<< back from the ussr << cover

Feature: Back From the USSR
Yuriy Tarnawsky

Instead of an Afterword:
Cut Grass
(A Ukrainian in New York)


As I pretend to close my eyes, that acrid smell of freshly cut grass mixed with the hot humid air of an Eastern Seaboard late summer morning enters my nostrils and spreads upward and through my brain. Somewhere nearby, a power mower is busily humming away, exercising its nature, and behind me has just shut the heavy glass plate door of the lab, cutting me off from the cool air-conditioned interior. I have stepped out in the middle of the workday to go to a meeting at another work location. An indescribable joy spreads through my body—before me lies New York and, intermixed with it, my life, which I have just begun as an adult and, to live which, all I have to do is to follow my feet.

The scene is from 1956 in Poughkeepsie, a town 80 miles north of New York City, in which IBM had one of the largest concentrations of its plants and laboratories which (IBM) I had joined upon graduating from college as an electrical engineer, but to me it's New York City because no matter where I lived in America I made sure New York was within an easy reach for me and always found ways of getting to it whenever I felt an urge to. In Poughkeepsie, for instance, Fridays, I would park my car as close to the exit road from the parking lot as possible, its engine aimed at it like the arrow on a bow with its string pulled taut, would rush out of the lab precisely at 5:12 (0.7 hours, or 42 minutes, for lunch—this was a company dealing with digitized data!), race to the car, jump into it, and speed down the road to the Taconic Parkway, continuing along its winding course to the City where I would meet with my friends at an East Village cafe. We settled in New Jersey on coming to the US in 1952, in the city of Newark, across the Hudson from New York, but on weekends, again, I would take the train to Manhattan to roam the narrow, winding streets of Greenwich Village and spend hours with friends in coffee houses. (The train tracks ran past vast garbage dumps in which fires burned continually, their flames streaming skyward. "Conflagrations gallop by sometimes and the wind combs skyward their red, female manes," I wrote in one of my poems composed in those days.) And every time a promising position within the company would present itself (and it did often—we joked that IBM stood for "I've been moved"), if it was in another part of the country, I would always find a way to turn it down, so as to stay close to New York.

But New York wasn't American culture. Newark and Poughkeepsie were, and that was why I tried to escape them so hard. New York was primarily Europe and Latin America, that is, Western culture which included only the best of what America had produced. The cafes for instance were mostly Italian and French—Pandora's Box, Peacock, Borgia, Orchidea, Figaro. And the aim of constant pilgrimages, the cathedral of Modernism—the Museum of Modern Art or MOMA—was European too, conceived and built by refugees from Hitler's Germany in the 1930's. The icons inside it were also European—Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Modigliani, Dali, Magritte, Tanguy, and many more, including Archipenko, who was of special interest to us, Ukrainians. The Metropolitan Museum of Art came later, as I began to broaden my tastes, going back in time down the wide road of Western art—Ingres, Goya, Rubens, El Greco, Velazquez, Mantegna, Medieval painting, Roman, Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian art.

There were two more cathedrals—those of the exciting imaginary life—the movie houses Thalia, on West 95 Street, near Riverside Drive, and Bleecker Street Cinema, on Bleecker Street, in the Village (Greenwich Village), which showed foreign movies. (I can’t even give the names of the directors whose works I saw there let alone those of all the films. Film probably influenced me more than any other medium.) I spent hundreds of hours there, the huge square of the screen with the ever-changing black and white amoeboid shapes constantly changing on it reflected in my eyes and brain. The Bleecker Street place is gone forever, the only reminder of it a video rental store in the basement of the building. But Thalia has reopened recently after decades of nonexistence and perhaps I will go there one day and find myself lying exhausted from all that watching, like a discarded old suit, on the floor, under the chairs, a remnant from the days of my youth. I used to go to see any movie that came out when I first came to America, but gradually skipped more and more of those made in Hollywood, finding them to be not what I looked for, so that eventually I stuck only to the foreign ones. Now that the AIDS of arts, commercialism, has spread from America to all of Europe and most of the world, I hardly see anything new with the exception of Iranian films. (The Chinese ones are what Hollywood movies would like to be but never quite make it.) The favorite practice now for me is to watch the once seen classics on video and sneer in contempt at the contemporary crop.

Literature didn't require traveling, except to the library. (Newark had a good one.) After initial interest in the free verse of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg (at that time, rhymed stuff made my stomach turn), discovering that English poetry translations invariably came with the original, I devoted more and more time to reading Latin American and Spanish poetry in the original. I stared studying Spanish on my own back in Germany, and improved it by listening to Latin stations when I came to America. This led to my lifelong interest in Hispanic culture that induced me in the 1960's to move to Spain for an extended period of time and then visit it as well as various Latin American countries (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Argentina) over many years. For a while too, I wrote some poetry in Spanish. After Spanish, came the interest in French pre-Symbolists, especially Rimbaud and Baudelaire. That was poetry. Prose interests were Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Kleist, and French prose—nineteenth century, Proust, Sartre, Camus, and the Nouveau Roman writers. Of the Americans, only Faulkner interested me for a while. ("Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting...." That was beautiful.) On second reading, Hemingway seemed sophomoric and Joyce, with his verbal gymnastics, had to be force-fed (I force-feeding myself with Joyce, that is, not the other way around). Only years later I began to savor Beckett, primarily his plays, together with those of Ionesco. A little later too came interest in, and rapture with, Latin American prose—Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, Miguel Angel Asturias, Juan Rulfo, Gabriel García Márquez.

But New York was Ukraine too—Ukrainian culture, virtual Ukraine, the kind I grew up in while in DP camps in Germany, which had transposed itself to the US and other Western countries when the camps were dissolved. Being imaginary, it had no problem coexisting with the American, European and Latin culture of New York and it was to keep its hold on me forever.

First, there were friends who had come over, like I did, from Germany and with whom I established contact soon after arriving. The Lower East Side area of Manhattan (it wasn't called East Village yet, as I recall), was home to tens of thousands of Ukrainians, and social life teemed there. Sunday mornings, Seventh Street between Second and Third Avenues was packed with people who'd attended mass at the Greek Catholic St. George's ("Svyatoho Yura") Church and milled around afterwards meeting friends until dispersing eventually for Sunday dinner. The street was closed to traffic and you were free to walk around and chat. I met there many literary and artist friends I was to stay close to over the years to come. Almost directly across the street from St. George's was located Surma, "The Ukrainian Store," dealing in Ukrainian books and ethnic artifacts, and on the corner of Second Avenue stood the Ukrainian Lutheran Church. Nearby on Second Avenue, between Eighth and Ninth Streets, was The Ukrainian National Home with a restaurant and the Lys Mykyta ("Reiner the Fox") Bar on the ground floor. (For a while the famous Les Kurbas actor and director Yosyp Hirniak worked there as a bartender, when not devoting himself to theater.) Catty corner from it, between Ninth and Tenth Streets, was The Ukrainian Literary and Art Club, where exhibits were held and readings took place. Above it, was The Ukrainian Music Institute. On the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street, next to the Ukrainian National Home, was the building owned by Plast, the Ukrainian scouting organization, which had its offices on the second and third floors. On the first floor, eventually sprung up Veselka ("Rainbow"), the famous Ukrainian restaurant which has grown in popularity over the years and today is thriving more than ever. Many other bars and restaurants dotted the area—Verkhovyna ("Mountain Top"), Azure and Gold, Leshko's.... Most of them are gone now or have changed owners and nature, retaining only the names. In the 1960's, on Sixth Street, behind St. George's, a big new building was erected, which housed the St. George Academy—High School—in which Ukrainian topics were taught as part of the regular curriculum and Ukrainian-language school instructions were given on Saturdays. (The old St. George's Church was torn down and replaced by a new one, in a rich Byzantine style, in the 1970's.) On Fourth Avenue, stood the building of the Schevchenko Scientific Society. There were two Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Manhattan—one on Fourteenth Street and one on Eighty-Third. The Free Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (UVAN) had its headquarters on West 103 Street, in an old landmark library. And the prize of all Ukrainian institutions was the Ukrainian Institute of America, purchased by the Ukrainian-American inventor William Dzus in 1955, housed in another landmark Neogothic building, on the corner of Seventy-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, within sight of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except for the Orthodox churches and the Literary and Arts club, which have moved, all of these buildings and institutions stand and exist to this day.

Typically for a teenager, I was eager to integrate into American life upon coming to the US, changing my name from "Jurij" to "George" and working hard on eliminating my accent. As my artistic interests began to develop, similarly, I came to dislike the traditional Ukrainian high culture—styles and topics of literature and art—and craved what was dominant in the world at large, in other words, the high culture of the Western world. In general, these were the avant-garde movements of Modernism; I felt special affinity for Expressionism and Surrealism in all their forms, and for Existentialism as the underlying philosophy.

This was a surface phenomenon, however. Inside, I remained Ukrainian and Ukrainians were "us" to me and Americans "them." Consequently, when I started writing, at about the age of nineteen, I did so in Ukrainian, but soon thereafter began writing in English too. I had no idea what to do with my English works and it was years before I even dared sending them to publishers. No such shyness was in evidence regarding my Ukrainian writing and soon I started publishing. There is no doubt that this outlet for my literary production was a major reason why I didn't try to find English publishers for so long and why I continued writing in Ukrainian all my life. Had there been no possibility of publishing in Ukrainian, I undoubtedly would have devoted all my energy to English.

The publication which attracted me the most because of its high quality and non-traditional, "European" outlook was the literary supplement to the newspaper Suchasna Ukrayina (“Contemporary Ukraine”), which came out in Munich and was edited by Ivan Koshelivets together with the New York co-editor Yuriy Lavrinenko. It was replaced in 1955 by the monthly broadsheet Ukrayinska Literaturna Hazeta (“Ukrainian Literary Gazette”), that, in turn, was replaced in 1961 by the monthly magazine Suchasnist (“Contemporary Times”). It was in the first one, in 1954, that I published my first short prose piece. I continued collaborating on a regular basis with the two subsequent publications until the magazine was transferred to Ukraine soon after its independence. Suchasnist was the premier Ukrainian émigré publication that published both the most daring literary works by young émigré authors, my colleagues, and those by proscribed writers in Ukraine. It also published books and I was privileged to have a number of mine published there.

The literary critic Yuriy Lavrinenko was one of the co-founders of the Association of Ukrainian Writers in Exile Slovo (“Word”). Soon after I met him, he offered to have a book of my poetry published by Slovo. The volume, Life in the City, came out in the spring of 1956, shortly before I graduated from college. At that time I had already formed friendship with Ukrainian writers of my generation such as Emma Andiyevska (Munich), Bohdan Boychuk (New York), Bohdan Rubchak (Chicago), and Zhenya Vasylkivska (New York). In 1958, we formed a group including these individuals plus the American Patricia Warren (pen name, Patricia Kilina) and named it The New York Group. It was soon joined by Wira Wowk (Rio de Janeiro), a little later by Marko Carynnyk (Philadelphia), Yuriy Kolomyiets (Chicago), and Oleh Kowerko (Chicago), and still later by Roman Babowal (Montigny-le Tilleul, Belgium). Intentionally distancing itself from the traditionally-minded older-generation writers of Slovo, the group began publishing a yearly poetry journal Novi Poeziyi (“New Poetry,” 1959-1972). The group—its members individually—became a dominant force in Ukrainian émigré literary life, authoring numerous publications and, as I said above, being a principal literary contributor to Suchasnist. Much later, in the 1980's, the group was joined by a recent émigré from Poland Maria Rewakowicz. In the 1990's, it published jointly with the Writers' Association of Ukraine the quarterly journal Svito-Vyd (“World-Look;” edited by Boychuk, Rewakowicz, and a member of the Kyiv School group of poets, Viktor Kordun).

The vibrant émigré cultural life of the 1950's and 1960's began to decline in the 1970's. Some of the most active older generation figures either passed away or retreated from public life. The two big theater companies—the Hirniak and Dobrovolska Studio (New York) and the theater of Volodymyr Blavatsky (Philadelphia)—which so electrified Ukrainian émigré cultural life in the 1940's and 50's went out of existence and no new ones sprung up to replace them. (The latter's staging of Anouilh's Antigone, which I saw in 1948, in Germany, was what probably planted the seeds of modernism in me.) Personally, I gradually drifted more and more away from the Ukrainian language into English. I stopped writing prose in Ukrainian after publishing my first novel Roads in 1961 because of the editor's persistent attempts to "correct" my Ukrainian without my consent. I felt strongly, however, that I should be free to use the kind of language I wanted. For some reason, my poetry was left alone, and so I wrote poetry in Ukrainian and prose in English. But even this began to change with time, and I started writing poetry in English too, except would make Ukrainian versions of the poems for publication. Some of it was published in American magazines. In 1978 I published a bilingual English/Ukrainian book of poems This Is How I Get Well, with Suchasnist. In 1978 I also published my first book of fiction in English—Meningitis, with Fiction Collective, a group of non-commercial American authors allied with various university creative writing programs and supported by government grants. I became a member of the group and published with them my second novel, on which I had worked for over 20 years, Three Blondes and Death, in 1993.

My feeling about America changed fundamentally after I returned from a sojourn in Spain during 1964-65. The ostensible purpose for the trip was to write a novel, but in reality it was an escape from the prison of work. The novel progressed very slowly and I didn't finish it until coming back. (It was no good anyway.) Romanesque churches, Medieval and Mudejar castles, bullfights, fiestas, cafes, beaches, parks, roses, wine…. Spain was incredible and it changed my life forever. On coming back, I wrote one of my most daring works to date, a collection of poems called Without Spain, and cried over the separation as if over a broken love affair. But in reality something more profound had taken place within me. While I was in Spain, it dawned on me that I wasn't European any more. Much as I liked Spain, there was something about it—its people—which showed me that I was different. Their attitude to life, world outlook, was markedly different from mine. And I didn't have that problem in America…. I was American… different than most Americans, but more American than Spanish! I came to this realization when in America and it was as if a veil had been taken off my eyes. I liked America and liked many things about it. I was happy where I was! In a fit of excitement, I stopped writing and reading literature (Agatha Christie replaced experimental novels) and ran marathons… sold my apartment in Spain and traveled to Latin America….

It was during this time that I gave up writing in Ukrainian. Being at peace with myself and with America dulled my awareness of my background. But another change took place in 1983, when my daughter was born. We spoke exclusively Ukrainian at home and were bringing up our daughter as a Ukrainian. (Ukrainians speak Ukrainian mostly to their children, when they are little, and to their pets.) I started writing poetry again in Ukrainian. An even greater change took place in 1986, with the Chornobyl explosion. I woke up numb with the awareness that Ukraine was almost gone. What followed was three years of work on the long poem U ra na—"Ukraina," from which two letters have fallen out as from the sign on top of a decrepit hotel. Those were years of incessant rereading of Ukrainian history and the news from the perestroyka Soviet Union. Ukraine slept while everyone was busily getting up. In 1990 some of us in the West were invited to a poetry festival in Kyiv. I saw Ukraine for the first time in forty-six years. The experience was electrifying. Then came the unbelievable, unexpected independence. I was Ukrainian again to the core and made plans for reintegrating myself into Ukraine's life, made friends, bought an apartment, planned to live part of the year there….

But this was naiveté, romanticism. Naturally, there were vast differences between me and the people of Ukraine, the same as between me and Spaniards. In fact, in some respect, they were greater. The new literary generation coming up in Ukraine, as was to be expected, first of all, worried about and paid attention to itself. It is the law of nature that the old dies and the young takes its place. So one more—this time final, I fervently hope—retreat took place—a realization that I am first and foremost an American even if of Ukrainian origin. I am not needed In Ukraine. I'm needed here—by and for myself. That is all, and it is as it should be.

Along with this realization, another one, just as important, took place. In the 1990's, after leaving IBM, I taught Ukrainian literature and culture at Columbia University. We made arrangements for the archives of the New York Group (their individual members) to be housed at the University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In the spring of 1995, the formal opening of the archives was commemorated with an exhibit. When it was all set up, as I looked at the display cases with the books with their colorful covers and the photographs in them, it dawned on me that New York was one of the important centers of Ukrainian culture. The New York Group was just a small part of what Ukrainian Diaspora had produced; there was much, much more. You could fill hundreds such cases—a whole museum—with what Ukrainians had produced in and around New York (in the US). It was Ukrainian culture but part of American too! Being Ukrainian in New York meant being both Ukrainian and American. So, I didn't have to choose between one and the other. By being myself, a Ukrainian in New York, I was both!

No place in the world has as much to offer as New York. You can see Andrei Serban's stagings at La Mama and the Public Theater, and even for free in Central Park (Cymbelin was wonderful under the stars, with the tree-covered the hill as the stage and the moat separating it from the audience) and Robert Wilson's at the Lincoln Center or BAM. Nobody puts on Beckett better than Mabou Mines. And who doesn't come to La Mama, Lincoln Center, or BAM? (Grotowski, Kantor, Barba, Brook, Bergman do, and so does Dovzhenko, to both Lincoln Center and BAM!) The great modern dance companies—Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, David Parsons, Tricia Brown, Twyla Tharp—can be seen in Damrosh or Battery Parks. For modern music what can be better than FOCUS, at the Juilliard, in winter, or Summer Garden, at MOMA, in summer? For art, there is MOMA, the Met, the Whitney, the galleries of Madison Avenue and the SoHo, and much more. And then there are the cafes and restaurants of the Village and East Village, the promenade at Battery Park City, the beaches of Fire Island…. I ran them from one end to the other—sixteen miles, barefoot, on soft sand—first from the middle to one end and back, and then the other way around. But that was years ago. I’ll never be in such good shape again!

July 15, 2003



Yuriy TarnawskyYuriy Tarnawsky has authored nineteen collections of poetry, seven plays, nine books of fiction, a biography, and numerous articles and translations. He was born in Ukraine but raised and educated in the West. A linguist by training, he has worked as computer scientist specializing in natural language processing and as professor of Ukrainian literature at Columbia University. His books include the novels Meningitis and Three Blondes and Death as well as a collection of mininovels Like Blood in Water, all from FC2, and Ukrainian Dumy, a translation of Ukrainian epic poetry published by Harvard University. His play Not Medea was staged as a workshop production at Mabou Mines in 1998.


spacer   spacer