Alexander Markovich, Tatyana Apraksina (trans. James Manteith
Patricia Walton)

The Turn of the Brush (part 2). Marking the 10-year anniversary of the appearance of “California Psalms”

Published in: 16. Family and Slavery

Marking the ten-year anniversary of “California Psalms” appearing in the world, Apraksin Blues returns to the conversation on “Psalms” begun in Part One of “Turn of the Brush” (AB №10/18 “Inversion”).

Alexander Markovich, familiar to readers from his contributions to past issues, interviews Tatyana Apraksina, author of “California Psalms.”


ALEXANDER MARKOVICH: Tatyana Igorevna, allow me to devote our discussion chiefly to certain characteristics of your “California Psalms” (Neva №12, 2007, St. Petersburg; Radiolarian Press, 2013). I will say that, as a reader, this work more than anything “got to me”; that is, really, I found it stunning. So let’s focus namely on it.

To begin with, it’d be good to talk about the genre that your “Psalms,” without doubt, belongs to — philosophical lyric poetry. After all, nothing significant in Russian culture can be understood without drawing on what it has already achieved.

What we know as philosophical lyric poetry is poetic thought about nature, God and man, their interrelationships, creation and the meaning of life. Baratynsky, one of the first Russian poets acknowledged as a master of this genre, maintained that (in artistic creation in general) thought comes first:


“Forever thought and thought! Poor artist of the word!

O temple priest of mind! To you, oblivion’s denied;

Forever here and there more man, and light,

And death, and life, and truth left uncovered.”


So what do you think should be the ratio of thought to poetry in this genre? And how do you classify “California Psalms” for yourself — more as philosophical poetry or as poetic philosophy?

TATYANA APRAKSINA: For all of us, tradition lies in our blood — sometimes as if more reliably than genetic markers. A creative tradition is like an independent tribal connection, a thread of inner, supranational understanding, above the rational and above time — from heart to heart. I do not know poetry well. I do not differentiate native from foreign, ancient from contemporary, and I may confuse names and eras (this concerns all art in general and many other things). Some individual works or authors elicit a deep personal reaction, like people we feel an inner intimacy with. Such people-authors-works or individual lines organically enter our flesh and become part of our nature independent of our mass of knowledge about them and surrounding them. In Russian (and not only) poetry, you’re able to track down eloquent parallels with “California Psalms” that I in my ignorance would never guess at. This sense of correspondence among diverse authors, their voices somehow joining “Psalms,” is among the remarkable surprises I must thank you for.

Some readers find a connection between “California Psalms” and works by Russian Symbolists. In content, true, one might notice a nominal resemblance in places, but in substance I find nothing in common. That direction in literature, I admit, never appealed to me (whatever I might have read of it has left no traces); it seemed too cerebral and therefore lifeless.

Considering the extremely subjective, non-linear, particular nature of my relationship with poetic material (Lorca, Pushkin, Goethe, Basho… — for me they’re like one author, by degree of trust and agreement, and I require nothing more from the art of the word), you might say the concept of a poetic tradition — as something professional — is just not there in me. In its place is a kind of inner hierarchical system based on strictly personal impulses. Just like with living people. Some phrase, line, gesture or biographical fact proves able to rend the heavens, and it retains that power forever, not losing its life-giving force.

I’m prepared to agree with your designation of the genre of “California Psalms” as philosophical lyrical poetry — at least for the sake of more convenient classification, from a certain point of view. It’d interest me to have help to more thoroughly trace the lineage I understand you see here.

The Baratynsky “manifesto” you cite couldn’t be more appropriate. Although I would prefer to avoid divisions into thought and non-thought (“poetry,” in your terms). As I see it, in a human (this makes him human) everything is thought, even if expressed as mumbling — or silence. Any feeling, emotion, reflex. And poetry, as work with words, is no exception. On the contrary. It is an instrument able to express thought without naming it. More often reflecting it.

If we’re talking about philosophy, its thought is logically sequential, coherent, intent on a goal. Its goal is meaning. Although that can sometimes be achieved (given overall coherence and systematic progression) quite unsystematically and, apparently, thoughtlessly. Not just academic philosophers but even representatives of the most precise sciences don’t get by without support from metaphors.

In the case of “California Psalms,” it is very difficult to establish the proportion of dry logic and pure inspiration. You yourself have probably noticed the stylistic resemblance of individual passages to a scholarly treatise and their close kinship with seemingly completely abstract immersions in the practically unconscious. But, in fact, everything stays connected. It’s like looking at a map from different distances: at first, you see only colored spots, then you can read the names of cities.

The work’s degree of emotional engagement is in absolute accordance with the central subject. Although one thing can be said for certain: without philosophy, in this case, no poetry would have arisen. Even though the initial impulse was exactly the opposite and didn’t presuppose any philosophy. I simply wanted straightforward poeticized descriptiveness, since everything was so unusual that surrounded me and appeared at every step. But inner questions of meaning at that moment grew so intense that everything else had to dance to their tune.

The thing is, before, for more than a decade, I had nurtured a certain presumptuous plan to write a serious philosophical composition, perhaps even a treatise. There were various outpourings in the form of articles, essays and lectures — and I increasingly realized that if it came to writing a treatise, then only in an extremely artistic form. The nature (for me personally) of the thought process, to put it simply, is that my hand does not keep up with my thought. I would have wilted in attempting a sequential, point by point explication of a whole span of accumulated and continually expanding ideas.

So it happened just like that — as had often happened before — with namely images, imagery drawing into the light and absorbing all the main provisions of a (philosophical) system, after years in gestation. And unquestionably this yielded a more accessible and convincing, even infectious, form than when the idea was first conceived. Brodsky said poetic form makes it possible to condense, to concentrate time (that is very rough, I don’t remember where and how exactly he put it, probably much better), but this definition holds true not only regarding time.

Your comments on the specifics of poetic thought seem very precise. Poetry without explicitly or at least latently expressed thought turns into essentially meaningless prattle (although this too can be dazzling — as was sometimes the case with the Symbolists’ poetry, which you mention). On the other hand, namely poetic thought — and only that — can express things completely unattainable for the non-poetic. So you use a range of poetic means, including many powerful metaphors, to express very complex philosophical ideas, and this proves effective and brilliantly vivid.

Clearly, the threads where you’ve woven your philosophical poem (that’s how I’d define your “Psalms”) stretch from a depth of thousands of years. The progenitors of this genre are probably King David (the Biblical Psalter) and Lucretius Carus (“On the Nature of Things). Since then a host of masterpieces of philosophical poetry have been crafted — from world literature, some obvious examples would be Ronsard, Goethe, Japanese tanka. In Russian literature this tradition runs uninterruptedly from Derzhavin, Zhukovsky, Venevitinov, Baratynsky and giants like Pushkin and Tyutchev — to Zabolotsky, Tarkovsky and Brodsky. To what extent and how exactly do “California Psalms” follow this tradition? And how do they, in your opinion, especially differ — in content or form — from things done before in this genre?

I wouldn’t want to leave Dante out of the list.

You flatter me by including my work in the classical tradition. You’re right to speak of threads stretching out of a depth of thousands of years. But I wouldn’t say my “Psalms” “follow” any tradition — more likely, they unpremeditatedly “fall” into it, primarily due to similar inspiring impulses (that’s the similarity, more like kinship, I mentioned before). Even if I had consciously meant to abide by some existing line in literature, it isn’t likely I would have succeeded. Imitation, stylization or consciously following a certain structure or manner (in practice) quite frankly bores me, as something missing creativity’s hottest nerve.

It is easier to talk about differences, because there are many and they are obvious. “California Psalms” is entirely a cast impression of an author’s specific identity, accounting for an era and for conditions, and of the personal content of everything experienced. Scientific discovery is what takes an account of all previous achievements, whereas an artist draws first of all on his own heart. That’s why the main guarantee of creativity and the central differentiator from author to author is each one’s own (personal) content in his own heart. So even when you manage to surprise me by finding “kindred” examples among famous poets, generally individual passages, the difference between them and “Psalms” remains totally unmistakable.

There are, of course, formal differences, but I think that side of the question is best left to experts in literary analysis. However, I’ll invoke my authorial right to remind you of the most critical discrepancy. You’ve listed worthy names (except perhaps King David, who before that was a shepherd), but I drop out of that list by definition. I am not a poet. I largely dislike calling myself an artist, too, and yet I find this designation more apt, as I clearly tend toward visual thought — in general I always picture everything to myself in images. To understand, I have to “see.” I am not a poet mainly for the reason that the magic of words, as an autonomous material, leaves me indifferent. Words — their expressiveness, their order and sound — are necessary to me and attract me only as an instrument, while poetic wordplay itself doesn’t excite me. I notice that many contemporary poets, even very strong ones, tend to be seduced (more or less frequently) by the brilliance, the originality of some word or mot juste. Words like that are always conspicuous in the body of the text, because namely their brilliance obscures precise meaning, distorts it a bit, creates a small falseness — and it becomes very clear that the author preferred, in an “innocent” (as he sees it) way, to sacrifice meaning for the sake of a pungent-sounding winning word. What’s most regrettable — to my taste — is that a word bought at the price of meaning nevertheless remains alien, extraneous in the overall fabric of the poem, if its distinctness is not an absolute carbon copy of the thought. Otherwise, better to subsist with a more neutral, ordinary word.

I know this because I, too, faced these kinds of temptation. I forced myself to be merciless, which is not always easy. And you know, thanks to this work with words, I made the most surprising discovery, which applies especially in “Psalms” since the genre is even more a form of thinking — where you can’t let yourself flirt with the meaning, and can’t allow any laxness or approximations. It turned out that whichever words ideally match the meter and rhythm, the tone, these also most precisely express the meaning. To grasp that was a great relief, because whenever I needed a critical, key analogue for the meaning, I could fully rely on my auditory tuner, which sooner or later would emit the one formula I needed, and the only one existing in the language. A pattern like that only seems inexplicable. In fact, the logic is simple. If all the preceding words in a poem are arranged properly, they form a musical line bearing the exact meaning. The nature, the trajectory of that line rigidly determines a target combination of notes. If it is not found, all the music, and with it the meaning, will be ruined.

I do think meticulously tracing all these connections between “California Psalms” and other works in the genre would still be interesting. But that would require a more specialized, serious study than our discussion allows. Here, though, I’d like to note one important difference, one particularly unique characteristic of the content of “Psalms” which readers may not have noticed. But perhaps first you yourself could try to define what you see as the most distinguishing characteristic of “Psalms.”

That it’s all true. All literal. That nothing is made up, nothing borrowed, nothing embellished. That nothing is calculated for external result or effect, and nothing pursues any attendant aim.

Indeed, yes, but I wanted to say something else, no less important. Allow me first to quote from the poem “Mal’aria” (“Infected Air”) by Tyutchev:


“I love God’s wrath, this Evil!

invisible, mysterious, poured through everything:

in the flowers, in the glass-clear stream,

in the rainbow-rays, in the very sky of Rome.

The same high, cloudless sky,

your breast’s same sweet breath,

the same warm wind rustling tree-tops,

the same scent of roses…. All of this is Death!”


(Translation by F. Jude)


Upon first acquaintance with your poem, it seemed to me you’d touched on everything most important in man’s existence in nature, in his life before the face of God. Now I think differently. Recalling Tyutchev’s lines, I realized your work has absolutely none — this is very important — of what is a crucial part of the heritage of any poet engaged in philosophy. “California Psalms” almost entirely lacks motifs of Evil and Death (which Tyutchev honored with capital letters!). This is truly unheard of: to outright “forget” the unavoidable connection of good with evil, of life with decline and death. Nature in your poetry might be indifferent, alien to the human, “heartless,” threatening, but it is always organic and implicitly never fails to affirm life and only life — in the name of God and man. You might speak about the tragedy of human reason inside nature, your hymns might mention danger, but they contain no despondency, sorrow, disappointment in life — those things that have always comprised a significant part of other philosophical lyric poetry. What do you think of that? Perhaps behind the surprising exemption from Evil and Death lies some integral philosophy? Might such a philosophy help people avoid a sense that good and life are powerless to resist evil and death?

You’ve gone straight to the main point of it all. It’s even hard for me to believe that there’s such an observant reader, able to discern the work’s secret axis, its coiled secret spring, to glimpse its very heart. I’m sincerely amazed — congratulations.

Yes, effectively, there is an “integral philosophy.” That’s what is articulated — by literary means, but quite concretely and fully — in “California Psalms.” As a matter of fact, not only in them but also in all the rest of my works, in writing as well as art. Besides that, I have nothing at all.

The theme you’ve named is very serious, and I don’t want to touch on it merely in passing. The vulgarization of spiritual knowledge is a terribly dangerous thing. Dangerous for everyone.

You know, dear Alexander Yakovlevich, your question brings me into an emotional abyss. You see, it is really the Question of Questions. This theme stands behind every word of “Psalms,” though given voice scantily and sparingly (in “Homer”: “…every minute serving notice all is mortal…”; in “Mass”: “What can I…give the absolute ages? My absence”; in “Implantation”: “Seeing my survival…,” etc.). Always, in everything — the question is right to life and what defines that right. Death isn’t mentioned when you feel its breath every minute, when you stand constantly face to face with it. Face to face, but never on its side. People cross to its side because seeing its face is so unbearably awful.

Everything is on this brink (“To walk the blade…”), but brink and risk are the only road to Life. “Trampling down death by death” [from the Easter liturgy] — it wasn’t me who thought that up. Life conquers at the price of death — before death’s terrifying face, there’s no place for flowery rhetoric, for preening, no place for trickery, starting with tricking yourself. You have to meet death halfway, accept it, descend into genuine hell, into the hell of the Law of the pitiless, of “Night of the Equinox” — the equinox of pro and contra. The requiem theme grows out of that. And not by accident does “Mass” come directly after that in the cycle. Nothing is accidental. To get all the way through the requiem and come out past the limits of its power. The same process is differently described in “The Pass.”

“The art of life” is the art of always understanding you are dealing simultaneously with two sides, to understand that the living must belong to life, the dead to death, and to be able to tell the difference between one and the other, to be able to turn each one over to the proper master. “Flawless vision” is about that.

I can’t take credit for the philosophical side of the question (or the versions of its resolution). As many esoteric sources as there are in human culture, they’re all full of that, and they substantially agree in their conclusions. Our task is to see the literal meaning behind the words.

And the point isn’t to “help people avoid a sense”; that’s what the brunt of modern mental hygiene, mass and individual, goes toward. The point is understanding what it means, this sense, what it speaks of, and how to answer, and with what. Which of the sides to serve and which to strengthen with assent.

“Melancholy, despair, disappointment in life” — I also (in everyday feelings) am not free from that, I too, now as then, am helpless before the riddle of life; I’m just ashamed to pretend that I take sham realities, “Babylonian structures,” seriously, and it seems dishonest, even in the most extreme positions and conditions, to complain, if you can first try to seek out at least a bit of inner strength to rise a little higher. To not stop at the set-back, to not be transfixed there. Disbalance, dissonance, loss of equilibrium (such as between prior knowledge and new) usually happens when you stand on one leg instead of two — and resolving this depends on successfully moving the other leg a step higher, not lower.

After all, life itself is in spite of death. Being — in spite of unbeing.


I won’t presume to define which literary school your philosophical poetry is closest to; sometimes it seems to have points in common with expressionism. On the other hand, some have related your art to “transcendental realism” (James Manteith, for instance, expresses this opinion in his article “Tatyana Apraksina — The Theme Uncovered” (Terra Nova, №32, 2008)). What do you think about that, though? Which schools of art might parallel your two creative branches — the poetic and the visual? I ask not because I would like a permanent label for your poetry and art; I simply hope your own characterizations will further a better understanding of both.

Your basic question rather unexpectedly establishes a kinship (if not outright equivalence) between the stylistic characteristics of two, as it were, very different methods of creative expression. This is the first time I have encountered “expressionism” applied to my poetry, but my painting indeed most often gets placed in that category. The art expert Marina Unksova in a recent article asserts unequivocally, “Apraksina’s work belongs absolutely to the expressionist school of art.” In neither case would I dispute the definition. I have an affinity for expressionism (some of its types, some examples), but this affinity pertains less to subject matter than to toning of temperament. I feel no true kinship with expressionism, even stylistically. The emotional territory of expressionism lies past the brink of breakdown, where I don’t let myself stray, preferring to stay in the bounds of composure.

Specialists have characterized my art variedly: they have called it, among other things, “naive,” “extravagant,” “surrealism” and even “socialist realism.” Which already bears witness to the lack of a unified opinion. And that is fair enough, because genre definitions are based on very superficial criteria. Besides that, some include my creative work’s ideological, contextual side, while others ignore it, sticking exclusively to technical characteristics.

There are, of course, authors relative to whom this task looks simpler. They’re either the kind who stay limited to their chosen theme and manner (landscape-impressionists, abstractionists, etc.), or who consciously set themselves a certain stylistic, technical orientation and loyally adhere to it. In both cases, the medium itself — “poetry” or “painting” as a tool of expression — outranks the subject of artistic study (setting aside the topic of art in the service of social movements).

With me, it’s all the other way around. Poetry or prose, artistry of any sort — whatever it is, it’s all “Forever thought and thought!” Not rational thought, not narrative literariness, symbol or allegory, but image metaphorically reflecting a subject of thought, abiding in thought, in its reality. This is not an imagined reality and not a projection of the observed world. It is archetypal reality, the reality of unmediated meanings. Its own sort of matrix of evident attributes, whose interconnections are, and remain, unexpressed. My work, my creative process, amounts to restoring an extra-logical logic of a cause-and-effect mechanism, to recreating behind-the-scenes connections.

Since I deal with reality — not a conditionally identified “that,” “this,” “our” or “other,” but the only one, as I conceive it, actually real in each part and as a whole — I like to call myself a realist. Perhaps anyone could say that about themselves. We all choose ourselves the type of reality we are capable of treating seriously, that we deem definitive. Boundaries are made only by the conditions of the research method or the limitations of consciousness itself, of perception.

In life, substantive reality never exists apart from intellectual reality (metaphysical, transcendental…) — just as quantum mechanics never exists apart from gravitation. Everything is connected in collective, unified, indivisible living experience.

All that seems very interesting, for one, because the combination in one person of the gifts of poet and artist occurs quite rarely. Would it be possible for you to give an example of twin artistic and poetic incarnations of the same idea, of renderings of the same concept? It’d be good if the reader could see some of your art echoed by lines of your poetry.

From a certain point of view, everything I do, in whatever medium, always speaks about one and the same thing. I’m a bit surprised that many find my creative work unusually diverse. At times the opposite seems true to me, that my works are absolutely identical, endlessly repetitive, oppressively monotonous.

That said, each concrete format and method of expression is chosen specifically as an instrument for conveying concrete subject matter. A visual image is able to say what you’d never find words for in any language. And vice versa. Some things need putting in words. Especially in a prose form. Although poetry also uses language and operates through words, its mechanism of action (and creation), even basic contact with it, is more like music or painting. Poetic thought takes form and is perceived by an inner logic of sense-cognition, something remote from sequential reasoning. In this it (like music and the plastic arts) precedes prose, denoting, establishing a mental image but not explaining it, not leading anyone to it by the hand. Even the author. It is precisely this similarity and at the same time difference in the nature of the crafts’ material (poetry cannot precisely show the visible, can only give a conception, while art cannot name it, being restricted to signaling and hinting through likenesses) that stops me from trying to do a single object’s portrait in these two ways. Often, of course, both processes occur in parallel, accompanying each other but not converging, since each is engaged with its own part of a theme, in accordance with its nature. In one subject, each can choose its field, its details, its logical code.

Therefore, arguably, in my repertoire, it would be hard to find paintings and poems with direct, obvious connections. Nevertheless, one example comes to mind. Although, in this case, the visual image hatched several years after the poem on the same theme. I’m speaking of the poem “To Brothers by Golgotha” (1986), which you already know, and the drawing “Rope Walker” (1989), in which a male figure on a rope from nowhere and going nowhere bends under a heavy cross whose beams dissolve in infinity.

I have also had occasion to combine poetry with images — that is a completely separate creative genre, where the two components neither echo nor illustrate each other, but create one whole, flow together in one melodic chord. As a rule, these are secondary “mood pieces” accompanying a main theme or line, crumbs from a main course. A resemblance to the Chinese traditional manner is always apparent in them, not so much in method as in general character: evanescence, unpretentiousness. I’ve done very few works like this. There’s a small cycle called “Wild Rose,” another cycle I painted on a screen, and “Looking at Fujiyama,” a book I drew and lettered by hand. Theoretically — hypothetically — it has occurred to me to try to render the same thought in two (or more) types of clay, but in practice, it has never happened. Thought (at least for me personally) moves by the same rules as water: as soon as a thought is expressed, embodied at least to some degree, in some manner, this opens the road for further movement. The original coherent attitude can never return. New crossings (as in the case of “Golgotha”) can happen only the next time around.

Still, might you reproduce one of the analogies you mention — a poem echoed by an image? That would help understand your attitude toward different types of artistic expression of one idea.

From what I have available now, I could suggest three examples. By some miracle, I have a surviving photograph of “Rope Walker.” Someone at an exhibit in Baltimore in 1990 gave me a picture he took of it. The image overlaps with the poem.


T. Apraksina. Rope Walker. Ink on paper. 1989.

T. Apraksina. Rope Walker. Ink on paper. 1989.




For us, no Olympus, no Parnassus waits.

I recognize Golgotha in the fog.

I can make out the outlines of the top.

Fog cannot hide them from my sight.


Each step we take is drenched in fresh blood.

No wings for us, a cross is our reward.

And for armor, we have open sores.

Rarely we have time to stop.


Who hurries us, who drives us on?

Not with a laurel band —

In crucifixion, hanging on the cross,

The hour named for us comes.


But the heavy cross dragged on the ground

With every step is more our treasure.

To think of the end fills us with terror:

On Golgotha no more room!


Up where the heads roll lies our goal,

Rising higher under lashing goads,

The voices of the earth for us are gone,

Stripped off by the unbearable load.


For us, no Olympus, no Parnassus waits.

The executioner’s road is where we strive

And the crucified in heart are wise,

Room is left there for us.


11 Aug. 1986


As another example, here are some pages from the hand-drawn and hand-lettered book “Looking at Fujiyama.” This cycle appeared immediately after my final edits to “California Psalms,” in the very beginning of 2000, and represents, as it were, a more down-to-earth “flipside” of the same daily life, on a stage with the same decorations.


T. Apraksina. From "Looking at Fujiyama." Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From “Looking at Fujiyama.” Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From "Looking at Fujiyama." Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From “Looking at Fujiyama.” Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From "Looking at Fujiyama." Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From “Looking at Fujiyama.” Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From "Looking at Fujiyama." Sepia ink on paper. 2000.

T. Apraksina. From “Looking at Fujiyama.” Sepia ink on paper. 2000.


Although I still have (have had for 11 years) an intention to start work on a series of illustrations for “California Psalms,” in practice, the scope of the task is getting in the way. I have several paintings from the same period that clearly express the same impulse as “Psalms,” but they more supplement the text than continue it. They go beyond and lead past its limits. While exploring my setting at the time, however, I also made documentary sketches — and one such drawing became over the years a sort of symbol, as independent testimony, as a barometer of inner and outer authenticity.

T. Apraksina. Ship In The Forest 1. Ink on paper. 1999.

T. Apraksina. Ship In The Forest 1. Ink on paper. 1999.


Today, my canyon, Big Sur “front-line sketches” are the single true illustration for “California Psalms.”

[Note: Tatyana Apraksina later illustrated “California Psalms” in 2013 for the Radiolarian Press edition.]

Let’s talk now about a much more specific analogy. “California Psalms” has striking, very unusual comparisons between landscapes or natural phenomena and musical phrases, musical tone in general. Here’s an example of that kind of “musical picture”: “Traversing clouds set living illustrations to the Mass in B-Minor.” Or “From behind, divinity of choirs surpassing rational perfection, with the sequences of heaven’s edifices only comparably noble, unassailable in the rigid law I find revealed on high…). How are such — often completely unexpected in a given context — musical images born? Is there some music you hear spontaneously “inside yourself” at a certain moment of communion with nature? Or is a musical image born in your soul later, when you write down your impressions?

Such comparisons — like any, perhaps, or like whichever artistic metaphor — are dictated by a character of internal resonance. The concentration of “musical technique” in “Psalms” comes as the reverse side of my many years of working with artistic material related to music performance. Special terminology is part of what makes up the universe of musical attributes, where all things command their own magic and precise expressiveness. That is not conveyable with visual art (much as we discussed earlier), so I have a whole layer of observations and conjectures left practically untouched, unaddressed and not found usable as yet. In articles and lectures, I’ve always tried to reveal the meaning of the philosophy of music — music is the key to my entire philosophical system, and also the key to the whole system of how the world fits together; I am sure of that. A basic thesis of my theory is the equivalence, the oneness, of nature’s elemental spontaneity (as a direct manifestation of the impulse of Creation, the source of all life) and the creative elemental spontaneity of reason, of developed human consciousness (most clearly manifest when embodied in music). Two hands with one source, one Law. Natural processes are visible musical action, life’s music, which life can perform. The enactment of composed music, notated music (especially instrumental) — that is what I have lived for a long time, that is what I have constantly reflected on, what I have studied by the means that are natural for me, what I have sought to explain. So it’s not surprising that I perceived and understood the language of “primal nature” first and foremost through the gauge given by music. Through the musical act as attunement.

And another question, building on the preceding. We might recall that many Biblical psalm texts served as a foundation for compositions (there are settings, say, by Bach, Schubert, Liszt, Brahms, Stravinsky, Penderetsky). Along those lines, don’t you think “California Psalms” would make a fine basis for program music — a sonata or a whole symphony? To my mind, they have all the makings, a sound like powerful, highly dynamic, dramatic orchestral music. It makes sense that you, too, find yourself thinking of an orchestra or chorus: “…my encoding forms a twine-knot letter, like digits that record a massed orchestra’s rise to a new range, a new height in sustaining performance.” It seems to me that the reader might hear moments like Bach (indeed, one of the “Psalms” is called “Art of the Fugue”), or sometimes Beethoven, at times Mahler or Shostakovich. Where and why those sounds originate goes beyond what words can say.

The church’s musical canon (the so-called Gregorian canon, from the name of its author and founder in the 6th-7th centuries) has preserved the essential features of the Judaic ritual musical tradition. This foundation remains current — a form closest to it persists in Eastern Orthodoxy — for formal types of liturgical music up to this day. The music of Western Christianity developed more actively, mixing with the secular. Nevertheless, in any (traditional) church now, whenever Biblical psalms are sung or chanted to music, the melody always has a discernible canonical source. In other words, in a religious context, the psalms of David have sounded for centuries and still sound something like David himself made them sound. That bears recalling when speaking of composers (like J.S. Bach and the other classics you mentioned) who served the church: they, some more and some less successfully, were all elaborating on the same canon.

But you’re right to note that the Biblical psalms have often inspired composers not only “on the job” or because of faith (like Penderetsky, say, whom you mentioned), but even utter atheists; a great example of this is Dmitri Shostakovich, who in the last part of his life discovered the richness and power of the psalms of David. And really, there are plenty of examples of musical psalms in free forms. From what I understand, the genre is especially popular in America. Or was until lately, at least.

Relative to the “symphonic nature” of “California Psalms,” your impression agrees completely with my own. Even when the cycle was just beginning to cohere, I started feeling a kind of prophetic certainty that it could move some deep musical nature to create a large-scale composition. Without question, this poetry very clearly conveys its own musical nature, and in other cases that trait could dictate rhythmic and melodic norms that might impede real musical creativity. But at the same time, it seems to me “Psalms” opens up a broad enough range of “consonance,” of varieties and levels of expressiveness, that such obstacles resolve themselves on their own. Ten years of these poems’ existence and “testing” have brought more than a few chances to be convinced of how they stimulate and inspire musical ears. I have received letters, including from musicians I’d never met, remarking on the text’s musical nature and, not least of all, on the musicality (like musical scores) of their structure. Various musicians have offered to accompany stage readings of “Psalms” with music. Among such versions (two of them realized) I will mention parallel vocalizations, guitar improvisations, and also rhythmic avant-garde music-making. The time hasn’t yet come for a separate musical canvas. And I suppose this couldn’t have happened so soon. It would take a certain set of conditions. Nevertheless, “California Psalms” looks more and more assured of a musical future. For the first time in my experience, composers (one after the other) have begun to take practical, professional interest in my work.

I would very much like for this process to continue. Something tells me such a union would open a new future for music as well.

Wrapping up this subject: There is poetry that in some unfathomable way elicits a whole host of associations — artistic, musical, even scientific or scholarly (psychological, philosophical and others); and there is poetry that, while beautiful in itself, yields no associations. It lacks a subtext, it says only one thing — what each given line expresses. What, in your opinion, is the secret of these fundamentally different responses to poetic texts? And could the diverse associations evoked by some poems indicate their depth and number of facets? (Keeping in mind that reading poetry is generally very subjective, so we’re only speaking of this or that text’s potential.)

Probably some example would help me understand the question more precisely. My first impulse is that you mean poetry where the author (the lyrical hero) maintains his human universality, however unique his experience and feelings may be — versus another type of poetic thought where creative sublimation is missing or handled weakly. In that case, the author is primarily manipulating life’s raw material, using impressions and judgments in a way that leaves images and thoughts narrowly self-referential.

I think there’s more to it. For example, I might cite, let’s say, from earlier in our interview, the excerpted poems by Baratynsky and Tyutchev. Both passages very exactly (and poetically) express a certain philosophical idea — each conveys its own idea. The first excerpt — as I perceive it — has no second level, no puzzle; yet the other one evokes a vague ennui, a deep, insurmountable sadness, with lines touching mainly the imagination (this quality does not at all hinder but, on the contrary, helps rationally comprehend Tyutchev’s thought). Perhaps the reason lies in the music of the poem or in something else, something intangible and not subject to analysis.

The things in art we speak of as “intangible” or “not subject to analysis” — those are the means of artistic expressiveness. A poet can make rhymed pleas and address the senses, can exhort and edify, but nothing can captivate, subdue, inflame, possess, except an artistic image invoking resonance, inner emotional consonance. Plucking the heartstrings, as it’s commonly put. For this it’s not enough to restate the plainly evident; there also has to be participation from in between — from the space that can be filled by the reader’s identification, by music from the experience of the reader’s heart.


Next, let’s talk about this: If there is music, it can have a leitmotif. In your opinion, which of the many peculiarly branching themes of “California Psalms” should be seen as the main one?

I’d need to better understand what you call “themes.”

The theme of nature coming to life under the human gaze runs through your entire work. There are interwoven motifs of living nature and of a human person “grafted” into it — that, in my opinion, forms a basis for the motley fabric of “California Psalms,” what gives unity to the polyphonic sound of all this music.

Tyutchev wrote these two very contrasting philosophical statements about nature: the first in 1836, the second 33 years later, in 1869:


“Nature is not what you think it is:

it’s not a mould, not a soulless face.

It has a soul. It has freedom.

It has love. It has a tongue.


“Nature is a sphinx.

The truer she kills you

with her eternal riddle,

it’s more than likely,

for centuries,

the truer she has fooled you.”


(Translations by F. Jude)


Your work contains an unmistakable theme of man’s acute alienation from a “heartless,” threatening and sometimes even hostile nature. And so my question is: which of Tyutchev’s statements speaks to you more? What is nature for you — a living soul, close to the heart, or a mysterious sphinx? Or maybe both one and the other?

Nature is our continuation. There is no separation, no contradiction between nature and man. But man is given something higher than nature — reason. It’s that, after all, reason, which creates a sense of closeness to nature, understanding, a sense of its meaning, and yet reason is also what alienates — nature does not agree to make sense of man. Although nature itself contains an astonishing degree of meaning, true, and this meaning is present both at macro and micro levels: “…nothing happens without a reason,” “they all have their lines in the centuries’ affirmed counterpoint.” Nature does its job (and does so ideally), not analyzing or judging. That function is left for man.

Venturing into nature is like crossing to the inner side of your own consciousness, to sub- or back-consciousness. Pre-consciousness. It’s an integral part of our own human nature, our other side, which we observe from without; it’s part of a subject, even as it displays itself as an independent object. It not only can harmonize, “bond” with our inner movements, our essence, but also can frighten, in being uncontrollable by rational intelligence, in being immeasurably more powerful than that. Nature on any scale is an organic process, even in the case of our own (life in the body is also nature), which also has autonomy from us. In that — organic — sense, we live exactly the same life it does.

The life of nature is the quintessential life of Law: beyond interpretations, beyond judgments. Nature bears no responsibility for its actions or their results. It performs. Wholly, absolutely, it manifests the possibilities it contains. Therefore nature has nothing more or less significant; it’s all equally significant, equally honest.

It is hard for a human to be like that, even given a very strong wish to be. His obstacle is analytical thinking, which tries to take all sides of existence under its control and, for that, tries to measure and evaluate whatever enters its field of attention. Tries to comprehend, to establish an attitude of comprehension. Tries to analyze.

There is nothing bad about that. On the contrary. The only problem is that reason, meant to be even more perfect than nature as an instrument for a person’s accordance with his direct purpose, for corresponding with that by means of an understanding that nature can’t attain, can deceive a person, making him rely on analysis while often ignoring the most obvious.

In the realm of actions of elementary reflexes, of instincts, decisions are made or not made without the help of an intricate thought apparatus. Buridan’s ass is a well-known example of a representative of the natural world who tries to account for more than one possibility. But animals do not hide their motives; only humans are able to dissemble, to lead themselves by the nose with speculations. Nature is totally open and direct in all its manifestations, not one of which tries to act with intellectual rationale, to be something besides what it is, and remains “egoistically” true to its essence, outside any ideological basis that serves to justify whatever kind of behavior.

Nature, like the truest mirror, can show man the crookedness, the warpedness of the most fundamental pillars of his notions of life and himself, because nature itself in everything demonstrates a pure model of coherence. The voice of nature is the voice of revealed highest providence, which man feels he belongs to but whose “murderous perfection” he fears trusting fully, since his own essence dictates choice not based on the logic of physical, chemical, biological processes but resulting from conscious (which also signifies responsibility) determination. The ability to think — that in itself is already another branch of nature. Man must not only choose, at every step, from a multitude of options, but also manage their changing identities, which he himself keeps endlessly revising.

Only man is able to ask the question “to be or not to be…” “A wave doesn’t ask whether to be or not to be,” the wave will either be or not be, without any questions. At its essence’s command.

Generalizing, I would say there is nothing in nature not in man himself. Contemplating nature, man finds himself in it, sees his own portrait. Sees his own nature, lacking falsehood. If man is accepted as the crown of creation, that means he is all creation in its totality (that is, nature) but also is creation crowned (a sign belonging to a different category of phenomena). By consciousness, by reason. Therefore by freedom of choice, by the right of independent determination. That presupposes the ability consciously, through understanding, with free will, to devote yourself to your human purpose, to give free rein to the maximum we contain from the beginning. That is, what the rest of nature, acting by virtue of dependence, must carry out, man has the right to choose for himself.

Any natural phenomenon or occurrence, following and emulating its source, gives itself the same lone definition. “I AM WHAT I AM” — we hear that from a leaf, a rock, a storm, a constellation, cells, assorted micro-particles: not choosing themselves and not betraying their purpose. That, as a free declaration of intention, would be nice to read in each person. In the self, first of all. With “Psalms,” I think I succeeded with that.

In your opinion, just what might be nature’s riddle, whose existence Tyutchev so doubted?

There really is no “riddle” in nature. The riddle is with man and in man: the riddle of his relations with his own nature, and that means with nature as such.

From the inexhaustible problem of “nature and man” we can see the logical transition to the question of human purpose and, if it can be so put, “self-determination.” That question seems to me — in its philosophical meaning — central in your work. You unexpectedly compare human truth (that is, human science and art — in general, culture) with the pitiful “truth of a worm beneath an apple tree.” So you arrive at a bitter conclusion: “…my life has no reflection in the balance when games unfold among leviathans.” You’re “not a white daub on the heavenly azure — not inclement or a cloud, but just an accident, a quirk of blue…” And you ask yourself so many perplexing questions, which anyone could ask: “Who am I, stumbling between?” “What can my weak, human intellect give the absolute ages?” I find that you yourself have answered those questions remarkably — with extreme poetic as well as philosophical precision and, most importantly, unexpected optimism. Could you comment on the “answers” that most accurately convey your understanding of human purpose in this world?

That question, of course, is a direct continuation of the theme of nature and its development. Man’s self-determination depends entirely on the determination of his main natural requirement, his human calling. If the “crown” is his consciousness, then it’s all the less significant how the natural side (his constituent flora and fauna) is called on to assist in that — higher, literally — excellence.

When I ask myself, “Why am I not a leaf, why am I not a stone, why not a quill from a wing,” “not a white daub on the heavenly azure,” I acknowledge that in the most primitive fraction of the nature of truth, there is more honesty than in all our explanations, theorizing, moralizing and cleverness. The fullness of belonging to the truth — is the reason I “will not stop respecting the wave.” As it and everything else like it completely corresponds to their nature, so should man correspond to his human nature. In this correspondence lies the great and true egoism of nature; in this should lie the single egoism and single instinct of man: to be an absolute expression of his own, human, crown-bearing nature.

To understand what that means turns out to be maddeningly difficult for man, namely due to freedom of choice.

The wave has no possibility of being higher or lower, even of wanting that, even of asking to be a wave or not to be. It is the maximum of what it is. Something born to crawl does not strive for the sky even in its dreams, but is the maximum of what something born to crawl can be.

I feel, I know, that a person must and should (by a core determination) be the maximum of what a human is.

My calling and my desire to “capture the indifference, the dispassion, and the distantness of static shapes and planes” signifies a striving toward unequivocal concordance. As they respond to any impulse according to their nature as things, so I want to respond according to my human nature, but with the same fullness. Nothing conditional, invented or acquired should prevent the maximal fulfillment of basic humanity, nothing should belittle it or interfere with it. To follow the imperative of human purpose — that is the formula of self-determination, both for humankind and for the individual. That should determine everything in human consciousness and existence.

Nature provides the gauge of truth: “I am what I am,” in its extreme expression. “Before the eyes of truth, only the truth upholds its relevance, even as the truth of a worm beneath an apple tree, if whatever else it could be lies out of reach”: not because that worm is a universal example for comparison and copying, but precisely because it can’t be anything else and doesn’t try. So it has a proper place (where it brings great use) in the general scheme of creation. The truth of the worm is worthy of respect in the worm. Man’s fate is the truth of man: “not quite as wretched as the worm, I can’t rightfully seem like a worm…” The worm remains loyal to its truth, unable to be anything else, and man with his crown should be guided by not wanting to be anything else, by wishing to be exclusively human. So if in some way we take cues from worms, it is in inseparability from our designation. Ours, not theirs.

Man contains everything, including worms, predators, volcanoes, hurricanes, flowers and fruits — but none of that is man, even all taken together. To lift oneself to the level of one’s human rank is the only way to align with the assigned format, to fit into it and stop being “grit in the pâtisserie love lyric of the faceless.” To make oneself its pearl, its wise heart. To stand in one’s place in the general hierarchy. To think, feel, decide, act, speak — live! — as suits a person, to encourage the human in oneself. To not divide oneself and one’s life by shuffling through likenesses: here I have to crawl, there act like an ape, here soar like a vulture or fly like a tempest…

To be a person. Regardless of how welcome that is. “To exalt the truth of homespun thoughts and considerations…” To correspond to one’s purpose, “no doubt forming even for a worm about this right…”

To some that seems an unrealizable utopia. Many are simply convinced that it is impossible and unnecessary. Self-betrayal is more typical and comfortable (it seems). It’s more profitable, no arguing that (like selling your birthright). Besides, “everyone does it” (except those who refuse).

People do that, yes. And successfully. And convince others that stifling their own imperative, the central natural desire, is not only what “real” life requires, but is also good form. And they develop loads of theories confirming the inevitability and dignity of dependence on nutrition (of all types, beginning with apples). In cultivating this dependence, man has surpassed all his unreasoning and inanimate brethren in the world of nature. He relentlessly develops and complicates, on all levels, a theoretical basis for the postulate “You have to eat, after all.” What exactly, and how much, and how often, and in whose interests, and why, and what follows from that, and where it will lead. And tons of reasons are invented according to which a person must believe in all this more than in his own human dignity and calling, and constantly resort to ruses and trickery, making a fool of himself, his fellow humans and the initial “categorical imperative” of his nature. “Restrictive, dictatorial, food’s matchless store of drama spans the ages.”

What can you do? A deficit of precedents makes the choice even more complicated, adds risk, yes (just what that risk implies, though, is arguable). And does the right to choose ever come without responsibility for it? As far as the wish for precedents, they shouldn’t be waited for but created, with guidance from the need to justify the human advantage in understanding — by means of a person’s natural human ability — what that means and what prices should or shouldn’t be paid for that. That’s why a person is equipped with free will and a perfect thinking apparatus. Otherwise, the distinction and richness given to a person, his reasoning, falls into the category of thieves’ booty and is squandered accordingly — is abandoned to the earth.

Lao Tse said he would prefer to be a turtle dragging its tail through the mud than a rare bird distinguished by the honor of occupying a golden cage in the emperor’s palace. But it seems to me that to choose between a turtle and a bird is pointless for a person if there is the possibility of being yourself — that is better, whether in the mud or in a cage.

All human trueness and purity lies in being human (as for a worm in being a worm, for God in being God), having taken the responsibility for that. That is the only basis for his self-determination, his self-assurance, self-measurement: to orient the inner argumentation of decision not by the lowest bar, but by the highest, by the one that separates him from the rest of his biological brethren. A person is made a person not by sometimes having to “chow down” — an infusoria manages that no worse. And no one insists on a person’s radical detachment from the voice of the flesh. What matters is to stop hiding from yourself behind the “common,” which stops every concrete process of development on its common level (the so-called “social intellect” is the mouthpiece of the death instinct, according to Freud). What is important is the actual balance of meanings in a personal system of evaluation: what type of conclusions take priority — as applied to your own concrete life.

We, by the way, lose a lot by habitually brushing aside our royal privilege (supposedly out of modesty, but in reality out of narrow pragmatism, out of fear of risk). We are not, you see, imposters. We are endowed with privilege by right and even by obligation — by our nature. But we ourselves close (and cover with wallpaper so as not to see at all) the door beyond which an unimaginably full and varied life is prepared for us, a life corresponding to our possibilities. It is even impossible for us to imagine it, impossible to imagine where it leads, what sort of evolution and revolution — authentically human — it promises, what penetrating vision it opens. We don’t know, in fact, simply because we’ve never tried to look there.

Anyway, in order to coherently lay out my view on the subject of nature, humans, human nature, I really should write a treatise (to have something to cite to in interviews). Probably no one expects an exhaustive commentary in this conversation. But I wouldn’t want to give perfunctory answers to your questions, even for the sake of brevity. These questions are serious, and I see no reason to laugh them away.

Let’s talk about another important theme, a repeating refrain. I mean the constant interaction of two worlds, which quirkily combine in the lyrical hero of “California Psalms.” On the one hand, as if rising above reality, there’s the world of the philosopher and the poet and, on the other hand, the world of the weak human, submerged in that same reality, burdened by the cares of everyday life and many agonizing doubts. It isn’t accidental that the image of a bridge connecting these two worlds often comes up in your work: “Here a narrow bridge stretches a ribbon from the creek bank we approached from common daily plainness rubbing up against the verge of worlds real otherwise with no place to have what we once held as real. The bridge allows binding them together lying on both banks…” Here’s a characteristic example of the lyrical hero crossing from one world to the other: “I sit directly in a cloud. Am I a celestial being?” — and suddenly, right away occurs a sudden steep descent “to earth,” to the everyday: “I sit and write, I check my watch, I smoke, I think about words, think about work…”

During these transitions (or through them), higher philosophical thought is often born — sometimes very unexpectedly, like lightning flashing suddenly in a dark sky.

I’d like to cite Zabolotsky’s poem “Ugly Girl” as an example of such a transition, where the poet at first describes a commonplace scene with nothing remarkable — a girl runs around the courtyard, “just a poor plain Jane”:


“Two youngsters, both her peers,

Have fathers who have bought them each a bike.

Today the boys, not eager for a lunch break,

Race around the court without a thought of her…”


And suddenly from this straightforward observation arises one of the “eternal” philosophical questions:


“An infantile grace of soul

Gleams already in her movements.

Then if that’s so, then what is beauty?

And why is it deified by people?

Is it a vessel, standing empty,

Or the fire twinkling in the vessel?”


The last four lines are often cited; they are beautiful and deep in and of themselves, but also unquestionably interesting is the whole context in which they arise, the entire sharp “descent” from the ordinary to the philosophical.

In connection with all that, I’ll ask you a question you might find strange. These frequent transitions from the “low” world of the mundane to the “high” world of reflection about nature and God or transitions in the opposite direction — do you use them as a poetic device, or, if I can put it like this, your constant sensation of life, your way of existence?

I have no poetic devices, since I’m not a poet, as I already told you. I simply grope along a fissure that lets me move in an organic and justified (thematically, musically, psychologically, etc.) direction, responding to a basic impulse. A fissure with a stream of oxygen that saves me from suffocating at a dead end.

In an “idealistic” (that is, human, in the literal sense of the word) view of things, the function, task or purpose of any creative activity is to knit the upper limit together with the lower, to form a contact between them, to trace the points of connection. To translate the language of transcendence into terms of the everyday, the understandable and understanding, to make it accessible. And the opposite: to guide the everyday to the highest order of generalization. To create “a place for God on earth,” moving like a needle with a thread, penetrating every layer.

But in the most earthbound layer of life, too, on any level of being, “as by unwarped mirrors of unwearied orbits’ eyes,” one can find a grain of universal truth, whose language has a resonance with everything else like it. Through such grains, a binding ray can pass through points of authenticity, “bridge trampolines” can be built to “prevent a fall, impel into the sky at every turn.” A spark of enlightenment always arises at the point where opposite forces connect. That happens if the inner person is always focused on the highest levels of being that are accessible to him. Only a person who is just under that ceiling can reform himself, transform himself, and also understand and evaluate himself. Including the most modest actions, concerns and impressions. In this way, too, arises a mutual discovery, the bridge between ceiling and floor (attic and basement). Indeed: “I sit and write, I check my watch…” or I rake leaves, or pull a splinter out of my finger — but meanwhile I stay in the space of “skydwelling”; leaving it would not be in my nature. Producing an electrical charge takes two poles, and both must be active, must be concrete, understood and experienced. “The truth is in the details,” as Stanislavsky said. Even if those details are not shown on stage (in poetry, in a painting, etc.) but consist of inner knowledge.

Anyone, not necessarily just a creative person, needs a bridge connecting “both banks,” both shores — because each person occupies the position of a bridge (between earth and nirvana). “My days are like small waves I look at from a bridge,” as Marina Tsvetaeva said. Each person needs both a lower and upper horizontal in order to build an individual vertical between them. The vertical of human truth and human justification.

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