Sunday, December 31, 2017

Natalya Ilyina A Flower of the Heart

Photo of red iris by Vera Belikh

Flowers of the Heart Fourteen

For Natalya Kirilovna Ilyina

I became acquainted with Natalya in1995.
I was to teach in the English Department
at Kostroma University for two months.
She was in the Literature Department
teaching English authors. Earlier in that
visit, Vera Lebedev pulled her in to translate
when she showed us the Chestnyakov
exhibit. When I began teaching, she took
the role of checking on me. My friend Yuri
had invited me. He taught Russian lit in
the Literature Department. I was giving
a course on American poetry and one
on translating Akhmatova. My students
weren’t required to attend, nor could I
give them grades, which I didn’t know.
It fell to Natalya to tell me, and that 
was hard for her. The Russians don’t 
like to give you bad news. They would
rather indulge you with compliments.
She always attended my classes. A few
other teachers did, but only once. Some
English profs pressed their students to
attend, but that worked only occasionally.
Natalya had me to dinner and invited other
friends. She lived with her mother. In the
summer they gardened and preserved 
food for the winter. Natalya liked 
to talk about modern British authors: 
James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. 
Once she took me to eat with a family  
she was tutoring in English, as 
they planned to emigrate to America. 
Russian professors were paid very 
little in the nineties. The English 
profs often tutored or led tours 
in the summer to supplement their 
salaries. In 2007 I returned, invited
to a literature conference on “Spirituality 
in Russian Literature.” I wrote a paper
on “Betrayal in the Work of Anna 
Akmatova.”  She translated it into Russian. 
When we met in a smaller session on 
twentieth century literature, she urged me
to read a small part in Russian, which I did,
feeling awkward, but the others present
seemed happy I was there and thanked me,
the only Western participant, for coming.
After the two-day conference, my friend
Mikhail being out of town, she invited
me to stay with her, and I did. Natalya
then worked out a program for me to
see my friends, some painters and even 
the former Mayor Korobov, the first
Russian I had ever met, who made a film
of us talking. He later sent it to me.
When Mikhail returned, he carried
me off to stay with his family. Several 
times, over the years, Natalya has helped me
contact other friends in Kostroma. Hers
was a friendship of devotion. She always
did for me whatever she could to make my 
life easier and better. For herself she was
very strict. She used cold showers to cure
a cold and worked late into the night.
She was devoted the way a servant might
be, no matter what cost to herself.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Shron Ramirez Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Thirteen December 24, 2017

For Sharon Ramirez

I met her in 1975. We were both visiting 
our friends Paul and Foster in Berkeley. I 
was returning from a small press conference
in Davis, where I was almost elected chair.
Some men editors were afraid of the new
women editors, and there were now three
on the board of seven. When we three
went off to talk about what our organization
could do, the men called us “The Feminist
Conspiracy”: Mary MacArthur, Anne Pride,
ad I. The men elected first and second quit,
and I was third, but they wanted to get the
seventh vote before letting me reign. Sharon
did astrological charts, and she told me
my trine between Uranus and Neptune meant
I could work well with mavericks, and so
I was. The small press editors in 1975–men
and women--were feisty and independent. 
They were hard to manage, which I did
for three years. The next year Sharon
invited me to stay some weeks with her
in Cupertino. She lived in a big house on
a small lot, with many plants, three sons,
a husband, a cat, a dog, and a goldfish
pond. She watered her plants constantly.
She played tennis every day. I wrote poems
and love letters. I ranged the hills around
her house, sometimes finding apricots on
limbs hanging over a wall. There had once 
been fruit farming there. When I made my
lunch, I had to watch out for the cat and
dog. If I left my food on the table, they’d
jump up and eat it. Some of the herbs I
brought home to try in the cooking, she 
distrusted. Were they poisonous? I told
her no and used them anyway. She showed
me two novels–one about tennis players 
and one about her childhood during World
War II. She said that one was too painful
to write. She tried not to, but it wouldn’t 
let go of her, and I told her it was the one she
needed to write. Later I published Brinktown.
She saw all these love letters waiting for
the postman, and suggested maybe I should
 marry the postman. I never did marry that
beloved, but writing those letters and poems
made me happy. 

I’ve walked my whole life
down an aisle between pines
toward you.
The clearing opens.
In my hands
I have only apricots.
VII. 10. Sun-Blazoned. P. 44.

Later I published them. Sharon did her own
writing, but her gift to me was as a guardian
of my creativity: giving me a room, privacy,
time to write, and laughing at my foibles. I
Visited her again in 1978, when the small
presses met on the Olympic Peninsula. And
still again in 1992, when she lived in Oregon
and was a beachcomber, looking for agates 
and other semi-precious stones. They rolled
in along that coast. We were both writing.
She introduced one of her friends to me.
He was an amateur pilot and took me for
a spin. He did some risky swoops, but
we didn’t crash. Sharon also attracted
mavericks. Sometimes they drove her
crazy, but she held onto her friends, even
at a distance. I’ve never been able to get
her to visit me on the East Coast, but she
still eggs me on. She told me a few years
ago that we were too old to get published. I
said I didn’t think so, and I began to get
books in print, doing some myself. She
still laughs at me in a loving, nurturing way. 
Not too many people can do that!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Vera Belikh A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Twelve. December 17, 2017

For Vera Belikh

Like Odysseus, she was never at a loss.
I met her because I wrote to the painter
Aleksei Belikh in English, and she
translated my letters for her father. He
called her Verochka. Aleksei and his
wife Nadya were both painters, and
their other daughter Lyuba, was, too.
About this time Vera began painting.
She had graduated in Philosophy and
studied English, German, and Old
Church Slavonic on her own. She
went to lectures on ikons. I met her
in 1992, when I was visiting Kostroma,
and her family invited me, my 
journalist friend Susan, and Mikhail’s
family for a meal in their apartment. 
Lyuba was the cook. Vera was there 
with her two young sons. She had wanted 
to talk to me, but there wasn’t much 
chance with all those people. Later,
when I returned in 1995 and stayed
two weeks, I saw Vera often, ate
with her husband and sons, and walked 
with her to see where Akmatova 
lived on the Fontanka. We visited
graveyards where Dostoevsky and
other famous dead were buried.
The gloomy, neglected city came
alive. “Here was where Dostoevsky
lived. He liked to look at the church
he could see from his window.” In
1995 Vera was pregnant, still light
on her feet like a dancer. Her living
room full of her paintings. When we
descended the long escalator for
the Metro, she turned around to 
talk to me. I always held tight, 
afraid to look at how far down we 
were going. Since then, she has kept 
in touch, always remembers my
birthday and sends me photos of her
and her paintings. Her husband died
a few years ago, and she teaches children.
She also sells her paintings. Her parents
and her sister are always there to help,
but Vera has the inner resources to
cope quietly. The surface of the lake
she is is never turbulent. Shadows
cross it, occasional ripples, but she
finds her way easily, without fanfare.
The world of the dead doesn’t 
frighten her. The dead are her friends.

From Sun 12 

September 18, 1995

Vera finds blue water and gold spires
in St. Petersburg; a red maple leaf,
the only thing alive in the necropolis.
She takes my arm, and we walk
to see the graves, the sculptures
of the famous Russian dead: Dostoevsky,
Tchaikovsky, Andreev, Borodin,
Mussorgsky, Pavlov, Lenin’s mother,
monks killed just after the Revolution.
Some sculptures are missing.  We
don’t know who sleeps where there
was once a face, a name, dates, what
they were famous for. Passions run high
in Russian graveyards. I am relieved
that Dostoevsky stands, that a favorite
epigram of his is still legible on
his tomb. Vera translates and
holds an acorn in her palm: “The seed
must die for the plant to live again.”
I understand. Life renews itself by
accepting death.  I know that Vera does,
and it is why she can be cheerful
in a gloomy city, serene in the necropolis.
The dead are her friends.  I think she
knows that one day she will be here
among them. Painters. Here lies
one of her sister Lyuba’s teachers;
dancers; film stars; scholars;
scientists. Socrates’ wish come true.
He can speak with all the great
thinkers in the afterlife.
wanted to know if I believed in
the afterlife. I said I didn’t know
about the afterlife, but that this 
life gave us our main chance:
to live well, to become the best
people we could, to learn what life
is, to grow wise and ready for
the next life, if there is one.  She
misses Andrei. So do I. But Andrei
lives with me.  I translate his
poetry and learn how his mind
worked, though I learned from
his presence, too; his silences
and jokes; his acts and his
words: “my most unusual friend,”
he called me. I learn from
his wife’s eagerness to talk to me.
I think that Andrei, too, lived 
ready to die. We must do his 
work now, since his chance is
But it is Vera who teaches me
how to live in Russia, how to find
red leaves and gold spires, and quiet
blue water reflecting sun-warmed,
reddish stone. It is Vera who
walks so firmly, as light on her
feet as a dancer. The escalator
descends deep under the earth. I
hold the hand rail tightly, prefer
not to look down.  She steps in
front of me, turns around, is as
at ease, as if we were able to stand
on fluffy clouds and not fall.
She brings me soup and bread,
tea and cookies she has made.
Her boys skip in carrying plates
and teacups.  Her husband listens
intently as I explain something in
Russian.  Their living room is
crowded with Vera’s paintings.
Wall to wall books and then, resting 
against them, still lifes, scenes of
St. Petersburg.  The buildings are old
and grey, in need of paint and repairs;
the sidewalk and the street are broken.
I do not walk surefootedly. But
Vera takes my arm and points out
a building where Akhmatova and her
poet friends gathered; where Nastasia
lived, she whose passions and pride
dominated The Idiot. We pass 
Dostoevsky’s home.  “He liked to look out
the window at the church spires,” she says.
I have seen the gold statues at
Petergoff, standing in and near the
great fountains, and the gold in the
Peter and Paul Cathedral, overwhelming
to the eye.  But in Vera’s vision
of St. Petersburg is the real gold.
The blue of the living water, the gold
of a life lived simply, cheerfully, well,
with an eye always open to the only
red maple leaf that lies among
the stones of the dead.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Yuri Lebedev: A Flower of the Heart

Orchid buds by Rita Baldwin

Flowers of the Heart Eleven December 10, 2017

For Yuri Lebedev

Last night I said that the knowledge and mental development in Vera, in Yuri, in me was rare and irreplaceable. So we must do what we could. –Judy’s diary 1995

The first question he ever asked me was:
“Do you teach Russian literature?” That
was during my first visit in 1990 to Kostroma
and to their Writers’ Organization. I said, “No.”
By the time Yuri came in 1993 as one of
three Russian writers, to Durham and to my
village of Saxapahaw, I was teaching Anna
Akhmatova and took them to that class.
Later he invited me to come and teach at his
Kostroma University in 1995. I taught
American poetry and translating Akhmatova.
When I had very few students, he called them
glupi [stupid]. He and Vera kept me a week
in their apartment, where his son’s young
family also lived. We’d sit for hours after
meals talking with my rudimentary Russian
and my dictionary. Meantime he arranged
for me to live in one of his colleagues’
apartments for the next two months. Vera
took me shopping to the big daily farmers’
market in the city center. He and Mikhail
checked on me and had me for meals.
Once it was so cold–fifteen below freezing--
that Vera thought I would not come, but
I bundled up in my three scarves, two
pairs of warm socks, and the fur-lined vest 
from the painter Aleksei Belikh, and
when I got off the bus, Yuri was watching
for me. He was thoughtful and gracious
to a fault, and modest. Who would know
how much he knew about nineteenth
century Russian literature. He would astonish
me with his quiet comments: “Tolstoy
wrote about Russian life as it was in the
mid-nineteenth century, but Dostoevsky
wrote about what it would be like in the 
twentieth century.” When he was one of
the three Russian writers visiting Durham 
and my village of Saxapahaw, he’d always
be ready for the day’s meetings when I
arrived, and when I asked him how he was, 
he’d beam and say, “Otleechno” [Perfect].
When I, who was their chauffeur and, when 
we were alone, their interpreter, got sick 
with a bad cold, he exclaimed, “Judy, you
must not get sick, or we’ll be dead.” I didn’t 
drink his recommended toddy, with vodka
and hot pepper, but I did stay home to rest
for two days. My landlord, their host, John 
Jordan, took them to a turkey shoot. John
knew no Russian. They later described arriving
in the dark and seeing a lot of men with
guns. They thought the end was near, but
when it was their turn, they won two turkeys
and a ham. Rarely was Yuri angry, but
injustice infuriated him. A few months ago
he wrote to me about my country’s foolishness 
in its treatment of Russia and other countries. 
We were, he said, making the same mistake
the Soviet Union had made when it tried to 
force other countries into Communism,
as we now tried to force all the world into our
form of democracy.  He wasn’t angry at me.
He welcomed me to his home, told me all
the news of his family. When I answered, I
had to agree that our country was making 
plenty of mistakes, but also that I hadn’t much
power to change our approach to international
politics. I did hope to publish books about
my Russian experiences. I will never forget
the warmth of their hospitality in their small
apartment. The last meal we had together
in 1995, I began to cry. I didn’t want to
leave. He comforted me: “Don’t cry, Judy.
Have some more wine.”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Gene Dillard: A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Ten December 3, 2017

For Gene Dillard

I loved him for his open heart, his brash speech,
and his outrageous behavior. He came into a diary
course in the main Durham Library, making sure
we all knew he was there, and asked was this the
class about keeping a journal. “Yes,” I said, and
he settled in. Later he took poetry classes, after
making sure it wasn’t a sissy thing to write
poetry. Some women were offended by his
unpredictable commentary. I never was.
Gradually he quieted, let us know his deep
feelings. He stuck with the poetry, let us meet
in his home, where we read Whitman, Dickinson,
and Charles Eaton. He never did my assignments,
but his poetry flourished. On several occasions
he fixed my car, which broke down before
or after a class. Once he lay under it, and
when I handed him the wrong tool, he fussed,
but he fixed the radiator hose. Another
 time he kept me at his house overnight,
then took me to buy a starter the next
morning. He liked to call me and ask if I
were decent. He made me laugh. Over the
years he has sometimes changed his voice
and asked, “Is this Judy Hogan, the famous
writer?” He joined the Peace Corps in 2002,
and went to Honduras, fixed water systems.
He could fix most things, and his regular
work was fixing heating and air conditioning
problems in university labs and businesses.
He was self-taught, but read widely in
philosophy and admired outdoor sculptors
who were whimsical. He’d drive a thousand
miles to see outside art that defied the
categories. In 2005 I invited him to speak
to my reading classes at the college, and he
told them how hard he studied for his license,
and had to take the exam three times before
he passed and could go independent. Then
there were our Charles Eaton years. Charles
was, I thought, the best living American poet.
I reviewed all his books and was invited to
visit him three or four times a year. Charles
didn’t cope well with his aging, and I heard
his laments. Gene began visiting him,
giving him rides, helping with household crises.
When a relative tried to declare Charles mentally
incompetent, and they took him to UNC’s
psych ward, Gene went to bring him home.
Charles was waiting in a wheelchair while
some doctors conferred nearby. Gene got
tried of waiting, grabbed the wheelchair
handles and hustled him out of the ward
and onto the elevator. An aide saw them
and went in pursuit, but Gene had
Charles in is truck by the time the aide
caught up, breathless. Charles was
shocked into laughter, but though Gene
offered to cruise Franklin Street, Charles
insisted he wanted to go home and back
to Pat, his wife. After Charles died,
Gene looked after Pat. I suspected she
was in love with Gene. Sometimes when
Gene calls, he says, “This is Charles Eaton.”
When I had to have my cataract surgery,
I told him I was worried. My mother had
lost her eyesight after a bungled surgery.
He called as soon as I was back home
and asked, “Is this one-eyed Hogan?”
I laughed.

 His full genius came to flower
when he began turning his home into
a work of art. He did some yard ornaments;
then began making mosaics of the walls
of his garage, then a wall in his garden
using bottles. Eventually, all the walls
of his house were mosaicked; then the
inside, even chairs and tables.

 Now he
lives inside his art. He reminds me of
Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth.
Gulley would paint murals wherever
he could find a good big space, even if
that wall was destined for demolition.
People stop by Gene’s house regularly,
and he gets coverage on TV and in the
local papers. Gene is moving out
now into the community with his
mosaic projects. There is so much to
see and love where Gene has been
turning what he sees in his mind’s eye
into stunning works of art.