The Revolution of Marina M.

Janet Fitch


To Andrew, my love

I, like a river,

Have been diverted by the ruthless era.

My life was switched. It flows

Into another channel, past strange lands,

And I no longer recognize my shores.

—Anna Akhmatova, Northern Elegies


New Year’s 1932, Carmel-by-the-Sea

ROCKING ON THE RAZOR-MUSSELED bay, lulled by the sleepy toll of buoy bells, the music of rigging, the eloquent stanzas of the waves, I wait for news from the sea. No boys and girls play on the deserted beach now, only a few stoic fishermen huddle on upturned buckets. The slow labor of the poet building himself a stone house at the cove’s south end makes for mild entertainment. If I knew him better I’d tell him the danger of trusting to solid things. It’s an illusion. All one needs is a rented cabin, a decent stove, a small boat, a garden gone to seed for winter. I watch the lanky form of my landlord’s son crossing the shingle, coat collar up, stopping by to collect rents. I have the money in a cigar box back in my cabin, most of it anyway. It’s only five dollars, the shack’s not built for winter. I don’t complain, there are shutters to block out a storm, and an iron stove with a solid pipe. In a few minutes, I will beach my boat on the pebbly shore and give him his due—we’ll share a bottle of homebrew, or perhaps he comes with a flask. No liquor on the premises just now—though it will come soon, down from San Francisco. Those who love poetry, even my unreadable foreign brand, are a tender breed. Why don’t you write in English, Marina? asks my friend Elizabeth. You speak it so well.

My dilemma. My English is good enough for the little stories I publish in pulp magazines, but for poetry one needs one’s native tongue. The voice of the soul is not so easily translated. Though to say “soul” here is already wrong. We say dusha, meaning not just the spiritual entity but also the person himself.

A tug on the line. I pull in a shining perch, shockingly alive. I add it to a rockfish in my pail and row back to shore. I have a motor but spare the gas when I can. At times like this I surprise myself, how I’ve managed to create something of a life on this foggy shore out of the broken pieces of myself, scavenged from the sea like flotsam. Or is it jetsam… it irks me not to know the difference. I will have to consult my oracle, the giant moldy Webster’s I’ve acquired since my arrival here, the very edition we had in my childhood home that lived on a stout shelf along with the Nouveau Larousse Illustré, the Deutsches Wörterbuch, and Dahl’s Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Great Russian Language. When I was very small, I had to sit on my knees to read these great books. Why do you not write in English, Marina? Because when you are flotsam, or jetsam, you cling to what is yours.

After the landlord’s lanky son leaves—a roll in the hay, that delightful image—I lay my Webster’s on the scrubbed table in the lantern light, to learn that flotsam is the debris left from shipwreck, while jetsam is merchandise thrown overboard from a ship in crisis to lighten the load. Ship in crisis. That it was. The difference seems to be tied to the fate of the ship. Did it survive after shedding those such as myself, tossing us overboard—jetsam—to lighten the load, or did it founder, to be torn apart, mastless and rudderless, the planks and boards washed ashore—flotsam—perhaps one bearing the ship’s name. And the name was… Revolution.

I can hear her half a mile off, Elizabeth in her clattering jalopy. I’ve made cornbread in my iron pot, a Dutch oven… always the Dutch, showing up in surprising places. I will have to look that up. I dredge the pink-gilled perch in cornmeal and fry it with a hunk of salt pork. My mouth stirs these tasty k’s, the t, the phunk of salt pork. My friend has brought a crate of artichokes down from Salinas and Polish vodka—Smirnoff. Where did she find it? The Americans prefer their native bourbons and ryes. Such a blessing after all these years of bathtub hooch. Her company is so sweet—this lovely girl with lines to grace the hood of a luxury car. Yet she treats me as if I were the exotic one—her movements careful and calm. What have I done to deserve to be treated so tenderly? Am I so dikaya—wild—that I might startle and take flight like a red deer?

After dinner, she showers me with gifts, H.D.’s Red Roses for Bronze and the new Wallace Stevens, books she, a student of literature at the university at Berkeley, can ill afford. And now she’s hiding something else behind her back, her hazel-gold eyes bright, anticipatory. I pour more vodka into our jelly-jar glasses and pretend not to notice. Finally, she holds it out, a gift wrapped in a sheet of the San Francisco paper. I flex it—thin, paperbound—and try to guess. “A layer cake? A phonograph?” Then tear open the wrapper.

Russian. Kem byt’? A book for children—Who Will I Become? by Vladimir Mayakovsky. My heart catches in my throat like fingers in a slammed door. Mayakovsky, dead two years now. Dead by his own hand. Or maybe not. You never know. But dead just the same.

“Do you know it?” she asks, eager to have surprised me.

I shake my head, remembering the last time I saw him, in Petrograd at the House of Arts, a robust and charismatic man, full of swagger. Who Will I Become? Inside, the same stepped verse he came to favor. This is the ship that sailed on without me: 1928, Government Press. And here are the child’s choices: doctor, worker, auto mechanic, pilot, streetcar conductor, engineer. But no Chekist. No apparatchik. And nowhere a poet. Nowhere a cloud in trousers.

I get very drunk that night in the little cabin and recite aloud everything I know penned by Vladimir Vladimirovich. I sing it as he did, that thrilling bass voice, booming like the waves, so Elizabeth can hear the music. When I run out of his poems, I move on to Khlebnikov, Chernikov, Kuriakin. My pretty friend cannot believe how many lines I know by heart, but this is nothing. There’s no end to the flow once the gate is opened. Here they teach children to think, but they don’t train the memory. I suppose they cannot imagine what a person might be called upon to endure, when a line of poetry can mean the difference between strength and despair. I drip candle wax into my glass, watch the drops swirl and adhere. “What are you doing?” she asks.

“It’s something we used to do, to tell our fortunes.” I recite for her:

On St. Basil’s Eve, cast the wax in water.

At midnight cast the wax.

Sing the songs the girls have sung

Since ancient times.

Prepare, my dear,

If you dare, my dear,

To see your future.

Part I

The Pouring of the Wax

(January 1916–February 1917)

1 St. Basil’s Eve

MIDNIGHT, NEW YEAR’S EVE, three young witches gathered in the city that was once St. Petersburg. Though that silver sound, Petersburg, had been erased, and how oddly the new one struck our ears: Petrograd. A sound like bronze. Like horseshoes on stone, hammer on anvil, thunder in the name—Petrograd. No longer Petersburg of the bells and water, that city of mirrors, of transparent twilights, Tchaikovsky ballets, and Pushkin’s genius. Its name had been changed by war—Petersburg was thought too German, though the name is Dutch.

Petrograd. The sound is bronze, and this is a story of bronze.

That night, the cusp of the New Year, 1916, we three prepared to conjure the future in the nursery of a grand flat on Furshtatskaya Street. From down the hall, the sounds of a large New Year’s Eve soiree filtered under the door—scraps of music, women’s high laughter, the scent of roasted goose and Christmas pine. Behind us, my younger brother, Seryozha, sketched in the window seat as we girls prepared the basin and the candle.

Below in the street, harness bells announced sleighs busying themselves transporting guests to parties all along the snow-filled parkway. But in the warm room before the tiled stove, we breathlessly circled the basin we’ ...

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