New Series No. 20 - 2002
Excerpts from an Interview with Yunna Morits
Your father, you said, went blind.
He went blind, but gradually. When I was seven years old my father was beginning to lose his sight. He wore glasses. By the time I turned sixteen, he was blind. What makes it even harder is that I’ve similar eyes to my father. I look at how my father was and sometimes, when nobody’s there, I shut my eyes and try to see what my father saw as he was walking. I try to walk with my eyes shut. [. . .] My father washed his hands frequently, because they were his eyes. I do the same. I cannot bear long fingernails, because if the nails are long I can’t feel things properly. I have to feel exactly [. . .]
Pianists keep their fingernails short.
And when I came to your country, your city [not strictly mine, but the interview took place in Iowa City, USA!] I tried to touch all the simple natural objects, because my sense of touch is keen.
Do you relate this to poetry?
Yes, of course.
Touching with sound?
It is very important. Sometimes I can touch things through my drawings. I was struck by that image of your father, in the poem, where you describe his reaching out to touch you and your running away from him. [. . .] We have a proverb, that the eyes are afraid but the hands are not. When a dead man or woman, in our folk tales, comes out of the grave and moves in your direction, you must turn, face them, and then they vanish. Because when you can touch something, you are no longer afraid of it [. . .] I believe that when people are dead, they have no hands, no legs, no heads, but they can still touch, move, feel. Because we have a strong tactile memory. Through memory we can touch without hands, move without legs, understand without heads [. . .]
What did your mother do?
My mother was very well educated. But she couldn’t have a job, because she had to help my father. So, my mother and father were like a single organism, because they both went to father’s work. Without mother father couldn’t do a thing.
What did it mean being a Jew, having Jewish parents?
From childhood I knew I had to be better than others, cleaner, more
honest . . . Because many believe not only that the Jews killed Christ but that they drank the blood of Christian children, and so forth. Also that Jews dream only of making lots of money. So, I knew I had to find a different image for myself, a different kind of profession. I was very talented at drawing . . . But I chose literature. My parents were not thrilled. I chose literature because I knew it wouldn’t bring me riches; I also knew it would bring me many troubles! A typical Jewish kind of choice!
Did you have any sort of Jewish education?
None. We couldn’t speak the Jewish language, celebrate Jewish holidays. And we couldn’t have friends among Jewish immigrants. I was maybe five years old when I already knew about this, because of the war with fascism. I knew that the fascists were liquidating the Jews. I knew about all that [. . .]
During the war you left Kiev.
We were evacuated from Kiev very late in the day, because the Nazis moved so quickly.
In one of your poems there’s a description of how the train you were on was bombed. Was that when you were leaving Kiev?
Yes, it’s a true picture from childhood. It was when we were leaving
Kiev, my sister, my mother and myself. And after this, well, our mother was taken ill and removed from the train. Three weeks later she managed to find me and my sister. I was four. My sister was fifteen [. . .]
When my father was arrested, my sister understood everything,
because at school some of the children and teachers told her she was the daughter of an “enemy of the people”. But I didn’t understand, because I was only a little child [. . .] My mother didn’t tell me my father was in prison, because she thought children couldn’t understand such things [. . .] I knew about my father being in prison only after Stalin’s death, in 1953.
How long was he there?
Two years. And after that he got work, but was under constant
I suppose you have a vivid memory of Stalin’s death. Were you in Moscow at the time?
No, I was in Kiev. And I didn’t properly understand what was going on. So many people I loved were upset, wept, and wondered what would happen to us, as if without Stalin there could be no country! [. . .] Only in 1956, when Khruschev began to reveal some of the truths about the Stalinist oppression . . . And then I got to meet some of the people who returned from the camps [. . .]
So, you returned to Kiev after the war, and then went to the Gorky Institute in Moscow to study literature?
Because, although I wanted to study at Kiev University, they said I had no talent for literature and was not admissible to the Slavic Department. I went to evening classes instead.
When did you start writing poetry?
I wrote my first poem at the age of five [. . .] My mother knew lots of poets and recited poems to me from memory. So, I loved poems through my mother’s voice – she read beautifully. I loved poems before I loved books, because there were no books around during the war, and after the war we couldn’t afford them . . .
You have to understand. [. . .] We had one room, for mother, father,sister and me. And there were three beds, one for my sister, one for father, and one for mother and me. So, I slept with my mother in one bed until I was nineteen. And it was only when I came to Moscow, to the Literary Institute that, for the first time in my life I had my own bed.
Did you have your own room?
No room of my own! I shared with eight other women! But I did have my own bed, for the very first time. My sister was studying architecture and worked on her projects in the evenings. [. . .] I had to stay outside, in the street, because when I walked around in the room, my sister couldn’t be accurate, since the room shook. [. . .] Winter, summer, rain or snow. Sometimes I had to be in the street in the middle of the night. [. . .]
So, I would sleep in the daytime in the city park, when the sun was shining. And when I began travelling to the Arctic region, it wasn’t so hard for me, because I’d known a hard outdoor life before! [Morits lived for some time in the Archangel region; an early book of poems was about life in that harsh environment].
I was meaning to ask you about that, because I first came across your poems, in the mid Sixties, in a book called Mys Zhelaniya, which was set in the far north.
Well, I was so young then that I was not really able properly to convey what I experienced. Still, I understood something about the place, a great sadness. I witnessed such difficult relations between the people who lived in the Arctic. [. . .] There were lots of tiny islands and of very lonely people. Three or five to an island, in small houses, with half an hour of daylight. It’s very hard on people’s nerves. So much so that sometimes they even killed each other! When I saw what this life was like, I realized that Moscow wasn’t the centre of the universe, that it was a very special place in which people had it easy. In the Arctic I met lots of young people, boys and girls, without parents, moneyless. They’d come there to make money, hoping afterwards to be able to get themselves a house, maybe a higher education. But in the Arctic they drank a lot,
and then they were incapable of any higher education. They took the
money and went south, to the Black Sea, for two months in the Summer, and spent it all, and then returned to the Arctic. [. . .]
What was the native population like?
[. . .] These people don’t know anything about any historical process. They don’t know there was a Revolution. They don’t know who the leaders are [. . .] They are far removed from all these problems.
So, probably their life hasn’t altered much. The Revolution hasn’t made much difference.
[. . .] All that’s to be seen there is snow. And very few flowers. All the same, I have to say, there are some beautiful flowers, wonderful little flowers, in the snow. Nothing like it in Moscow. [. . .]
How long did you spend in the North?
Maybe five months in all. I worked in the library, on the ship. Sometimes I helped with the cooking. [. . .]
How about literary influences? Who were you reading?
Lermontov . . .
I suppose, then, that when your mother read to you, she read the classical authors?
Yes, but modern classics as well. Maybe even some of the decadents, like Nadson . . .
Blok. And Pushkin, of course, Tyutchev . . . Mother knew lots of poets. She was very artistic as well and only had to observe someone for a minute to be able to give you a picture of that person, a sort of instant portrait. My mother showed me what I was like! I could see myself, like in a mirror. She was my mirror. [. . .]
Did you, for instance, know a poet like Gumilev? [Nikolay Gumilev (1886- 1921), husband at one time of Anna Akhmatova, arrested and shot for alleged involvement in an anti-Soviet plot.] Did people know about him, or was he simply forgotten?
No, I heard about Gumilev and was able to read some poems by him, when I was about sixteen. But I first read Pasternak only when I was nineteen.
You describe Zabolotsky. [Nikolay Zabolotsky (1903-1958), major Russian poet and translator. He was arrested and spent many years in a Far Eastern gulag. I was interested in him, having myself translated his poetry for some thirty years.] There is that poem of yours in which you talk about your “teachers”. And you say at the end that he, Zabolotsky, was like a wall behind you.
He read some of my poems and told me that with a talent like mine I
would not be able to make a normal living. He said that I should take up translation and he also passed on to me some of the secrets of translation.
Such as? And when was this?
In 1956. I didn’t meet with Zabolotsky so often – maybe ten times in all. But he told me about translation. [. . .] For instance, that you can translate with the help of a podstrochnik (ad-verbum version) without knowing the language and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. You can take a dictionary and read, and get a sense of the poetic lexicon, and also consult books on the source culture. He told me that people may know a language wonderfully well, but still not be able to translate from it. And he also told me that I should not translate word for word, line by line, but look inside the language and the thought. If, for instance, there is a significant word or image, object in line seven, it’s no crime to transpose it to line eight. He told me, too, that if I encountered a word that was specific to the culture, I might embody in the translation an explanation. [. . .] You can change the order of the lines too. When you translate word for word, it is a false translation, because you inevitably lose the spirit. I’d always assumed that you had to translate line by line.
Pasternak was a great translator, they say. Did you discuss translation with him?
Yes. Pasternak and Zabolotsky were accused of straying from the
original. They translated not from the original text, but from literal
What was Zabolotsky like as a man?
He was very ill when I met him, after the camps. The one who paid most attention to my poetry was Arseny Tarkovsky. [A well known poet, father of the celebrated film-maker.] He took me into his home when I was nineteen. Akhmatova listened to me. She told me my poems were good, but very hard, stiff. She tried to make them softer, telling me: “Well,you’re so hard, it’s impossible for you to make it softer!” The psychology of young people is such that they always want to do the opposite of what you suggest! She helped me to find a style. When young people come to me for advice, I use the same trick. [. . .]
Any comment on your poem ‘Crow’?
The crow is a very common bird in our country, because we have filthy streets. Winter and summer crows are cawing. And they watch us on our balconies. That rhyme I have, “korona-Vorona” [literally: “crowncrow”] can’t really be translated. You see, when I write, I use good rich rhymes, but the crow is poor, poor and black, so that the rhyme too is, as it were, poor! You can change it, if you like [. . .] “Voronstva” [I translate it as “crowdom”] is a neologism. Do what you like with it. There’s that novella by Pushkin, ‘The Captain’s Daughter’. In it a crow lives for three hundred years. Of course, the poem is about my life and that of my friends. For three hundred years we had to fight for food and so forth. It is impossible to survive without crime, impossible without going crazy too [. . .]
So, the poem is about you and . . .
Yes! And maybe this bird really did meet Newton and . . . Of course, it is also about you! [. . .]
And there’s that poem you wrote about a favourite teacher?
We kids loved her so much, no man could possibly ever love her as
much, and so she remained alone. She never married, because we loved her too much. It was our fault! She wrote a dissertation on Platonov, by the way. [Great Russian modernist writer.] She lived in Kiev and had cancer and died at home. And when she died, I felt that I had to write about this, about children loving someone so much. [. . .] You know, it’s for sure that people do not die. I’ve spoken to many doctors who prepare people for death. [. . .] Our walking about, talking, our friendships, are a preparation for the work of death. And when we die, that’s all that’s left, these experiences. We can touch without hands, walk without legs,
speak without mouths. We can do everything without the body. Only
the body is not lost, the personality, the feelings, memory. And our
parents, friends are with us, because we can recognize each other
without the body, without faces [. . .]. I am preparing my spirit for this work, because it’s the same world after death, as here. [. . .] We are not lost to one another after death. But it’s hard work. [. . .] All of this in my poetry. Life after death is neither hell nor paradise. [. . .]
As for that teacher, it was difficult for her, because she had such a lovely experience with the children, and this was before she knew any man. This is a special psychological problem, because she had no sexual experience. [. . .] She is pure, without a sexual imagination.
And then there’s that other poem, about a woman, a simple peasant woman . . .
An urbanised peasant woman! Hard to translate, because the languagem is tough folk language, yet at the same time very emotional. [. . .]
In it, when the man is leaving the woman, he puts a fifty-rouble note near the head of the sleeping child. He doesn’t just place it there, but strokes the note, as you might some material, straightening it out, smoothing it down. He thinks it’s a lot of money.
All he has in mind really is his life, but the woman’s only concern is the child, not the man. Her work may be dirty, but her heart is pure. She doesn’t want to hold this man. But the children . . .
By the way, the woman is clever. [. . .] After the war women lived without men. They had lots of children. They were not prostitutes. We had many women and very few men. This type of woman is no prostitute. She’s not interested in sex, but she does want children. So a man is found for one night, three nights. They know very well, those women, that the man will leave. It doesn’t matter. She’s not afraid of hardship. [. . .]
[Iowa City, September 1992]
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