Summer night Kiev blues

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I was young and running wild –
“Be a darling,” said the raven,
“Keep my beak inside your heart.”
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
Beak in heart and heart in throat,
Acid bubbling in the tear ducts,
Muscle in a Gordian knot.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Soldiers shivered in the ground
As the god of tits and wine
Put my fire out with his tongue.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
I am friends with rock and rye,
Candle flame and worm and lichen,
And the torture spikes of stars.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have seen the mirror crack,
I have seen the flaming sword
Buried in a templar’s back.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have knelt for the Red Sun,
Drank the moonlight from the river ,
Stroked a hussar’s shiny gun.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
In its hollow bones are caves,
In the caves the saints are sleeping,
In the saints the wormholes wait.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Thank you, physics, thank you, fate,
Thank you, lindens, thank you, chestnuts,
Thank you, cemetery gate.

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
The fault lines in my face
Cry tears of happiness,
Cry tears of happiness.

With thanks to Solomia and the musicians who play at the Buena Vista Bar in downtown Kiev on Thursdays

Moonlight night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.
Moonlit night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Kiev’s brittle spring

I’m one of those people who can’t sing by herself. Someone else has to hit the first note for me. Two of my aunts are music instructors  – one disabled, the other partially disabled these days – and they both say that it’s an issue of confidence, of being sure. As if that hidden first note is trying to tell me something.

In another lifetime altogether, when neither one of my aunts was particularly sick, I would take long trolleybus journeys downhill to the best theater in Kiev. That winter, the air was so cold that it literally glittered. I couldn’t afford to be ethically fashionable and bundled myself into an enormous fur coat I had discovered in the back of the closet.

It was only a matter of time before I would return to the States. That was pretty obvious. The States was where the life was. Mine – and everyone else’s. The States had a credit ratings system, good roads, and HBO. I would rent a room in Brooklyn and write a blog complaining about not being able to get laid as often as I liked. Assuming I partied with the right people, it would inspire a television pilot eventually. Or some dorky, deceptively undersexed-looking man/bird-thin woman in a vegan sweater would offer me a book deal. It was how I pictured it, anyway.

The future had been clearly penciled in, but before it came, there was plenty of time to write, party, and stumble out of taxis into blustering sunrises with curly-headed clouds tossed aside by a strong wind that seemed to blow into Kiev both from the East and the West simultaneously.

I started writing plays largely as a means of amusement for myself and the actor friends who rode in taxies with me. “I would SO love to, like, be in a one-act that you wrote, you know? Don’t tell me you can’t write in Russian! You totally can!” they would tell me, never underestimating the power of cheap flattery. But we all loved each other too – in was that were obvious and not obvious.

Then bearded men from Moscow started showing up and giving their pronouncements on these plays. When they poured me vodka, it always overflowed.

I sat next to one of these men at a party in what passed for the theater’s foyer, where chairs were glued to the ceiling and a large tank overflowed with lethargic turtles. My friends sang. My throat opened up on the second note and I joined them – and the man snapped his head in my direction with a surprised look. He told me later that he had never heard women sing like that. They were old, calcified songs, the notes etched on mineral deposits below the dark basements of the city.

After I sung myself out, I kissed him goodbye on the cheek. I was leaving for a road-trip to Poland in the morning. He went back to Moscow in a couple of days and I didn’t think of him, I didn’t think of him at all (maybe once or twice did I think of him. Maybe a little bit more).

I realized recently that I hadn’t seen April in Kiev in years. The April rain here must contain some kind of chemical in it that strip layers off of everything – including people. April is a month of dangerous clarity and what’s increasingly clear right now is that we are all dangling off a precipice and below us are the hard, shining peaks of war.

Continue reading “Kiev’s brittle spring”

The New Year in Kiev, by Sasha Andrusyk
© Sasha Andrusyk. Kiev, Ukraine.

My blood pressure fell suddenly, like it sometimes does these days. I came alive maybe half an hour later after Sasha took this picture, when medicine was found.

The baby started moving just two days before. It woke me up on the train. It’s too early for me to actually feel kicks, but I feel it float to the surface from somewhere deep inside me, like a bobber, up to meet my hand or the Man’s hand, when we place it on my just slightly rounded stomach. The Man felt it move for the first time on New Year’s Eve, in a cafe on a central street in clean, sparkling, snowy Kiev. “Feel that?” I asked in between sips of hot chocolate. He did.

On the train to Ukraine, I had felt three gentle taps when I used my hand to trace the movement. It was like someone knocking on a door in the middle of the night. The train had been standing still in the snow, under the sudden stars, the snow clouds having parted briefly. I had been looking at the sky when I felt it. There was no motion, the only motion was inside me. “I’m taking you to visit the place where I was born,” I told the baby in case it didn’t realize, and then the train started again.

Lyubimvoka & Gogolfest: plays in Moscow & in Kiev

So I had a reading at the Lyubimovka festival in Moscow this past Friday. It was part of a special project called “PGT” – which refers to a denomination dreamed up in Soviet times for small towns that are bigger than villages, but aren’t quite towns in the strictest sense of the word.

Both of the other authors involved in the project are Ukrainian, and live in Ukraine. My situation is wildly different than theirs, nowadays, but we both have that common denominator. After the readings, when they had us up on the stage, I felt myself reacting very strongly, even painfully, to the criticism levelled at the other two authors.

Without patting myself on the back too much, I can say that my play was the most well-received of the three. I think this happened because it fit the format of the festival much better. The other two plays were more “global” – mine was extremely personal (I even went as far as name the heroine “Toosia,” which is a diminutive of “Natalia”). The other two readings were “imported” – the director was a guy from Kharkov, the actors were also from Ukraine; my play’s reading was directed by a Russian, and the actors were Russian.

At the discussion afterward, the moderator said that my play didn’t attempt to answer socio-political questions: In my case, the potential theme was the “is religion needed?” question, because one of the main characters is a widowed Orthodox priest, and the play’s big climax involves something that may or may not be an exorcism (I’m saying “may or may not”, because it was important to me that people make up their own minds – though as the author, I would lean toward the notion that yes, it was an exorcism, or something like it). The moderator said, “this play paints pictures,” referring to the fact that the text had a different context. This made me extremely happy, and it was one of the best things that anyone had ever said about my attempts at playwriting.

When I was a kid, I had this fantasy of painting pictures and handing them out to people on the sidewalk, and seeing what they think. This past Friday, I saw that fantasy fulfilled. Although the context of the project presumes a conflict between rural and urban life, when I wrote it, I had to wage bloody battle against the idea of “simple ol’ country folk vs. corrupt city life,” because I could feel myself slipping into that familiar trap, and it blew. To have someone publicly tell you, “hey Natalia, you avoided that bullshit” was good news.

And, once again, the format of the play appeared to fit the format of Lyubimovka.

All of this brings me to the fact that on Monday, two of my plays, including “Daughter”, which was just read at Lyubimovka, will be read in Kiev, as part of the LSD (Laboratoriya Sovremennoi Dramaturgii – the Laboratory of Modern Drama) project at Gogolfest. I will not be able to be there, and I have no idea how it will go. Will the plays be totally out of context in a Kievan setting? Will there be a disaster and a debacle, or – even worse – a total muted failure, of the sort that one doesn’t even want to gossip about? My cousin is reading the lead part in “Daughter” – so I know for certain that there aren’t likely to be any fuck-ups there. Also, the guy reading the part of the Orthodox priest is Dima Yaroshenko, one of my favourite young actors, so you know that shit just got real. Still, I’m nervous.

It would have been interesting to see the differences between how a play in Moscow is read, vs. how it is read in Kiev with just a few days in between. I think this is one of those instances where a director’s work – what directors do and how they do it – would be exposed and apparent.

On Thursday, at Lyubimovka, there was a scandal involving a young Ukrainian playwright who, five minutes into a completely disastrous reading of his play, walked out. Then he walked back in again, and called everyone “idiot”, and called the lead actress a “whore” (a great example of male Ukrainian playwrights keeping it classy). I think this kind of behaviour sucks and would never do it, even if it is a way for the author to rescue himself in what is an essentially unfair and painful situation. A simple walking out would have been way classier than the trash-tastic screaming and fighting that followed. I only caught the end of it, and I was honestly irritated by what I saw and heard (it was hysterical, though, because I found myself surrounded by Russians who were asking me to translate what the guy was screaming – as he was screaming in Ukrainian).

The debacle was a clear example of how a completely awful reading can kill a good play, though.

The actress who was called a “whore” was telling me outside just a few minutes later: “WE WERE UP UNTIL 5 A.M. TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HIS STUPID, CONVOLUTED TEXT.”

Even laying aside the fact that she was emotional after having been publicly insulted, I still think that what happened is representative of a certain problem. If the text is “stupid” and “convoluted” to begin with – how about you give it to someone else to read?

Babi Yar non-post

I saw that the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures saying, as with a voice of thunder, “Come and see.”

There’s really nothing remotely clever or interesting that I can say about Babi Yar, aside from the fact that it’s a horrifying place to visit. Family members were murdered there, along with roughly 100,000 others, and I thought I could easily compartmentalize that. After all, I never knew them, right? But Babi Yar doesn’t really work like that. It has this crackling, living aura, and you can’t keep it at an arm’s length. You duck into the warm metro afterward, but it follows you.