Катя Капович

Katia Kapovich







On April,3 2002, Katia Kapovich was interviewed in the Library of Congress by Grace Cavalieri, for the program "The Poet and the Poem" and read twelve of her poems from the manuscript of her book  with the prospective title "Gogol in Rome". This interview can be heard here (Real Audio), and most of the poems are transcribed down.

Check the playing time for the poem's location.









A Death -- 18.00

A Paper Plane to Nowhere -- 24.40

A Waltz --  21.31

A Wolf -- 22.28

At the Young Pioneer Camp -- 8.44

Black and White  -- 25.56

Christmas -- 27.28

Diogenes  -- 4.40

Generation K  -- 0.52

Gogol in Rome -- 15.35

In the Bathhouse -- 5.32

Something to Oppose -- 21.51




1.st Part


Generation K  -- 0.52


  There is one lucid dream with open eyes:

  I lie down on the floor, the ceiling a stage,

  and see us gently floating, white-on-white,

  or hanging still like bats in Plato's cave.


  We all adore loud colors, drink on the stairs,

  smoke too much and speak too loudly,

  drive ramshackle cars with broken gears

  from hill to valley.


  We mumble in English with heavy accents,

  dropping the articles like cigarette ashes,

  and suddenly forget at the end of a sentence

  its initial station.


  We don't really care what clothes we wear

  and still enjoy French movies for their smack

  of sexuality. We raise the collars

  of our raincoats, turning our backs


  on a stray foreigner finding a hotel

  in the dark capital where we stay as guests

  until we transit to a better world

  as painlessly as moving to the West.  


Diogenes  -- 4.40      


In lethargic October
worn sneakers hang from a tree,
a plastic bag starts a dervish dance
in the driveway, high pitched
ambulance sirens grow louder every day,
as if trying to shout each other down.
Saturday comes,
and I sit down on the balcony, facing the rain.
A homeless man in the private parking lot
packs his blankets into a black plastic trash can.
He"ll soon go away for the winter
and the trash can, his summer home,
will be chained to the fence.

In the Bathhouse -- 5.32      


  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.



A Death -- 18.00   


My first love died in the Afghan war,

but not from bullets, not by the hand of Mars.

He drowned while swimming in Ferry Lake.

That"s why they didn"t bring him back to us,

but buried him there, in the sands of the desert.

The soldiers did not shoot into the air

eighteen times, which was his quicksand age.

No drums broke the sirocco silence.

My first love died because he couldn"t swim.

They had marched across the desert for two weeks,

he saw a lake, a blister on the lips

of the earth. He sneaked out to the bank

and jumped into the water. Then his heart stopped.

A water-nymph looking a bit like me

pulled him by hand ashore. There he lay

on dry mignonette and watched the clouds

marching across the desert sky.  


Something to Oppose -- 21.51


  As the third generation of dandelions is turning gray,

  I'll visit Moscow, where my father and his friends

  still prod kitchen walls with their shoulders,

  drink cheap wine, chat politics, grow older

  than their own fathers. The great wars are over;

  death does not draft us into the defense of death.

  A domestic paradise of ancient photos,

  on several of which

  I'm one of those sunny spots without features

  in Eastern Europe's twilight.

  The ceilings are so low they make you stoop

  in this early-"60s-built "Khrushchev home" type of

  block of flats. On the kitchen table

  I find my father's "victim of repressions"

  special privileges card. Fully exonerated.

  "So what privileges does it grant you?

  Can you get a visa and visit me in the States?" -

  "No, but I can ride the subway all day for free,

  if I ever get that bored." Of Putin he says,

  "Shitty government but its very shittiness

  contributes to the development of political culture,

  because at least there is something to oppose."

  A classic "60s dissident, my father couldn't

  live in the West. There's nothing to oppose there.

  He says the atmosphere of freedom makes him shrink.



Black and White -- 25.56


Twice a year - right before my birthday

and on Christmas Eve - I climb on a chair,

fetch a dusty Adidas shoebox from a shelf

and lay out ancient black and white photos

from Russia on the dinner table,

noticing that the glossy paper

has yellowed in the corners.


One day, in the year, say, 2012,

I'll be spreading this ritual solitaire

over a bluish tablecloth, and my teenage daughter

will float out of her room, head in earphones,

look at the collection and ask with lukewarm curiosity

"How do you get them to be black and white like that?"  


  Christmas -- 27.58

  A dry northern wind at Christmas
  brings clouds of seagulls to Cambridge,
  landing them at 10 a.m.
  upon Harvard's stadium.
  I am dishonest,
  I steal my way in to run here
  once in a while without authorization,
  but right now I'm just passing by.
  Tall bleachers to my right
  across the hollow amphitheater of winter
  seem ready to surrender
  to snow, but there is none.
  A man in a greasy Santa uniform
  ambles from the direction of Mt. Auburn Cemetery
  with an empty cigar box in his hands.
  He sets it down on the curbstone.
   "Free. Take anything you need,"
  reads the handwritten inscription
  in fat purple highlighter.  



2.nd Part



At the Young Pioneer Camp -- 8.44

That summer day was dim, the yellow dorms
of our Young Pioneer camp winked through the fence
of rain, when the bus stopped by the doors
of the main office building, exhaling us.
Uniform white shirts, blue shorts, scarlet neckerchiefs,
we headed upstairs for our physicals,
were checked for diarrhea, headaches, chickenpox,
bad teeth, and humiliating lice.
"Are you a boy or a girl?" - a nurse asked me.
I blushed and whispered that I was a girl.
At thirteen I was as flat as veneer,
wore short haircuts and bit my nails.
I'd been eating unwashed fruits for a week
hoping my tests would reveal parasites
and they'd send me home. I walked heavy-footed
out of the lab and into the night.
The rain had stopped, crickets were trilling,
my roommates were asleep, a lonely lightbulb
under the ceiling lit their faces against
gray flat pillows on ancient standard bunks.
An iron frame, a mattress with bad springs,
a clock above my head without one hand...
I opened my journal and wrote "childhood stinks"
and closed my eyes. They were full of sand.





Gogol in Rome -- 15.35


Annoyed with the parochialism of the "fantastic city"

of St. Petersburg and close

to the unexpected end of his life,

Gogol escaped to Rome.

He settled in a colony of Russian artists,

sharing lodgings with his bosom friend,

the painter Alexander Ge.

On their long walks they discovered

"the inner meaning of everything."

Gogol, a perpetual titular councilor,

was almost happy there: he could forget

the petty insults of the civil service

and a failed career at the University. He was secretly

working on Book Two of his magnum opus,

Dead Souls, stealing bits of furniture and parts

of the domestic atmosphere

from paintings of his late-Romantic friends

into the mansions and orchards

of his grotesque characters. His own

descent into madness occurred in strongly marked ages.

He saw that everything was alive in Mother Nature -

trees, stones, sand on the beach, seashells -

and everything called for his empathy.

He stopped eating, stopped drinking wine

(that blood of grapes), turned almost into a Jainist.

His friends were appalled; his mother freaked

whenever she received another of his

strange and ambiguous letters,

full of advice for the improvement of the Fatherland.

His doctors prescribed enemas, hazardous treatment

which seeps potassium out of the body,

causing a deterioration at the heart. He destroyed

his novel, throwing four hundred pages

into the fireplace, and would now spend his days

mostly in bed, covered with three woolen blankets.

"It's cold in Italy, it's dark!" he complained to his servant.

The doctors bled him with leeches until he was dead.



A Waltz --  21.31

A Russian accordionist in Harvard Square
plays a familiar antique waltz
and I suddenly remember the lyrics,
which have escaped my memory for years:
those warriors sleep on Manchuria’s hills,
where no Russian words can be heard.

Our school’s choir once rehearsed it
for a New Year’s Eve performance
for hours in a big cold auditorium:
a dozen boys in navy blue uniforms
and seven girls in brown dresses
and a shabby piano in front of
empty rows of chairs.

Some of those boys now sleep on Afghan
and Chechen hills, some of those girls
sing with the angels,
afraid to mess up a note,
while the old music teacher scratches his beard
and waves his conductor’s baton.




  A Wolf -- 22.28

Once when I was fifteen, I cleaned my room
and went to empty out the garbage bucket
at the neighborhood dump, where I found a big dog
that was scouring for food leftovers
on January snow behind the containers.
When he raised its head and examined me
with a most attentive stare, inexperienced as I was
in matters of animal behavior, I was instantly aware:
it was not a dog. Whether the angel of death
or an extraterrestrial, he neither wagged his tail
nor lowered his gray eyes the way dogs do
under similar circumstances, but rather waited
for me to dispose of the garbage and leave,
When I looked back from my porch, his eyes
were still on me in the bleached air.

Another time, many years later in Israel,
I went from West to East Jerusalem
by bus, because I had to interview
a PLO activist woman for a Russian magazine.
Her hotel was not easy to find.
I walked into the wrong lane and saw a man
writing Arabic graffiti on the wall of a building.
His hand with a piece of a charcoal dropped
as he fixed me with his slow and cold
unblinking eyes. Our staring duel was short-lived.
He outstared me, and then I left.



A Paper Plane to Nowhere -- 24.40

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.



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