Friday, January 31, 2014

Russian Graves (originally appeared in Sensitive Skin)

From Sensitive Skin #9, published by Bernard Meisler and edited by Ron Kolm and Rob Hardin

One of my favorite places in the world is the Russian Orthodox Cemetery in Spring Valley, New York, which is known as Novo Diveyevo. An Anglo, used to containing his dead in unrelenting grids of slabs of stone atop preternaturally manicured grasses, would have trouble envisioning it. For the Anglo, as Philippe Ariès has pointed out, cemeteries are frightening places that require control and taming. Hence, Anglos would be unprepared for the Slavic chaos at Novo Diveyevo, announced at first glance by the profusion and untrammeled growth of dogwood, maples, rose bushes, geraniums, wisteria, lilacs, spruces, marigolds and every other kind of plant imaginable. Like the death that is their ground soil, the plants grow everywhere, regardless of the boundaries of graves, the vehicle pathways or the buildings.

As for the graves, some are marked with simple wooden Orthodox crosses, the names long effaced by decades of weathering; some are huge marble monuments to heroes of the White army; atop one grave, one man built a small house with a bed and a chair and an embroidered rug for his extended visits to his wife (he doesn’t come any more; this is probably not neglect, I think, but the fulfillment of his obvious consummate wish, reunion). I have always loved this small edifice and its promise of eternal love beneath the weeping willow that shelters its roof, as well as the imposing neighboring grave belonging to General Bezsmertnye, as its tall granite monument proclaims, a name which means, in translation, “immortal.”

As the trees and uncut hedges grow as they please, so the graves are in lines or circles as they choose, and the wildlife goes about, oblivious of the black-frocked priests with their heavy iron crosses and the self-effacing nuns, the monashki, married to the priests. Raccoons lead their young across the small gravel driveway that serves as the entrance to Novo Diveyevo as the cars wait to park in the small places behind the church. Raccoons lead their young across the small gravel driveway that serves as the entrance to Novo Diveyevo as the cars wait to park in the small area behind the church. The church is mainly a site for funerals these days, with a dwindling congregation made smaller by every death. The current clientele of Nova Diveyevo is that greatest generation, veterans of the Second World War, and they arrive more frequently with every year of the new millennium.

Funeral masses are heavy with incense and read in Old Church Slavonic. There is crying, but little keening. Caskets are almost always open and we kiss the hands and the heads of our loved ones in parting, but feel a loss if, for some reason, we cannot. We feel comfort that we are putting our forefathers into the hands of the diligent nuns who will weed the graves and let us know if the gophers are eating holes under the plots and making them sag.

There is—and this is truly incomprehensible to the Protestant—an old age home on the premises; the monashki care for these aged. The place is free of the howling agonies of most age care facilities, where, as anyone who has ever been to one knows, the old lie screaming into the night, calling for their long-dead mothers. Here the old understand they are going to die and accept it, and are happy with the care of the meek monashki, so unlike the jaded, burnt-out nurses of clinical aseptic hospital wards, and with the physical beauty of the final resting place they have chosen.

I grew up with little fear of the dead. All my people—both sets of grandparents, and now both mother and father, other relatives—reside here and I take comfort in visiting them. When I was a child, before the cemetery grew large and woods—yes, even here—were cut down to make room for more dead, my father would take me walking by the woodland streams, showing me the small fish and salamanders in the rivulets and the mushrooms growing on the rotting carcasses of the old woodland giants. My mother would make a picnic. Camp survivors, they had learned to live, or at least make peace, with life and death both.

I said all my people were at Novo Diveyevo—not true. The most important of all, my godchild and niece (suicide? overdose?), chose to have her ashes scattered over the Long Island Sound. To me, a horror. How to visit? Where would be the lilacs and rabbits and raccoons to succor her, to succor me? Where, Lord, in that vast uncaring space they call the sea, would she be? My brilliant child, where are you? Damn you if you tell me she is in every sea breeze, in every mist, in the air I breathe. She is gone and yet I search for her as her molecules spread further and further away to the blank magnetosphere and into deeper space and finally into some accursed black hole. I have a brief with God: I demand habeus corpus.

At Novo Diveyevo, we could have talked, she and I, about this, about her death so unnaturally preceding mine. I could have bought a bench to plant next to the grave and, after many years, perhaps, we could have come to an understanding. If not understanding, then perhaps peace. But how does one come to terms with the sea? With the wind over the ocean? With ashes? With space?

I will do what I know how to do, what I have been taught. I will find a bench near that insatiable sea. I will look for the last molecules of my beloved. Maybe the gulls and terns and clams will take pity on me and guide me somehow to whatever is left of her whom I loved so.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

NYC Launch of #specialcharacters by Larissa Shmailo

This event celebrates Larissa Shmailo's new poetry collection #specialcharacters (Unlikely Books) with readings by Amy King, Philip Nikolayev, Steve Dalachinsky, Marc Vincenz, and emcees Ron Kolm and Jonathan Penton.

About #specialcharacters:

"This is a thrilling book of femininity and magic. When it comes to capturing the intimacy of pain, Larissa Shmailo is among the most daring poets of her generation. When speaking of human rights, she is a human flame. She is subtle and provocative, fresh and out of bounds. You will fall in love here, and you will be loved right back."

—Philip Nikolayev-

"I see this work as a continuum in a long tradition of radical writing practices from Futurism, to Dada, to Oulipo, to Pussy Riot. Read it when you wish to be empowered. Read it when you wish to be entertained. Read it to rid yourself of the precious and polite."

—Elaine Equi -

"This is a major work by a major poet."

—Steve Dalachinsky

Bowery Poetry Club Sunday May 11 1pm Tickets $15

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Death of a Reader

What happens to a writer when her favorite reader dies?

The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin said that poets need readers like drunks need vodka. As a poet, I can attest to the truth of this statement. On December 27, 2013, the unthinkable happened—my sister, Tamara Shanahan, champion of my work and my favorite reader, died of complications from a mass on her gall bladder. I lost a sister that day, but also something more. The loss is also of a nigh irreplaceable set of loving eyes on my work and a precious and intimate communication, not only written, but also appreciated.

I called my sister Tamara "Theo," after the equally supportive brother of Vincent van Gogh, who cared for his brother, nurtured his talent, and more than once sent urgently needed funds to the artist. Tamara was always available to listen to a new poem, and perhaps, just perhaps, over-praised a few. She also bought my books and CDs by the dozens, handing them out to her friends and neighbors; everyone at her chiropractor's office got a copy of my CD, The No-Net World, special to us because its cover is a vintage photo of my parents.

Her favorite poem was about older women:


Ladybug, the autumnal, menopausal forest is aflame, Burning with your yearning and desire: go home. No season of mists or mellow fruitfulness for you, only The hot flash of Eros dying, growing old.

Fall now, the deep loam envelopes your breasts, Dugs that hang low. The crimson leaves as Veined as your hands, varices red and blue, Glitter with last dew, the brilliance before death.

Can you, withered Phoenix, rise? Female over fifty, do you have your music too?

But she also liked my bawdy "The Other Woman's Cunt" ( and encouraged me to be bold and perform and publish it.

Tamara used to liken us to "city mouse and country mouse," with me living in Manhattan and active in various artistic scenes, and my sister living quietly in Queens, enjoying her family and neighbors. We attributed adventurousness to me, always seeking the new, and conventionality to her. Yet what seemed unadventurous in her was perhaps the greatest adventure of all, in her thirty-year long committed relationship with another human being, David Rosen, whom she loved with every particle of her being and was loved by in return. And that love also shone on her late daughter, Irene, and, no matter how obnoxious I was, on me, too.

Part of the balcony at my readings will never light again, a page from my manuscripts will always be missing. My favorite reader has left the house, never to return, and with her, a part of my literary courage and inspiration.

Dedicated to the memory of Tamara Shanahan (August 7, 1948–December 27, 2013).

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Celebrate National Translation Month!

The Williams Readings present



Wednesday, February 5, 2014, 7 p.m.

Williams Center for the Arts
One Williams Plaza, Rutherford NJ

Plus the words of William Carlos Williams and open readings from the floor

Contact: John Barrale –

Alex Cigale’s translations from Russian, and his own English-language poems, have appeared in Cimarron, Colorado, Cortland, Green Mountains, New England, The Literary Reviews, Drunken Boat, Interlit Quarterly, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, and PEN America. He’s on the editorial boards of Asymptote, COEUR journal, The Madhatters’ Review, The St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies. From 2011 until 2013, he was Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia.

Larissa Shmailo is the editor of the new anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and founder of The Feminist Poets in Low-Cut Blouses. Larissa translated the zaum opera Victory Over the Sun for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s landmark restaging of the work and has been a translator and writer on the Bible in Russia for the American Bible Society. Her poetry and criticism have appeared in The Common, Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, Drunken Boat, Fulcrum, Madhat, Lungfull!, Jacket, and the anthologies Words for the Wedding (Penguin), Contemporary Russian Poetry (Dalkey Archive), and the Unbearables Big Book of Sex (Autonomedia). Her books of poetry are In Paran (BlazeVOX [books]), the chapbook A Cure for Suicide (Cervena Barva Press), and the e-book Fib Sequence (Argotist Ebooks); her poetry CDs are The No-Net World and Exorcism (SongCrew). Her newest poetry collection, #specialcharacters, is forthcoming from Unlikely Books.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Poems in Madhat

Thrilled to have my poems "désolé de ne pas être avec vous" and "Selene and Endymion" in the brilliant new Madhat Annual! Viva Marc Vincenz and Jonathan Penton (Unlikely Stories) and Clare L. Martin and everyone!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

#specialcharacters cover

The cover of my new collection, #specialcharacters, launching February 27 at AWP Seattle.

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