Biography of Katia Kapovich
Katia Kapovich (Russian: Ка́тя Капо́вич) (born 1960) is a Russian poet now living in the United States. She writes in both Russian and English.
She was born in 1960 in Kishinev, Moldavian SSR, Soviet Union (now Chișinău, Moldova), the only child of Jewish parents. She emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1990. In 2002 she received the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the United States Library of Congress. Her first book in English, Gogol in Rome (ISBN 1-84471-046-7), was published in 2004 by Salt Publishing, and was shortlisted for the Poetry Trust's 2005 Jerwood Aldeburgh First Collection Prize.
Her poem 'The Green One Over There' was included in the anthology Poetry 180 (edited by Billy Collins, Random House, 2003; ISBN 0-8129-6887-5) which grew out of the Library of Congress's Poetry 180 poetry-for-schools project.
Her work has appeared in periodicals including the London Review of Books, News from the Republic of Letters, and Novy Mir (in Russian).
She is one of the editors of Fulcrum (annual).
Katia Kapovich Poems
On a cold winter night in 78 he drank two liters of Russian tea, went to Red Square before light and wrote on snow: "Brezhnev is an idiot!" He was my god, my hero, my model world. I imagined him struggling with his fly when, busted by police, he had managed to end the sentence with an exclamation mark. Imagine doing something like this nowadays. Imagine a hero dressed in a short sheepskin coat standing in the piercing wind, his pants pulled down. "Gross!" you'll say and will be wrong. Sometimes truth necessitates madness, and beauty is hidden behind obscure details. To tell you the truth, I'm still jealous of him who shed his urine in the imperial garden of snow and laughed in the face of the guards. Nothing beats in my eyes a jester, his smile full of broken teeth. When times in the yard are full of lies, why sing like a nightingale in the emperor's cage?
The obese woman who used to wake up our whole house by starting her Subaru at 6 a.m. has committed suicide. Snow hangs like a set of unlaundered sheets in the windows. When I walked into her seventh floor studio, the standard lamp was still on, but could only light itself, refusing to interfere with the dull dusk of the interior the police had already searched. For the first time, I felt an urge to look at her face and perhaps to see something more distinctly than the triviality of neighborhood permits and the mystery of suicide allows, but her features were shut down without offense. I only remember a chair missing its rear legs, shoved up against the wall for balance.
Last night I thought of my abandoned love and wondered what had made us poles apart and more aloof than fingers in a glove. I asked myself whether it was his life or death that opened a bracket, closed a bracket on the years 61 and 92. I turned to the naked wall and pulled my blanket up to my chin, which people always do when they can't find the answer to a question. In its tranquility and prickly warmth this winter morning is a woolen mitten. I vividly recall a placid youth, his elbows sharply angled on the table, an empty table in an empty kitchen. But soon he fled the compass of his cradle: his suitcase on the porch, his mother in a chair, he held his cigarette with an indifferent air. An outcast, poet of the frosty Karelian Peninsula, he escaped its foil and fled to Europe to meditate on mostly unbeknownst things, such as the charcoal-oil of those West German skies in the white season, where, once his eyes adjusted to its white, kilometers of crumpled Russian linen paled by comparison. And he turned off the light. But here I am, another spy in from the cold, investigating angels through the wires seven Mondays a week, forever young, red-haired, but somewhat rusty in the spinal cord. I set two coffee cups on a plastic tray and shuffle to the balcony, where the organ of icicles drips silent notes in the alley. Who'd count on such a groggy guten Morgen. Let's face the present, drawing a mental line. We both foretold this tingling in the branches, this droning in the crusted skeleton of ancient rail tracks, crossties' wooden stitches, the red, blue, purple current of the cars, and shall I also mention honking fits on salt and sand. Surviving this whole farce, only music persists. When the poet is finally left alone, when a lover abandons love, the kettledrums of winter clamor loudest for the one who delays joining company with centaurs and snow monsters. Only music pours over my ears by way of dripping snow. I've locked myself out. I shake the door. Two shots of coffee and I'm set to go.
A PAPER PLANE TO NOWHERE
There was one autumn vulnerable light locked in the transparent and fragile objects of a mental hospital within my sight. I took my medicine without progress, which made me meditative but not bright. Each day I woke at seven, ate bland food, drank weak cold tea and walked under the escort of a physician in an unfriendly mood to a remote section. Here my imprisonment became almost inanimate, absurd. Among some loonies in the corridor I'd wait in a silent line for the door to open wide and let me in again. The male nurse called with a phonetic flaw: the stress fell either after or before, but not in the golden mean of my strange name. I was eighteen, morose, a little blind, bereft of glasses after that fistfight with a policeman. Thus I was arrested and woke up on a rough asylum bed. Evil regimes must kill, but understand who has an Achilles' heel, who an Achilles' head. Slow as a turtle after taking pills, I walked to the "art therapy" ward, where patients made paper boxes or "developed new skills", e.g. cleaning rusty irons, knitting mittens and socks for patient nurses and impatient docs. But I would always doze or, playing hooky, read a forbidden book under the desk with nurses in the background watching hockey. Then one good day they brought a bunch of kids, who limped, and drooled, and smiled with their wry mouths. They looked at us from behind heavy eyelids and couldn't do a thing. After two hours they were all taken back. Some fellows said: "Those kids looked really, really sad." Another day they came again and stared at us, the other patients. No one cared. They were mumbling a dark stifled cry, sometimes they touched the paper, gave a shy and happy sound of comprehension. Weird! They had no difference, but their clothes did. There were skirts and pants. A female child came close and bestowed on me a glance of admiration in her greenish eyes. I looked in them and saw an abyss of sadness, the asylum of our mutual madness. I looked into her eyes and saw my face and yellow spots of Russian swamps in April, a chain of golden lights, a lace of days, while she stood still, a little ugly angel. I made a box out of gray paper. That was all that I could give instead of wisdom to myself and to that orphan. But she seemed happy with my paper coffin. Her name was Carmen. Colorless and sloppy, her flesh was older than her mind. To stare at nothing seemed to be her hobby, as well as mine. That autumn, just to meet her expectations, I learned to make all kinds of paper things: planes, boxes, trains and even railway stations, and white, white ships, and cranes with widespread wings . . . They flew and swam across the dirty table, across the lakes of glue, and seas of paint toward the window with its yellow maple, whose autumn brushes always were so wet. That eighteenth autumn, all those ugly ducklings taught me to laugh at the slapstick universe. Forgiveness and forgetfulness, my darling, oh my Carmen! My life is also scarce and made of paper. In the evening, nurses would take them back to the orphanage and I would walk across the park which mumbled verses in the blind alleys for a lullaby.
With a perpetual eagle on his crumpled beret, Grisha Hartyuk, the quiet C-average dropout, shot himself in a friend's toilet on finding a call-up summons in his mailbox. He spent weeks on a hospital bed and survived. The bullet had missed the heart by an inch. He walks among us again, my lucky classmate with a double life, the front of his suit patched. Shall I now enlist among the bloody stoics or join the goddamn cynics instead?— he enquires of the scattered acacias, his palm covering the hole in his chest.
They've killed the rat that lived alone
They've killed the rat that lived alone By the container where they piled old chairs, Bent rusty lamps and carpets, all moth-eaten. So they have finally exterminated her. As I took off in the early hours I saw her body right there in the puddle, Or rather stretched along it like a boat With oars lifted. There she was, and the puddle that had served Her as a mirror glowed and did not reflect Her muzzle and whiskers, but the usual world Of these dull backyards. Now, my friend, you won't scare us, Suddenly dashing across the path before the walker, But, can I say, you still have the same bright eyes And your wet fur glistens like Russian silver.
AT THE KISHINEV SCHOOL FOR DEAF AND MUTE...
My first autumn after college I worked at the Kishinev School for the Deaf and Mute, whose voices were not speech, yet sounded like a language. A foreign language, muffled and unknown to the teachers. Its strange vowels, born in their windpipes, burned away in their throats. I wrote the alphabet on the blackboard, watched them move their lips as they tried to articulate the sounds of Russian, but no one could help them. Yet there was a children's god in the classroom who guided them across quicksand to where the Tower of Babel stood crumbling and filled their mouths with the ABCs.
IN THE BATHHOUSE
And when at last I used to leave the house after the lazy Sunday rest, the sun was high. It saw a town in drowse; a golden rush of leaves lay to the west. All northern Russian towns are quite alike: a river, a long street along the river, a square with a statue of a leader stretching his right arm forward like a guide. The crowd headed where his finger pointed: to a bathhouse on the river's bank. I walked along with the others, a poor student, a ghost of those blind alleys, nil, a blank. In the light and shade of my sixteenth October I carried but a parcel in my hand. The smell of soap, of public bathhouse timber is what I call the smell of the motherland. And I remember skinny women's shoulders, curved spines and—with a gasp of awe— their loose and bulky bellies in the folds of many motherhoods. The old stone floor was warm and smooth under their bare feet, sunlight fell on it through the upper windows, rays intermixed with steam and water lit the hair of the bathing women. Their faces up, eyes closed, they stood under the showers, like in an ancient chapel, and listened to the choirs of migrant birds. With their necks craned and with their nipples relaxed under the water, with their palms caressing chests and falling to their hips, with bluish veins crisscrossing their slim ankles, they looked like water nymphs. Time, hold them still, save them like flies in amber! I look out of the window across the cobble-stone plaza. I see the autumn river which like a saw cuts through the log of the horizon. The eye finds only what was there before: the sky, the water, many rivers ago.
To the Quarry and Back
White hail pelting the frozen bog, I'm stuck in the first line of January, following my host's dog on his walk through the stone century, around the quarry, slices of marble and mud, past a herd of miners exhaling smoke, past a barn smelling of merde, and back to where I'm stuck and broke. The fucking dog barks at the night, mad at the stars all his life and then again. I rethink kicking him out, but being cool, I let him in.
A Portrait of a Dog as an Older Guy
When his owner died in 2000 and a new family moved into their Moscow apartment, he went to live with mongrels in the park. In summer there was plenty of food, kids often left behind sandwiches, hotdogs and other stuff. He didn't have a big appetite, still missing his old guy. He too was old, the ladies no longer excited him, and he didn't burn calories chasing them around. Then winter came and the little folk abandoned the park. The idea of eating from the trash occurred to him but the minute he started rummaging in the overturned garbage container, a voice in his head said: "No, Rex!" The remnants of a good upbringing lower our natural survival skills. I met him again in the early spring of 2001. He looked terrific. Turning gray became him. His dark shepherd eyes were perfectly bright, like those of a puppy. I asked him how he sustained himself in this new free-market situation when even the human species suffered from malnutrition. In response he told me his story; how at first he thought that life without his man wasn't worth it, how those who petted him when he was a pet then turned away from him, and how one night he had a revelation. His man came to him in his sleep, tapped him on his skinny neck and said: "Let's go shopping!" So the next morning he took the subway and went to the street market where they used to go together every Sunday and where vendors recognized him and fed him to his heart's content. "Perhaps you should move closer to that area?" I ventured.—"No, I'll stay here," he sighed, "oldies shouldn't change their topography. That's what my man said." Indeed, he sounded like one himself.
I'm jotting down these lines, having borrowed a pen from a waitress in this roadside restaurant. Three rusty pines prop up the sky in the windows. My soup gets cold, which implies I'll eat it cold. Soon I too will leave a tip on the table, merge into the beehive of travelers and board one of the ferries, where there's always a line to the loo and no one knows where the captain is. Slightly seasick, I keep on writing of the wind-rose and lobster traps, seagulls, if any—and there always are. Check the air and you'll see them above straw hats and caps. The sun at noon glides like a monstrous star- fish through clouds. Others drink iced tea, training binoculars on a tugboat. When I finish this letter, I'll take a gulp from the flask you gave me for the road in days when I was too young to care about those on the pier who waved goodbye. I miss them now: cousins in linen dresses, my mother, you, boys in light summer shirts. Life is too long. The compass needle dances. Everything passes by. The ferry passes by ragged yellow shores.
Cossacks and Bandits
I grew up in a village built on coal and labor. An outhouse on a dirt road by a water pump glared at the whitewashed fences of uniformed yards that gaped like broken teeth in the mouths of miners. All summer we played Cossacks and Bandits, shot our symbolic rifles and revolvers and when killed would crush a wild cherry in the breast pocket, the spot where the heart stopped. Who started it? The red spreading over white satin never to be washed away completely, "I killed you! I killed you!" I screamed as he fell down. Men found him three years later in the abandoned mine after an explosion, his clothes covered with coal dust and blood. Women howled like wolves. "It's nothing, he'll get up," I thought, "it's just that stupid wild cherry on his shirt."
A Change of Wind
On the eighth day he coined the word "alone" and saw that it was as good as everything else. A yellow school bus rattled down the lane, a wind blew in a drainpipe, strong, mellifluous. I brought two empty crates to the parking lot, watched neighbors with briefcases and car keys. At noon a mailman passed by where I sat invisible, like a tree among trees. Why, why, I asked. I wanted to know why, but only scared a squirrel that dropped his acorn when my voice broke silence unexpectedly— a white noise in a wireless telephone. My club soda went flat in the bottle. With a spit of rain, a wind blew again from the lake. I raised my index finger and touched it, pleading, give me a break, give me a break.
To the Quarry and Back
White hail pelting the frozen bog, I'm stuck in the first line of January, following my host's dog
To the Quarry and Back
White hail pelting the frozen bog,
I'm stuck in the first line of January,
following my host's dog
on his walk through the stone century,
around the quarry, slices of marble and mud,
past a herd of miners exhaling smoke,
past a barn smelling of merde,
and back to where I'm stuck and broke.
The fucking dog barks at the night,