Intimacy and Poetry

Intimacy and Poetry

A Conversation about Greg Allendorf

[Greg Allendorf Two-Person Table in the Back Corner of the Coffee Shop, Next to the Fireplace Chat]

I invited fellow fiction writer Liz Jacobs to cozy up to the virtual fireplace with me and chat about Greg Allendorf’s excellent collection, Fair Day in an Ancient Town, for poetry month.

Roan Parrish: We both write fiction that’s invested in love and relationships, and are both poetry enthusiasts (though not experts). As such, I found myself thinking a lot about the role of love and romance when I was reading these poems. I wonder what your thoughts are about how poetry might give us a different language for telling love stories, or a different approach to expressing intimacy?

Liz Jacobs: I think it’s definitely a very different approach. I mean, in romantic, say, fiction, we have to build a story. That’s sort of a simplistic first difference, but poetic structure doesn’t need an arc, not really. I think it just needs a thread. And it creates a sort of … snapshot of a moment, and can certainly tell a story, but that isn’t a must, and it isn’t what we look for in poetry.
Roan: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I think a lot when I read poetry is how it allows you to burrow into a moment. To really explore and sense everything about that moment. And, for me, often that’s a more … not accurate but useful way to approach romance or romantic feelings. As you say, in fiction, we tend to curate, arrange, place moments in an order that has a teleology, but (of course) feelings don’t actually work that way. I mean, duh, fiction. So, poems seem to have this mode of parallelism with romantic feeling that can open things up in really beautiful ways.

Liz: Yes. And even though, in real life, we are living out our own stories, romantic moments tend to bounce around, and not really have a complete storyline. And what poetry is able to capture is that fleeting sense of it. I really loved “Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” because it does tell a story of sorts—a memory, I suppose—but more than anything else, it captures that sense of loss. The way it zooms out from scene to scene and grabs you. I especially loved the line,

Oranges grow violet molds and stink.

Diagrams curl yellow on the walls.

—”Embellishment upon a Memory of You Eating Blueberries in Your Car” by Greg Allendorf

That’s something you can absolutely put into fiction, but in this poem, it floats in a sublime sort of way. At least to me.

Roan: I agree, and I think that the poem just before it—”We Will Become One In Luxor”—has a similar storytelling mode, though rather than a memory it’s a dream, or a fantasy. It tells the story by imagining a setting for the love that will be. Calling it into being in this place, and then populating it, plotting it, giving it a story. And, of course, neither of us (I don’t think) would ever say that there needs to be any kind of dividebetween fiction and poetry, but it does seem that a poem like this is able to use story in a very different mode. A mode that imagines an entire love affair in one page. The way it’s able to make love that might last a lifetime condensed, or to effortlessly dilate one moment into an entire poem … these are things that I think are most deftly done in poetry.

Liz: Yes, exactly. As I was writing the above, I realized I was accidentally drawing an imaginary line between poetry and prose, something I didn’t necessarily want to do. I loved that poem, too—it was intense and evocative and I sort of wanted to burrow into it for a while because of that. I think what I really loved about this entire collection is how vivid it was. So many gorgeous images and turns of phrase. I tend to read in a micro sort of way, I think—I notice phrases or snippets before I can see the whole picture. I mean, that could be how everyone reads, but with “Luxor” I felt this line so much:

I will see you there in Luxor with your jaw

and earlobes.

–”We Will Become One in Luxor” by Greg Allendorf

It’s so simple and packs so much.

Roan: That line, and others like it that manage to render something so particular though they reference something so general, is something that this collection did so well for me. Like, yup, we’ve all got earlobes and jaws (er, mostly), but just by naming those body parts in the context of other particularities in the collection, brings something universal to such a personal level. Poems often operate on a kind of associative logic that also governs, for me, the way I feel in love or when I’m crushed out on someone. The way everything I see reminds me of them, makes me think of them. So I see the bend of a tree branch and I think THEIR JAW! And it doesn’t need to be something specific that my thoughts latch onto, necessarily, because it’s run through the filter of THIS PERSON. It draws the general and the universal quite close, and writes the tiny and the personal onto the whole world.

Liz: Yes! Yes, exactly that. I think it can be quite challenging in prose to recreate that sense of it. With poetry, you can pull words together in a different way, and Allendorf has a really light hand when it comes to that. His words are so evocative.

And what I really enjoyed about this collection, too, is that it was very much my mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun. The lover described in this collection is not at all idealized. He is, apparently, not very smart, has an off-putting fake tan … But he is loved by the narrator, or at least the narrator is enamored of him. And that puts such a human lens on it. It also invites the reader to think that they can be loved despite/for their own flaws, because nobody is flawless. Sometimes poetry can be used to … de-flaw, sort of shave off those peccadilloes and round somebody out until they have no definable edge, but this really dove into them, and was a pleasure to read (and made me laugh quite a bit, too).

Roan: I appreciated that too! Allendorf isn’t mean-spirited, either, and he holds up his own participation in the exaltation/unexeptionalization (is this a word? It should be) of the lover from the beginning of the collection. The opening line, “I did the love and dressed for my scant part / in the love,” announces from the start that he’s aware of the way loving is part participation in something less perfect, less romanticized, than paeans often suggest. He’s complicit in the affair that’s about to take place in the poems to follow—complicit in the loving, but also in the flaws of loving.

The next line is “As I escape my cheap / dress shirt, crystal flies embellish me.” The costume of the lover is as ornamented as the ideas of love, and he’s super up front about its paste.

Liz: Yes, absolutely. The “we” in “Good Shepherds” is also suggestive of that—that complicity on the part of each lover, and then the “I” at the end is separated from “he” and they are decoupled.

In “Catamount,” the couplet was so striking:

I hate couplets, I hate couples, hate

the tension our avulsion can create

–”Catamount” by Greg Allendorf

Amusing, yes, but also that sense of being pulled into something you can’t control. I guess we could look at it as the other side of being complicit in love.

Roan: I’m so glad you bring up “Catamount”; I was delighted by that line! It also feels like this very striking way of imagining what love can become when we enshrine it: a beautiful wild thing, “Once-feared, now dry and glass-eyed and open- / faced on an oak plaque in my rich den.” This idea that we render something living pure ornament when we attempt to capture it, hold it still.

And it’s such a fitting thing for a writer to meditate on, because that’s what the poem is doing, essentially: attempting to find a way for language to gallop at the speed of love. “I shine you with Armor All and pace / behind the blackened window flanked with lace.” The struggle of doing more than just pointing at love and screaming into the void of the white page, “LOOK! IT’S LOVE!” I mean, I’m not going all language is dead things splayed out on the page or anything, but it’s certainly something I think all writing contends with. And, for me, it’s the beauty of the words themselves that is able to tip the scales to the side of art as being meaningful in that struggle.

Liz: Yes. Language is a living thing, but it is interesting to think how it guides us in our everyday life versus in the purposeful creation of art, for instance. (See how I decided that life can be art, too? *scuffs toes*)

Roan: Yes, we must believe this, no?  As we’ve started to get at, Fair Day in an Ancient Town has legs in both the ancient and the modern, the exalted and the banal, the formal and the formless, and all of these modes are used to characterize the beloved. In this, it reminded me a bit of Mark Wunderlich’s work, which I also love. I wonder what effect this mixture has on the way the collection frames love?

Liz: I’m an incredibly visual person, so I got a little thrill about turning to pages 18 and 19 and seeing a poem that looks like a cape or a waterfall. That really tickled me. I love that it goes from couplets to more dense forms. There was even a sneaky sonnet, which I adored.

Roan: Me too! I’m no scholar of contemporary poetry, so clearly this is quite broad strokes, but while for a time modern poetry was asserting itself against formal poetry by turning away from established forms entirely, more recently folks have been reclaiming form in ways that are making it quite relevant again. And in a collection that combines the modern and the less modern, that use of forms and their disruption felt particularly potent to me. And with regard to romance, there’s something rather capital-R Romantic in the way the use of form in a contemporary poem can kind of enshrine the beloved—place them inside something historically recognizable so they signify as somehow loftier than they might without it, as you mentioned in the line from Sonnet 130, above.

Liz: I am also (clearly) not a poetry scholar, but I really enjoyed the old and the new feel of it, as well. It felt playful and inclusive in a way that speaks of—and I may be totally off here—a deeper understanding of poetry, or maybe a sense of … hmm. A sense of really enjoying poetry, in its many forms.

Roan: Yep, agree. And I found myself also actively romanticizing the beloved here as a result of it, as if his association with Ancient Thingz made him somehow … more exaltable? Even though, as we’ve been saying, that’s not what these poems are after. It was almost like wandering through the Las Vegas version of ancient-ness: “there’s the pyramids, and there is Pompeii, and oh look, there’s the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, and, at its center, the beloved! Only, he’s … not so perfect at all, is he?” I think maybe I found that particularly with “Luxor,” which we mentioned above, because (I learned, when I googled it to, er, double check that I was right it was in Egypt) the Luxor is also a hotel in Vegas.

Liz: Oooh, I didn’t know that! That is delightful. It’s very much a mixture of the exalted and the banal, as you say. It made the poetry relatable to the modern reader (me) who often finds herself in exaltedly banal situations and frames of mind. (Insert tongue-out smiley here.)

Roan: You too, huh?  Yeah, I got the feeling that Allendorf was wielding all the tools of form, rhythm, and reference with rather a wink, though the content feels sincere.

Liz: Yes, it feels very genuine and real. Something (else) I really loved about it is his use of language. There’s no found language here, words and phrases are not expected, but fresh and different. Some were simpler than others, but also were so evocative and intriguing to me. I bookmarked this stanza specifically because it seems … simple but very original to me (in “Choking”):

Even smiling glow-most won’t erase

the unsubstantial pain I’ve felt that tests

the wisdom and sheer acreage of my chest.

–”Choking” by Greg Allendorf

I think it’s “acreage of my chest” that really jumped out at me. It paints a beautiful everyday picture that contains so much underneath.

Roan: And that fits so well for me with the tone of the whole collection. The—as we’ve noted—combination of the banal and the beautiful (wow, new soap opera!). To wrap up, I’ll be quite on the nose and quote the last line of the last poem in the collection, because bookends:

My day was an elegy always; my day had its charms.

–”My Day Went” by Greg Allendorf

He ends on an acknowledgement of what you mentioned above: the way that sometimes we experience everyday things as poetry just as sometimes poetry can be an encomium to the everyday.

Well, friend, I could nerd out about poetry with you all day every day (especially about this collection, which (in case I didn’t make clear) I adored), but I sense we should let folks get on with their lives and with watching your and my new favorite soap opera, The Banal and the Beautiful, credit: Greg Allendorf. Thanks for chatting, Liz!

Liz: Thank you for having me! I will nerd out with you any day (and that’s a threat, by the way.) Now we just need to pitch the soap opera idea to the Soap Opera gods.

Roan: Oh, I wondered how those things ended up on the air. Mystery solved, and to all a good night.

About Roan Parrish

Roan Parrish is currently wandering between Philadelphia and New Orleans. When not writing, she can usually be found cutting her friends’ hair, meandering through whatever city she’s in while listening to torch songs and melodic death metal, or cooking overly elaborate meals. She loves bonfires, winter beaches, minor chord harmonies, and self-tattooing. One time she may or may not have baked a six-layer chocolate cake and then thrown it out the window in a fit of pique.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads

National Poetry Month

About Liz Jacobs

Liz Jacobs has lived in many places and has no idea how to respond to simple questions like “where are you from?” She has planted roots in Boston with her wife and hopes of a dog, and is doing too many things at once but enjoying the hell out of it. She reads voraciously, writes as much as possible, and has recently begun doing a truly alarming number of online puzzles while watching TV. She also spends a fair bit of time shouting at clouds on the Internet.

National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2016

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Dread and Grief, Energy and Song

Dread and Grief, Energy and Song

Nicole Cooley and Cathryn Cofell Discuss the Poetry of Alicia Rebecca Myers

We invited accomplished poets Cathryn Cofell and Nicole Cooley to read Alicia Rebecca Myers’s poetry chapbook My Seaborgium and share in a discussion about it. Today, we are excited to present to you the result — a lively and insightful conversation about Myers’s collection, and a welcome contribution to our celebration of National Poetry Month.

My Seaborgium is available for purchase in both print and ebook editions wherever books are sold, or in ebook and a signed, numbered fine first edition directly from Brain Mill Press.

NC: I’m so excited to talk about this chapbook by Alicia Rebecca Myers and have been thinking of what drew me to the book, what interested me even before I read the poems.

It’s the title.

First the unfamiliar—to me—word drawn from the language of science, and then the use of the possessive, “the my,” to circumscribe it. The way the word is defined in the book’s introduction also intrigued me; “seaborgium” is “a synthetic element” named in 1974 with “no practical uses” “except perhaps to mark for us a before and after.” The phrase feels playful and loving and teasing and sharp-edged all at once.

And this is reflected in the book, as In “Lullaby” at the end of the chapbook, when the speaker calls her child, “My Seaborgium / My little radish bugaboo, my / pillowfoot jeweler.” I love the way the language of science and fairy tale and slang converge here.

What drew you to this book?

CC: The title was a definite draw for me, too, for many of the same reasons. I have to admit, I assumed it was made up, had looked it up before opening the book, which pulled me in all the more. So much weight to describe an element of so little weight. Playful and sharp-edged, yes, but where you felt love, it called out for me a sadness, the idea of a life so short it’s called “a half-life.”

So yes, this was a brilliant choice for the title, for pulling us both into the book so headily.

There was a second draw for me, and that was Kiki Petrosino’s blurb of the book on the Brain Mill press website—“an attempt to account for the beauty that emerges from our moments of greatest grief”—and the description of Myers’s poems as “songs of loss and growth, motherhood and viscera.” I was connected back again to the before and after of seaborgium, but also to my own story, a story so many women share and have tried to share in verse that it can border on cliché.

Blissfully, cliché is the last thing in this book! You referenced a poem at the end of the book, but I turn to the front, to “Hostess,” the foreword poem.

If what happens after we die is the same as

what happened before then what

must count is the middle. Like the cream filling

in a Twinkie how did I get here?

–”Hostess” by Alicia Rebecca Myers

What a wonderful blend of quirk and and query, heady yet playful.

There are many wonderful poems in here, but this was a fast favorite. How about for you? Could you choose a favorite?

NC: I very much liked the series of poems focused on “weeks” so I think I will choose the prose poem “15 Weeks” (as much I love the sonnets). Throughout this book, I admired the variety of forms Myers employed, and “15 Weeks” reflects this formal play and variation. I have to quote my absolute favorite moment in this poem:

I repeatedly wake at 3am, what Grandma Walker called the convict hour, when escaped men would break into your shotgun house to kill you.

–”15 Weeks” by Alicia Rebecca Myers

This kind of vernacular language, and the reference to family, underscores the wonderful groundedness of this collection. As a counterpoint—or opposite actually—to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “dark night of the soul,” which occurs at 3 A.M., this image brings us back to a real American landscape, a gendered one, and traces a female lineage of fear at the same time the image has an edge of humor and irony. I admired all the work this single line of the poem was able to do.

CC: Oh yes, yes! I may have to change my choice of best poem, a happy problem in a book with so many delicious options. I hadn’t thought of the Fitzgerald counterpoint, but yes again, this poem speaks strongly to me for these same reasons.

I do believe this middle section of the book—Water/Wait—is the strongest. It’s a short half-life of its own, between the before and the after, and the clever use of form and structure (as you suggested with the sonnets) buffets a ricochet of words and images. Within each poem, the yin and yang, “to be both drift and manifold” as in the poem “24 Weeks,” or “dually as wave and particle” in “33/34 Weeks.” This poem, in particular, describes vividly that duality that comes of being both woman and mother—to be fiercely independent yet so dependent on a life that is so dependent on you. “Pain tolerance isn’t the same as pain threshold” is a line from this poem that stayed with me long after the initial read, perhaps serving as the centrifugal force from which the rest of the book spins.

NC: I really like that phrase—the “centrifugal force from which the rest of the book spins.” The structure of My Seaborgium seems to do exactly that, in my mind, to both move forward in a linear progression but also to spin, to radiate outward. The last line of the book—“Every day is a day I can return to”—speaks to that, I think.

To me, this movement echoes the experience of loss, birth, and mothering in such an accurate way. As well as the movement from inside to outside, which is such a strong motif in many of the poems.

I admire the way the book refuses an easy teleology, from loss to a birth, which is a more familiar narrative, and the way the poems complicate experience.

CC: So true, and so hard to do! I mentioned my fear of cliché earlier; some might suggest any book with a central theme of birth and motherhood is automatically cliché (believe me, I’ve written one myself, know this is true). Then you look at her author photo—sweet young mom with adorable baby perched on her knee—it’s hard not to say a little “uh-oh” in the back of your throat before opening the book. So here I circle back again, to that wonderfully weird title and the first line of that cream-center poem, about death. And the first poem after that, about killing the geese. Not your typical mommy-and-me book.

In the foreword, Petrosino talks about our individual helplessness as a central theme of the book. While this was metaphorically themed throughout, surrounded the narrator, I never got the sense that the narrator herself felt helpless; did you?

NC: I never felt the speaker was helpless either—that’s interesting. Though I think a large part of mothering is feeling helpless (perhaps that’s another conversation!). The book seems to me to be full of women who are quite the opposite of helpless.

But danger is everywhere in this book, from the “Harmer’s Market” (I love that linguistic play) to the “convict hour” we talked about earlier to the dangers inherent in the body, the way our bodies may or may not betray us. I think, finally, this is my favorite element of My Seaborgium, how it manages to be both playful and dark, how the poems juxtapose both joy and terror.

CC: I was thinking about those same themes – playful and dark – when I just re-read “The Last Travel Agent.” One thing I like to do with a book I love (aka wish I’d written) is to see where the poems within have been published. This poem appeared in 2015 “Best New Poets”—a fantastic, well-earned acknowledgment of her talent—and I do believe it’s this rare gift of juxtaposition that got her there and in the other fine presses where her work has previously appeared.

This poem—heck, this whole chapbook—is brimming with words that describe dread and grief but in a voice that is full of energy and song, almost (sometimes) taunting and laughter. I’m amazed at her ability to do this. And yes, a little envious.

Bravo to Meyers, and to Brain Mill Press for publishing such a fine, fine book.

About Cathryn Cofell

Cathryn Cofell, Appleton, has birthed Sister Satellite (Cowfeather Press), six chapbooks, and Lip, a CD blending her poetry with the music of Obvious Dog. She believes the arts are crucial for positive health and advocates for an abundance of it, as a member of the WI Poet Laureate Commission and WI Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, and as a volunteer with the Fox Cities Book Festival, the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets, and the Appleton Poetry Rocks Reading Series.

National Poetry Month

About Nicole Cooley

Nicole Cooley has published five books, most recently Breach (LSU Press) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books), both in 2010. Her work has appeared most recently in The Rumpus, Drunken Boat and Tinderbox. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College—CUNY.


National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2016

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

Living with Ghosts

I. Sponge

The narrative of immigration is peripatetic—and not just in a physical sense. The experience of leaving and coming, of going and arriving, of coming to terms with and never fully accepting the elusive nature of the very experience is like a ribbon that you attempt to straighten out that curls up the moment you let go.

For a while, during the years where I felt neither here nor there, I hated having to admit where I was from. I think it may have been partly in high school, but in that circular way that our brains have of unraveling the threads of loss and fear and dread, I remember feeling this in college, too. It would come in like the tide, here now, gone later, then back again. In my mid-twenties, I spent years avoiding most interactions with Russians who were strangers to me because I didn’t want them to know I was one of them.

Even as I did it, I asked myself, why?

Saying the word “Russia” carried with it a Pandora’s Box of truth and myth that exhausted me to even think about.

It’s not the same in my head, because in my head, it’s Rossiya.

We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.

Once, I think I was thirteen, someone asked me why Russians said “Russia” in a certain way. I think she emphasized the “shia” part as sounding wrong coming from our mouths. I hadn’t noticed before, but then I began to. The answer is the simplest there could be—we have accents. We know how to say the name of our own country, but not in someone else’s language.

Another time, a boy in school asked me if all Russians carried bombs with them. I was twelve, only a year into America, and I didn’t quite have the vocabulary to pull off the pithy ‘yes, I’ve got one in my pocket right now’ response I really wanted to give. In the meantime, my sister was being asked if bears really walked around the streets of Moscow. She was in college.

The word “Russian”—these letters in this combination—evokes a picture of a country like a reflection in a shattered mirror. Sure, there are truths to that name, but they’re skewed, seen through a lens that doesn’t care for introspection or even closer inspection. It’s tiny pieces, certain slivers of truth that have lost some crucial point of a whole picture.

Russia is funny accents; mafia thugs; mail order brides; vodka; endless winters; fucked up laws. It’s Putin shirtless on a bear being pasted onto a unicorn via Photoshop; illegal music downloads and Brighton Beach in Brooklyn. It’s laughable pop music and mangled phrases that lose their meanings because no one really cares what they actually stand for, just that they sound funny. It’s the ironic hipster T-shirt with CCCP on it, a beanie with a hammer and sickle worn to set off a carefully cultivated neckbeard; it’s comrade, it’s Stalin, it’s the butt of a joke.

Rossiyamy Rossiya—isn’t that.

Rossiyamy Rossiya—isn’t that.It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended.

It’s my ordinary tragedy, a loss of what I had intended. At least, what I had expected. We none of us had planned on exile, but here we are. It sounds overwrought, overly self-important. For years, I’ve denied the truth of it. Whenever anybody asked, What was it like, to leave? I’d simply shrug it off.

It sucked. What else can you say? It sucked, but thank God we made it.

It sucked, but it sucks much less now.

We’re free here, and we’re doing well.

But the loss persists—insidious, incomprehensible, impossible to put into words. As I try to lay them down, they jump around and refuse to land in a way that would pinpoint the why of it. Why it happened, why it matters. I was only a kid, after all. But a kid is a sponge. I absorbed what it meant to be Russian before I could fully form a consciousness. And once you’ve taken it all in, there’s no wringing it out—at least not completely.

II. Missing Space

Ours isn’t even the most tragic story. As far as these things go, it’s actually a good one. When we flew across an ocean, my dad had a job offer from a prestigious university in his metaphorical pocket. We were poor as dirt, but there was a promise of a better life. He’d be paid so little we’d need food stamps, but he’d be paid. The life we were leaving behind couldn’t even offer that much, as I found out later, when my mom decided we were far enough away from it all to take me into her confidence. “If I hadn’t typed up all those dissertations on the side, we would have starved,” she told me when I was sixteen, over breakfast. Matter-of-fact.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.

Again, I’m trying to straighten out a ribbon that refuses to unravel. What am I really trying to get at, what am I really saying? Am I talking about leaving? Am I talking about being sad about leaving? Am I talking about leaving having been the best decision my parents ever made?

Yes. And I’m talking about how, even at eleven years of age, I was keenly, sharply aware that this was a loss that was permanent. There would be no going back.

For the last twenty-two years, I’ve straddled two countries, at first unwilling, and then resigned to simply being unable to land on just one.

When I think back, I see a gilded, liminal time when I spoke a language I had been born into and felt different in a way that was commonplace. The fears of my childhood were ordinary and, when they weren’t, were at least shared by others.

Sure, it said “Jew” in my parents’ passports—but wasn’t that normal? I learned fairly early on not to discuss my ethnicity. For the longest time, I believed that all Jews were good, because they weren’t a danger to us. They were fellow Jews. Boy, did that one annoying family friend fuck me up. “But he’s Jewish! How can he be so annoying?” I’d ask myself after yet another encounter.

My grandpa, prominent journalist of his town, was suddenly severed from a friendship with a local poet. They’d shared a plot of land for years, growing cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries—all the staples of a Russian garden—when suddenly, his friend ended it all. Why? He’d discovered his inner Russian.

We weren’t Russian, of course. We were Jews.

It’s a tangled, spiraled thread that feels impossible to unpick even at thirty-three.

After we immigrated—how I hate that word; it feels diagnostic in its stigmatization—I would ask my dad if he ever missed Russia.

“No,” he’d shrug. “What would I miss about it?” In his overly sentimental moods, he would add that all he’s ever needed has been us, his family. The rest was pointless nostalgia. “I don’t miss places,” he’d say.

I did. I missed it viciously, in a way that felt like I’d been eviscerated at the airport.

With my guts hanging out, I was forced to go to school deaf and mute. When my mom and sister took me to the middle school to get my English tested, I’d forgotten how to even say “door.” All I knew was “mother, father, sister, brother.” They put me in Level 1 ESL.

I showed up to my first day of school with a note written by my sister: “My name is Elizabeth. I don’t speak English. Can you show me where to find the ESL classroom? Thank you!”

My name wasn’t Elizabeth. But that was what I was supposed to call myself from then on.

III. Yids

In ninth grade, a history teacher said “Russia” in the middle of a sentence and my head snapped up.

“She wasn’t talking about you,” said a girl I’d been friendly with for years. “Calm down.”

I shrank back, lowered my head immediately. I knew the teacher hadn’t been talking about me. But it’s the cocktail party effect. You know—you’re at a party, there’s chatter every which way, and then somebody says your name and you immediately twist around, trying to see where it came from before you’ve even fully registered the movement.

The tangle goes further, even more confusing and insidious.

“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go.

For years, I shrank away from anything or anyone Russian. After devouring War & Peace and all of Chekhov at thirteen, I refused to pick up Anna Karenina in high school. “I know how it ends,” I’d tell my mother irritably. “That’s not the point!” she’d fire back, giving me a look like what she was really saying was, Whose daughter are you?

While she couldn’t get me to read any of the English books she’d picked out for me at eleven, at eighteen I was ignoring her pleas for me to read in Russian. “You’ll forget the language,” she’d fret.

Good, I’d think savagely but bite my tongue before it could come out and start a real fight. And anyway, my parents were the ones who’d made the decision, the ones who’d picked up our lives and dumped us in the middle of the unknown—why were they fighting so hard to stay un-American? It was like the Borg—we’d be assimilated sooner or later.

“Russia” was shameful, it was unpolished, backwards. It was weighing me down and refusing to let me go. In the grand tradition of teenagers everywhere, all I wanted was to blend in and disappear but I couldn’t, because I still had traces of an accent, my parents’ English was worse than mine now, I had gaps in my cultural knowledge, and I hated all of it.

I was a mass of quiet, vicious rebellion.

Why wasn’t I getting all A’s, wasn’t I their daughter? But I was “doing my best,” I’d argue, parroting back the values that newly swirled around us like smog and were roundly rejected by my parents. Why weren’t B’s enough for my parents?

Because even with their gold medals for stellar grades they couldn’t have gone to the best universities. They’d both been marked as “Jews” and made to crawl to earn the same rights as those whose passports proclaimed them to be Russian.

I missed my town with an ache I couldn’t seem to fill. Stateside, we had everything—a good place to live, eventually two incomes, friends, food aplenty, relative security. Even my grandparents made it out, two and a half years after us.

It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.

It wasn’t enough. I carried that ache, that shameful love I couldn’t seem to shake, like a brand. The push and pull of it was exhausting.

Russia had taken more than it had given. From my grandmother, it had taken her father when she’d been a girl, imprisoned and later executed in secret for the crime of being a “Polish spy” (a Polish Jew, of course). It had taken her mother and thrown her in a labor camp for ten years, aging her to the point of no recognition upon release. It had stripped my grandmother of rights and forced my grandfather to later make a choice: divorce his “enemy of the state” wife with whom he had three children or get fired. It wasn’t any kind of choice, and he found a good job in a different city, but it had followed him all his life. He was a Jew, and he looked like a Jew, but at least his last name didn’t end in “shtein.” Of course, when he was born, the clerk at city hall refused to believe that the name his parents wished to give him was Jewish enough. “No,” he said. “He’ll be Meier in his papers.” How much easier to point him out then, you see.

From my sister, it took away the chance to not be terrified when, on a staircase of our apartment building, someone yelled, “Kill all yids!

From me, it took away the chance not to live with constantly simmering fear and confusion. It took it away from all of us. When I was ten, before we left, life was pretty good, it was normal. I had friends, I had art school, I had music school, and I was happy. I had regular school, too, and I was doing well in all my subjects, except I couldn’t seem to get ahead in Russian and Russian Lit. My teacher was young, just out of university, and from her, unlike from everyone else, I never got a single A. One day, I came home, slumped against the door, and told my mom, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

My sister talked to a good teacher of hers. Something happened behind the scenes. I started getting A’s from a tight-lipped, pissy teacher. It was never spoken out loud, but it was known, anyway. She didn’t want to reward the Jewish girl.

IV. Ghosts

I can’t stop loving the memories, I can’t stop being myself, shaped as I am by the values ingrained so deeply that they’re etched permanently under my skin. Values that fuck me up as I endeavor to evolve into something manageable, values that are like a yoke pulling me back—and sometimes, a prod that’s shoving me forward.

Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.

I have to battle myself every time I take a risk, because who do I think I am to believe that risks pay off? Risks are too dangerous, aren’t they? Better not to stand out. Better to immerse yourself in philosophical thinking, surround yourself with art and culture, so as to fill the space that’s telling you this is all you can do, because all other doors are shut to your ilk. We don’t investigate our own emotions, we glance off of them like a flinching touch because if we delve any deeper, we’ll never crawl out.

I’m slowly learning you can embody it all—because, of course, philosophical thinking and cultural pursuits do not in and of themselves preclude you from taking bigger risks. Maybe avoiding taking risks was not something I learned in childhood, after all. Maybe it isn’t cultural. Maybe it’s mine.

Whenever the anniversary of us leaving rolls around, I call my parents and say, “Congratulations!” Inevitably, my mother will argue: “It’s tomorrow.” “We left today,” I’ll say. “Yes, but we arrived tomorrow.” We’ve danced this dance for twenty-one years.

This love is heavy; it’s a burden. Even now, there are bills being presented to the Duma that would further stigmatize and flat-out prohibit homosexuality. I’m queer. What would have happened to me had we stayed?

I have little doubt that I’d already be married to a man, with children, living a life of more fear and bleak unhappiness—existing, but not the way I do now. The picture is blurry and gray. I think I would probably be surviving, at best. I’m sure I would love my children, maybe even my husband. I would also have invisible chains binding me, invisible maybe even to me. The ghost of that self haunts me almost daily, the potential loss like an abyss I stare into, flinging mental pebbles just to see how far down they’ll fall. A pebble for the loss of the identity I am free to own today, another for the loss of the future that now unspools before me, open and hopeful. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming about the might-have-beens.

America has given us all a chance. I’m married to a woman—married on my own terms. I’m in love, and I’m free to be in love, for all that homophobia is alive and well here too. I’m free to write this, free to think in any way I do. I was free to get upset and pissed as hell when my parents expressed a dislike for the idea of this marriage because I had finally been told, by an entire society acting as an institution, that me being queer was not a moral issue, nor was it an evil thing. I was free to be mad at my parents because I knew that I was right and they were wrong.

They’ve since changed their views, and that’s another thing America has given us.

V. Unsettled

In America, I may be suddenly Russian, but I’m also white. I can say the words “I’m Jewish” and not be terrified of the consequences.

But in America, I also hear the underhanded comments. Jews run Hollywood. Your people are good with money. She’s such a JAP.This hasn’t changed—it’s just become less overtly dangerous.

Even still, I love the place where I am from. I love it for all the ways in which it’s doomed, the ways in which it tried its best to crawl out from under a dictatorial shadow only to be thrown right back into that endless, horrid void of xenophobia, terror, and propaganda.

“Vile country,” my sister said once over the phone when I called her about some particularly awful new homophobic law. “Just horrible.”

By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover?

She lets herself feel the anger I wish I could feel, but I can’t. When I think of Russia, I think of our small town, just outside of Moscow. I think of the books that shaped me, for better or for worse, the artists whose works shone despite all the efforts to tarnish them with claims of treason and perversion. So many quotes and phrases float to mind every day that I simply can’t translate, can only mull over and cherish. I think in English, but there are these words, these Russian words that have no translation, and I think in those, too.

I love that they are a part of me. I love their meanings, I love the history behind each and every single one. When I think about Russia’s history, I see it all—I see the ugly truths, and I see the pursuit of greatness, of betterment, of enlightenment. The anger that I allow myself to feel is not at the country itself, but at the system that has shaped it. At the men at its helm who’ve done everything in their power to not care for the people they’re meant to be leading.

By all logic, there shouldn’t be much love to retain. What love could there be for a country that takes its brightest minds and exiles them to the coldest ends of the earth, sentences them to certain death, and then erects monuments in their honor like a guilt-ridden lover? A country that poisons and assassinates as a matter of political strategy? What could you possibly love about a place that gives you scraps and tells you to be happy with what you have because it could be so much worse?

I feel like I have floated all my life in different spaces, and I’ve rarely settled. But the idea of my childhood grounds me at the same time as it cuts another nick in my guts.

I know where I come from. I know that it isn’t here. I know that all the contradictions within me were not placed there by any single society, but were born out of who I am and who I’ve always been outside of external influence.

What would I have been had I been born on American soil? Another duality: the idea of existing in a place that gave me life feels singularly simple, uncomplicated like air, yet I would never give up where I came from, nor where and who I am now. It’s an impossible task to make sense of this. So I continue to exist on two separate planes.

Several months ago, someone asked me after a typically circular conversation about the whole experience: “Did you even want to leave?”

And with no preamble, I burst into tears—the sort of uncontrollable sobs that humiliate and empty you out. It hadn’t been my choice to make. My parents did the only thing they could have done, and it turned out to have been the best decision of their lives.

But I was eleven, and I have never fully forgotten.

My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.

There are a million ways to be Russian: there are millions of Russians. Those still living within its borders and those scattered around the globe. There are so many of us. I see us everywhere. I recognize our faces, I know our clothes, the looks in our eyes. I see us where I least expect to and hear us everywhere.

We left. We left because there was so little to stay for. But we gather in groups, we stockpile our nostalgia in movies, books, music. Some of us deride America even as we use its resources. Some of us pretend that our microcosm of Russians is Russia, that we can carry on like we never left at all. I reject this way of being Russian in America. But it’s still a way to cope.

My love for Russia is one that I hoard mostly inside myself, never fully letting it out—because if I let it out, it will get hurt. I protect it as I flinch away from others’ comments, hide it in the smallest pockets of my heart.

VI. Street View

In my darker, more masochistic moments, I open up Google Maps and search out my hometown. I look up our address. Every time I do, it sends a jolt of ‘Why is the building still there?’ through me. How is it still there? How has it not disappeared along with us? How can I look at it and not be able to touch it? How can it simply exist? It still looks the same, but some surroundings have changed. Instead of woods and pavement, there are restaurants, car dealerships, newsstands.

In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me.

Incredibly, like a throwback, a reaffirmation of the other of it, the steam baths are still across the street—just sporting a new overhead label. An old tradition dressed up in new corporate clothing.

I scroll through the streets and think, This is where we walked and saw a family friend for the last time. My sister said, after we parted, “We’ll probably never see him again.” Now I look at that street and think, she was right. And that fence is new. I can’t get past the fence, just like I can’t get past the last of the forward arrows. I can’t fall into that world, I can only look in from outside, separated by thousands of miles and a screen.

I look up my school. The street with our old apartment isn’t on street view, and after I discover this, I dream about it that very night. In my dream, I’ve got my wife with me and I’m trying to show her all the places that have been locked up so long inside me. I even dream about the playground that is now, at least according to Google Maps, a parking lot. This is where I fell, I tell her.

Every now and then, I’ll call my parents and say, “Hey. Thanks for taking us out of there.”

VII. Flipside

In the end, this love is one-sided. The country never really wanted us. For all that the small petty bureaucrat tortured my parents when they went for their refugee visa interview, for all that he told them they were making a huge mistake, that America was awful, that his daughter was there and she hated it, so really, You’re better off just staying here, they don’t want you—it wasn’t America that didn’t want us.

My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case.

I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I learned it when Russia officially sanctioned a neo-Nazi party after we left, and I learned it when it slowly began to cut off the small freedoms it had gained post-USSR. Step by step, anti-Western sentiment sowed the now-blossoming seeds of fascism, ethnocentrism, homophobia, and we, Jews, simply feel grateful to have escaped.

My love for America is the flipside of this coin: intrinsically humiliating, because I’ll always be its charity case. It’s given me so much, but when asking for my loyalty, it looms over me and casts a shadow so large it absorbs me whole. This love will never be equal, either. I will always be subservient, groveling at its feet, enduring endless debates about whether or not outsiders like me have any essential value.

But when I came out to my parents, it was a million miles away from where I could have been. When I married my wife, it felt even farther.

Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind. It exists where it can no longer hurt me, but it taunts me with its slow descent into abject horror.

That was my country once. It’s where I’m from, where I was born, where I was raised, where I have an entire mental map of my town as if I’d only seen it yesterday and not over twenty years ago. It exists in Technicolor stereotypes on my TV, in jabs from well-meaning people who want to show they care that I’m not American and stifle my ability to define myself for myself.

Now Russia exists to me in online news sites and Twitter accounts. It exists in the futility of following the Russian LGBT Network on Facebook, knowing there isn’t a single thing I can do to make any of this easier on the people I’ve left behind.

It’s no one’s fault, not really. Why should anyone care, much less know all the detail of, what it’s like to have been born into a country that would nearly devour you whole, then reluctantly spit you out? It’s unanswerable. I only know my own experience—I can’t speak for anyone else. But it never leaves. I try to have a sense of humor about it, I mock and I despair, and while I think in words, I remember in pictures.

I remember the present I got for my eleventh birthday: a shiny pair of white sneakers. I’d never owned sneakers before, and this was momentous. I’d be able to keep up with the other kids, the kids whose parents weren’t a barely paid nuclear physicist and an administrator. I vividly remember opening the box just as John Lennon’s “Imagine” played on TV (we had access to music videos by then; we even had a color television set) and I remember the feeling of being unable to imagine anything better than my new pair of sneakers. I took a walk later that day by myself, and I watched my new sneakers glow as they pounded the familiar pavement, and I thought, what language do they speak in America? I don’t even know. But I memorized each crack in the pavement, each street corner, each place where I had had memories.

We left two months and seven days later. I’ve never been back.

Liz Jacobs came over with her family from Russia at the age of 11, as a Jewish refugee.  All in all, her life has gotten steadily better since that moment. They settled in an ultra-liberal haven in the middle of New York State, which sort of helped her with the whole “grappling with her sexuality” business.

She has spent a lot of her time flitting from passion project to passion project, but writing remains her constant. She has flown planes, drawn, made jewelry, had an improbable internet encounter before it was cool, and successfully wooed the love of her life in a military-style campaign. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her essay on her family’s experience with immigration.

She currently lives with her wife in Massachusetts, splitting her time between her day job, writing, and watching a veritable boatload of British murder mysteries.