On Irina Mashinski's "The Naked World: A Tale with Verse"

This gorgeous ambitious text, this near-memoir of interwoven prose, poetry and translation settles us—and unsettles us—behind the eyes of a poet, a poet whose eyes are pierced by brilliant images of light, cold, fire and ice. For me, as her American contemporary and sister-poet confined to my own place and perspective, Mashinski’s book privileges me to enter another’s memory and dilemmas: her story in lyrical prose, a story in poems—written at times in the flattest voice of acknowledgment about how the earth and its devils will give you enough lives--enough to have one, after choosing to leave another.

At nearly every point, Mashinski’s book turns on her exact observations of the sort that translate easily enough from experience into any target language. After all, as Tsvetaeva wrote to Rilke, July 6, 1926, “To write poetry is already to translate, from the mother tongue into another—whether into French or German is of no moment.  No language is the mother tongue. To write poetry is to translate.”

Mashinski’s metamorphosis from Russian poet to fully accomplished Anglophone poet is mirrored in the book’s cover illustration, a watercolor, by Alexander Telalim, a Ukrainian artist from Odessa, working now in Bulgaria.

Many of the translations included are by Mashinski herself. Others have been made over the decades either by or in collaboration with her earliest translators—the late Alexander Sumerkin, the late Daniel Weissbort, or with long-accomplished translators such as Angela Livingstone and Tony Brinkley, and most recently with her near-contemporaries—Maria Bloshteyn—also credited with editing the book—and Boris Dralyuk—who often translates Mashinski masterfully into rhyme.

To point to but one example, Morning at Cape Cod is a cunning translation by Dralyuk of a poem in nine quatrains whose rhymes of each 2nd and 4th lines modulate from early half- and slant-rhymes, to full rhymes at the apex of the emotional argument, to rhyme riche—as a stalling—before falling back in to the final laxity of “all” with “whole.”

* * *

Part I Patterns centers on Mashinski’s childhood in Moscow, “a bursting matryoshka universe.” Mashinski’s essential ars poetica is made explicit in pieces from the text’s final part:

“the pure honey /of rhythm,/ for iamb of littoral, for anapest of depths,/ lighthouses of metaphors, drill towers above shelf waters--/we know that tar at night does look mysterious.”

“And if there is a rhythm, it’s muted.”

And Mashinski’s childhood is pinned by history to the spring of her birth as an only child,  when “Stalin had been dead for 5 years 1 month and 4 days,” “a decade after the Night of the Murdered Poets, ‘The Doctors’ Plot,’ and the hastily made plans for the deportation of the Jews.” [1]

The spring of her fourth grade is pinned to “Lenin’s birthday, which was close to Hitler’s own,” and revolves—with a figure skater on television—around the task of ironing “a newer, silky neckerchief, raspberry-colored, and an older one, orange-toned . . .”  The same year she is eleven, at summer camp with freedom and Nature, discovering what she will need to know—that she could “survive anything.

As Mashinski’s opens our eyes upon Russia, we can see and come to appreciate her skillful verbal handling of light—in so many lines over which I muttered:  “I wish had had written that:”

“that peculiar silvery twilight found only in the centers of big old cities north of 40 degrees North,”

“the wet winter light,”

“transparent darkness”

“a ray of light into a watery dark,”

“The ray of the trolleybus headlights passing across the ceiling toward the wall above me,”

“Diamonds—sunset procession on the wall,/as if someone has changed the wallpaper—in a never-ending/pattern, flow onto the floor—mosaic of rectangles—warm,/dusty—just a forearm away,”

In a summer camp sunrise, “the shiny frosted-glassed cube of the washroom station with . . . zinc wash sinks.”

“As for the countryside, a jelly of mud, no, a river of clay flows, glows like a 100-watt bulb. In the yards, glazed pockets of snow shine—starch on freshly washed linen.”

Later, in Europe through her eyes we see:

“tableaus at midday, a patchy shimmer,”

the “hesitant sun reflecting off the still-wet scales of a university town,”

A German cathedral—“The columns inside—rootless trunks—were bathed in a lemony light at 7 in the morning.”

Along a railway, “the shrub glows gold over that rose ravine”

A “last sunray hits the dust,/ above the western range,’ the day prolongs the change/ clenching its last gold leaf.//But gold has finally set and platinum released,”

A new moon is “molded of dull gold.”

With the help of her most frequent translator, Maria Bloshteyn, Mashinski brings us this gorgeous stanza from Giornata, A view of clouds through the window at sunset:

A sky that’s swinging open at both ends,
      as loud as indisputable as Rome,
set in a crooked frame of peeling white,
encasing mica, shimmering in the light,
beyond which float Colonna, colonnade,
      the sunset’s glow upon a vast façade,
a scarlet range, a staircase into Hades—
Last Judgment’s awesome nimbostratus.

A vista that is echoed in a last look back at Russia that Mashinski, as a mother, takes care to imprint on the eye of her little daughter, Sasha, before their leaving for good and forever:  “trailed by thunderclouds, purple and orange and cherry—all twisted and tied in knots, moving slowly above and behind us like a convoy . . . . this fierce theatrical sunset, . . .” 

Then on the flight over Norway, from the air, with Sasha asleep on the rough sleeve of her coat:  “Cliffs shone pure slate, their after-rain luster. . . . (How it gleams in twilight!—//the rim of a forest lake,/ moraine ragged edge).

In New Jersey, where the family land, the light seems a bit unsettling, at first:

“the headlights glow/ as if wrapped in cellophane.”

There is “the plexiglass of air,” “the dull gleam/ of the plastic tabletop.”  

In a small downtown’s ice cream shop, “The light comes through the huge windows. It bothers and attracts me:  cold, dull, naked.”

A grand piano with “the glare, shine, and glow/ of a big dead animal—“

At twilight, somehow the mountains of her remembered losses “linger, turning mauve, and move off to the west, like leaves to the ravine.”

In another poem’s hole of grief, “a moon ray/ seeks out the crater—it turns white with grass,/reflecting the reflection.”

In another we glimpse “this bridge  at night: / trembling lights,/ a chain of false gold . . ./

In another, “Eyes shut, shutters shut./ Don’t glower cloud, that the light is out,/ the west is cryptic, the east is dark.” 

And so “the invisible snowless Jersey towns/ light up like a chain of alcohol burners,/the halos over them—what color are they?—grayish orange like ashes/ hover . . .”

As well as Mashinski handles light, she also wrestles the angels of fog, cold, fire and ice to the ground:

“fog—milk from the Russian folk tale—"

From Mercury, there is this measure of cold: “a pedestrian whose shoes and soles are way too thin for/ Moscow winter nights . . . . –ice-cold Celsius, thin silver thread inside: turn this way—shines, turn that way—disappears . . .”

“blades scraping the hardened snow, and by slight differences in that sound, I would know how cold it was.”

“the empty windy tundra again, covered with 140-day-old snow, so hard that it had to be sawed or hacked with an axe if you needed to melt it for water” in Kolyma where “[i]n the spring, the earth grew pink with cranberry vines . . .”

“--boot toe/ touching cautiously/ the mica of this brittle puddle.”

“the ironed surface of blank ice”

“Unwrinkled linen sheets are floes of ice”

“All around, like black ice—/gleaming—moonlit, amazed—/the bluest of blue anthracite.”

But all this is surface dazzle above the depths, the progress down the page of the poems and prose pieces in telling Mashinski’s story. The Naked World is dedicated to the memory of Mashinski’s parents, Natasha and Victor, and her grandparents, Ophelia, Isaac, Alexander, and Alexandra—all of whom we get to meet, to know by hearing their stories, and to grieve. Mashinski’s anxieties are marked, both early and late:

“I am biting on the strings of my/ childhood nightgown--//gnaw at the wet satin knot, . . .”

“I turn on my right side and look at the pattern on wallpaper, until it becomes three-dimensional,”

One exquisite brief poem, When a Man Dies . . ., about her father, will bring to any Russian ear an echo of Akhmatova.

This passage is from another poem:

and my hand
   blind with pity,
      flew up,
                     light, uncertain—
reaching for
                      the dark-haired head
              that still smelled of tobacco

A man dies after “the seven free months he had here.”  A sad irony, followed by a further elegy with a woodstove, carrying this echo in the scatter of his ashes, “the scorching circle turning dark,/ becoming earth and settling on the snowbank . . .” of an earlier prose piece set in Russia about her father teaching Mashinski to make a campfire in the woods—between Sukhanovo and  Butovo where thousands of people were shot in the 1930-50s—“the tiny timid flames perished one by one with a wet hissing sound.  Suddenly they caught fire and burned, and the silver circle of melting, gleaming snow grew quickly around it.”

In a ritual for the dissipation of grief, she writes, “I’m doing this for the last time (lighting a candle in “the lemony-black cathedral”). That even though you are not alive, you aren’t dead, but just are. And we don’t need this anymore.”

We are given names:  from her Moscow apartment building, a list of the residents whose names unselfconsciously echo the names of famous Russian authors, poets and literary characters known to us, we readers in the West:  Chekhov, Derzhavin, Karamazov, Mandelstam, and Blok.

We are given mundane sights:

“Prospect of Peace, as my mother crossed it in haste, diagonally . . . heading towards a hairdresser’s salon across the street.”

“the blue chickens hanging in (many-times-/washed) plastic bags?/ We called them bluebirds—chickens that swayed outside/”

“the summer camp’s movie screen freshly washed with laundry bluing.”

The one kind of raincoat “from friendly China, the “two kinds of collars for a girl’s school uniform:  the stand-up and the turndown,”

“the everyday black aprons,”

along with the more astonishing:

the festive aprons, the apron of her nanny “with the same tiny sparks of starry flowers on the dark fabric,”

the “two kinds of sleds,” one of which “looked bolder against the snow” owned by “members of a freer, higher race.”

“And look, a squirrel weaves/ between smooth trunks—in flight / so needle-like, so light.”

A lawn in New Jersey, as if in Crimea, before a thunderstorm,“(the first rusty leaf/ floats in what used to be rain, /a dead bee on board). . . . the battle   starts/ by the tall fence.”


“like a radio/ spinning/ its wired waltzes.”

“the tall grass of Russian syllables,”

Family history that “came up in quiet conversations around me . . .”

In The Accordion, “the sound of that real ‘Russian-Russian’ world on the other side of the invisible membrane that surrounded the world of which I was a part,” a world of Jews, of her family, where “[i]t was that loss of belonging even to one’s own community of pariahs that made one a true pariah—made one a Jew.”  She notes in Russia, “it is hard to utter ‘Jew,’/although other ways to say it exist, a few of them.”

the smells:

“a disturbing smell of chemicals, coarse silver grains/ of the present/ continuous.”

as returned from memory, “a ski-waxing barn . . . . looked like a Renaissance artists’ busy workshop . . . . smelled of warm wood and pine sap, and ski wax—"

and most wonderfully, the tactile:

“the tender fir tree’s ticklish withers,”

A mermaid, “with riverweed that’s wound round her wrist”

“the honey cake we ate together/ back in the seventies”

From The Look:

I lie on my back in early spring
         on a bench half my height
                   its cold frame of peeled paint
         pressed against my neck painfully
and I like how the hard metal rim feels . . .

Around all this detail and texture, the tone of Mashinski’s storytelling is often ironic and remarkably, movingly flat in its affect:

“Dusk came, rain merged with snow,”

“Brown is the twilight of my room,”

“The rivers in April look pretty much like they did in March.”

“As soon as the inmates stepped on the solid ground, they had to lie on the permafrost face down.”

“There was a distance between the children and their parents.”

“They were vacationing in Crimea when WWI began.”

“In the late fall of 1915, the last Czar visited Ekaterinoslav. . . . When he reached Alexandra, she sank in deep curtsy.”

“Reizl wrapped the girls’ feet in newspapers.”

“I live on the other side of the Hudson,/where people don’t live, . . . in a small town where there’s no point/ to owning a dress.”

“And even that bright and transparently pale sky looks not like a sky, but rather the fact of a sky.”  (During a first trip into Germany).

“The rough-textured expanse of the flagstones, a bucket, a mop, and spilled soap.”

This last detail comes right on the heels of Mashinski’s description of Cologne’s cathedral columns “—rootless trunks—bathed in a lemony light”  For me as a poet, as a translator, this is “a form of handiwork,” of the sort Tsvetaeva lays claim to in one of her poems from 1922. With this juxtaposition, Mashinski entitles herself here to lay the same claim:

And I am a craftsman --- and I know my craft.
Know my range --- from High-Church silences
To the baser tramplings of the soul:
The whole length of the sublime ladder --- from:
My breath --- to:  don’t dare breathe!
                                                       18 June 1922

Mashinski’s Creation of a Room recalls—but upends with its “striped summer dress”—Tsvetaeva’s poem of September 30, 1922, God help us, the smoke . . ., Both poems address the troublesome joys of imagining housing away from home. I see something in common in Mashinski’s “alcohol lamp on a shaky stand” and Tsvetaeva’s “same-old lamp, —/ Lamp of a beggar, of a student, of a long commute.”

Part 1 then concludes with a realization:  “I am now at the age when Alexander, my grandfather, returned from Kolyma to resume life—”

Part 2. The Myth recounts the first arrest of this grandfather in 1928. “Alexandra, pregnant with their first child, who would be my father, was endlessly playing Chopin on the piano, as a way of coping with fear . . .” pinning the first town on the Kama where he was taken, again to history:  “Yelabuga, the Tartar town in which Marina Tsvetaeva will hang herself thirteen years later, is on the same right bank, farther downstream. . . .” and pinning Alexandra’s fear to time, to Zabolotsky’s composing “an innocuous lyrical poem about nature” with a first line and rhymes to help him reconstruct his “dangerous poem about the Terror that he had burnt.”

Mashinski recounts the story of Victor, her father, almost one year old, when Alexander first returned home from exile:  “ . . . he didn’t feel the love he expected to feel for his son—a frail, nervous stranger who would turn blue during frequent tantrums . . . –he did love his son, he just wanted him to be different.”

How deeply this story echoes the stories entrusted to me as I practiced family law near Postville, Iowa, serving parents from the old Soviet republics who worked there—separated from their children by their choice, to leaving them to be raised by grandparents.

Mashinski’s myth is unsettling as the rhymes in which it is sometimes written, here in Maria Bloshteyn’s translation:

Behind my back, my life went streaming
so slowly-swiftly, as if I were weaving
a textured tapestry, featuring a creek,
a corpse, a meadow, and a drunken shriek.

As myth, Mashinski recounts the stories of her grandmother’s sisters, one of whose husbands was the connection by marriage that occasioned Alexander’s first arrest, and the family rifts arising as a further consequence. She includes the story of her uncle, Dima, who sought out his father’s file, and to whom she writes.

There is the story of Alexander’s second arrest pinned to June 3, 1948. And its own flat conclusion:  “He severed the years stolen from his life the way he ended his relationship with his Kolyma wife.” With its long echo even as the poet writes in New Jersey:

What did it mean—
“trust in,” say, or “don’t trust in”—
when it beat against the breakwater all night,
against the opaque wall—but it bent,
didn’t give, this wall
of the house with only one door?

Of all these older family members, Mashinski seems closest perhaps to her long-lived 106 year old grandmother, Alexandra, who survived all this to wash up “in one of the gloomy buildings of Ivy Hill, on the outskirts of Newark . . .” where “the lit circle around us would shrink to the size of the table . . .” set with “strong black tea from her eternal cobalt Moscow teacups” and Russian chocolates in the foil wrappers [this grandmother] would finger and fold “until they became thin strips like little bookmarks in an invisible book, marking this or that fragment of the oral family saga—” talking until “one wave calms another,/ this is not a full stop, this is only a comma.//Water calms water, wave consoles wave--/and what hasn’t yet happened will have, will have.”

It is Grandmother Alexandra who she visits “At the Jewish cemetery—no pebble to be found.” But things remain—“Material things in stagnant empires lack fluidity . . . . Solid objects are dormant and seem eternal.” “Your grandmother’s—and before that, your great-grandmother’s—cobalt cups” now become “unnaturally important” in the embodiment of puzzled elegy. “Each time when you raise your eyes to the stars, you see the past, and each time when you raise your eyes to the moon, you see the reflected present.”

In Trains, we find Mashinski counting the passing cars with her grandmother near Moscow, meditating on a childhood memory. “The train is both hurrying and lingering, it’s endlessly leaving—but where to? . . . . and I don’t know how to deal with this longing . . . . as I stand between high and low, forgetting to count.”

Long before her own family’s emigration, Mashinski is attuned in the early poem, Tartars, to the invisibility and basement perspective of the minority, her neighbors, the Muslim streetsweepers of her Moscow courtyard, finding herself “unusually comfortable with these strangers.”

Part 3. In the Right-of-Way. We are in a public place, out in the landscape where the public has a right to pass “forlorn, hemmed in,/ sawn into denim double stitch by a ravine,” “together with lupines, dusty railroad track grass, train platforms, their names, the sound of the language,” “My resurrected voice//A caustic right-of-way—crushed blazing glass  . . . the tepid smoke,” no one’s home, with the poet’s universe “rearranging itself,” as an epigraph from Jon Kabit-Zinn suggests—but pinned in history to the time the Berlin Wall stood, and then fell.  So, Mashinski enters Germany. “[S]ee, it’s just Europe, so what were you afraid of?”  And the irony of it:  “In Germany I slept like the dead, straight through.”

In a prayer to the Sky, Your Highness . . .” Mashinski writes: “Let the grain be utterly featureless/ in a place of exceptional flatness,/ just a restless speck staring:  come lift me up.”

The right-of-way that becomes home:

With wolves, I will be numb and you don’t howl,
be woods, be numb, learn how
to know like wolves, to drink like birds,
weave nests no more.

Part 4. Borders. From first to last in Mashinski’s book, we come to many borders, from “That very wide, typically Moscow windowsill” to “the windowsill is, like a workbench, wide . . . ” found abroad. On early tentative steps across the border between Poland and Czechia in Borders, the trust in early friendship with A. S., to whom also It’s Just is written. Flying over Norway—“This border—in mist!/ . . . . and the border/ closes, shallows/ creased dove-blue.” The Equator, a wild Ecuadorian adventure on the sea, with Pasternak.

As before, every personal memory is pinned with the flat ironies of history:  “All classes have been canceled:  Brezhnev, the immortal Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, had died.” Mashinski’s memories are both tedious and hilarious—lifelike with their “obligatory mourning—endlessly, desperately, hopefully, victoriously. We don’t know yet what is coming—all the know is that it is something different.”

In this final part, Mashinski mediates more directly, perhaps more freely upon history in On the Fall of the Tyrants; St. Petersburg Military March, and Pan Chuklinski; and on poets of the past: Pasternak in Their Anniversaries,  and Tsvetaeva in Yelabuga:

“if only I could give her all my blood . . . ./ If only—all the pine tree air to fill his tormented lungs—I, illegitimate offspring,/looking for the two of you//on every bank/ of each big frozen river/ where boats are stuck in hummocks.”

I am reminded of Tsvetaeva again, as she wrote:

There are rhymes in this world:
Uncouple them—and it falls apart.
                 June 30, 1924
Every line—a child of love,
An illegitimate beggar.
                 August 14, 1918

We find Émigré, her poem honoring Celan, Parland, Pasternak and Hopkins:  “Poetry. Great desert,/ silk routes intersecting.//No point/in looking for your yesterself.” . . . “Fall asleep one man/ and awake another.//All burns the same/ down in the kiln/ bizarrely intermixed/ go figure/ where the kindling/ comes from.?

Like a Year Ago.  Niantic Bay. The loss of a young poet, unmet, among others, named and equally dear. In Memoriam, and the losses continue to pile up of friends:  “Let there be no mail, nor mailman, no common alphabet, no letters, paper, stamps.  Let me dig canals in monsoonal camps, cut cedars and build pyramids. Let me sink in sand—last grain of what used to be you.” 

On love:  Four with the brief descriptions of four men in her life and what each gave her.

There are wonderful poems celebrating Mashinski’s motherhood:  Milk Bottles; The Field; and Geese, Apples, Thunderclouds. Poems about leaving the motherland:  Between a Willow and a Birch Tree, The Sheremetyevo Airport (her father’s humiliation when his carefully packed drawings are scattered and trampled while passing a checkpoint which occasions Mashinski to return to her first premonition of freedom—of never being afraid of anything again as an 11-year-old at summer camp), Airborne; The Border;  The Descent, JFK (as pungent and poignant as Tsvetaeva’s Life Train of October 6, 1923); Double Exposure (hilarious and unsettled), Going off to America, aka Amortica, aka Unmerica, and Farewells,  again pinned to history:  “On October 24th, the old calendar anniversary of the October Revolution, we left forever.”  But, in Mashinski’s most equable view, “these landscapes, with their iconic birch trees, their anthemized fields and rivers, were not unique—one can find very similar ones in other places on Earth.”

We come to poems in Mashinski’s new, but our own old landscape of New Jersey—one American poets know as the home of Old Bill Williams—Passaic River in Paterson, “Passaic, Passaic! Your quiet but hissing name is/ like Mongol campfires . . .”  This Time Around  injects a more frivolous humor about the fragility and absurdity of all we might brake to avoid on rural American roads.

From first to last, we can admire Mashinski’s many brief self-portraits:

In Moscow as a child:

as “a bird that tries to tell it all at once”

As naked:

“Just like a Russian emigree in the 1920s— . . . stripped naked of national and cultural identities in the new world of her hosts”

In The Naked World, the title prose piece, writing in a letter back to Kostya in Moscow`, that although she longs for its cathedrals and town halls, “I would say that emigration is akin to levitation, if it didn’t sound suspiciously glib . . . . emigration is like evacuation:  sacks, trunks, random acquaintances, other people’s things that try to latch on to you, and wide rivers covered with ice. And, then several years pass, and it turns out you’re full again, full to the brim.”

As bereft, again:

Sleeping in the car The Morning of the Day when Mom Died  “my mottled brain became level and bare/ the wet from the half-open window/ is falling right into my hair”

But here:

“And then you grow up and emigrate, and, still surrounded by the people that were your kin, your kind, and your blood . . . –you feel stark naked in the middle of a stark-naked world . . . . your little myth becomes disconnected, disjointed, unassuming, useless, and—therefore—finally honest.”

“Today I’m Mrs.—not Mr.—Nabokov
here in the yard in my red
faded boots
and my stepson’s oversized plaid shirt
I assembled the leaf blower myself . . .”

And this one, a self-portrait, too, rendered into the third person:

“she stands in this immobile, impossible, other life, while her smiling transparent double removes her salt-stained boots in the foyer.”



[1] Helpful, factual, statistical (ironically rendered) notes on the Great Terror for American readers not much acquainted with early Twentieth Century Russian history appear in the back of the book.




Mary Jane White

Mary Jane White, received her MFA from the University of Iowa and received two NEA Fellowships (one for poetry and one in translation). Her new translations of Marina Tsvetaeva are in After Russia (Adelaide Books, 2021). Dragonfly. Toad. Moon. appeared April 2022 from Press 53. Mary Jane recommends Nova Ukraine.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Friday, September 23, 2022 - 22:04