The Mating Call That Occupies My Memory
Author’s Note: These pieces are written in the style called “skaz”—a term coined by early-Soviet Formalists to describe an oral bard’s voice on the page. Somewhere between prose poetry, theatrical performance, and rambling essays—dense and personal, holding eye contact with the reader. It was particularly popular in Ukraine, where skaz’s greatest practitioner, Nikolay Gogol, grew up and where I, too, lived for the first fifteen years of my life.
More Comment Than Question
“This is more of a comment than a question . . . ” You know how people in the crowd always say that at talks and readings? There’s a certain sweet shamelessness about it. And a sense of dread, of hopeless inevitability, that’s released in the room and whose fingers immediately start straining the face of the presenter.
Well, what you’re about to read here is also more of a comment than a question.
Who is the comment for—I mean, whose talk am I responding to? That’s hard to pin down. Maybe Aesthetics? Or maybe my parents—as a source of discourse? Beauty, or immigrant expectations?
I must have been five or six at the time. We went on our annual summer vacation—this time, to Sochi, a town on the Black Sea, which was further out from my native Ukraine, and closer to Georgia, hot and dreamy the way old resorts are, conceived, in principle, to plunge you into a hallucination of sun reflected off the water. I remember almost nothing about the trip except for that hallucinatory feeling of irrational well-being, luxurious and fragrant and unfamiliar: and cedars, and new kinds of flowers, and enormous furry peaches.
And then there’s this one memory, the only one real anchor. The first morning there, I tottered out into the courtyard where we were staying, and spotted a peacock. It was my first peacock: I’d never even seen one on a photograph or in a movie. All I knew was the word, pavlin—a word that rung with inaccessible dignity, untouchable distance—but somehow, seeing it, I immediately knew what was in front of me. I was stunned, exhilarated.
And then, as I gaped at it, the peacock opened its mouth, and produced the most vile sound I’ve ever heard in my life. It was peering towards the trees, shouting towards some invisible presence within the branches. It couldn’t possibly have been a mating call. Could not possible be. Certainly not one that would warrant any kind of a response. Maybe it was a defeatist, self-sabotaging mating gasp—there’s a lot of poetry like that.
As far as birdsongs go, it was definitely more of a comment than a question.
The other day we sat around the table. It was my birthday, one of those easily divisible ones. The subject of the conversation was our shared forgetting—the big swaths of life that we have no access to, whole selves that are gone and can only be vaguely smelled from the pages of books we were reading at the time, or pictures we half-smiled from. Immigration, and other forms of decorated trauma hung thick in the air.
When I drink, a lot and quickly, in a brief short-lived rise, I sometimes see across time. That was the case at this birthday gathering. We sat together at the table, and I saw chipped bits, cracks of our forgotten lives pirouetting from our eyes, and, as we refilled our glasses, we drank them, drank each other’s rescued contraband memories.
It was there and then that my Sochi peacock wondered into the scene, and I remembered him for the first time in many decades. A memory coming through a distance like that comes wrapped in a few tears, that’s just a given. But why did I remember Sochi peacock on my birthday? Was it a present the subconscious shoved my way? Did the peacock shout louder than other inhabitants of my loosening and disappearing world? Or is it just the sort of a thing that friends do for each other when they sit together and tell stories, and I forgot that this was still possible? Was I hearing my parents’ laugher—at my helplessness and dismay as I attempted to comprehend the disparity between that tail and that voice? That voice and this tale?
I came to America as a teenage student and stayed, stayed, stayed, through endless visa iterations and law tightenings, through all those moments when it felt as if my status here was a frail validation of my existence, graciously extended for another year, or about to be pulled out from under me at any moment. It is hard to hold one’s history when it stems from such an alien world—the one you dread being thrust back into in your worst nightmare of bureaucratic outcomes. You want to erase its pathways inside of you so you would never have to risk going back. All of us, at that birthday table, were kind of like that too, worn by these overlaying, unwelcomed allegiances—and as we drank and talked, it was as if these allegiances became people, and we were these people’s jeans.
No question about it.
God, Dog, Daughter
You’ve all heard it at some point: “language isn’t enough.” Or even: “a poem that’s reaching the edge of the unspeakable”—you may even have said it yourself, or even worse, to yourself, quietly, like? And if you are Paul Celan that’s one thing, but if you merely sitting and reading, or getting up to congratulate someone, or wish them well when they’re sick, or if you’re sick in love and you want to congratulate the object of your affection, language should be adequate for covering the ground you’re standing on. Even if you’re standing on a shred of the abstract. Don’t tell me the “true meaning” of this or that is too precious to be captured in words, as if language just flails and stops short in front of the vast abyss of silence somewhere at the bottom of which, on the unshrinkable god-couch, a brilliant pre-lingual understanding of your experience resides.
Never mind all that: What I was getting up to tell you about is the two times I did enter Silence. In neither of the two situations was it the matter of language’s insufficiency or inadequacy. And even the great void, which many of my poet friends talk about—I saw no void to speak of. It was precisely the opposite.
The first time it happened, I was seven years old. I was biking fast, tearing down a steep hill after my friend. There were these parks all over Ukraine that weren’t exactly parks, for they were neither cultivated nor marked. They were just these “nothing-there” patches of the world left alone by people who lived near them. And we were wild street kids, hanging out in these so-called parks, or maybe my friend was a wild street kid and I imagined we were alike. As I was saying, I was on my bike, and I was going fast, and as I made a sharp turn at the bottom of the hill, the bike tumbled, and I fell, and my left butt cheek landed right on a big, sharp rock. I laid there, butt on the rock, and could not speak for a whole minute, and even after that, the only word I had access to was “sobaka,” which means a “dog” in Ukrainian and Russian both. I said just that one word, over and again, and with deep feeling and conviction—everything was packed into it. There was something utterly blissful about that dogged near-silence I entered—even though the pain was sharp, it was strangely thrilling to lie unable to speak anything other than that one single word. It wasn’t that I transcended language or was bigger than it. No way.
See, I didn’t speak a word of English at the time and so didn’t even know about the—you know, the whole god/dog thing?
Reader, when I landed on the rock, I was propelled into another dimension, ushered in and out of its gateways by this sobaka.
Eventually, the language returned, and sobaka waddled off. But I saw it one more time, I swear, out of the corner of my eye, wagging its liminal tail just a few short years ago, in a very different part of the world, in a tiny Californian apartment on a university campus, where my daughter came up to me, put her hand flat on top of her head, and then moved the hand toward me.
“Papa,” she said, “See, Papa, I am as tall as your vagina already!”
It wasn’t so much my stunned silence but her language, her rocking, precious words that let the dogs of transcendence out.