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Carol V. Davis: California Poets Part 6, Four Poems

Carol V. Davis

October 18th, 2023

California Poets: Part VI

Carol V. Davis

Four Poems

Late January, Summer Lake, OR

The clouds slide over the lake like a woman slipping on opera gloves

her arm hovering over the body as if unsure where it belongs.

The pond covered by a ceiling of ice though yesterday a burp and a ripple

shivered through the water, something stirring beneath.

It has been quieter than expected. Most of the birds wintering somewhere warm.

On a walk through the marshes, I startled a family of thrushes; they whooshed in a flurry

skyward, scolding me for the disturbance. I could hear quail, but they remained hidden.

Later the silhouette of an owl in the alder, his hoots smacking against the darkness.

Two coyotes called to one another over the reeds and grasses.

Late January the snow recedes on the hilltops, covered now in a smother of clouds.

Death of Pablo Escobar, 1999

after Fernando Botero

They talk about a “hail of bullets” as if it were weather, a little unusual, but nothing to be alarmed at. This is how Pablo Escobar, “the King of Cocaine,” died. A hero of the poor or wealthiest criminal in history? Botero was linked to him when another cartel bombed Escobar’s house and the press noted a Botero painting hung on the wall.

In Death of Pablo Escobar, the kingpin is barefoot, shirt open, dancing on the rooftops or fleeing the police. A swarm of bullets attack him; some hit their target, others fly on. One smacks him squarely on the forehead, more on the chest. His left palm is open, though it cannot shield him. The pistol in his right hand too has failed him. Soon he will hit the tiles and roll off the roof, but in this painting he has one last victorious moment.


A manicured forest path carpeted in bark chips, lined with a small grove of madrones. On one tree, dark red bark has peeled back, leaving coils like chocolate curls on a wedding cake. A green-silver trunk, torso stripped, a naked body exposed, satin-sheened, modesty at risk.

Late summer in Puget Sound, sprays of the madrones with white bell flowers long gone, but no red berries yet. This is the season of vulnerability: fires, human-set or natural, the longest drought on record. These trees can regenerates, Douglas firs, not easily. Last year the largest madrone burned near Big Sur, while on Vancouver Island one hundred fires now burn.

Today marks the 256th anniversary of Noah Webster. While North Korea shakes its fist and the war in Syria does not abate, dictionaries expunge and expand. In 2017 the Junior OED dropped words related to nature: acorn and ash, bluebell and dandelion, even mistletoe, that branch only remembered once a year.

What does this say about us? Can we not recognize a heron or pick a fern out of a line-up of cowslips, buttercups or ivy? Let us salute the ash, the adder and beech, to keep their names alive even if they are now relegated to the arcane.

Below Zero, the Temperature Falling

Starting two days ago, I was warned of the approaching cold: -25 today, tomorrow -31, -40 Saturday.

I cannot imagine such temperatures, how others live here, go about their days working, walking to the store.

This morning I watched a toddler on the bus, a muffler wrapped over its mouth. Never could determine boy or girl.

The child, bundled in snow suit, boots and fur hat clasped a little sand shovel in mittened hands.

Grip tight as if by holding on, the toddler could will itself to a beach, a sandbox, strip off

the clothing and dig and dig. Three weeks in Siberia and my world shrinks.

The delight of a hot lunch in the cafeteria, a fatalistic shrug when the internet won’t work at the university.

I abandon plans to go to a museum, walk carefully so as not to fall on the slick sidewalk, the snow

stinging as it’s flung by the wind. I cannot remember when I arrived nor when I am leaving.

—Previously Published in Below Zero, Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2023


August 24th, 2023

California Poets Interview Series:

Carol V. Davis, Poet, Fulbright Scholar, Professor

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Let’s begin with your personal experiences in Russia. While the recent invasion of Ukraine is difficult to justify, Russian culture cannot be reduced to these events alone. How have your travels and contacts with everyday Russian society changed the way you perceive this country—not just after the war, but also before it?

CD: I had first travelled to the Soviet Union as a college student after I started studying Russian and Russian literature, but it wasn’t until years after graduate school (in Slavic languages and literatures) that I went to Russia to live for a year (1996-97) and then kept going back. That first year I was a Fulbright scholar teaching at the Jewish University in St. Petersburg and was immersed in the Jewish community there.

I had naïvely assumed that it would not be difficult to make friends and be accepted as I am Jewish. I was at a Jewish university, I speak Russian and my kids were with me, but in fact, it was much harder than I had anticipated. I was finally able to make friends, but the concept of friendship is very different there and it was challenging. Of course, living in a country for extended periods of time gives one a chance to get to know it on a deeper level, but in Russia, despite speaking the language and not being there as a tourist, I was always considered a foreigner, an “other.” I found that frustrating. Although I traveled and lectured in Moscow and Novgorod, St. Petersburg was my home in Russia during periods between 1996 and 2014. In winter 2017 and 2018, I went to Siberia where I was teaching and writing in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia Republic, Siberia.

I lived under the Putin administration many times and under the Medvedev administration too. For years I felt free to speak openly with my friends in St. Petersburg as I have known them for decades and none are Putin supporters. I still hear from friends regularly, but no one is saying anything and we are all being careful. In Siberia I was always more careful in discussions with colleagues. Over the years, I watched as Putin closed down the free press bit by bit until it was shut completely. Even knowing all I do, Putin’s barbarity in the invasion was still a shock and I fear especially for my former students in Ulan-Ude. Buryatia is a very poor republic and an ethnic minority region, and therefore the number of conscripts has been very high and the number of deaths too. This city and region has been the focus of articles in the New York Times.

It was really Russian literature that drew me to Russia. My paternal grandfather was from a shtetl in Ukraine. I have a photo of him in a Cossack unit in the Russo-Japanese War, which is also very strange. He never talked about this experience. His Russian passport had the last name Uchitel, teacher in Russian. We don’t know how he got that as his father was a shochet (a kosher butcher). My grandmother was from St. Petersburg, which was unusual as there was a Jewish quota. She died when I was a baby. I did not grow up speaking Russian, nor Yiddish, the first language of my parents who were born in New York. I started studying Russian at university.

DG: Apart from having a direct knowledge of this vast country, you’ve also studied its language and literature in an academic setting. How have your studies influenced your perspectives on world literature, and has the so-called “Russia of the academy” always corresponded to the real-world considerations you witnessed in country?

CD: Sadly, I am much better read in Russian literature than in world literature, though I have tried to catch up. As in American society, there are so many different sides to Russian society, and European Russia, where St. Petersburg, and Moscow are, is vastly different from rural Russia, or where I was in Siberia. If Americans know any Russian literature, it is Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and for many Russians, American literature is Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway, in both countries a very limited basis for understanding a society, people and culture.

DG: You’re the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Though Russia never equaled the atrocities committed by the Germans, it nevertheless has had (and, naturally, many critics, especially these days, will enthusiastically add that it continues to have) a long and complicated relationship with repression. Indeed, such actions were responsible for the deaths of imminent writers like Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel. How do we make sense of this dichotomy, which, on one hand, is the greatness of Russian culture and its capability to be greatly ruthless?

CD: Repression and brutality, have often coexisted in Russia with its culture rich in the arts. This has been and is true in other countries. Poets and writers in Russia have always been the conscience of the society, speaking truth to power and being held in esteem by many people. But having a great literature, music and art does not shield a country from barbarism.

DG: Your 2007 collection, Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg won the T.S. Eliot Prize. Two (well, perhaps three) difficult questions: Do you think the collection would’ve had the same chances of winning that prize in today’s political climate, and, given the politics behind prizes in general, what does that say about not only how, but also upon whom we bestow any given prize? And lastly: Would it be fair to say that such a collection—though it conjures a 19th century figure and deals mostly with everyday life—might be received differently today than it was in 2007?

CD: I have thought a lot about the question of whether my book Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg, would have the same chance of an award and publication now as in 2007. I think not. The poems in that collection covered the period between 1996-2005 and mostly explored daily life. However, our thoughts about Russia are now grounded in Russia’s war on Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, some American orchestras stopped performing Russian music. While I absolutely agree with cutting the relationship with Putin apologists like the conductor Valery Gergiev and the opera star, Anna Netrebko, (and canceling their U.S. performances), I find problematic canceling all of Russian literature and art, but it’s complicated. This has been an issue in Israel, where there was a de facto ban on the music of Wagner for over a decade after protests by Holocaust survivors. And the issue still comes up when Wagner’s music is performed by major orchestras there.

DG: Your most recent work, Below Zero (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2023), is a fascinating collection of poems that transcend borders—from the New World to the Far East (in this context Siberia). Can you talk about the development/inspiration behind this work and what new discoveries you made in the process of writing it—especially as things pertain to the so-called “European Russia” you had known compared with the “Russia beyond the Urals” that you’d come to discover?

CD: All my time living in St. Petersburg I had never been to Siberia, and I was happy to finally get the opportunity to do so. I was in the eastern area of Siberia, east of Lake Baikal, in Buryatia Republic, near the border with Mongolia. It is a very poor region, an ethnic minority region, where people practice Buddhism and Shamanism. Being thousands of kilometers from Moscow you feel both how vast the country is and both how little and how much the central government controls. I also travelled to Irkutsk, a multi-ethnic city from the time of the Silk Road. I visited the Jewish community there.

DG: In a 2017 Southern Review interview you talk about the difference between being bilingual and conversing in a language: “Perhaps this is the curse of a writer. For us, being able to speak conversationally in another language is not enough. That is part of my frustration living in Russia on and off for decades. There’s always that one word, that nuance, that I don’t know how to say, and I feel that frustration acutely.” What do you see as the main differences in conversational approach between the average Russian and American? For example, we’re seen as more open and friendly with strangers, but do you see these stereotypes mostly playing out in real life or is there another, deeper reality at work?

CD: I am often asked whether I am bilingual and I would never say that I am, but I speak and write Russian. My first year in Russia, I actually taught one course in Russian with the help of students who spoke English and were patient with me and I have published some essays on American and Jewish literature in Russian but that was because friends corrected my grammar mistakes. Again I would say that functioning in day to day life in a language is different than being truly bilingual and perhaps literarily bilingual.

Part of my childhood my family lived in Europe. I never thought of myself as particularly American until I moved to Russia, but I saw how much I am a product of my own culture. For example, the first year in Russia I had a lot of computer and printer problems. Friends were happy to help me, but I was uncomfortable asking for help. I did hear complaints about Americans all the time, that we smile too much and are insincere and are too casual about friendships. America is a much more mobile society. People move around a lot, go away for university, live in other cities. In Russia, if one is fortunate enough to have been born in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, you rarely move to another city. I think that is why it was more difficult to make friends because people have friends from elementary school.

DG: If you could bring one American and one Russian writer (living or dead) to the table and have them, together, draw up a peace plan for this current political crisis, who would you choose, and why?

CD: Certainly I could choose one American, and one Russian writer to talk about the history of Russia and Russian politics, but not to draw up any kind of peace plan. While I am tempted to choose poets on both sides, I would choose one poet and one historian / writer for their perspective on the 20th c. leading up to where we are now. They are: the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who witnessed, survived and wrote through most of the 20th century in Russia. And Timothy Snyder, a contemporary American academic, who has a deep understanding of Russia, and who specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the Holocaust.

DG: At last, when all politics and even art, unfortunately, come to fail, what we have left is food—for that’s the universal experience. What’s one Russian/Ukrainian/Belarusian (or better yet, to keep very eager individuals from triggering a food war, let’s open it up and call it post-Soviet) dish you would recommend, and why?

CD: For the food I would choose borscht, which like the many varieties of its recipes, and claims for its origins, can be spelled in translation in many different ways. The most common borscht is Ukrainian, but often it is called Moscow borscht erroneously. I grew up with the Jewish version. This soup combines sweet and sour, so common in many aspects of Jewish life, food and ritual as a combination of sweetness and bitterness. Jewish borscht uses lemon juice for the sour and raisins (and sometimes a little sugar) for the sweet. It was years later, that I finally had the ubiquitous variety.

Author Bio:

Carol V. Davis is the author of Below Zero, Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2023, Because I Cannot Leave This Body (Truman State Univ. Press, 2017) and Between Storms (TSUP, 2012). She won the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Her poetry has been read on National Public Radio, the Library of Congress and Radio Russia. Twice a Fulbright scholar in Russia, she taught in Siberia, winter 2018 and teaches at Santa Monica College, California and Antioch Univ. Los Angeles. She was awarded a Fulbright Specialist grant for Siberia in 2020, postponed because of Covid restrictions and now cancelled.


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