THE RUSSIAN HEART IS DARK AND FULL OF SECRETS

1. David Stromberg, co-translator of A Zoo in Winter who said there was a 55% chance we were in a historical moment. 2. Martin Woodside translates Romanian poetry and says there are a lot of dogs in Romania. 3. Polina Barskova, poet, who also enjoys poetry (pottery) almost as much as poetry.

“I’m going to read really melodramatically like Russians do. And the Americans say, ‘Oh, God,’” Polina Barskova began as she took the mike.

Barskova has been called one of the most important Russian poets of her generation, and I braved the bitter cold last night to attend a reading and launch party for her latest collection of poetry, The Zoo in Winter, forthcoming from Melville House, at St. Mark’s Books (with the “party” around the corner at Solas).

I said, “braved,” but mostly I cowered, shuffled, and shivered like a total wuss across Third Avenue (I almost turned back). With the wind chill pummeling downwards towards five degrees, the weather was downright Muscovite, so if anything, Mother Nature helped set the mood for the night even before I’d stepped through the doors. The reading was to be in Russian and English and once inside, I found myself huddling in the middle of the crowd of fur-wearing attendees who seemed to be impervious to the cold, proving further still that Russians are bad-asses. We listened to an eerie soundtrack of wah-wah pedals and mournful violins reminiscent of a 1960s James Bond films and as I continued to shiver, I remember thinking I wished to God I had some vodka coursing through my veins to warm me up. Consider the mood set.

1. Caitlin Harwell was cold. Poets/translators Genya Turovskaya (left) and Irina Mashinski (right) both shared the Russian darkness.

The first Russian woman I ever met (well, woman is a strong word…we were fourteen and freshmen in high school) leaned across her lunch tray and said in a low voice, “Listen, what you do not know, is that the Russian heart is dark, and full of secrets.” Voices that pass through consciousness often come back uninvited and that statement stuck in my mind as I waited for the event to begin. I’d wondered for years if this girl was being melodramatic or had just given me some amazing insight into Russian-ness and I was hoping that the night would shed some light on the statement.

The writers did not disappoint. Genya Turovskaya, born in Kiev but raised in New York City, read from her chapbook New Year’s Day and began with the line: No one can be opened by a skeleton key. Irina Mashinski, a bilingual poet and translator continued with the line: How do I explain how I dreaded the expression on my motherland’s face. Then Polina Barskova took the microphone, and one of the first things she said was “People asked me, ‘Why are you so happy? What happened to your cultural roots?’”

So the Russian heart is dark and full of secrets. And as Barskova said last night, “Really, we only have a few subjects to write about: love and death and money and weather.”

It was really, really cold outside, but the vodka did the trick. Mystery solved.

P.S. If you missed it, Barskova will also be reading this Thursday, Feb. 10th at Pacific Standard in Brooklyn.

–Cassie Hay is an essayist who lives in Jersey City.

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