the storycurator
stories about real life and creativity

a blog by jan doets

 

His white locks and fiery complexion
belong to a pagan time
when priests went to war
he once told Vera when she was sick
and he came to our house to give her communion
that we were meant to be victorious
“We are meant to be victorious.”
That was years ago

now the bones in his face stand out
and his eyes darting here and there
as he enters the room
are as hot and piercing as only blue eyes can be
on this day of the Exaltation of the Cross

waving aside those
asking after his health
Father Symeon
a convert to the Orthodox Church
made his way
to a table laden with Russian food

we listened
as we ate and he talked with the usual relish
leaning over to spear the champion’s portion
scoffing at the Old Calendar Greeks and the Roman clergy
in politics, more bitter than before
more reactionary

a priest who walked miles to visit the sick
with his holy water and mysterious icons
wearing a grey cassock and a large silver cross
an American from the South
who might have grown up knowing only the Baptist church
or no church and no Russian which he had learned well
a tough, blue-eyed Kentuckian
like Roarin’ Jack Russell and the flatboat men with flowing hair
who came down the river to New Orleans
and walked home

Stuart Dodds

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Our crèche is in pieces
of the three kings, only one has a head on his shoulders

how could we have let this happen?

Joseph has lost the arms in which he carried
a white lamb—
the lamb has disappeared

for others to find one day
with those sovereign heads
in a camphor-smelling nook
or under the floor boards
of this immense house

will the new owners hear a faint cry
a human cry
and wonder who we were
and where we are now?

Mary and Child are whole
and with the undamaged king
they will accompany us
on the next
the most difficult part of our journey

Stuart Dodds

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In the bushes
by the sea shore
there is a rustling
a sound
above the waves
that startles me
a bird I assume
I am startled by its human sound
like a chortle
low and droll
a dirty laugh
close to the ground
bordering on human speech
what is that noise
who is he
that jester?
deep within the tall grass and fennel
and what might he say if he spoke?

Stuart Dodds

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These poems by Stuart Dodds were written in the months following the death of his wife of 30 years, Natasha Borovsky, and are dedicated to her.  Natasha died on May 31, 2012:

 

I   The House that Died

The front door of the house had been left ajar
as though a neighborhood meeting was in progress
and late-comers could slip in quietly—
carpets from Turkey and Afghanistan had been rolled up
and put away—
strangers had come and gone—

through the empty rooms
you could still hear a few determined footsteps on bare boards

officialdom had come in pairs
in black and navy blue
two paramedics, two policemen taking notes
two priests of deep voice and graceful signs
and two mortuary attendants
unfolding a starched white sheet
with the care and concentration of scholars
opening a rare manuscript

what on earth had happened?

a grey cat with blue eyes looked up searching for an explanation
and finding none
settled in for a night of silence

 

II     Color of Night

Are you feeling blue today?
she would tenderly ask
—it is rare to be loved—
she would adjust my tie
round out my paragraphs
say frankly what she meant

Now she’s gone
if something else should happen
an earthquake or a sudden storm
I think she would be at my side—
It’s strange but I think a sudden noise might do it
she would just appear

In her poem, she said she would wait for me
had merely gone on ahead—
to the place we’ve yet to name—
but didn’t mention these visits I am beginning to imagine—
it needn’t be a loud noise—
a china cup crashing on a stone floor
could bring her back today
some accident
some small interval of despair
it’s a thin wall that separates us
not planets and constellations
her voice is faint but close

She would break her vigil in the place to be named
not like a troubled ghost returning to bemoan its fate
more a kindly presence come to help
that knows its own mind
sees what is wrong and what has to be done
there will be no need for another catastrophe
they will be in the Fall—these visits—
when the wind is colder
and the leaves have turned bright red—
in death, she will become to me
what I was to her towards the end—
a protector

 

III     Grief

Could it ever be that I will remember you calmly
as I remember others who are no longer present
who are hidden from me
like portraits I once saw in a museum
or friends who are still alive
(friends I believe to be alive)
in other countries far and inaccessible?

Can I live in peace with a kindly apparition
in the house we loved?
thinking of you gone into exile—
waiting for me to follow

thinking you might return
to this excellent world
at the end of summer
when the leaves have turned scarlet and gold

thinking with my altered memory
of a time when we were together

 

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It wasn’t your life that flashed before your eyes
upon that sickening jolt
not exactly
it was another life you had lived
in a dream
a series of disappointments
and this was the last straw

violence was being done to time itself
and through the cracks
in a vapor
there emerged scenes from a play
with characters speaking
a production of “Hamlet”
(the definitive one)
and all the quarrels and grievances laid out

then devastation

it didn’t need to be an earthquake
it could have been a knock on the door
the sound of a telephone
the cry of a peacock
rending the air
but it was an earthquake
(along the Hayward fault)
and a place in time
had been torn open

Stuart Dodds

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Stuart Dodds was born and educated in London, England. He served two years of National Service in the Royal Air Force and emigrated to the United States in 1958.  He has worked in advertising and publishing in New York and San Francisco, most recently as editorial director of Chronicle Features, the syndication division of the San Francisco Chronicle. 

He reports: “My first sustained efforts at writing poetry, in the late fifties in New York, were inspired by a New School poetry workshop given by Kenneth Koch who with John Ashbury and Frank O’Hara formed the nucleus of the Tenth Street Poets —an offshoot of the Tenth Street Painters, who became known as the New York School of Abstract Expressionists. It was an exciting place to be writing poetry.”

In 1962, Stuart won the New School’s prestigious Dylan Thomas Poetry Award for that year.  His poems have been published in various journals throughout the U.S, including Blue Unicorn, Beloit Poetry Journal, Freefall, Pacific Coast Journal, Epoch, Carquinez Poetry Review and The Gathering.

Reflecting on his life and marriage, he speaks of retiring from newspaper work, in 1998, and returning to poetry “with renewed energy and a sense of vocation.  I am honored that the story curator has agreed to publish my poems. Should I be fortunate enough to have a book of poems published, I will dedicate it to the editors of Blue Unicorn (for being among the earliest supporters of my work), to Jan Doets who has invited me to join him in cyber space and to the loving memory of a fine poet and superb editor, my wife of 30 years, Natasha Borovsky who died on May 31st, 2012.”

Stuart Dodds continues to write poetry “in the late afternoon,” and is an active member of the Ina Coolbrith Poetry Circle.  He lives in Berkeley, California and is an occasional contributor to the Berkeley Daily Planet.

I am honored that Stuart (who calls me his Frisian cousin because our family names are the same) has agreed to be the resident poet on my blog.

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Tom had a smile on his face even then
a saintly smile
that said he would be leaving us behind—
he was ambitious
he mixed up the skandas and the hindrances
threw in some Noble Truths of his own
and became a holy man in a white robe
with a crimson chasuble
on a Caribbean island
with hundreds of followers
a web site, a landing strip, a temple painted white
and a team of lawyers
also dressed in white
to handle charges
brought by former devotees
of assault and battery, false imprisonment
intentional infliction of emotional distress
and fraud

whenever we tried to contact him
our old school friend Tom
(now known as Rub-A-Dub-Dub)
we were told politely but firmly
that he would answer questions
if they were put in writing
and when I wrote telling him to knock it off
he sent me a membership application form
with pictures of him sitting in his earthly paradise
before a meditation class
of young women in swimsuits

his legal cases were settled with cash payments
and confidentiality agreements
and although some say
he deserved a worse fate
for deserting his friends
Tom Smith died in his bed under a mosquito net
surrounded by young admirers
at the ripe age of seventy six

Stuart Dodds

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On the home page of this blog, the articles of the Moussia Chronicle can be found and read in numerical sequence,  by scrolling down.

 

Maria (“Moussia”) Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki (Moscow, 25 January 1895 – Paris, 2 August, 1959).

‘Russe de naissance, française de goût’: ‘Russian by birth, French by taste’. With these words, Natasha Borovsky described her mother in a beautiful poem which you can find in the French part of my blog. The photo shows her at the age of 34.

Emigrated from Russia in 1918 – she often returned – having lived in Los Angeles, at times in New York, in Paris most of the time but also in Berlin in its artistic heyday of 1929-1933, she is still alive in the diaries of Sergey Prokofiev and Vera Stravinsky, in the personal memoirs and archives of Natasha Borovsky  and of Giacomo Antonini, the well-known Italian-Dutch literary and film critic, Moussia’s loving husband from 1937 until her death in 1959. She can be found in the personal diaries of the Dutch diplomat and writer F.C. Terborgh, a close friend of Antonini’s. It is my good fortune to have had access to all of these sources which led me to the fascinating, interrelated, histories and fates of their protagonists.

Maria was well-acquainted with the brilliant and famous in Paris and Berlin of her time, where she personally knew composers, choreographers, painters, musicians and conductors. Educated in the theatre school of Meyerhold in St. Petersburg, she once sat at Prokofiev’s side at the piano, in Los Angeles in 1921, as he prepared the music and lyrics of his opera, The Love for Three Oranges and again, that same year, sat next to him in a concert hall in Chicago, critically watching and commenting on the final rehearsals. He took good notice of her professional advice. With her natural flair and family background, her early days in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a good friend of Prokofiev and his wife, and later as the wife of the famous Russian pianist Alexander Borovsky, she built a network of friendships in the world of the arts.

This is the first of a series of articles on her and some of her friends and loved ones. Stuart Dodds, husband of the late Natasha Borovsky and executor of her estate, has given me permission to make full use of her writings, memoirs and archives and much other information that they sent to me over the last ten years.

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Alexander Borovsky (Mitau, Latvia 18.3.1889 – Waban, Mass., USA, 27.4.1968) is Natasha Borovsky’s father. She has written a beautiful poem in his memory, published in the French part of this blog.

He was a famous concert pianist and teacher. Child prodigy under the guidance of his mother, he joined the St. Petersburg Conservatory at a young age and was only 26 when he started to give master classes in Moscow. He also graduated in law, from St. Petersburg University. He left Russia in 1921.

During his first three seasons in France he gave scores of concerts and recitals with great success. After his début at Carnegie Hall in 1923, he toured Russia, Europe and South America during the nineteen twenties and thirties. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he emigrated to the United States, where he continued to perform and teach.

Alexander Borovsky and Sergey Prokofiev had attended the Conservatory together and were friends. In those days, Alexander would visit the apartment of Prokofiev’s mother, where he heard various compositions by Sergey for the first time, notably Visions Fugitives. Throughout his career, particularly in the twenties and thirties, he championed Prokofiev’s music, some of which – according to the latter – he played better than the master himself. Prokofiev always remained grateful for the support of his friend. Although he never achieved the worldwide acclaim he deserved, Borovsky was a superb pianist. Efforts are being made in the United States to issue some of his published and unpublished recordings on CD.

Borovsky met the mother of Natasha, Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki in Paris in 1922. They were married and Natasha was born in 1924. After spending the 1929 season in Berlin and then taking up residence there in 1930, their marriage did not last.

In the following chapters,  I wil tell you more about Alexander Borovsky, in the context of the lives of Natasha Borovsky and her mother Maria.

The Russian inscription on the above photo says: ‘For my dear Pavel from his loving Shurik Borovsky’. Shurik is a diminutive for Alexander.  Pavel (Paul), who became a general in the Soviet army, was the husband of Masha, a sister of Alexander. It was Masha who gave the photo to Natasha after the Second World War.

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This beautiful woman was introduced to Sergey Prokofiev in Los Angeles on  December 29, 1920 in the house of a mutual friend, Ariadna Rumanova née Nikolskaya, an accomplished pianist and composer. He noted in his diary: “and then a new face appeared, Baranovskaya, a former student of Meyerhold, a beautiful woman who suffered not at all by comparison with Ariadna… Baranovskaya I very much took to.”

Baranovskaya was no other than Maria Viktorovna Sila-Nowicki, in a later stage of her life the mother of Natasha Borovsky. On the top right-hand corner in Russian: In memory of Moscow.

In 2002, Sviatoslav Prokofiev sent Natasha  his transcription of his father’s hand-written diaries, which added much to her knowledge of her mother’s early years. However, a series of strokes prevented her from making an English translation of the comments therein concerning her mother. Therefore, from time to time, I will follow the excellent English translation by Anthony Phillips of Prokofiev’s Diaries 1907-1933, published by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom by permission of the Sergey Prokofiev Estate.

Prokofiev saw a lot of Baranovskaya during the three weeks that followed, almost always in the company of others, and writes about her in his diaries in a witty, literary style. There were many parties around the New Year so there were many opportunities to meet her, most of which were arranged by  Baranovskaya herself.

“Rumanova and Baranovskaya, glamourous and décolletées, were looking extremely beautiful, and did their best to stay near me”…

At another party, that same evening, there was dancing: “I had never danced myself,  and although I had never danced in America and did not know any of the American dances, I asked Baranovskaya to teach me, which she did very willingly and very successfully. “Is that all I have to do?” I asked, having easily mastered the steps. “Yes, but you need to be a bit more immoral,” she said. “You have to press your legs right up against your partner, as high and as hard as you can.”

During the following days he found out more information about her in the form of gossip by others and from her own accounts. He was quite impressed by her beauty, her composure and knowledge of the theatre (she has studied with Meyerhold in St. Petersburg). One evening he sat in on a lecture she gave in impeccable French on Molière, and on another occasion they sat à deux at table with the Rumanovs when “she showed herself to have more depths than I had previously realised. A terrible disease, kidney tuberculosis, had befallen her a year or two ago, and yet her whole attitude to the illness and her serene indifference to its outcome had the effect both of astonishing me and increasing the tenderness of my regard for her.”

In the afternoon of her 26th birthday [Russian calendar], Baranovskaya came to see Prokofiev, “to look at Three Oranges. Some of the text of the libretto I read to her, for some of it I explained the context, and played the music. As someone familiar with commedia dell’arte and the ideas of Gozzi and Meyerhold, Baranovskaya identified strongly with the opera and was terribly excited by it. Her eyes sparkled and her cheeks flushed. She was reluctant to leave, but I was obliged to go …[to another appointment].”

On January 16: “Baranovskaya came to see me in the afternoon and I played and narrated to her the third and fourth acts of Three Oranges, as well as some excerpts from Fiery Angel. This sent her once again into ecstasies, as did my photograph, which I presented to her with some verses. “These verses will stay with me until my dying day,” she said”

Prokofiev left by train to Chicago and writes to Baranovskaya, who he now calls Frou-Frou and he gets letters back in a refined style but ever more with a touch of love.

He then leaves for France and is back in October, where he meets Frou-Frou in New York.  She has put on some weight but “is still the sensitive and vital person she has always been”. On October 28, he leaves for Chicago where the rehearsals for the premier of Three Oranges are in full swing. Frou-Frou arrives on December 17. She sits next to him during rehearsals and gives good advice. She is again unwell with kidney trouble and has to stay in bed. She recovers in time for attending the general rehearsal on the 29th and the premiere on the 30th December 1921.

A few weeks later he meets her in New York, she is so ill that she has to check into a clinic for a week. He visits Baranovskaya.

“Frou-frou’s conversations gradually took an increasingly candid and specific direction. Our intercourse was conducted urbanely, with taste and a surface veneer of half-joking irony, but the underlying meaning was undoubtedly serious. Her idea was that I should marry her. Apparently the husband from whom she had separated two years ago had died in Mexico and she had the documents to prove it. ‘I am good-looking, quite presentable, why should I not be your wife?’ And certainly, if one was looking for one it would be a hard task to find a better wife than Baranovskaya, but those very qualities of refinement and delicacy and aesthetic discrimination I so valued in her seemed to have suppressed the woman in her. As such she aroused no feelings in me whatsoever… Accordingly, I imparted to Frou-frou in the bantering tone we habitually adopted just how misconceived such a step would prove to be, and the subject was not raised again even though I continued to see her every day.”

On 25 January 1922, Prokoviev left for France by the Dutch ship Noordam. Baranovskaya was taken back to California and the sunshine, to recover.

(to be continued)

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