The Naked World.

LH’s favorite Russo-American poet is Irina Mashinski (see this for her poetry and this for her reading at Mount Holyoke), and she was kind enough to send me her latest book, The Naked World: A Tale with Verse (published by the wonderfully named MadHat Press). It’s an unusual mix of poems and short prose passages, often snippets of memoir but also featuring bursts of history like this paragraph, which illuminates the situation of poets in the Soviet Union:

In 1928, the poet Nikolay Zabolotsky shut the door tightly behind him and handed his wife a sheet with a poem about the Terror. Then he read aloud another, an innocuous lyrical poem about nature, in which the first lines and the rhymes are identical to the ones in the first — they were supposed to help him reconstruct the dangerous poem when better times arrived. Then he burnt the first poem.

The book title comes from one of the longer prose sections, similarly titled; here are the first and last paragraphs:

I sat by the window and ate red currants. Do you remember, Kostya, that short story of yours: you made it shorter and shorter, until all that was left was this single sentence. I took it with me to America — a crumbling yellowing page with just that one line. And see, now I can’t find it — I have neither your story, nor that dusty summer with its slightly sour twilight, the weak Moscow setting sun, fine city dust in the air. Nor do I have anyone of us here.

But who said “culture”? Who said that the skies should be worn-out from prayers? Try this parking lot. Try to live in this new winter light, with no rain and no snow, in this young naked world, reflected in the quiet craziness of the old ladies’ glasses, crisscrossed by telegraph cables and a few birds. Doesn’t it need me, along with the dent from my winter books on the table and the warmth of my unfocused sight?

That’s real poet’s prose — “the quiet craziness of the old ladies’ glasses, crisscrossed by telegraph cables and a few birds” — and I have to remind myself English isn’t her first language.

Later there’s a quietly appalling example of the way Soviet émigrés were treated on departure:

The customs officer flung father’s suitcase open with an exaggerated jolt — his meticulously packed drawings, sketches, watercolors, and architectural projects were flying around us, slowly landing on the dirty airport floor; people in the queue were stepping on them. I crouched down quickly, trying to pick them up, pulling the thick beige sheets from under the shoes of impatient anxious travelers, some of whom were tourists, and some émigrés like us, as my proud, ironic father stood there in shock, with a strange smile of pain and disbelief on his face, which I’ll never forget. Then, in slow motion, as if in a dream, he joined me in my frantic attempts to shove whatever was rescued or half-rescued back in the suitcase, as the custom officers, men and women, were cracking up with laughter, and I knew that he would never be able to forget that humiliation and never forgive himself.

In a section called “The Equator,” about how she dragged her seasick self on deck during a storm at night to experience “this very arbitrary line” as the ship crossed it, she has a glorious moment of poetic frenzy:

And this is when, standing on all fours, like a mad dog, and choking with happiness — I don’t know why, but I started to recite, addressing myself directly to the ocean and to the partition dissolved in the invisible waters a few dark meters away, the first stanzas of Pasternak’s ode to the Sea, the anapestic pentameter that makes my heart skip a beat even on dry land:
Приедается всё, / Лишь тебе не дано примелькаться. […]

I thought “I love that passage too! Didn’t I post about it?” And sure enough I did, back in 2016 — and it turns out Irina left a comment in that thread a few years later:

I needed this first stanza of “Mutiny at Sea” as a quote for my book, and Boris Dralyuk suggested Jon Stallworthy and Peter France’s 1982 translation. It doesn’t quite satisfy me, but I haven’t found anything better, and I am sure if such a translation existed, Boris would know. And yes, one commits it to memory right away, it’s irresistible. In the book in question, the narrator recites it back to the Ocean.

So now I can see it in context, and it certainly works — Pasternak would be pleased. As I am pleased by the last stanza of her poem “All That Happened to Me…” (p. 173):

   Here is the cobalt
of a hat’s crumpled crown,
along with its wide, nappy brim.
A fine print lines its edge —
If the dipper should tilt,
it’ll rain polar graupel and rime.

Call me prejudiced, but I say every good book should have at least one hat in it. At any rate, if any of the above excerpts have pleased you, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll like the book, and I’m very glad to have it on my shelf.

Update. See the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which provides different quotes and gives a better sense of what the book is like as a whole.


  1. The airport scene is very realistic, including the “exaggerated jolt,” the filthy floor and the crowd’s laughter.

    But Zabolotsky wasn’t even married in 1928. On the other hand, he had probably met his wife in 1923 or 1924 so it’s a minor objection. Still I think the anecdote, if true, is misdated. Zabolotsky would have been unlikely to write an “innocuous lyrical poem about nature” in 1928. I’d suggest 1932 the earliest, after his friends Kharms and Vvedensky were arrested and exiled. Or, perhaps, the story is about some other poet.

  2. Yeah, I wondered about the timing too, but I figure se non è vero, è ben trovato.

  3. Thank you, Alex and LH – obviously, it’s too late now, but I will double check the date and correct it in case the book is ever reprinted.

  4. Robert Chandler says

    Thank you, Steve, for this excellent review!

  5. I saw Robert’s comment and realized that I had never thanked you, Steve, HERE, in the Languagehat galaxy! Thank you for this incredibly generous reading and review. As I said, I am deeply moved and happy that you liked NW.

  6. And thank you for sharing your book with me! It’s something new in the world, and I hope a lot of people read it.

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