I was very sad to learn, late last night, that Elena Shvarts has died. I have a little icon of St. Michael in front of me, on my desk, which she gave to me on a visit to Providence once. We were in the habit of exchanging small things. I have a Peter the Great cigarette box... a little ceramic Russian bell... & I once gave her a treasured little blue-&-white painted toy bathtub boat, christened Sophie, which my mother had made for me as a child. For a long time I liked to think of it in her apt. window in Petersburg (before the terrible building fire, in which the little boat & many of her manuscripts went up in flames). I also gave her one of those Audobon "bird clocks", in which different birds sing the hours,because she had been so interested in the one we have in our kitchen here in Providence...
Elena also wrote some things in poems & stories about me, & I wrote some things about her... it all began years ago when I read her book, "Paradise" (put out by Bloodaxe Bks). Afterward I wrote a short & simple poem in response... & then to my utter wonderment discovered that a Providence friend of mine, Tom Epstein, was a close friend and literary collaborator with Elena. He was able to hand deliver my poem to her, in Petersburg.... & thus a friendship began. (I wrote a little about that long ago in a short essay in the magazine Witz).
Poetry, as I am learning these days from the philosopher Emanuel Levinas, is about Saying back to a sort of primal mutual co-responding, a language of loving commitment to another, or an Other... an unspoken love-gesture & suffering commitment, at the beginning of all things. & this is the substance of Personhood, & a sort of inner, secret joy of the universe... & for me this encounter with Elena Shvarts not only re-affirmed, & set a living seal upon, my longtime absorption with Russian poetry - but it represents a sort of partial acting-out or playing-out of what Levinas et al. are saying... I write this not in pride, but humility & gratitude.
So I wrote this simple imperfect poem today, a chapter in Lanthanum. & I am sad that I will not see Elena again. But maybe in some other life, some other form, someday...
in memory of Elena Shvarts
A wet March wind blows through this twilit day.
And two days ago, you were still on earth;
but not for long. A last soft breath... a yellow
moth through the blackened cypress frame of bay
window... gone. Once you were only a name
to me, far off there in Petersburg -
a name for shining black - & whispered
words, changed in translation. Your poem
touched me, then : its Russian humor,
humorous remorse, wry welcome to
life's dangling, ramshackle ways - the hobo's
leaking wounds, all the scrap iron of this early
spring weather... & so you leave me now,
dangling here : never able to read you
in the original, as I was rarely able to see you
in person, zdyes. Yet there's no wedding vow
so solemn and substantial as the flight
of those frail verse missiles we launched
across an Atlantic of salty estrangements -
since what began as mumbles in the night
found its embodiment in flesh. An echoing
embrace of free bird-sounds - feathered
& traced on curving flute-bone - tethered
in harmony... as if we were never going
to say goodbye. On chilly Prospect Street
one bold forsythia has launched light-petals
of sunny praise... harbinger of such mettle as
a woman figures, limping toward the vernal vault.