James Manteith, Tatyana Apraksina (trans. James Manteith)

The Turn of the Brush (part one): Oral commentaries to “California Psalms”

Published in: 10. Inversion

A 2001 conversation between

author Tatyana Apraksina and translator James Manteith

on California Psalms, written in Big Sur in 1999 and published in 2013 by Radiolarian Press.

Also available: The Turn of the Brush (part two).

Note: text citations in this interview may vary from the translations in the Radiolarian Press edition.


T. Apraksina — Exactly three years ago, March 25, 1999, our conversation first touched on the thought of “new psalms.” Today we make a renewed attempt to sort out just what this phenomenon California Psalms might be. As of now, they have no publisher, but bookstores have been receiving inquiries about them for quite some time. What basic knowledge there is of them carries a shade of rumor, although they have been written of in newspapers and magazines and footage was shot on them for television. They earned their author a special federal status, and they represented Central California poetry in an international poetry marathon sponsored by the U.N. Unpredictable legends and rumors about them have arisen in various parts of the world, although fragments of actual text can be found in the hands of a limited group of people. Their manuscript’s first public reading — in two languages, Russian and English — took place in September 1999, after which we offered a major series of similar presentations in Central and Northern California. And yet the translation’s final version was brought to completion quite recently.

J. Manteith — It really did take nearly three years.

T.A. — Besides that, their author (myself, I mean) always had a firm reputation associated with refined society — then suddenly, an abrupt and inexplicable retreat in the mountains, a religious subtext embodied in poetry… Before this, I was mainly known as an artist or in connection with the magazine Apraksin Blues, coordinating its publication in Petersburg, Russia. But here in California, I’m more often considered a poet and even as an authority in the field. And there are grounds for that: we’ve never left our audiences other than deeply moved and shaken. It’s also worth recalling, the consistent public regard for the quality of the translation. The complexity of such a text for a translator is clear even to people who have never thought about translation.

J.M. — The experience of translating California Psalms was very important for me. It required a complete change of focus, maximum departure from the pressure of my own language, as a way to return to normal habits from the totally opposite side. The whole cycle had to be gone through painstakingly. Even now, I’m still not sure if out of two variants of the first line — “Tuning for the key — in halfway” — I managed to choose the better. This poetry doesn’t pardon any carelessness, whether spiritual or physical. I speak of the physical intentionally: the text contains real physical strength. This can be sensed particularly when performing it on stage. And it is felt by the listener practically to the same degree.

T.A. — We have often heard this acknowledged.

J.M. — And it is always so easy to see, in reactions, in faces!

T.A. — As if the energetic impulse that brought every word to life and on which the entire text rests comes across in turn for any listener, independently of understanding the language. A sort of non-verbal broadcast or influence.

J.M. — Because this impulse comes not from an ordinary flow of thoughts or observation of nature, appreciating it, but from the strength of mutual collision, becoming actively involved: “One wave holds all weight of the ocean/and this weight’s full force bashes beneath my ribs/brutally drilling in the art of life.” (“The Night of Equinox”). Or “Chains of mountains fling on cloud shawls, wind my heart,/scourged, gashed, flayed” (“Implantation”).

T.A. — The writing process was almost unbearably intense and kept me constantly “between worlds.” Even now, having reread the whole text after a long hiatus, I have to say it quickens the pulse just as before. And not because it sparks recollections, but because the text itself ensures that the force of all it recorded comes across as a new, self-contained experience.

J.M. — Because it consists less of personal impressions than of impressed truth.

T.A. — What proves it’s true? Yet listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is enough to accept its truth. And put aside all questions. Authenticity is its own affirmation, an axiom.

J.M. — The results run the gamut! How would you, the author, characterize the work?

T.A. — Setting out for America at a publisher’s invitation, I planned to give the literary activities I had begun in Russia a continuation on a more professional level. As concerns the creative aspect of my work, that’s just how it happened. I imagined the trip as a certain kind of exile to the provinces: a Mikhailovskoye for writing my Eugene Onegin. In practice, the contrast proved still more serious. Experiencing this shock helped me to find and open different inner chakras, and it overwhelmed customary authorities, so my vision awoke to previously unencountered sources.

The genre of California Psalms, for the most part, is defined in their name. The cycle consists of eighteen parts. Each of the parts — “psalms” — has a separate name, an individual face. The work is a personal, non-ritualistic expression of a religious, transcendental state of consciousness deeply transfixed by the unattainable’s sudden exposure in the obvious and apparent. The text has both verbal and musical content and includes a broad spectrum of views drawn from my own practical experience: “They all have their own line in the centuries’ audited/counterpoint” (“To the Choirmaster”). This accounts for their originality, their individual style, like a characteristic way of walking.

J.M. — The Russian text’s fullness and originality made such a strong impression on me that even with the translation completely done, the original remains the basic repository of all the work’s values, as before — although I made a great effort to carry them over into the English version. The Russian language has special qualities that are absent in English. Russian speech and its sentence create a firm, interconnected whole where each element exerts an active influence on neighboring ones, leaving no space for gaps or breaks. Namely this — besides its tonal expressiveness — makes the Russian language an ideal instrument to convey deep subject matter. It forms an organic, natural blend. English versions, even the best ones, remain only approximations, attempts to grow as attuned as possible to the emotional pitch of the original.

T.A. — I think the task of this particular translation was even more complicated. It wasn’t enough to establish a system of connections: connotative, grammatical, linguistic, phraseological and so on. The multi-layered — like a dense musical score — structural lines, the terminological precision, the whole matter of the poetic text, like a well-made explosive, is situated in one harmonic key and gestates entirely from the inside out, as in personal life processes. Certain concepts otherwise wouldn’t have coincided, wouldn’t have interlocked to form new meaning. Basically, that in itself is creativity’s mechanism. Personal movement through life, experiencing it, giving the most diverse phenomena a natural synthesis in the unified space of a single consciousness. Translating this organism into a foreign code of expression requires not only following but experiencing every thought, every word the text contains, as one’s own. To suffer through it, so to speak, in the author’s footsteps.

J.M. — That’s essentially why the translation took so much time. The fairly quick first draft might have seemed quite adequate. Yet while the translated text conveyed the original’s logic, the underlying musical foundation I’d supplied — and considered a fine equivalent — later came to seem superficial. I sensed a deeper musical layer. Like the difference between a melody and a symphony. I’d prepared a series of melodies when what was needed was a symphony, a whole cathedral: a “cosmic TUTTI.” Again and again, the whole thing had to be hoisted higher to keep mindful of the individual parts. In English-language verse, much poetry often intentionally creates an impression of total lack of logic, and even if one manages to pick out logic in something, it’s a logic that’s impossible to trust. It benefits California Psalms that the text elicits the reader’s absolute trust — although you, as the author, rely on your own original, personal content. The neologisms are coherent.

T.A. — For me, the whole process — both creation and analysis — is much like describing a large cathedral. Having the whole thing on view in front of you gives the freedom and right to connect disparate parts, boldly: details of a cupola, pictures from a stained-glass window, veins in marble of Doric columns…

J.M. — A cathedral, in Psalms, made equally of California and all you bring to it.

T.A. — Whatever life has taught me found a place. An artist’s vision and a strong background in music not least of all. Everything made one in my individual combination of traits and types of knowledge — that is, all I could have freely at my command, as firmly established in regular practice.

J.M. — The West Coast’s creative principle.

T.A. — The same organic qualities, familiar and understandable. I felt this immediately, so I immediately believed in it. Finding myself isolated from social interests, I started hearing the voice of the land and history and, having no one else to speak with, had to address them in the right language. California Psalms actually was written in a regime of revelation. In part, accepting my right to expression on this level was possible because I spoke in the first person about what was happening to me personally: I wasn’t voicing anyone else’s opinions or interests. That is why I was extremely open, why now I can answer for every word: because what I’m talking about and recounting is something I believe in a hundred percent, based on authentic knowledge, not hearsay. It is the experience of my own heart, something that can be conveyed in no other way than with my own voice. And I can only offer others what I myself believe. The Biblical psalms also speak exclusively in the first person. And namely this makes them supremely universal: a human being emerges with human meaning.

J.M. — Pure existence on a human level is in itself a revelation.

T.A. — Seclusion from others precluded calculation or circumstantial aims, which seemed of secondary consequence against the resulting background. This ultimately kept the text’s reflection free of distortion: a person as she is, beyond context or the mediation of a life trajectory. Just this: here I am, with whatever I can show to God, and here is God open before me. “Earth’s watchful face lovingly faces mine./And I watch its own” (“Art of the Fugue”).

J.M. — That theme runs through the Psalms: that there is nothing else besides this. Nothing else exists.

T.A. — The whole period comprised a moment of reaching total and practical awareness of that truth.

I’ll return to the theme of the translation. There exist very few satisfactory precedents for the translation of a literary (poetic all the more so) text from the Russian language. Did you have any close English-language literary model or example of some other translation that helped coordinate your work?

J.M. — I’ve never encountered anything similar in English. Still, I have a decent familiarity with English-language literature, as well as with translations, and turned from time to time to others’ experience. But mostly this was effective only as moral support, for building greater trust in myself. Especially at the start. Later, it was necessary to go through a separate phase of separating the work from influences. For example, to get the initial result, I might use a musical principle from Dylan Thomas’s poetry. As for stylistics, in certain instances, I found it helpful to know the modernists and Futurists I once studied. It proved very useful to read Buddhist texts. Confucius, the I Ching (Book of Changes). I gained most from reading the Bible — in parallel Russian and English (and later Hebrew, Greek and Latin). The reason for this is that the Bible was originally translated without the weight of parallel superfluous intentions and cumbersome subtexts felt in contemporary translations. A lot of new translations appear now with great pomp: Tolstoy, say, or Dostoyevsky. At last, they announce, a translator has gone straight to the heart of the author and now the world can discover a classic’s most important secret…

T.A. — In light of a current mindset…

J.M. — And this often amounts to a conscious effort to make the text “timely.” In relation to California Psalms, I defined my task in the opposite manner: not including my own understanding of timeliness, to simply translate, create a kind of absolute English version. After all, I was the first person to have access to this work, after the author. That’s why the Bible in its most canonical translation, unobscured by contemporary interpretations, proved closest to the concept I aimed for.

T.A. — I also remember seeing Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe on your desk.

J.M. — Above all, I sought to use the opportunity afforded by our constant collaboration and the material that could enhance my understanding of your works. In part, I mean your non-literary works: paintings, drawings. And other things you have written: Lessons for ‘Orly, which I translated and which got us started working together; essays; poems. And all that comes out of sharing conversation. It seems to me Eckermann himself didn’t want me to get too wrapped up in him: my object was not Goethe but Apraksina.

T.A. — Interesting that the Bible played its part in the translation. And in so many languages at once. I know classic Russian literature wasn’t neglected, either. Pushkin, Goncharov…

J.M. — As for Russian authors, I prefer to read them in the original, although there are Russian-to-English talented translators out there. I know of examples. But I couldn’t consider them as standards for my own work involving a distinctive individual. At a certain moment, I began to react almost painfully to whatever had a different characteristic flavor. So I tried replacing reading with other activities, like studying classical languages.

T.A. — It seems natural to me that you’d find it useful to read from the Bible and other religious and philosophical sources. This let you create an atmosphere corresponding to the California Psalms, where the religious aspect is often expressed very openly and calls attention to itself, although it’s conveyed in highly undogmatic language and often uses strange cosmogonal categories. Everything is simply decided by intuitive, internal selection, a sense of the right fit: what should express each thing. From Kabbalah to the language of modern technology.

J.M. — And choices are prompted by the subject?

T.A. — Meanings cohere within perception. An example: “I’m likely told as much by beveled jewelry/embeddings of reef diamonds in a phosphor silver taffeta,/in ocean volatility, as by the Revelations/of Saint John./It’s not for me to say/which one’s revealing I trust more” (“Mariners”). All available means of interrelations with God, with the Divine nature of creation, are magnetically attracted (“The soul of the First Week/keeps a pulse in the fully disclosed heart of the coast,” in “Art of the Fugue”). In part, they are presented in the terms and images of religious practice, relying most on the Bible (“psalms,” after all!), but also containing a fair share of shadings pointing to non-Biblical traditions. Different tools for a single purpose — views of a unified, single object coexisting over time and with equal legitimacy. “I want to call all my own where I see features/of the Vestal Virgins’ fire…” (“Twilight”). Taken in their absolute form, all names and titles, even those stemming from divergent systems and families, are equal and all religions are only the various aspects and instruments of a single faith. And just as the text of the Pentateuch — the Torah — represents a listing of the Creator’s names in a variety of formulas, in this same way California, too, appeared to me as a ceaselessly unrolling sacred text. Whatever meets the eye on its edge, on this unabashedly wild shore, can be read as a Torah.

J.M. — “I see letters on lightning-slain giants” (“Homer”). Or “This name is inscribed in the marks of all tongues” (also “Homer”). And also, “It replies/with lines, threads, braids that parse the sky diagonally,” from “Twine-Knot Message”…

T.A. — And here these “symbols” can simply be seen with the eye, touched with the hand. Angelic scripts, marks left by the elements: on stones, waves, clouds… And in the whole basic trajectory, the sinusoid of interaction, of natural harmony. Also incredibly, these facsimile autographs (sometimes hieroglyph-like or reminiscent of Sanskrit, Hebrew…really, all the ancient languages seem to be represented) preside here physically, materially, in staggering abundance. A sacred abundance so inhumanly focused can exhaust all capacity to feel… “never asked/whether I mind the visibility of the Master’s unbearable industry” (“Mass”).

J.M. — Another mention of notation in nature is the “wave whose nape upraises the script of partitions” in “Implantation.” A parallel example is the running comparison with a musical score.

T.A. — Yet another sacred language! Musical substance also has its source in eternity and carries its notation innately, with expression not only in the magic force of musical sound but in all the specific attributes of musical craft. Written notes are its natural graphic form. California’s heavenly epistles can be read by every method at once: just push a little harder and you’ll understand it all… In whatever language, at any given moment, touched your heart. Even in mathematical logarithms.

J.M. — Perhaps not everyone sees this clearly.

T.A. — For me, it really wasn’t difficult — was even natural. I’ve been learning this art a long time: in all phenomena, ways of finding a special hidden logic, the core of a unified base, “simple sackcloth,” in what at first glance might seem totally unconnected. Any lock only opens through the heart’s experience, “the measure of my willingness to love” (“The Pass”). But in California there wasn’t even a need for a hunt, it was all open like a shop window: ” — Like it? — God said to me, — Then take!/ — Taken, — I said.” (“Magnitude”). It was enough just to agree that a fact was a fact.

J.M. — With California Psalms as testimony.

T.A. — Testimony, exactly. When something is definable as revelation, merely having recognized it as recognition creates an obligation to testify.

J.M. — Does this fuel a sense of kinship with the places where the process happens?

T.A. — Absolutely. A sense of deep communion and responsibility. The question of trust belongs to the domain of moral ethics. If one doesn’t take the “California image” seriously, it’s hard to avoid feeling reverent awe for the coast’s natural mystery. The coast professes, with all its being, bold metaphysical principles in a physically tactile form. It’s like the progenitor of all the authentic, all the best things that have ever come my way in life, with sources in the human spirit’s realm, as a rule. All of that is present here as if as a basic model, autonomous, separate from man and his activity. And despite the apparent outer dissimilarity, it all looks astonishingly familiar: in structure, content, intonation… In its way of performance!…”all being filled/with a thick, bubbling battering through seams/in living polyphonies of wine.” (“Art of the Fugue”).

J.M. — Can this be considered a discovery? Finally affirming and formalizing a personal system of world-view?

T.A. — I’d rather see it as a beginning than as an end. “While I live — /my dominions admit nothing less than life.” (“Table”). I would agree, however, that the rare combination of the right place and right spiritual state served as the ground, literally and figuratively, to formulate a trajectory for my inner order and change this into something like a mixing chamber for refining old and new knowledge. An evolutionary chart of “axial time.” “If the Lord gave me a fortune,/he’ll surely also give a place to hold it” (“The Pass”).

J.M. — It seems to me California Psalms record not only the content and the form it assumed, but also how it was acquired.

T.A. — This is expressed above all in the structure of the Psalms, the character of their main errand. A principle of world-view was spontaneously reborn as a stylistic trait. I myself didn’t invent or decide anything. I chose the method most readily accessible for me, suggested by a factual course of events. The torrential meaning, insight, could have crushed, destroyed me, if I hadn’t organized the mass with the aid of a fairly simple form, a rough natural channel. This content is bottomless. Drowning there is easy, lacking a strict, logical shell to work with — otherwise you won’t even notice being sucked with a whistle out into the open cosmos. “Who’ll help to find the real position of the heavens?/From what I’ve heard, the sky is overhead,/but I anxiously wonder how to skirt its pit,/stumbling.” It was essential to find an elementary, even trivial, practical line. This appeared on its own, on the basis of real, day-to-day shifts and movement confined to an actual setting, to its atmosphere. Supported by each everyday step: “I leave my boat…/I walk out the door./I walk into the ocean…” (“Secret of the Vertical”) A simplified, mechanical design: so the mass, the clay of reality wouldn’t collapse, wouldn’t suffocate me.

J.M. — “Table” has a good illustration: “The clocktower of California years/showed the burning stone of August weekdays./ Over rails,/an interlocking calendar drawn through eras and manners,/I ride on a way never traveled, ticking along like

a timepiece hand.” Details as direct as notes in a diary…

T.A. — It’s all even described in the same natural sequence — a personal, natural note progression, a circle of fifths — as the specific experiences. Completely documentary, literal. Fog came from the mountain, descended into the canyon — “Secret of the Vertical” was written. A drive March 21st to a certain spot on the coast — “Night of Equinox” appeared, with a description of the place. A visit to Jeffers’ Tor House in Carmel — and so “Tower”. And so on. For this same reason, in part, each of the “psalms” has its own tint, coloration — its own rhythm, melody, weight and depth. Each one is written based on a personal condition, presented directly.

J.M. — Your own inner development can be followed in the cycle, quite logically and in chronological sequence, as the text makes clear.

T.A. — The work process itself shaped my direction. It regulated and ordered me from the very first step. At the start, as I launched into describing first impressions, I imagined something quite unlike what I acquired as a result. Each written fragment indicated a new position and new direction for the next action. Stepping into total darkness is the only way to understand where you stand and where to turn.

J.M. — Like a constant balancing act between passive and active existence.

T.A. — As described in fair detail in “The Pass”: “insisting with joyous flashes/I am now in paradise./And it is paradise — /while from blood-red reflections drifts no ash,” and there also, “I take the dare/because to refuse its call to arms terrifies more/than signing a confession of infirmity” and so on. Passivity means being ready to accept an impulse, a “task”; on the other hand, activeness lies in the fact that accepting means answering — that is, creating one’s answer.

J.M. — The very genre of the Psalms is defined by submissiveness before an external power.

T.A. — Not only an external one, but the squalling power of inner vibrations, the changes it awakes — a true psychological tsunami. Submission means not capitulation or slavery, but the most extreme degree of respect or acceptance. If I really stepped aside, gave in, I would simply be annihilated by the force of my own impressions — a fact related in “Mass”: “…the spirit regrets it has no way to vanish, knowing/my life is overlooked among these games/on the circuit of leviathans,” for example. Or in “At the Pass”: “The steps of love are like the Commodore’s footfalls.” To not end up broken, I am compelled to answer — answer with the same radical assuredness and on the same scale. Countering with a reciprocal action as a way to stay standing.

J.M. — The more fully you, the author, accept the will of nature, the more enduring your place in and in relation to it becomes.

T.A. — The one way out, as I perceive it, is to make this force a part of oneself, imbed it in one’s own nature, accept it as one’s own. “The fossil epoch test for tissue graft of substance from neighboring landscapes…” (“Implantation”).

J.M. — While you wrote, you may have felt yourself gradually becoming part of America.

T.A. — From its point of view, yes, but from mine, I was not so much becoming America as America was becoming me. Mine. As I incorporate America, a new side of my completeness becomes evident in me, another aspect of my wholeness.

J.M. — So you found a new knowledge of yourself in America.

T.A. — America is the mirror I needed before and nothing could give. Really, my relationship with America and Russia is a matter for special discussion. “To me, now, California is my Spasski Island./My Fontanka River — the Pacific.” There’s a constant need to choose between two priorities, even if we’re speaking of readers or listeners.

In some cases I am positive the overriding right to the Psalms lies with the Russian reader: They are written in the Russian language, which defines them as belonging to Russian literature. On the other hand, they are namely of “California”: and not only written in California, about California and for California — that is, felt as directed to California and America — but there is an additional impression that in a certain sense California itself wrote them. With my hand, of course. From this point of view, America has earned the right to consider the work its own.

J.M. — This is the duality in part remarked on in “The Sailors”: “Between two heavenly bodies I stand on the third”. Other sections also have indications of it — in “Lap of the Canyon,” for example, it’s easy to lose track of “who on top ought to be Sky and who beneath is Earth”…

T.A.: Either as the bearer or representative of Russian cultural tradition on the American continent or a voiceless object under the despotic power of California, a chance pen in its grip…

J.M.: The unbroken line of metaphors concerning love that run through California Psalms also relates to this: note that the cycle begins with “Sonnet” and closes with a “love letter” in “The Knotted Message.”

T.A. — That is one more way to define the genre: California Psalms as a declaration of love, a long love letter filled with feeling of a very serious temperature.

J.M. — And in matters of love it is impossible to distinguish the one giving from the one receiving. Which creates certain complications when it comes to lines of nationality or kinship.

T.A. — Really, it is a “love lyric of the impersonal” (“Mass”) — what supersedes nationality, the era and geography. Love as a realization of faith: “…not to answer trust with trust is not in me” (“At the Pass”).

J.M. — How great that nature can participate in this. And how great that this experience can belong to human beings as well.

T.A. — In my case, only this kind of nature — supremely endowed with human and spiritual qualities — can induce a desire for confession in the form of psalms. As for this experience being available for others, although the experience is personal, it is not private, considering its universal scale and character.

J.M. — Does this in some way relate to the country or history of America, or to individual people?

T.A. — The colossal advantage of the situation in which the cycle was written can largely be summed up in the fact of my irreversible removal and isolation from any kind of societal influence. “Alone, like the finger of God brought to the ground…” (“To the Choirmaster”). This allowed — really, practically forced — the restriction of the circle of themes and views I dealt with internally, mentally, at the level of emotions, wholly to categories that are long-term, changeless and incapable of going out of fashion behind my back or switching jargons. The standards of public life became worthless in a single moment. Everything smaller than primordial processes simply lost all meaning, as if viewed from a greater distance. All that could hold sway in these circumstances was the comparably authentic.

J.W.M — Everything superfluous seemed to drop away on its own.

T.A. — To accommodate what superfluity really exists for. When there is no one to hide behind and no kind of shelter, only one thing remains, without a choice — to look the Absolute right in the face. “Here is the objective in the highest splendidly outspread/the universe in chorus led by it ear-shattering” (“The Night of Equinox”). We are usually sheltered from contact with this highest objectivity by minute-to-minute worry about opinions. All this had to be shed by the awareness.

J.M. — Thanks in part to this — as the text makes apparent — there occurred a cleansing of what might not even have seemed predisposed for cleansing. For example, regarding terminology: medical, athletic or technical… Freeing relational concepts from the societal level, from worn-out ideas of their usage and perception.

T.A. — Any term on its own is pure, if not taken as bound to a narrow function. In borrowing a professional term, I grow no closer to the realm of its application, but rather give it an opportunity to gain its own existence.

J.M. — The saving power of literature!

T.A. — I could generalize and define California Psalms as a manifesto asserting the fundamentals of a faith. The literary expression of a personal creed.

J.M. — It even turns out to be marked by faith in the purity of sports! For comparison and, more often, contrast, at times I recall various American authors’ works. There is a well-known poem by Allen Ginsberg where the main part’s structure consists of a list: This is holy, that is holy… And so on. Over and over. More than anything, this list consists of scatological objects and never comes close to such elegance as sports. It makes for a narrow realm of holiness. What is so precious for me in the Psalms is a faith in the height of the full circle, the full spectrum of all sides of life. All activity.

T.A. — That faith is personally tested. Maybe no one has written “psalms” like this before just because it took the whole set of tools namely I turned out to have. The industrial span of symbolic and metaphoric views. Its uniqueness. Fitting so closely — a true miracle! Subject identified with object. Congenial traits.

J.M. — And rewarding congeniality, there came the long-awaited conversational equal.

T.A. — Even if the addressee and object of the Psalms are one and the same, it has many more heroes, among them the absolutely concrete historical characters described in various parts of the cycle. Among them are those belonging to the history and culture of California. The Franciscan monk Junipero Serra, often called the founder of California, is one (“The Monk in the Soul”). Another is the poet Robinson Jeffers (“The Tower”). But the portraits of personalities representing California also bear a close relation to local landscapes’ physiognomy.

J.M. — Notably, a large part of “The Monk in the Soul” consists of a simple description of his cell. In almost the same way that other sections feature descriptions of clay or rock outcroppings.

T.A. — Because the same principle of selection applies for everything: for both landscape and hero. And relationships with them. Manifestations of a concrete human fate exhibit the same unfeigned nature of a person’s truth, his faith, as does what distinguishes the bacchanal disquiet of the elements. The same trueness to self. This simply shows there is really only one truth: in a person and outside a person. To recognize it and understand, it is enough to put aside the mission of a judge. The first condition of understanding is to accept the whole thing, without any conditions. And not take the example of those modern translators we spoke of earlier.

J.M. — Did it define the choice of heroes that their lives took shape under the influence of the harshness of nature here? For example, Jeffers. “Live, poet, in stone company…” (“The Tower”).

T.A. — It more likely is a case of their lives having incarnated the same laws that control the elements. In the example of Jeffers there really is a strong dependence on the character of nature on the coast. As for the monk, the “padre,” he stays the same in any context — as a pure symbol, the incarnation of decisiveness, directness, faith without reasoning. He is the supreme embodiment of action informed by the logic of his faith, its law — just as a wave blindly submits to the laws of nature. The empirical method of knowing life is the one authority that won’t deceive. The selection of my heroes, themes and objects occurs in namely this way. I choose only those among them capable of reciprocation. And form my own relations with each one.

J.M. — The labels in a museum don’t seem to count for much.

T.A. — It’s not man who belongs to labels, but labels to man. The monk’s cell told me everything I needed to know about the “padre” to experience his entire life as my own. Other people might judge him in some other way, but for me the main evidence is my own one-hundred-percent-sure inner knowledge. This is also a fair approach to California as a whole. I feel absolute apathy toward what other people see it as. For me there exists just one California — not submissive to an applied meaning, not idyllic, not standardized, but matchlessly beautiful with its own beauty — unlike all else — and its own fantastic, unpredictable morality. “Create an America all mine — no other is needed./She offers rich bounty personally to me…” (“The Knotted Message”).

Personal relations with R. Jeffers were established in the same way: the reading of his poems, a visit to Tor House and the tower…

J.M. — For me, California Psalms opened a very important side of understanding life and soon became a part of me. I can no longer imagine life without them. But how much need do others have for this? A contemporary human being, a member of society, is already well supplied with all civilization’s gifts — literary ones among them. Does this person also need the Psalms?

T.A. — That is for the contemporary person to decide. Whether or not he cares about himself. But in case my opinion interests someone, I will say they not only are needed, but are crucial, indispensable. Firstly, Shakespeare is needed at all times. Secondly, I myself am a contemporary human being (just as my partner in this conversation), in a certain sense a member of society and, moreover, a reader, so this relates to me no less than everyone else. As a reader, in contemporary literature I felt a lack of “psalms” — so I had to write them myself! Where can I find a literature without the political and economic metronome ticking in the background? Even the love lyric relies on it for content. Only narrowly specialized, scientific literature allows a rest from it, a way to feel human — I am grateful it exists. As for artistic literature, the world has gone so long without receiving the pure sincerity of strong feelings and strong words from it that no one expects them anymore, just as people have stopped expecting true love.

J.M. — What traits would you point to as especially relevant in California Psalms?

T.A. — Trust and respect. In my view, it is on the whole much more contemporary literature than what old habits make us give this title. I have a very serious suspicion that the world has had its fill of yesterday’s fashion. The “young” model of art and literature, along with its moral-ethical and aesthetic codex, has finished its business — cleansed social thought from prior dogmas and inoculated it with new ones. It is too ornate to ever have the fortune to age gracefully. For what appeared “young” simply comes a time to grow old.

J.M. — The interests of California Psalms are on a different scale?

T.A. — A different scale of self-awareness. And they apply to a different scale of awareness in the reader. On the whole, the specific nature of our epoch, with its rapid changes in evaluative criteria, is given not for us to learn how to sew ourselves a new, single-wear frock coat every day, but to understand on any given day a frock coat stays a frock coat.

J.M. — Do the Psalms propose another basis for shared interests? Another kind

of universality?

T.A. — At a different depth. But universality can’t be of one kind or another. The universal is not what unites or divides, but what stays itself in one thing and the other. And outside them.

J.M. — I have in mind the principal of universality. Based not on the statistical average, but on the human being. Not within the scheme of equal voting rights.

T.A. — Democratic freedoms don’t apply in art. When an artist puts his hopes in rights that can be given from without, he ceases to await them from himself. The level of the social model of universality (and relevance) is entirely defined by the quality of its interpretation. The text of the Psalms has no need for interpretative readings to make it appear relevant. It can simply be believed.

J.M. — Like the golden section.

T.A. — It contains its own acuity, its own radicalism. One can approach the text exclusively in light of the meanings of today, with its needs and passions — and it will have its place. But at the same time, tomorrow’s reader, with his new criteria, will find the work no less rich. There is a kind of relevance that never goes out of fashion.

J.M. — For this, you have to deal with the most tried and true.

T.A. — I deal with what has been tested most because it is all I myself can trust, and I wouldn’t begin to offer anyone anything less.

J.W.M — Is there a need for such dependable material today?

T.A. — Firstly, a human being has an extreme need to be supported in feeling his own worth, respect for himself — independent of when the barometer falls. In literature, he has nothing but sacred and classical resources to rely on in this. But these resources are historical, so they can never be enough. It is hard for a person to convince himself that not everything authentic and beautiful has remained in the distant past. My good fortune was to have a chance to believe in the height of my human authority. And any person can feel the same way. At least at certain moments. To not forget who he really is. That is why from time to time such phenomena as the Psalms are needed — because in any society a human above all stays human, and remembering this becomes harder for him the more he is shown consideration only as a representative of a social category: whether of a majority or minority, it doesn’t matter.

J.M. — Could namely this make the extremity of your conditions in California a kind of universal symbol?

T.A. — This gives me a basis to define my experience as more than an individual experiment. An artist is expected to generalize! As I sat down at my typewriter, which stood at the time on a metal writing desk, I felt like Anka the machine-gunner: one for all. And would have to answer — again for all.

J.M. — Everyone seems to be in such extreme conditions now.

T.A. — At every moment of life a person exists in critical conditions because he is always between the past and the future — although this isn’t often expressed in as a pure laboratory setting as given me to endure in Big Sur. But my experience should suffice for something that matters to anyone.

J.M. — Does that mean Calfornia Psalms contains ready answers?

T.A — I haven’t used the word answer. The time for answers comes when the questions are ready, and for some, the question’s appearance might prove the best answer.

J.M. — Our talk makes me recall the Biblical psalms: where King David says all his bones can be numbered, and so on. Namely so that no one else has to do the same thing.

I would like to move to the theme of musical influences in your work. References are made to a number of well-known names…

T.A. — Composers? Beethoven, Mozart, Bach…

J.M. — And musical forms: requiem…fugue… I wanted to ask why the text doesn’t contain the name of Shostakovich, who in general occupies a notable place in your creative work.

T.A. — The name and phenomenon really do mean a lot for me. The body of his creative work, his biography, the circle of people connected with him. Not only the professional tie, but the personal one that arose during my work on his portrait, continues to evolve.

J.M. — Nothing in the text of the Psalms points directly to his name, but I seem to sense the influence of his creative concept side by side with other composers’ themes.

T.A. — I’m not certain it makes sense to speak separately of Shostakovich. If we want to touch on that subject, in Shostakovich himself is more than enough of the same Bach and Beethoven, not to mention those I don’t name: Mahler and so on. Of course, the internal accompaniment, the harmonic and rhythmic layer of the text absorbed the influences of a broad range of composers and certain of their works, among them especially the ones constantly “in the ear,” that have accompanied me throughout my life. But concrete mention is made only of those unconditional authorities, the “first teachers” whose music is already totally free of any incidental subtext. They also stand for the composers’ guild as a whole.

J.M. — Just as Homer in “Homer” stands for all writers and poets.

T.A. — The name works as a catch-all. Although the majority of such all-encompassing characters remain behind the text. For example, the echoes of Oriental thought slip by anonymously, although one comes across more than a few: “A great man truly is great when he makes no more trouble” and the like.

J.M. — And all these individuals in the end found their way to California: on the beach and in the mountains… In the canyon.

T.A. — I also had a need to be supported in feeling my own virtue! For this, it was deeply essential to gather my own high society. Orienting the consciousness on a certain level in itself establishes the length and frequency of a wave only an equivalent signal will intersect. Like attracts like.

J.M. — In a natural way, the American Indians also enter into this wave. When in California Psalms the theme of so-called American phenomena comes up — in “The Knotted Message,” for example, the “secret spirit of Indian camps” coexists with “pioneer sacrificial bonfires” — it all seems to contain an air of waiting for what may follow. The pioneers’ heritage, just as the Indians’, awaits its incarnation in the future.

T.A. — In the eyes of historical objectiveness, they are equal. All is brought to the balance of generalization.

J.M. — Much is said in the Psalms about the harshness of California, which you had to confront, despite all other forecasts. Could this on the whole not be the best place for a human being?

T.A. — Although my work was not about the Indians, in many ways in California I had to deal with the same things they did. It all falls into a single matrix, a single seal: Metaphysical systems, apexes of the enlightened spirit, the story of the pioneers’ movement to the West… California, with its legendary harshness, falls into this same series of phenomena made sacred in completeness. Like a ready symphony. Like a finished temple. Really, to end up in California fully conscious of what this means is the same as penetrating the altar section of the temple. And to avoid being put out of existence for an act of sacrilege requires an acceptance of the lawful norm of relations with this place. Who is allowed entrance behind the veil of the altar? There are three variants. Firstly, in the altar live insects: “Mountains arched ridges…/drew together elephant skin in folds, in canyon wrinkles — /shelter not for insect camps but the human” (“Art of the Fugue”). For them, all fissures are alike. At the altar may also be the servant of the cult, that is, the priest. Well, and of course it’s the place where the Almighty presides — it’s Him it is intended for. The insect’s variant is most accessible, safe and peaceful. It seems even God never gets around to insects, because they have no meaning and don’t want to have one. And so, frankly, in this temple I had to be all three. It is easy to trace throughout the text whom I felt I was when.

J.M. — I recall the example of the worm. Or “Why am I not a leaf? Why am I not a stone?” (“The Freeway”)…

T.A. — Sometimes this stays the limit. Until you make yourself confess that “if I am not as close to nothingness as the worm,/nothing will let me seem a worm” (“Mass”). There is no way around the worm when the soul has no strength left for anything else. All the same, more often the figure of the servant came closer to my inner identity. And on certain holidays arose a state of complete union, merging with God, and a feeling of unbounded, total power.

J.W.M — “The Master’s hand is my hand” (“The Sailors”).

T.A. — A consciousness of being indivisible from the Creator alternates with the understanding I am without rights, single-celled and primitive: a clod of clay on the shaper’s apron.

J.M. — This isn’t just your own condition — all humanity, all of civilization shares it: “My planet, my huge world — /only a wisp of film, a tender layer,/scorching ash to seal over the top…” (“The Sailors”). In the Psalms, a heightened awareness of the holiness of creation seems to come with an ever more evolved consciousness of belonging to “the vain struggle for survival” (“Table”).

T.A. — In a certain sense there’s no difference in what is experienced in those mountains by a bird, a deer or a lizard — they give an example of patience and wholly philosophical stoicism. In the same way, I, too, to a great extent simply belong to the earth, to dust, and experience everything that goes into the life of the elements: “this clay…is all the father-craftsman used to shape me” (“Lap of the Canyon”).

J.M. — And this gradually ceases to frighten or lessen the sense of being like a priest

or God…

T.A. — You just start to understand more and more you have nothing to lose all the same. The soul learns not to hide from the truth but to seek equality with it: “to elevate the truth of common thoughts and beliefs to the clouds and the asteroid and to the Mass” (“Mass”).

J.M. — It takes patience and acceptance, as you say there, too: The body “will have to catch up someday, adopting the light, unfettered nature of clouds under wind.”

T.A. — Patience is among the truest methods of cultivating the soul. A path straight from the worm to the “skybeing.”

J.M. — Not only the but the priest has to be patient. Even God is patient!

T.A. — God is the most patient of all! Basically, we imitate Him in this, too. Patience is an unbelievably important theme. In part, namely in California. Many consider this paradise on Earth. But this paradise makes few happy, as I’ve noticed. The thing is, to an equal extent it can be hell. California is a border. And not only geographically. A seam between extremities.

J.M. — So in some sense the paradise is for fallen angels?

T.A. — It’s the edge of the landmass and edge of civilization. The edge of human territory — the territory of human consciousness. Its end, the tail. Which sharply, like the coast itself, breaks off, giving way to the kingdom of “cell instincts” and open cosmos: “where harmony reigns with a singular egoism, impatient with disruptions” (“Mass”). This can be felt. There’s no great safety in being “a bone in the sky’s throat” (said in the same section).

J.M. — Could this explain why “The Night of Equinox” features the theme of “dies irae” (“judgment day,” Lat.)?

T.A. — “O how it is like the Lord’s fury — not like this objective!” The objective is merciful only to those who serve it. Or hide from it well. It returns to each person what he brings it. And it knows how to be merciless. It’s difficult to stay oneself on the edge of a cosmic fissure, but if ignoring causes life to acquire a trait of constant compromise, dissonance. Maybe in namely this has led to such a luxuriant flowering of experimental forms of art and such an extremely productive pioneering of virtual types of existence.

J.M. — “Muffling the summons from heavenly sincerity with righteous patience…” (“Homer”)? That is, either expending effort to serve or expending the same effort just to not notice?…

T.A. — And that means subconsciously some side of human nature is always at work on suppressing the background signal, and in this sense, the flow of life occurs in a regime of constant self-limitation. It’s the same as forcing yourself to be deaf in one ear. One comes across people fairly often here that settled in California for the natural reason that they were unable to tear themselves away from it, having felt themselves under its mystical influence, which they define as a voice of revelation that summoned them. Big Sur, especially, has a lot of people like that. Like an unusual clan that maintains a fanatical devotion to the land, as if awaiting its future leader. But really, in practical life this rarely finds any expression. What illumination occurs more often than not settles among the ranks of pleasant souvenirs.

J.M. — As said in “Homer,” local places patiently wait, “steadfastly biding their time…for when the brave will be prepared to rise to greatness…”

T.A. — Perfection is exacting. It takes courage to accept it. Contemplation means little to it — it summons to an answer.

J.M. — To an adequate love. California wants to be loved for what it really is. It seems there are few who love it namely for this.

T.A. — I think actually many love it namely for this, for the sense in its capriciousness, for its strength — more than a mythical group of pleasures. Although they may not give this any thought.

J.M. — The Psalms contain sharp imagery related to the activeness of the author’s love for California: “Upon the West Coast’s body…my hand will pass to smooth the curls”;

“wanting…to survey the wrinkled pate of earth, a caress of the skittish wolf brood” —

and elsewhere.

T.A. — Love is an active feeling. If I don’t want to end up enslaved by perfection, I have to make it my own. The dramatism of strong impressions is able to induce a person to reevaluate his life: not to proclaim it as unworthy, but to feel a desire to lift it. An acquaintance of mine who attended concerts of classical music complained that she is always too frightened and ashamed to come into direct contact with a musician after a performance — especially the greatest concerts: “What could I say to him? That I want

to die for him?” This is the very instance spoken of in “Mass”: What can one offer but


J.M. — “…being outside it”… But in fact you propose the opposite: to become similarly great. Through consciousness. Creativity.

T.A. — That really is the only adequate answer. The only equivalent. If you want to live with a right to be present, you have to assent to a need to answer. And not with less than you receive. According to your own abilities, of course.

J.M. — The character of interaction with California, of love, also changes within the Psalms. For example, this image we’ve mentioned of the “skittish wolf brood” appears, and in another place there’s “a wolf’s brow kept at length beneath a firm palm.” The impression is that, although California is dangerous and treacherous, at times one can treat it like a puppy.

T.A. — That’s only natural. I understand completely that I have the advantage of consciousness, deliberated action, on my side. It is neither blind nor part of the elements.

J.M. — And you also have the rights of a “relative”! A person of like mind. We spoke of those unable to leave this place — did you have a feeling that California can be not only a temple but a prison?

T.A. — But of course! That’s what it is. And yet I felt very clearly this is a prison I can get out of only “within the canvas.” In many ways, the impression of a prison was intensified by a total lack of choice: The nearly three-year period of waiting for a visa was a time of living totally without rights, including the right to think about the future.

J.M. — You took that dare as well.

T.A. — I’m glad I did. But really, there was no formal or moral choice left anyway. I had to advance in what little remained in my hands and became in a literal sense a question of saving my life. Because it was clear a return to the life of yesterday was already impossible — yesterday’s life no longer exists, just like yesterday no longer exists. “I move my orderly, unsparing hand, shutting/mildewed archival tomes…” (“Implantation”). But the temple turned into a prison didn’t cease to be a temple. Even before the start of work on the Psalms, “the coast days’ piercing height” (“Implantation”) had shaken me — among other causes, for the reason that I was conscious of responsibility for how I might respond to this height: Its towering genius makes it hard to grasp why the features of human spiritual craftsmanship in California for the most part not only pale in appearance but also seem amazingly free of their own will. But in fact California is beautiful — and completely deserves to carry the fruits of just as beautiful a culture. Just as free and strong. Sparseness is not in its character.

J.M. — “California” culture has so little in common with California that it would be a likelier fit for some other place.

T.A. — When I began to write about California, I had absolutely no desire to continue or bring into my work any manner or style I had been familiar with, known well already. It all struck me as superfluous and unnatural — like habits left over from school that don’t work for independent life and ought to stay in school. I preferred to entrust myself to the creative dictatorship of California itself, as I said before.

J.M. — This is addressed in part in “9th Sonnet”: “Like a baby cradled at your breast, I can take any greatness — /under the root, the richest black earth leads to a sweeter grain.”

T.A. — I’m writing there about myself, as much as America and California: “You, too, from the thinblooded pallet of unnatural feed/I will deliver like a frail rosebush into living land.” It relates to me in the same degree. There was a certain period of time (as it happened, the border between millennia) — a flight from the past to the future — when I tore myself away from reflexes and mechanical techniques of the past, but at the same time didn’t want to accept any one of the ready emergency schemes, the standard set of resolutions for my situation, the American recipes for happiness. I had to exist in a regime of vertical takeoff, without any insurance (in both a direct and figurative sense). It was a period, if not of non-existence, then of “absolute” being, when everything revealed itself as illusory besides what lay outside of time and was absolute — this became my “road of life,” my redemptive “rule of the right hand never lifted, sliding/along the laser line of life” (“Implantation”).

J.M. — Here one also recalls, “When walking the blade, balance and speed are the key” (“Magnitude”) and also “matter takes a prophet’s standards, tapers the strength of contemplation to an unreal sharpness” (“Table”).

T.A. — When you let yourself approach the point of extreme risk, when you find yourself upon the blade in a practical, literal sense, between “to be” and “not to be,” you lose any interest in conceptions of gain. Or cleverness. You start to give yourself a very clear reckoning of what a “step left or step right” could cost, and what you feel on your own hide convinces that frivolous thoughts are punishable — swiftly and unsparingly. Life turns into a ceaseless constitution of risk. Am I to be in the future or not be. If I refuse to “be” in a form that doesn’t suit me, that isn’t me, for me that means the same as “not to be.” It remains to stay in place exclusively by virtue of a blade-thin line of intuitively definable absolute truth, to balance on the point of cognizance of how unerring it is in its impersonal rightness. Not theoretical but real, practical rightness! There is but a single exit, as from an encirclement: only in going through with the situation all the way.

J.M. — Just this seems to form the overriding movement in the Psalms. A sensation arises that the setting, the angle of the gaze, tears more and more noticeably away from the earth.

T.A. — When reality as it has been, as I had known it, doesn’t just fall out from under the feet but actually ceases to have substance, materiality — in the sense of a fundament, solid matter — nothing remains but to transfer the load, the weight, onto the unreal, which has become the most real: onto the note “la,” the substance of absolute honesty before God and oneself, the pure element of it, which by definition doesn’t exist in the world of human interrelations. Society is a construct founded on the conditional symbol — it relies on a transient system of concepts.

J.M. — And so there appears clairvoyance.

T.A. — The unreal height of the stratosphere becomes the only reality. In it, solidity and firmness — and terrifying influence — are attributes of those seemingly detached concepts not accounted for in public life and usually relegated to the decorative role of religious-philosophical abstractions. But when flung to the height of these abstractions, one discovers they themselves are actually the one real reality. The one bread.

J.M. — The only thing that never jokes. Having no sense of humor.

T.A. — In such instances, a sense of humor is no help at all. And is inappropriate besides. I must say, I have already had my fill of humor — in both Eastern and Western modes — and don’t miss it in the least. It’s the other way around: “I’m endlessly refreshed by unstained cruelty in extreme measures’ system — its categorical imperative…” (“The Sailors”). At least, a place for jokes should be found farther from Sinai…

J.M. — Like the wave from “To the Choirmaster” that “On business…hurries, not worrying what changes its appearance will incite in the social apparatus.” The wave moves through the ocean and absolutely nothing distracts it.

T.A. — The fact of the matter is, this level of seriousness in the life-forging processes of being proved the only thing available to aim for as homo sapiens, in a place “between the wave’s giant demolitions and immobile weight of jutting rearing crags” (“The Night of Equinox”). I had to be submissive: “get down the pattern and borrow a model to copy” (“Magnitude”). As in creativity, so too in my individual life.

J.M. — Your perception of California shares nothing with the rapture of a tourist, equally overjoyed by India one day and Holland the day after. In your soul, California seems to have taken over a dictatorial, unconditional place.

T.A. — For each person there exists, besides a normative environment, a personal “holy land.” Not many people, of course, would head to California to receive sacred scrolls! Regardless of all its apparent distance from the commonplace, California Psalms is a completely sober and even rational composition. A clear head is a requirement of equilibristics. Just as discipline over the emotions. Mobilized sobriety. There is harmony, is algebra, but exaltedness here is a poor helper — one needs to keep control over one’s own condition.

J.M. — Strictness, as in the structure of a fugue.

T.A. — It was no accident that the fugue form earned a separate “psalm.” You can’t create one on inspiration alone. California Psalms is not an imaginary adventure, not an astral visit to worlds on the other side. Not a fantasy. And not an imitation. I always preferred genuine articles, my own production included.

J.M. — It’s simply the work of your own feelings and consciousness.

T.A. — A very concrete process of defining the sense in a concrete reality.

J.M. — We talked once about the vertical structure of the Psalms. And also about the fact that they were all written in one temporal interval and embody a single line of logic: an exceptional trait of this work. It is neither a set nor a collection of images or feelings, impressions. One can simply walk to and fro about a room or instead can cross the Jordan: “I move to a path of belief’s treasures, like the wayfarer passed over the Jordan’s waters” (“Magnitude”). Again and again, the author crosses her Jordan — or desert, or Red Sea: what it is necessary to cross. This is what at times gives rise to the feeling of physical exhaustion: The reader or listener is never returned to the base position.

T.A. — But it isn’t an uncontrolled stream of consciousness, but a precise trajectory of movement, a clear structure — not just vertical but three-dimensional, an architectural volume.

J.M. — At certain moments it reminds me of the ancient Greeks’ model in its sincerity of logical investigation — although here logic doesn’t exist as an independent object.

T.A. — It’s enough for an author to define a personal level — this automatically fixates the level of the subject. In California, my task became even more simple: There’s no need here to deliberately uphold the level — it’s enough to orient on the scale given by the context, the very land of California. On the grandeur of the unbroken drama that occupies the enormous stage of the coast — “What magnitude can I give the poetry of seeing every instant at the walls of the Californian citadel?” (“Magnitude”).

J.M. — The mind gains freedom for the heaviness of a concrete form: An opportunity arises to move along a straight line, step-by-step, without any fear of destroying or ruining what was made before. This corresponds directly to your particular method of painting: not making mistakes, not backtracking to do things over.

T.A. — Another distinct trait is that while living the life of a hermit in the mountains I myself don’t belong to these mountains — I don’t speak about nature in the same way as a person who lives in the countryside or even a writer of ancient Greece. He built his metaphors in searching for correspondence among an assortment of deities, while for me what helps is the specific profile of a contemporary urban consciousness.

J.M. — Speaking then, about what the Psalms might give a modern person: in part, the ability, while making use of all the contemporary baggage, to remain outside its power.

T.A. — Sometimes this lends the text the air of a kind of scientific investigation through poetic means, leading to the most unpredictable of approaches. Autonomous, separate spheres don’t exist — whether professional or day-to-day: It’s all simply one life. And all the arts, all the sciences are a single science of life.

J.M. — Like the “sacrificial altar” in “Lap of the Canyon”: “a setpiece for limbo at home and a stove to bake the bread.” Everything is equally sacral.

T.A. — There is no reason to reject modernity in order to open one’s eyes on eternity — always the more modern and eternally of acute relevance.

J.M. — What is meant by the formula “string sound section” in “Magnitude”? An intersection with all the points that enter into your life?

T.A. — Life overall. The border between “almost alive” and “alive.” In everything. The golden section of life, precision in becoming present. And so a string.

J.M. — For being clearly alive?

T.A. — For giving birth to pure sound.

J.M. — And having “roomy meanings” — also in “Magnitude”?… What can you say, then, regarding “California’s branding rod” in “Implantation”? Now that these words are next to each other, they won’t come unglued.

T.A. — A mark of entrance into the realm of the unconditional. A brand of consecration on the flesh of the soul. A catharsis of love. A print of initiation, rebirth.

J.M. — Signifying your master in life? California?

T.A. — What was made known — to me and in me — in California. By virtue of its transcendental form.

J.M. — What do the Psalms feel like three years later? Like that same branding rod? The same scorching burn?

T.A. — I’m grateful the burn wasn’t counterfeit: “I have pain as a mercy not to turn from” (“Implantation”). Well, in recent days we again paid a visit to the place described in “The Night of Equinox”: Just as before, everything possesses exact, literal correspondence. Including the internal reaction. That was a good test. By the way, to understand that the Psalms are a very conscientious reflection of reality, it’s enough to simply take a drive along the coast, to pass through concrete places. From far away, it might seem there was no way to get by without invention and exaggeration — but any person familiar with the layout of the stage understands it is all the truth.

J.M. — It is wonderful that California Psalms exists outside poetic interests founded

on invention.

T.A. — The text seems free of any social themes or urban orientation — but it is not “plein air” or landscape painting.

J.M. — I happened today to recall the episode of meeting with synchronous translators, and their attempts to translate your lines, “What are promises to me, while/the memory of ocean salt lingers in my legs?” and so on, from “Magnitude.” Which was translated roughly as follows: “I’m taking a walk on the beach, waves crash…” One can’t translate these things by means of such clichés namely because there is no “plein air” in them. It’s not at all like what the artists do who stand with portable easels along the highway with their backs to the cars… No, it is the “furniture of residential hills,” the “precise profile” of the coastline…

T.A. — It seems to me there is no need at all to devise critical systems — thematic or stylistic — to decide whether a creative work is timely. It’s wholly sufficient for the author to be the person he happens to be, the person he by nature is inclined to be. And then it really doesn’t matter what he writes about. When I write about nature, it isn’t at all to the exclusion of everything else: I really am a socialite. Even, one could say, an extreme socialite. In any case, an author always creates a description not of nature or an apartment or a factory — but of himself. I lay myself out upon the lines formed by the coast’s structure, its landforms. And I am overjoyed not only that I continue the California model of cosmogonic processes, but that a place was found for its Divine Comedy in the pantheon of my heroes.

J.M. — Genre taboos are tumbling on all sides.

T.A. — An interesting example, by the way, is that of Jeffers. He takes the decorative forms of California nature and introduces ancient Greek drama into them, with its heroes and its code of conduct. It’s very similar to what I do with my musical material.

J.M. — With the difference that for Jeffers the hero tragically bows to the might of the elements. Just as the ancient Greek tradition commands: He recognizes its omnipotence or perishes. Whereas your musician is the voice of elemental beginnings, while also of their making.

T.A. — The intellect, consciousness, as an element: Curiously, this is the very theme I happened to be exploring before arriving in California. The laws that control this element. The order of making it visible. Here, this theme collided with the mighty phenomenon of elemental nature, unconsciously concrete, physical. They merged like two waves coming together and as a result strengthened each other, forming a whole. Just as in the text: “Wave is set to batter wave straight through,/but hurtling to meet both forget all/they lived before./Intermixed,/they are reborn as a great whole…” (“To the Choirmaster”).

J.M. — How did you like it when from the very beginning here people immediately started to consider you a “Big Sur writer,” a “Big Sur poet”? Although a moment before, your creative work hadn’t contained a single drop of anything remotely similar.

T.A. — I recall there was even a person who upon seeing my “Coast Guard” said, “I always knew God lives in Big Sur, and I had a secret theory He is Russian.” It is marvelous that the Big Sur old-timers consider me the unsurpassed portraitist of the “Big Sur God.” The thing is, this mastery needed a very special school. And I passed it: thanks to many years of work with musicians. It builds a good immunity to strong impressions. The habit not to run from them but to sublimate them. Without isolating, myself, without turning away, to live a life placed in an area shared with a symphonic orchestra, literally pressed up against musicians, feeling the draft from the movement of bows and volleys from the woodwinds’ barrels. The habit not of dying, like my acquaintance, in answer to music, but the other way around: living in it and with it, working on one wave with musicians performing the most crushing “dies irae.” Busy with my work just as the orchestra with its. To accept the strength of musical influence, reconfiguring it in my consciousness, my vision and expression. In California, these professional reflexes proved literally to be lifesaving for me, because it’s very difficult not to abandon oneself to passivity, to lose oneself among cosmic passions. “Accustomed to the strictnesses/of regimented work of esteemed orchestras, I gave no thought/to the odds of such a presentation…” (“Art of the Fugue”).

A wonderful detail: It so happens that just before my departure for America I had the good fortune of realizing my old “orchestral” dream. I went through a rehearsal along with the musicians of M. Gantvarg’s chamber orchestra “Soloists of St. Petersburg,” right in a crowd of them, on the stage of the Great Hall of the Philharmonic. Who knew then this rehearsal was my special training for a smooth entrance into the scale of California!

J.M. — What is an ocean, if you can stay yourself in a sea of musicians!

T.A. — It really is the best kind of training. Incidentally, as long as thirteen years ago California gave me the gift of an invaluable musical discovery. During my exhibit’s tour of America, I ended up in Northern California, where I spent almost a month completely alone in the mountains, among virgin forests. While there, I had the chance to make a new appraisal of music. In part, the music of Beethoven. I found out — with the help of my own ears and eyes — that this music is just as ideal a conduit for the harmony of the spheres as for the voice of the human soul. At night in the mountains — no human habitation, not a single light in view… On a tiny open terrace hanging out over bottomless blackness, I listened to the Seventh Symphony. Very loud. The inexpressibly deep night sky was aflame with wild, trembling stars. Toward them, from all around, strained the enormous towers of trunks above the massive dark backs of mountains. It stunned me how precisely the visible fit the audible. No knowledge or faith is needed when the secret of eternity in all its glorious rightness lies open as if in a palm. “All these parts reflect that face/I make my only choice outside all contest and comparison…” (“The Sailors”).

J.M. — Amazing, that there existed an entire category of similar experiences only awaiting continuation: as in the case of your first journey to California. Suddenly it turns out even the theme of Beethoven in the Psalms was given to you in advance!

T.A. — “And the needed testimony will come from Beethoven’s/closeness to that music that gives planets and light-bodies/the first impulse that will make of them a leaping whirling cosmos”! That very instance. The next-to-last movement of the Seventh Symphony — “Village Dances.” Well then, when experts speak about it as representing music for dances, I always envision dancers of unearthly grace and grandness — only they could consider it “dances.” But I was shown the key to the riddle: an ideal closeness and kinship between the music’s Olympian titanism and the dancers just as free and mighty as it is, the same children of the Universe. And when the moment of their meeting arrives, man has nothing to add to it. For him, like the third and extra, remains the place of the stunned witness to the predestination of genuine for genuine, while America and Beethoven fold across one another on their own like the two palms of the Creator.

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