foil wrappers […] She would play with these foil rectangles as she talked — her lifelong habit — smoothing them with her fingernails, folding them until they became thin strips like little bookmarks in an invisible book, marking this or that fragment of the oral family saga.
The plight of Alexandra’s family will be depressingly familiar to readers with any knowledge of the Soviet Union, or indeed, of life under the vestigial Russian despot in Moscow today. There are a few pages of helpful background notes on the Gulag and other frightful Soviet realities at the end of the book for those who need an introduction or refresher, but they are not strictly necessary; Mashinski’s generous, thoughtful narration gives readers all they need.
The structure of a great symphony brings the audience a sense of completion. Over its length, the composer introduces themes, varying and developing them for interest and tension, before eventually resolving them. Mashinski follows that pattern in The Naked World. Underpinning the narrarive are the themes of memory and of a longing for freedom, but they emerge in varied forms, enriched by the poet’s observations of nature and landscape, which reflect her education in the physical sciences. Indeed, nature becomes an embodiment of the freedom for which Mashinski yearns, in opposition to the limitations imposed by a drab dictatorship. The epigraph to the third part of her book is John Cage’s In a Landscape; significantly, she does not specify a particular performer, as she does for the other musical epigraphs. In one of her poems, translated by Maria Bloshteyn, she writes,
I want to stay anonymous,
unfeeling, crumpled, creased.
Draped by the snow’s white blanket,
a mere bump on the landscape,
just guessed at, featureless
beneath the mask:
a speck, a mere splinter
in a harvested field […]
Like the unacknowledged performer of In a Landscape, Mashinski seeks liberating oblivion in a space that neither cares about nor notices her presence. This motif is arresting for its lack of romantic trappings; for Mashinski, nature can be conventionally beautiful, like the “rim of a forest lake, moraine ragged edge” seen while flying from Moscow to her new home, or unremarkable, like the “dusty littered” grass borders at the edge of the lots where she parks her car in the Northeastern United States. Be it in Russia or in America, attractive or not, unruly nature imparts a sense of freedom, and Mashinski frequently points our attention to the lines where it meets and encroaches on what passes for civilization.
It’s no surprise that, in a book about emigration, borders visible and invisible take on the greatest import, but once again, Mashinski examines them in an unexpected light. The third section is titled “In the Right-of-Way,” and this motif of the legal right of passage over another’s ground is developed throughout the book. Mashinski discovers freedom not in conquering and possessing, but in simply being allowed to pass freely. She boards a boat sailing over the Equator, negotiates the craggy wilderness of a parent’s death, makes emotional return visits to Russia, drops in at her local ice cream shop on Main Street, Anywhere, USA — and the whole time hopes to remain unnoticed, untrammeled, uninhibited. This allows her to observe without being observed, and the result is poetry — the ultimate right-of-way:
Poetry. Great desert,
silk routes intersecting.
in looking for your yesterself.
Poetry, with its serpentine syntax, subversively picks its way through overlooked corridors in our lives, blazing a new path towards constantly reconstituted identity. The freedom inherent in poetry allies the art, in Mashinski’s book, not only to the realm of nature but also to the vision of a child:
To a child, the world appears to be a big house full of things and she, more than anyone, can sense their familial resemblances […] This is why children know the world so well. Strange-sounding substitutions in a child’s speech seem entertaining and accidental only to grownups. How often do we shove a rake into the cutlery drawer? For a child however, a rake and a fork are, basically, one and the same.
In Mashinski’s view, poets are simply those who have retained or recovered this preadolescent ability to see the essence of things. And so, she marvels at a starry sky that resembles the dots on her nanny’s apron, that in turn look just like the mysterious phosphenes she sees when closing her eyes tightly at night. She thrills to the shadows dancing in her room as the sun’s rays crawl across it in the morning or as the lights from a passing trolleybus scroll across the wallpaper at night. Creating links between seemingly disparate phenomena is a way for the child and the poet to make sense of their surroundings in world that can seem unfathomable and hostile, and, just as importantly, to share their discoveries with those who have lost that ability.
For someone whose experience is circumscribed by the state and by a tragic family history, the simple act of walking through an empty field and watching the sun cross it like the makeshift film projector from summer camp is a means of vital physical and mental liberation — a means too many of us take for granted.
Fittingly, the final musical epigraph in the book is Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, for here the author finally trades in starker solo piano works for an exuberant wedding of orchestra and soloist, embracing both her past and her unfolding future. This piece is especially significant to the author and is the only one she directly references in the text: “that open space, its autumnal silvered blackness that I see each time whenever this concerto, especially, its second movement, is played. Or when I hear or see the word field.”
The final section of the score for Rachmaninoff’s concerto is marked risoluto — bold, strong, resolute — an apt description for Mashinski’s physical and inner journey: “I had once thought life here would be divided into before and after. It’s not like that at all. Rather, it is what is now and what is yet going to happen. Whatever is ‘now’ includes the so-called past, no matter across which border.” She realizes that emigration has prepared her to embrace unimagined adventures in this newfound naked world.
The “A-merica” of Mashinski’s experience, with the negating “A-,” is “neither this, not that, nor the other, but a trying of the otherness,” a laboratory of creative dissection and reassembly of the self. In this time when the country might feel hopelessly broken, The Naked World suggests that, from a different perspective, there is still hope here, a sky that is not yet “worn-out from prayers,” a freedom to write one’s new chapters in our landscapes and cities alike. Mashinski’s book is a virtuosic gift that amply rewards repeated reading — and listening.