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Feature: Back From the USSR
Olga Zilberbourg

How to Tell if a Student in Your Beginning Poetry Class Is a Russian Spy


The first thing you’ll notice about him is that he doesn’t wear a beret or horn-rimmed glasses, like your two other male students. He has a perfectly unremarkable face and something of a beer belly. If he were in better shape, you’d know he’s a spy at first glance. The beer belly makes this man curiously good-looking. He wears baggy jeans and polo shirts to class, because that’s “the American way.” He writes lyric love poetry, he says during the introductory first session. This information makes you groan inwardly because you have a dreadful suspicion his poetry is going to rhyme.
The man’s name is Richard Murphy, and he says he is from Massachusetts, but he speaks with a strong Slavic accent. You don’t pry. On an urban university campus in New York you’ve learned to tread carefully around ethnic and national identities. If he really is from Massachusetts and if his parents were divorced and if his mother went to the land of realized Communism to marry a furnace stoker moonlighting as an underground poet and abandoned him on the streets of Moscow for a decade before he could finally be reunited with his father, you’ll learn all about this from his verse. A semester is usually long enough for you to become conversant with your students’ screwed up family histories. Richard’s preferred form is a sonnet or a hymn. When you ask him if he speaks other languages, he says “Spanish,” and proceeds to quote a line: “El mundo va a cambiar de base. / Los nada de hoy todo han de ser.” He has a curious Castilian lisp in his pronunciation, but foreign languages have never been your strong suit, and you defer judgment.

For the second session, you ask your students to bring snacks to share with everyone. The class session is broken into an hour and a half lecture by an acclaimed poet followed by an hour and a half of workshop divided into smaller groups, one of which you lead, and you find that food makes workshop a more nurturing environment. Most women in the class bring new age treats like organic carrot chips and vegan cookies, but Richard comes in with an apple pie and a tub of ice cream. He is rather puzzled when people shy away from his dish: it’s apple pie, don’t all Americans love it? He walks around the room with his pie and asks everyone: “Pie anyone? Come on, guys, you know it’s the best!” Finally, a student tells him, “Pie is too rich a snack for me.” There’s sincere surprise in Richard’s voice when he argues: “But you’re so skinny!” Perhaps out of feelings of male camaraderie, one of the beret-wearers decides to take a slice of pie. Richard dishes out some ice cream on top of it. The ice cream is strawberry. This is a dead give-away, but only the most cynical conspiracy theorist would ever suspect dessert.

Richard’s first poems are mediocre. But so are everyone else’s. You don’t grade them, but give helpful suggestions.

At midterm, you collect the students’ poems, the product of several workshops. You’re pleased to see that Richard has abandoned the sonnet form, but are concerned that he’s not exploring the wide possibilities the English language has to offer. While imaginative, his poems remain somewhat deadpan, descriptive rather than evocative. This is a common trait for those who write English as their second language, but Richard claims he’s Irish-American. You puzzle over comments that would be most helpful in his revision process for “My Neck”:

I consider my neck
to be the smartest part of my body—
as in “smartly fitted.”
It connects my head to my body,
blood flows through it
and oxygen.
My neck is fragile. It can be broken
or strung on a noose
or chopped off by a guillotine.
But without it, I wouldn’t be able to “duck”
and protect my head from bullets.
Without it, my head would be a dead weight.
I’m attached to my neck, because
I've had it since birth and will have it
until the day I die.

You write three paragraphs of comments on the usage of figurative language in poetry, the rhythm and music of poetry, supplying reading recommendations to address these problems; and then concede that a beginning student is usually better off receiving one specific piece of advice that he could actually comprehend and explore in future pieces. You wish you were a real teacher, and not an overworked grad student, barely able to help herself. You delete the three paragraphs and type out a brief note, commending him on breaking “and oxygen” into a separate line and advising him to consider how the formal shape of his poem could be made to resemble a neck. You overlook the deep symbolic meaning of Richard’s work.

After you hand your comments back to the class, Richard shows up at the door of the office that you share with the other TAs. “What’s this?!” he demands, throwing the paper with your comments on your desk. You’re taken aback by his rudeness, best suited to the overcrowded Moscow subway, but you’ve been spending a lot of time with poets lately, and you’ve learned that their sensitivity can sometimes take very dramatic turns. Richard is apparently upset by his grade: B+.

“It’s a very good grade,” you tell him. “In fact, it puts you ahead most of the class.”

“Why isn’t it an A?”

You know that you don’t need to defend your grading choice to the student—especially since you’ve written a perfectly reasonable note to accompany the grade—but you have never been easy with the concept of grading students’ creative efforts in the first place. Poetry is an inherently subjective art form, and different readers always have different interpretations of one another’s work. Frankly, you would’ve preferred to defer grading to the acclaimed poet who’s actually supposed to be teaching the class, but there are three hundred students registered for it altogether, separated into eight different workshop groups, and grading is not something the poet is willing to undertake. It’s between you and Richard.

“There are some problems with this poem, some areas of concern I mentioned in my comments.”

“I don’t see that.”

Richard picks up the piece of paper and reads your comment back to you out loud. Indeed, your feeble suggestion to pay attention to line breaks could be construed as unqualified praise. You admire Richard’s persistence with the grading issue, but are afraid that he’s missing a larger point.
“Do you think your poem deserves an A? Do you think it’s perfect?” you ask.

“Yes!” he says.

You were not prepared for this answer, and find yourself scrambling for what to do next. You wish you had some training in pedagogy, and not only English and English poetry. You also feel that his insistence is somehow inappropriate for the situation, would be better suited for arguing your way past a bouncer or for climbing a career ladder at a highly bureaucratic organization like the KGB, but not for discussing poetry. “Would you like some water?” you ask him.

“I don’t drink water. I prefer Coca-Cola.”

But Coke is not something you have on hand. And anyway, it was just a way to delay answering his question. Finally, you come up with this phrase: “I feel that my grade is more than generous in this case, but if you wish, you can submit an appeal to the poet. Frankly, she might feel that your poem deserves a grade lower than B+.”

This turns out to be sufficient to get him out of your office. “Thank you for your help,” he says, but you can see he doesn’t really mean it. The skin around his jaws is tight and his eyes are burning with anger. He bangs the door of your office on his way out. The next few days, when you walk around campus, you keep turning around to make sure nobody’s following you, and you carry pepper spray in your purse. You’re considering putting him on the Watch List at the Student Health Offices, recommending that he receives a psychological evaluation. But even though you’re scared of him, he’s done nothing that seems objectively crazy. And, naturally, you don’t want to alienate him any further. You’re also growing increasingly concerned about your own paranoid tendencies.

During the second half of the semester, Richard’s skills increase so dramatically, you suspect him of cheating and look up some of his lines online. The search results reveal nothing obvious, and you wonder: maybe you’re a better teacher than you thought? It’s entirely possible that one of his classmates has been helping him out, or simply that he’s a gifted student and has been reading more poetry. He’s discovered the purpose of similes and metaphors, but now you’re concerned with the darkness of his imagination. The class spends a lot of time workshopping his line: “My wife’s eyes are like the holes of the double-barreled shotgun.” Most are impressed with the violence of the simile, even though nobody can quite pinpoint what provokes this violence. Elsewhere, and equally mysteriously, the wife is characterized as a “burnt branch of a birch tree.” You praise him for the use of alliteration, but advise to unpack these potent images and uncover the underlying event that provokes them. Richard balls up his fist, points the index finger at you, pulls the trigger with the middle, and makes a shooting noise: “Pshew!” Your skin breaks out in goose bumps, and the hair at the base of your neck stands up straight.

One of the women in the class speaks up for you: “This is inappropriate, Richard! A terror tactic.”
“Just a joke, ladies,” Richard says. He grins and makes a big show of eating a brownie from the batch he brought in for snack that day.

“I am also wondering where this poem is set,” one of the quieter students in the class speaks up. “The image of the birch tree indicates that it’s set fairly far north, perhaps even in Canada. Birches are much more common there.” This gives you hope that some of the students in the class don’t buy Richard’s legend of being “from Massachusetts,” but don’t have the guts to confront him about it.
“When I think of birches, I imagine Russia,” you offer to the class. “Doctor Zhivago, that kind of thing.”

The class returns you a blank stare; nobody seems to have any idea of what you’re talking about. Part of the problem with teaching the beginning poetry classes is that very few students have a common frame of reference with you. You glance in Richard Murphy’s direction. He meets your eyes straight up and gives you a little smile that makes you realize that he’s likely to be mad at you because you’ve tried to blow his cover. That day you decide to take preemptive action and, trying to find out what this man is all about, follow him home after class.

He doesn’t go home—or at least, not straight home, and, cautiously trailing him, you go on a meandering journey around the city. He takes the subway uptown, East Side. At the subway exit, he meets a redheaded woman, and together they stroll leisurely in the general direction of the Museum Mile. On the way, they stop by a corner store for some produce and then buy a baguette at a bakery. To any casual observer, they would look like a young couple going home to make dinner. But you notice that they don’t touch or kiss each other. When they walk together, she holds him by the crook of his arm, and that’s as much physical contact as they ever have. When they disappear inside a building, you read the gold-plated sign “Russian Consulate General. Staff Only.” A piece of paper attached at the bottom says, “Visa Applicants Enter Around the Corner.”

You take this information straight to the FBI. A friendly woman in a casual suit takes you to her office and listens to you kindly. There’s a folder in front of her that she flips through while you talk.
“Ms. Molotova,” she says, “You do realize that this is the fifth Russian spy you’ve brought to us? The first,” she looks at a piece of paper in front of her, “the first was a real estate agent. The second, a financial consultant. The third, a psychiatrist. Need I go on?”

“But this time I’ve got the evidence!” You hand her a copy of Richard Murphy’s opus “My Neck” and a blurry photograph of him and a red-headed woman entering the consulate. The FBI agent takes a cursory look at these documents and puts them at the back of your folder.

“Bad poetry is not sufficient evidence, I’m afraid.” But she follows protocol anyway and asks you to write a report, which you do. It takes you two hours, because you’ve been trained as a literary critic and go into the details of poetry analysis.

When you hand in your write-up, a thought occurs to you: “This man—if you’re not going to arrest him right away—do you think my life is in danger since I’ve been able to see through his cover?”

“We assure you, even if he is actually an active spy—which he is not—causing you bodily harm would never be in his interests. If you’re concerned about this, we do encourage you to seek out a therapist.”

This actually makes you feel a lot better: if the FBI is not worried about this man, there’s no reason why you should be. Still, for the last two weeks of the semester, you tread carefully around Richard Murphy. You give him an “A” for his final project, a long poem entirely dedicated to his childhood dog. The work, you believe, actually deserves this grade: it’s touching without being sentimental. To make sure your judgment is not entirely driven by fear, you ask the class to read their final projects out loud and submit their grading choices to you along with a few lines of explications. Richard’s poem stands out as one of everyone’s favorites; many quote the first and the last line of his poem as the best they’ve seen all semester. “Snappy snaps,” Richard’s poem begins. It ends the same way. “Snappy snaps.”

Three years later, when the FBI arrests Richard Murphy as a part of the Russian spy ring, you’re not the least bit surprised.


Sweet Dreams

Having reached the age of 55, my mother has decided to try out retirement. She won’t stop working—there are no opportunities for advancement in that—but she’s decided to branch out and sign up for an advanced English class after work. Her older sister is taking the same class, and my mother can’t let her sister surpass her at anything. This week, their teacher assigned them a few song lyrics to translate. My mother, determined to be an A-student, messages me for help.

“Is there anybody out there?” It’s Pink Floyd, I tell her, from “The Wall.” Pink is watching “Gunsmoke” on TV, the wall inside his head is almost finished, and he can’t help wondering whether there’s anyone who can help him break it down from the outside. “Is there anybody out there?” is his distress call. “Wow,” my mother says. “I’d better send you the entire exercise. I’m getting it all wrong.” Fine, I tell her, but I already know English. “Don’t be so American.” My mom types quickly, I’m barely able to catch up. “‘Love changes everything,’ what does this mean?” There’s an eleven-hour time difference between St. Petersburg and San Francisco. What’s 9 pm her time is 10 am for me, and I’ve just had my morning coffee and opened my inbox. I need to get some work done. But then there’s never a good time to talk; when it’s evening my time, she’s at work herself, and she never has time to talk to me when she’s working.

“Love changes everything,” I don’t see two ways to interpret this—what does she think it means? “That you must love every change that happens to you,” she explains. She fails to see that “love” in this sentence is used as a noun, and “changes” is the verb. In her version, love becomes a command, an order: “Love the changes!” Obviously, she needs help. I’ve been encouraging her to learn English for years now—once in a while, she talks about making her retirement final and coming to live with me in the U.S.—knowing English would really help then. “What’s the subject of this sentence?” I ask, and she immediately writes back: “This sentence has no subject. It’s a subjectless sentence.” I remind her that this is unlikely, that in English, every proper declarative sentence must have a subject, and when she considers this proposition, she finally gets it. “Love changes everything! Wow—this is so backwards,” she writes.

I wonder how my aunt is doing with this exercise, and if she’s got my cousin helping her from Sweden. The two sisters could be helping each other, practicing their conversation skills when they get together for dinner or meet at the country house to prune apple trees or to pick strawberries, but no. “I know English so much better than she does, and why should I help her?” my mother scoffs at the suggestion. “Let her fend for herself. She would do the same to me.” It’s easy for me, from across the ocean, to fantasize about the communal life back at home, but conversations like this quickly remind me how things really are. Everything between the two sisters is a competition. Even when they pick strawberries together, they carefully weigh each other’s crops to see who scored better. Both my aunt and my mother have managed to jettison their children to the other side, where the grass is greener, and now all they have is each other. My mother has no time to revel in her success, she’s anxious to move on. “Everybody’s looking for something,”—what does this mean? “That’s Eurythmics, ‘Sweet Dreams.’ What does it mean to you?” “I think, it means that everyone’s spying on everyone else,” she offers. This is not translation as much as a diagnosis; clearly, there’s nothing I can really do to help her.

I’m almost ready to sign off, when I get a message from my cousin. “Everybody’s looking for something? Translate, please.” “You should know this,” I write back. “This is English 101.” “I’m in the middle of a meeting, no time to chat,” he responds. This is the most I’ve heard from my cousin in over a month, and despite the curtness of his message, I sit back in my chair and giggle at the computer screen. It’s 11 am already, and my morning is shot, but I don’t mind it anymore. What if our mothers did, indeed, learn English this way and moved to be closer to us? I’d have to learn to be a lot more flexible with my schedule then, to love the changes.



Olga ZilbergbourgOlga Zilberbourg is a writer traveling between San Francisco, CA and St. Petersburg, Russia. In September 2010, her second Russian-language collection of stories, Keys from a Lost House, was published by St. Petersburg-based Limbus Press. In English, her stories have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Alligator Juniper, J Journal, Marco Polo Quarterly, and other publications. She is an associate editor at Narrative Magazine, responsible for Story of the Week and for First and Second Looks columns. She is an active member of San Francisco Writers Workshop with Tamim Ansary and has performed her stories at several reading series around the Bay Area, including Litquake, Why There Are Words, and InsideStoryTime. She blogs about travel and narrative theory at


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