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Feature: Back From the USSR
Lyn Coffin

Instead of a Preface:
Wonderful

 

Wonderful, these Russians! Start at a jolting canter, proceed to a gallop—Just when you’ve located the reins, the horse drops dead. In a snowdrift. With two wolves around every corner. They hear the horse fall—a fist in a pillow—and in seconds you’re surrounded by long yellow teeth and sly-dog smiles. You can feel the heat of wolvish breathing.

It takes some scary minutes—you, darting about on that mounded rosinante like Robinson Crusoe with a dead horse for an island—but then you realize. You let out a Bolshevik yell, dash between the two mangiest wolves… And the bunch resettles behind you like flies on a blanket. You’re in the clear. True, the night is thickening all around you like potato soup and you have a ten hour trudge home, but still—you’re in the clear.

You make your way through the snow like a Jew through the Red Sea, nervous glances from side to side, regular as clockwork. And you alternate with equal regularity between cursing the bony beast who got you into this waist-high predicament by dying, and blessing his horsy hide as the very menu item for which wolves howl under a full moon and an otherwise empty sky…

Nor need I make excuses for getting carried away in my imaginings—This is Russians I’m talking about, friend! It’s not just brilliance, either, understand? Brilliance is easy—q.e.d.

But Russians take everything from an insect to the King of Spain straight to their kvass-inflamed bosoms… You know how kvass is made, don’t you? You pour warm water over various cereals and wait a bit! And if you say you don’t see how that sort of beverage could inflame so much as a Turkish cigarette, that’s only because you don’t understand the nitroglycerine nature of Russian breasts.

But wait. Back up a bit. Imagine a Russian peasant’s kitchen—a table, a samovar, a pot of turnips. On one side of the kitchen, on the floor, an insect. Any large dark crawly will do. On the other side, hoisting both pant-legs in a gesture expressive of the fear of contamination—sina qua non of the true aristocrat—his Royal Pain-in-the-Pantaloons Majesty, the King of Spain.

There. The scene is set. Let the story begin!

It all follows, my friend: the peasant is, as certain as fate, sure to step upon that insect. Even as the burden of this unintelligible world descends sooner or later upon all of us, so that peasant will descend upon the insect and subject as we all are to the laws of strict causation, that insect will thereupon surrender his/her/its claim to individual existence. As for the King of Spain—he and the peasant will outdo each other in pointedly ignoring the other’s presence, and what’s the story in that?

But perhaps- if I may resurrect the insect, raise him from his present position—Perhaps this insect is not just Every Insect but an Insect Genius. An insect Milton, long ago uncovered by none other than his Spanish Majesty himself. Uncovered and trained during those long years in prison when His Majesty’s Continental Enemies had the upper—that is to say, the outer—hand. If that is the case—ah, well, things are in much better adjustment then. His Royal Highness simply lowers his pant legs, signifying his acknowledgement of, his familiarity with the insect in question, and you are off, hot on the trail of Pushkin.

Perhaps you are offended, even disgusted, at this prominence of an insect on the printed page? Well, what I have to say to you is this, friend: my hands are bound. That’s right—Bound! Because, if the truth be known as all must hope it shall, there isn’t a single black bread and coarse salt Russian who wouldn’t infinitely prefer the presence (even in his kitchen) of that insect to the presence of a finely-pantalooned King of Anything.

How understandable it is, then, given such preference, that there remain in endangered existence only the very fewest of Russians! This is as yet not widely know, but it is nonetheless quite, quite true—They are a dying breed. They withstood the Germans, Napoleon, the worst the rest of the world had to throw at them. But blood, sweat, and comrades of one sort or another—not to mention Peter’s canals—finally proved too much. Russians are prototypically human in nothing if not in this: it was their own kind did them in… The onion domes still stand, of course, living testament to Russian genius, and one can take some small comfort in that fact.

Only the Russians’ love of disguises could have protected them as long as it did. There are literally hundreds of documented cases where Secret Police agents were unable to make an arrest simply because the arrestee failed to recognize his arch-enemy and would-be captor, dressed as that enemy was in the guise of an old apple-cheeked pencil seller on the banks of the Neva. History, my friend.

As any Russian knows, there’s no arguing with history.

Russians love disguises more than their own mothers, most of them. More even than the rich or rocky soil from which they sprang and which, from time to time carried away by a sudden excess of emotion, they are in the habit of kissing. Look at the names if you don’t believe me. What’s in a name? Everything, if it’s Russian. Dimitri Andrey Mikhail-- Dimitriandreymikhailovitch. A true Russian can not only pull the wool over your eyes and mine, he can pull it over his own eyes as well. That this is hard to do anyone knows who has tried to touch the tip of his own nose with the tip of his tongue.

If you’re not a Russian, forget about understanding them—that’s my advice to you. Even Russians don’t understand Russians. As for translations—Rather than use those as stepping stones to the Slavs, might as well put the stones in your pocket and sink with some dignity.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d explain. But the thing of it is, people are following me. And though I long ago made a detailed list of all my immediate family and though so far none of them seems to be missing— the unheralded death of so many Russians means you can’t be too quick or too careful.

So off I ride now, into the sunset—I start at a canter, proceed to a gallop… And god only knows where I stashed the reins.

 

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Lyn CoffinLyn Coffin is a widely published poet, fiction writer, and playwright. Lyn’s plays have been produced in Singapore, Boston, and three Off Off Broadway venues in New York, as well as at several theaters in Seattle. She was part of the Kennedy Center’s Summer 2010 Playwriting Intensive in Washington D.C. Eight of her books have been published, three of her own work, five of translation. A ninth book, translations from the Czech of Jiri Orten, is forthcoming from Gazoobitales Press, under the able stewardship of Thomas Hubbard. Lyn has an honorary doctorate from the World Academy of Arts and Culture (UNICEF) for “poetic excellence and her efforts on behalf of world peace. As a graduate student, she was Joseph Brodsky’s teaching assistant the two years he taught Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. Poems of hers have been published in many languages, including Spanish, French, Belgian, and Mongolian. Her story appeared in Best American Stories 1969, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Lyn will be teaching at Ilia University in Tbilisi this spring, lecturing on English and American Literature while translating modern Georgian poets with her esteemed email friend and colleague, Professor Gia Jokhadze.

 

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