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POETRY

poems of the month

fish

vagabondage

measuring my face

ostracism

old clothes

modern iranian poems

my hero

face at the bottom of the world

perhaps (maybe)

the diogenes sequence

where to store furs

i am and am not:
      fragments of rumi

destiny and destination

the zen of no-enlightenment

the iraqi monologues

already backwards

a light in ruins

separate amputations

the sexy jihad

awaiting the barbarians

the smell of possibilities

ultimate leaves

rejoice in the dog

post-millennium maggot

the book of nothing

confession from belgrade

dispatches from the war against the world

albanian poems

french poems in honour of jean genet

the hells going on

the joy of suicide

fearful symmetry

book disease

foreground trouble

the transcendental hotel

cinema of the blind

lament of the earth mother

uranian poems

haikai by okami

haikai on the edge

black hole of your heart

jung's motel

leda and the swan

gloss on rilke's ninth duino elegy

jewels and shit:
poems by rimbaud

villon's dialogue with his heart

vasko popa: a shepherd of wolves ?

the rubáiyát of
omar khayyám

genrikh sapgir:
an ironic mystic

the love of pierre de ronsard

imagepoem

 

TRANSLATIONS

 

BETWEEN POETRY AND PROSE

the maxims of michel de montaigne

400
revolutionary maxims

nice men and
suicide of an alien

anti-fairy tales

the most terrible event in history

the rich man and the leper

 

SHORT STORIES

godpieces

the three bears

three albanian tales

odorous underwear

a little creation story

 

ESSAYS

helen's tower

schopenhauer for muthafuckas

are doctors autistic ?

single track in the snow

never a pygmy

against money

did franco die ?

'original sin' followed by
crippled consciousness

a gay man's guide to soft-willy sex

the holosensual alternative

tiger wine

the death of poetry

the absinthe drinker

with mrs dalloway in ukraine

love  and  hell

running on emptiness

a holocaust near you

happiness

londons of the mind &
dealing death to the caspian

genocide

a muezzin from the tower of darkness

kegan and kagan

a holy dog and a
dog-headed saint

an albanian ikon

being or television

satan in the groin

womb of half-fogged mirrors

tourism and terrorism

diogenes
the dog of sinope

shoplifting in britain & america

this sorry scheme of things

the bektashi dervishes

combatting normality

fools for nothingness:
atheists & saints

death of a bestseller

vacuum of desire: a homo-erotic correspondence

a note on beards

translation and the oulipo

the visit

 

PHOTOGRAPHS

prelude

 

Nuadú, God of War

field guide to megalithic ireland

megalith of the month

houses for the dead

ireland and the phallic continuum

irish cross-pillars

irish sweathouses

the sheela-na-gig conundrum

french megaliths

 

 

 

 

 

Odessa Couryard

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With Mrs Dalloway in Ukraine

Horatio Morpurgo



The ship's cook on the night-train south was going home after four months at sea with an enormous maroon suitcase full of presents. The owners of a German freighter paid him $200 a week to feed its crew of Ukrainians, Poles and Filipinos. He'd worked all over the world but this ship just sailed back and forth between Lisbon and Rotterdam. I detected a flicker of defiance as he touched on the subject of his earnings - he could tell I knew how little that was. But he was on his way home now, to where $200 a week is a fair wage, and it was his family he wanted to tell me about too: how they would be waiting for him at the station in Odessa - his wife, his children and friends. He recommended Ukrainian wives:   They are the best. English women only so-so. Ukrainian women Number One. Not sex only - sex is easy. But culture. Service. Smile.
He snored rather heavily.

We pulled into Odessa next morning at five, a Sunday, the train mostly empty. There at the end of the platform stood the excitable gathering which awaited my companion. We said goodbye and I watched them struggling with his luggage, his loot, as together they conveyed it to a waiting car. Other passengers got into taxis which drove off.

The half dozen women cleaning the square paid no attention to the early arrivals from Kiev. Illuminated by the glow of the station, wrapped up very warm this December morning, they concentrated, swept at cobbles with brooms made from bundles of twigs. Muffled in floral print headscarves, half-hidden faces bent to the task of clearing up litter and leaves, of restoring this place to itself while yesterday's crowd, with all its applause and whistles, its chants and attendant TV crews, slept - dreaming perhaps of a better tomorrow.

This was December 2004 and I had spent the last ten days exploring all the excitement in Kiev, which I had stumbled upon quite fortuitously. In boarding that train to Odessa I was in fact reverting to the original purpose of my visit to Ukraine, which had had nothing to do with revolutions, orange or any other kind. The original purpose had been to write about the Danube Delta, most of which is in Romania but a small part of which is Ukrainian territory, currently threatened by the construction of a channel for ocean-going vessels.

I was left with only a week for this now, after being caught up in the political commotion in the capital. That tent city on Kreschatik and the crowds on Maidan had been thrilling of course, beautiful, even, especially at the start. The protests at Russian-backed election-fixing had seemed as much a spiritual achievement as one of logistics and physical endurance. I didn't care as much as so many of my fellow-journalists did about the obvious American involvement. What bothered me, ten days in - though this may have been the same misgiving just differently experienced - was that it seemed to be less and less about students talking fairness and history and poetry. More and more it was commentators talking ‘nation-birth' and ‘the path to Europe', meaning the EU. It was snow turning to slush. The branding, the endless repetition of slogans, the theme tunes and drinking songs penned spontaneously for the occasion, playing on a loop from speakers fixed to every lamp-post in the city centre… There was only so much of this I could take, in even the best cause.

By now I couldn't remember why I'd packed Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway but I was delighted to discover it at the bottom of my case, rummaging after an elusive last pair of clean dry socks. I could feel that the hours and hours spent outdoors in that stinging cold, plus the emotional exhaustion, were about to result in flu. I decided to stay in with a packet of paracetamol and this novel I should have read years ago, following today's developments, like the rest of the world, on TV.

So I began to read. A society hostess and her party, her wealthy guests - a world of pre-war assumptions and securities- what help could this be, you might ask, eighty years on, in a post-modern revolution chanced upon in a country of which I knew almost nothing? But those assumptions and securities are seen, refracted through the author's gaze, at the very moment of their dissolution. In Woolf's prose the overweening imperatives of the outer world meet the vagaries of the inner one and the two continuously merge or separate, attract then repel, undermine then compliment one another. And this felt like just the intellectual First Aid I needed. It was both oblique commentary on, and counterpoint to, the situation outside which was trying to give me flu. Nothing more mysterious than that way the right book comes to hand at the right moment.

Here was Peter Walsh, for example, deciding to attend his old flame's party:

 
For this is the truth about our soul, he thought, our self, who fish-like inhabits deep seas and plies among obscurities threading her way between the boles of giant weeds, over sun-flickered spaces and on and on into gloom, cold, deep, inscrutable; suddenly she shoots to the surface and sports on the wind-wrinkled waves; that is, has a positive need to brush, scrape, kindle herself, gossiping. What did the Government mean - Richard Dalloway would know - to do about India?

This seemed to me neither litterateur-ish nor evasive, as it might have at another time, but rather a profound and proper qualification of our inextinguishable need to be ‘doing about India'.

The flu came to nothing and so it was with Woolf's poetry still ringing softly in my ears that I listened to bunched twigs being drawn across the cobbles outside Odessa railway station. Like the square outside Kiev's, this one had hosted a political rally the previous day but here in this quiet was some remedy perhaps for all that media-driven stridency now playing to a captivated global audience.

Seeing no hotel, and having slept badly, I approached one of the women and in my stumblingest Slavonic pidgin asked after one. Looking up perplexed but smilingly attentive, she listened, propped her broom against a traffic bollard, called something to one of her colleagues who stopped work a moment to watch me being led away. A short woman, shapeless from the many layers of clothing in which she was wrapped, my guide chattered confidingly about, I think, how she had never learnt any English and how much she regretted it, but I could well be projecting there. In an empty street we came to a corner from which a hotel sign was visible half way along. She pointed it out, took an elated and elaborate farewell and turned back toward the station.

The natural camaraderie of people up early, intensified by dramatic circumstances, or perhaps just a generous temperament. I found a church open some way down the street with a few worshippers already moving silently between the icons or just waiting, as if for a service to begin. On a wall bench at the back I sat facing the golden iconostasis and felt intensely how happy was my escape from the Big Story. The hush in here, the expectancy, the welcome just extended to me and the newness of this famous city: was I just giddy with exhaustion or might I learn more here than even the most spectacular ‘news' can teach?

I slept in till midday at the hotel. It was only $30 a night but boasted nattily dressed attendants who glowered aggressively at you if you didn't seem quite up to its four-star rating. My clothes badly needed washing by then and my emergence, bleary-eyed, around lunch-time may also have impressed them unfavourably. I put it down to the heightened status-anxiety of hotels that have seen better days.

Or was it something else? What was strangest to me about the place were all the Americans. The foyer, restaurant and bar all teemed with them, all male, all middle-aged, their dress uniformly ‘smart casual' - jeans and jerseys and jackets. All waiting for something. One of them sported a black ten gallon hat and swaggered embarrassingly about. You didn't have to be American to be embarrassed by him. What's more he had a sort of following and I saw them later, on my wanderings about the city. A business convention, perhaps - but why here? And why now? And why smart casual in that case? Or was that just the dress-code you would expect for a little relaxed networking? But why no women, then? Or if the Americans were so obviously involved in Kiev, was this their advance guard here?

I didn't want to know - I mean I did - I mean I both did and didn't. There was a small office situated between the lift and my room, in which a woman sat at a computer terminal. The door of this room usually stood ajar and the Americans came and went from it. This must be some administrative centre for the conference, I assumed. But I had come here for a breather from Breaking News. My prying journalistic antennae were (albeit imperfectly) switched off: I've an uneasy relationship with those antennae at the best of times - after ten days of interviewing and ‘noticing' and miscellaneously ferreting around I most certainly did not feel like switching them back on now.

The main office of an environmental group I needed to contact was here in Odessa and it was while trying to locate it that I met an elderly couple that afternoon out for a quiet stroll. When the husband proved anxious to practise his French and invited me to supper that evening, I gladly accepted. Now a retired academic, he had taught Physics in universities all over the Soviet Union and in French-speaking Africa. It was suggested that I might stay with them - save on the price of a room and help polish the English version of a scientific paper which his son had written. I gladly brought my luggage round the following morning.

The Influence of Injection-level of Charge-Carriers in Nano-Structured Porous Silicon on Electroluminescence Quantum Efficiency....that was just the title. I duly set about rendering ‘intelligible' eight pages of a paper I wasn't at all sure I would have understood in even the most crystalline English prose. But that in itself, the ‘terms and conditions' of my presence here, the cramped rooms, the atmosphere of domestic frustrations, all of it had just the messiness, the uneasy quid pro quo of home. I'd had enough of handing money to stony-faced strangers, entrenched behind their reception desks of polished granite, in return for a room key and the void.

It was genuine, too, the hospitality. Feeling guilty about eating up their food I went shopping on the Monday and bought some groceries: the reaction was initially border-line offended, though they accepted them. Andrey and family lived in one of the lovely ramshackle courtyards which you glimpse through openings in the street-fronts of the old town. I did my best with his son's scientific paper and Andrey took me for walks, explaining the place desultorily as we went. Medals issued for the defence of Stalingrad and Moscow were being peddled to tourists at the top of the Potemkin Steps. A stallholder offered them to us at $1 apiece and Andrey gently reproved him - it was the history that interested him, not the objects, he said, moving on. Passing a ‘blue' (i.e. Russian Bloc) political rally, its priest intoning prayers to the faithful out of the back of an open truck painted military green, Andrey rolled his eyes, exasperated. He didn't like the new separation from Russia, he told me, but he didn't for a moment trust the motives or the methods of those aiming to ‘restore ties'.

Photo by Andrew Slayman

He quietly philosophised or fell into long silences as we wandered the city's highly rational street-plan. Odessa was an 18th century idea, suggested to Catherine the Great by a Frenchman whose statue now overlooks the giant hotel-casino down by the ferry terminal. It was named after an ancient Greek colony further down the Black Sea coast - its name - Odessos - suitably feminised in honour of the Russian Empress, the new city's patroness. Perhaps that's why its centre both does and does not feel like an ‘Old Town' - its regular grid is almost like that of an American city, and yet the streets which meet at such perfect right-angles are tree-lined and cobbled and the facades which give onto them are elaborately stuccoed. On both sides of the roads dusty old cars were parked everywhere bumper to bumper under bare winter branches.

With his grey stubble, threadbare shirt-collars and shuffling steps, Andrey might have been some allegorical figure out of an old etching: Reason Cast into Dejection, perhaps, or some character out of an updated Chekhov drama. How dull life seemed now - no chance of travelling or working, so little contact with foreigners and the city's Jews all gone to America or Israel. You never realise, he said, how life is going to start slipping by in middle age, until suddenly you are staring old age in the face.

He had been a Communist before but he was of no party now. He spoke of Yushchenko, the pro-western ‘orange' candidate, as ‘our president', then produced a length of the orange plastic ribbon from somewhere, which he danced with and waved about in the kitchen, then proceeded to tie round the neck of his dog before taking it out for a walk. Decypher that if you can - I could not - but I thought I dimly recognised the feeling all the same. I laughed but he gave no sign as to whether my interpretation of this as comedy was correct.

He dutifully showed me the statues and sites: that detached ambling gait of his accompanied me to the four Frans Hals portraits in the Art Museum, one for each Evangelist, to the Greek antiquities in the History Museum. He even showed me the hotel he'd been married in. But it was the silent Andrey of the long avenues, mild reprover of the peddlers in Soviet memorabilia at the Potemkin Steps [pictured below], Chekhovian sceptic of political speechifying, Andrey as Reason Cast into Dejection was Odessa's most precious gift to me - a sobering guide both to this intoxicated time and to his home. It isn't, of course, a poor city - fortunes are made in this ‘major shipping hub', though not necessarily by the kind of people who pay taxes. The next major port along the coast - Constanza, in Romania - has a similarly run-down atmosphere, except for the flourishing fish restaurants down by the harbour.

The Potemkin Steps

But I digress. I organised my visit to the Danube Delta meanwhile and my hosts emphatically refused my offer of money as I left. Passing through the city again five days later, on my way back to Kiev, I felt I could not presume on their hospitality again. Besides, I wanted the luxury of some privacy too and finding myself dropped off near the station it seemed simplest to go and pay $30 where I knew I could get some.

One week on, then, on my last day in Odessa, I woke again in the four-star hotel. They had even given me the same room as before, but its occupant was up earlier this time. The door of that little office, from which the Americans came and went, still stood ajar, I noticed, on my way down to breakfast. Someone had printed off a long message in English and sellotaped it to the mirror in the lift - it hadn't been there the previous evening. My room was only on the second floor so there wasn't much time to read it. The gist of it was clear enough, however. The clients of www.anastasialadies.com were hereby warned that they were being offered an inferior product. It was time for them either to try www.anastasia.com or, better still, to opt decisively and now for www.globaladies.com.

I suppose what I felt, apart from suddenly several years older, were those journalistic antennae twitching back into life. Downstairs the swarming of Americans continued, that black ten gallon hat still greeted the world with its Howdee Partner, tipped back at the same jaunty angle as before, only I found I was looking at it differently now. Returning to my room I shared the lift with one of them and finally had the wit to ask why there were so many American guests staying.

‘We're on a Romance Tour,' came the entirely unflustered reply.

‘Oh.'

‘Forty guys. Five hundred Ukrainian ladies.'

‘I see. Well. You're keeping busy then.'

‘Certainly are.' The eyes levelled with me: they said And we're not taking any shit from some stuck-up limey, either. The doors of the lift opened and I went to my room as the lady at her computer welcomed another visitor and, presumably, another booking.

Two images, then, to end with. I had a couple of hours before checking out so I went downstairs again and sat in the lobby to watch. Soon afterwards a coach pulled up outside the hotel and some of the forty guys escorted their selection of the five hundred Ukrainian ladies out to it with lavish displays of good ol' fashioned gallantry. Lest anyone detect an element of the commercial in this arrangement. Balding types in jeans and tennis shoes insisting on ladies first as they stepped up into the coach.

I watched one of these couplets in particular settling themselves in a seat towards the back. The Romantic Tourist, in late middle age, put his arm around a girl young enough to be his granddaughter, without touching her, just shielding her from the sun with his hand as he let her take the seat by the window. Lest anyone suspect an element of the carnal in this. Unfortunately, as the girl sat back, it became apparent she had chosen a seat the back-rest of which would not stay upright, so that the young virgin in question found herself lying more or less horizontal every time she tried to get comfortable. He who was old enough to be her grandfather leant over her, concerned, to see whether perhaps a man's more technical frame of mind, whether this situation might not call for some American know-how. The matter was still unresolved as the bus drove off.

Second image: having seen enough, I walked up to the station to buy my ticket back to Kiev. As I did so, in some perplexity still at what I had just discovered, a bell tolled loudly and so close-by it made me jump, awakening me to my surroundings. I was right outside the church I'd stepped inside on arrival a week ago. But you cannot step in the same church twice anymore than you can in the same river. It was mid-morning this time and the place was filled to overflowing.

Again I went inside - probably it was fuller than usual, I guessed, in such anxious times. There were more women than men, all in head-scarves, the men bare-headed. There was a bowing in unison at the ringing of another bell, indoors, from which the immobility of one old man stood out, leaning his head against a pillar almost as if he was confessing to it the sins of his youth. Outside the deeper bell which had rung as I passed was gathering momentum now, ringing more and more insistently, as if calling for still more people. Calling for more people not to run after the Romantic Tourists and their dollars. Calling for more endurance, more hope. Children threaded their way excitably between the sombre adults to light candles before another icon or altar.

I'd seen the use being made of religion by both of the parties contending for power, so I could not view all this now as naively as perhaps I had the previous Sunday. I had walked with Reason Cast into Dejection meanwhile. and hoped I saw things here more steadily as a result. But this morning I needed some of that naivety more than ever. My antennae may have been switched back on, ready for their return to the fray, but I had never felt more uneasy about what was happening here than I did now. When freedom presents itself, not in the abstract, not in a speech or on TV, but this morning in this actually existing street, when freedom presents itself concretely as the choice between a priest's blessing and globaladies.com, or as blue vs. orange, to respond with some pacey little article had never felt so much like collusion.

At the time I didn't really know what to do with this, so I duly flew home and wrote my article. But Woolf's conjuring with her characters' inner voices, Andrey's silences and improvised dog-lead, Odessa, neglected city of the Enlightenment - none of these ever quite went away. It's taken all this time to recognise in them the best guides I could possibly have had to the meaning of Ukraine's revolutionary moment.


more by Horatio Morpurgo >

 

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