Neighbor by Jacki Ochs

BOMB 49 Fall 1994
049 Fall 1994

Arkadii Dragomoschenko If one halts, and considers a word, this word which was for a long time familiar suddenly locks up—stripped of every kind of context, it becomes a thing in itself.

Lyn Hejinian Every one of these words is as strange as an insect. The insect’s antennae quiver from the page. It is looking for something, something to which it might correspond–other insects, a mate, its meaning.

 

Home

LH Arkadii: It’s morning. I woke to the sound of a child playing in a neighboring yard. The window was open at the head of the bed and the curtain was blowing slightly. Familiar smells of dry tree, cold dust and a slightly sour gray-green elusive odor of a particular tree or bush, familiar since my childhood, but it retreats if one searches for it; I’ve gone from tree to tree, bush to bush sampling their leaves against my nose, but I’ve never been able to locate the source of this particular sorrowful smell. It fascinates me, this smell that is always getting lost.

Jacki Ochs 01

AD I am writing down a small but sad and amusing observation from the life of the old cemetery, where I took a stroll about a week ago.

It was there that I was pondering my letter to you, about ‘home.’ I was trying to collect fragmented pictures that, though floating somewhere on the edges of my memory, were still unusually vivid … A glass of water on the cloth covering the oak desk, droplets of water on the walls, voices in other rooms, dust on the cover of the grand piano … . What a pity I will never be able to bring you to that house.

LH In many ways, home for me is California—or, more specifically, northern California. I was born here, as were my parents, my grandparents, and seven of my eight great grandparents, but I don’t think that has so much to do with it. Rather, it is a matter of having breathed the peculiar combination of dry air and damp fog and of having broken so many clods of gray dirt and so many stalks of dry grass under my feet. That’s my feeling—when I think of the California landscape, its magnitude is communicated by the air and its microtude by dirt and dry grass.

AD The Russian dream of a home has always been inexplicably linked to an equally forceful and passionate dream of escape—from home; this latter dream has sometimes transformed itself into an unshakeable, wild (I could even say, ecstatic) obsession with disappearing completely … being scattered by the wind. It is this characteristic, which is constantly visible in all our activities, that may very well become the dividing line between our cultures.

LH Home, in a second sense, is constructed around the possibility of satisfying practical necessities (eating, sleeping, bathing), and those depend on shelter from intrusion. If I add to the list of necessities certain activities which I want to do—psychological necessities, like writing and thinking—and if I confess that those are impossible for me also without shelter from intrusion, then I’ve made “home” into a fortress for my consciousness.

AD I shall try to tell you of a morning, long ago, in the late fall: when the earth is covered by the coarse grey salt of rime; when your teeth hurt from biting an apple, inexplicably left alone on a bare branch and made insanely sweet by the cold. The voices are humming in the kitchen, and you run naked to pick up your clothes off the chair, throw your sweater on your naked body, and run through other rooms to the backyard, where Grandpa is ready to slaughter a pig. It takes place within a moment, and a horrible oink rends the air; it lasts interminably, and when it dies down, wonderful hay is already crackling joyfully around the pig; you get its ear, crispy and smelling of bitter smoke, and you can nibble on it. And Father and Grandpa take their first glass of vodka.

LH Maybe home is merely a portion of space that one controls, usually by organizing the things in it. One thinks one is in control of space, and hence of time, and hence of one’s life—but one is only shifting papers and spoons. Well, I’m happy enough with that—I’m content to shift papers and spoons and call it home …

 

Books

AD I don’t remember when exactly it was that I described to you, the significance that books had acquired during my earliest childhood—the time when I first became acquainted with these things that are unlike anything else. I told you of the color of binding, of the paper and the methods of cutting the pages; of the delightful heaviness that you sense when you first take the book in your hands, and it feels so unexpected for your hands that have been expecting it.

Jacki Ochs 02


LH I remember two books in particular from my childhood—no, now I remember four. Actually I remember hundreds of books—at least, I remember there being hundreds of books, and knowing that this—this bookishness—was somehow important. Something depended on books.

AD Ten years ago, I happened to spend a few weeks in a remote village in the Ukraine. Across the street from our house stood a destroyed church. Once I saw the church door open, and a very young girl walked in. I had nothing better to do, so I headed for the church, and walked in too. It was a library, and the girl the librarian. Two bookcases held about fifty books. My eyes immediately picked Horace, published two years earlier; then a volume of Montaigne; then something even more oddly out-of-place, which made me want to rub my eyes …

LH The book that first comes to mind is an illustrated copy of Kipling’s Just-So Stories. There was one picture—I think it represented a monstrous whale thrashing in water, as if seen from Jonah’s point of view—this picture terrified me … this monstrous creature was eternally engulfing the world. It was as if a monster were lurking there in the cabinet, and could be lurking anywhere. I used to sneak to the cabinet and turn the little key that kept the glass doors shut, so as to look at the monster, with something like sexual pleasure.

LH I understood that I was in a kind of fairytale Paradise of Books, where they existed in a dream although nobody ever opened one. There, dreams were weaving an elusive image of a reader, which turned into myriads of passing fleshless shadows, one of the shadows being I, myself, as I stood, quite real in front of the bookcase making up these dreams.

LH When my father gave up his writing, he gave me his typewriter, and that’s when my own writing began. I was, I think, ten at the time. I had absolutely no preferences for what I would write—anything at all, just to be typing. And again, not because I like typing, but because I liked something about the accumulated print-covered papers.

AD I remember that I left the library (my memory may be distorted by time) filled with a certain pride of a man in possession of a treasure unknown to anyone; it was as if I had sneaked a look into some odd clockwork that was absolutely indifferent to the problems of the past, the present or the future, for speed and changes did not mean anything to its monstrously slow existence … There were no ovens in the church. It was clear that winter frosts, thaws, and dampness would destroy the books in the foreseeable future.

LH Now it is noon. I am terrified of time’s passing, when it is so irreplaceable. I look out at the wall of the house next door, the green shadow of a pipe, motes of light drifting from the trees—how does one express one’s inequivalence to that? Writing is really something else …

 

Work

AD I began a letter to you several days after the earthquake, but it was interrupted by an aftershock, which rippled through the room just after I had written three sentences and was wondering what the fourth should be, and how I could think about the theme of “work”—literary work or domestic work or the “work ethic” as we know it in Protestant society or social work, or the workplace and its organization.

The earthquake had the strange effect of making me feel lethargic and dispirited, not the least bit like working and apparently this was quite a common reaction. One theory is that people are conserving their energy for the next emergency.

Jacki Ochs 03


LH I seem to be slowly regaining my capacity to reason, and even—perhaps with a slight exaggeration—to use what they call imagination. On the one hand, in order to use something, you must have it in the first place. Yet, one way or another, as time goes by, we acquire a sort of experience, we develop an arsenal of wiles and tricks. Work is, I think , the most important of them. It is due to work that I am now trying to regain both my imagination and my ability to use it.

AD Being a poet isn’t nine-to-five work. Sometimes I envy people with nine-to-five jobs, or with jobs which have a particular definition, and borders, and beginning and end, with the accompanying sense of satisfaction and completion, and with closure at 5:00 in the afternoon, with only the trip home again.

But then, when home, what do they do? This question of what to do when I’m not “working” makes me crazy, and I realize that being a poet has made me neurotic (or perhaps, being neurotic determined my being a poet), so that I’m never satisfied with what I’ve done … And nothing justifies me except constant writing. And the piles of paper which prove that I’m writing.

LH As for work, what is it? Does any activity constitute work? Or, is work the kind of activity that a human being cannot reject under any circumstances, since he is threatened by misery, starvation, or, simply, a deterioration in his living conditions? So work can be regarded as a kind of activity motivated not by pleasure and experiencing the world in a leisurely manner, but by the fear of disturbing the necessary balance, beyond which lie unpredictability, danger and destruction.

AD The Protestant work ethic assumes that work is good and pleasure is bad. But it is pleasant to be good. For we who are obsessive, it sometimes is the greatest pleasure. This is very dangerous and unavoidable.

LH The Russian Orthodox tradition, its doctrine of revelation, still rests on entering the spirit of feast—of leisure, beyond which the chains of work are removed, since true labor—they used to call it masterful doing—is the prayer. From this point of view, work actually appears as an earthly necessity and as punishment—as a judgment. In this connection, I’d like to recall the odd affection and admiration that the Russians have always felt, and still feel, for the mentally retarded, the village idiots, who while still in their earthly life, have cast off the yoke of obligatory work; who have broken off the temporal ties. Why should work be a moral obligation? In order to understand that, one has to bear in mind the historical development of Russia, the horrible reality of serfdom—the reality of endless, complete alienation of the worker from his product.

AD I remember my father going to work every morning, and we felt that this was the most important of all possible activities: going to work. My mother stayed home as a housewife and worked, but it wasn’t regarded as work nor as important. To go to school was to be more like father-going-to-work than like mother-at-home, and thus I felt full of self-importance with my books and papers as I left the house. But sometimes … I longed to stay home, to do “nothing” in my room—to type and glue photographs and pictures into scrapbooks.

LH Yet I have had to do some ‘work,’ too. I have worked as a longshoreman, as a miserable reporter at a yet more miserable paper, as a janitor—I did this for two years here, in Leningrad. Some of my duties included sweeping the sidewalk in front of the building at 5:30 every morning, removing the garbage and carting it to the backyard; then, later in the day, I had to flatten the food waste in the garbage cans (there was a cafeteria in the building). Donning rubber boots, I had to dance on top of the rotting swill; stinking odors, rats leaping from underfoot, and other joys of life … . In the winter, it was tougher. The sidewalk in front, naturally, had to be clear of snow. I cleared snow; then again, an hour later; then, several hours later, again; and so on, till dark. Sometimes it went on two or three days in a row. Then, after a week or two, the trucks would come. I loaded these mountains of snow, only to begin again, and the whole thing became like a bad dream …

 

Window

AD The two large and 18 small panes that make up the pair of windows to the right of my desk are framing 20 views of the neighbor’s roof and the branch of a tree that is dropping red fruits slightly smaller than olives as birds peck among them. In the breeze, the leaves of the tree shift from frame to frame, and if I concentrate on seeing through only one pane, it’s easy to become hypnotized by the scene.

I’ve never made curtains for these windows since the neighbors would have to achieve some contortions to look in through them, and even if they managed it, there would be nothing for them to see except a woman at a desk and a lot of books.

Jacki Ochs 04

LH I think the word window is as usable in fiction or poetry as, well, tree. The notion—if I may put it this way—of the window, or its metaphysics, is quite definite and well-known: insulation, separation, and, at the same time, joining.

AD I especially like domestic windows, and looking through them. There is something touching, poignant, almost unbearable in the occasional glimpses into a room that one gets after dark, when people have neglected to draw the curtains and are visible—eating dinner, watching television, opening the refrigerator, talking on the phone. I don’t mean a view of an extraordinary thing (I’ve never happened to see one), nor of some event over a period of time (I would never allow myself to “spy”)—I’m not describing an experience that is filmic. What touches me is the utter ordinariness of living glimpsed through a window. This ordinariness frightens me, too. The continuity of human life and human lives is oppressive as well as comforting.

LH I remember, when I was a child and lived in that old house that no longer exists, the ease and precision with which my eyes used to find the window upon awakening. About this time—first in spring, and then all through the summer—it was always open. Branches of a huge apricot tree reached into my room. Behind them, in the elusive heights, the July sky was a washed stripe of warm blue. What joy it was to see it first—and, after it, the light and hot green of the foliage. The only problem was that if you looked out of the window when still sleepy you would inevitably forget your dreams. Is this why I can never remember my dreams? Is it also possible that all my life, when I wake up, I deliberately look out the window—to forget my dreams? One way or another, the window is always there.

You know, in many crypts coffins have tiny windows, too. Perhaps their purpose is to enable the dead, upon their awakening, to forget their dreams—life, that is. I can hardly keep myself from likening Leningrad—”the window cut into Europe” as Pushkin described it—to such a window in the coffin in which Russia has now found itself.

Jacki Ochs 05

LH I always sleep with a window open. During the day I pay almost no attention to smells but at night, especially at this time of year, certain night smells drifting through the window evoke vast terrains of childhood experience—nights of panic incited and panic subdued in the atmosphere of acrid fog, nightflowering weeds, ivy, apricots forever decaying on a pair of immortal, sickly trees.

I would listen to my parents’ voices, until I realized that they had stopped. Then I knew that they had finally abandoned me, that they had secretly packed their clothes and had waited to sneak away and leave me forever while I slept. This recurrent terror probably has something to do with the first years of my life during World War II, my father’s departure for the war, and blackouts at night. I don’t remember the sealed windows, the black window shades, the dimmed lights, but my mother has described one night when she turned out all the lights and opened all the windows and sat with me while we watched the blinking lights of a small airplane, lost just above us, trying to find San Francisco, which was hidden away in the dark.

AD Once, when I was a boy, around 5:00 in the morning, my Grandma wakened me … not even wakened, somehow I woke up myself and saw her at my bedside, which was quite a surprise, I must admit. The thing is, there was a fire in the neighborhood, and, as is well-known, one should not sleep during the fire. So, she and I—she wore a worn-out fake fur jacket over her nightgown, I had a blanket over my shoulders—we sat there in silence, looking out the open window, watching the quiet, vaguely shaped streams of flames and sparks floating by.

LH I suppose I’m elaborating some kind of symbolism of the window but I really don’t want to emphasize anything like that. All I really mean by all this is that the ambiguities that belong to a window, almost by definition, make it simply lovely. Nothing more …

 

Violence

AD It is completely dark now. Soon, my friend, I shall be sitting at my keyboard, surrounded by candles, the way they used to sit at old time claviers—the wick crackled, wax dripped on the pages, and the sleepy servant brought in a couple of bottles of Bordeau. Scratch the Bordeau. But the candles are coming back—electric bulbs have disappeared completely! And worse things lie ahead—

Jacki Ochs 06

LH It’s night. You are asleep. It’s very dark, I’m sitting in my room, enclosed in the lamplight, with a tape of African music playing (not very loudly from the cassette player in the corner) to further enclose the room. The music provides a second, emotional darkness.

It’s a strange hour of the night to write of violence, since for me the companion to violence is not just anger but a sense of vulnerability—and of pathos. Maybe, sitting alone in the house at night, I’ll realize how easy it is to be afraid.

AD Today in the store, as I was standing in line for bread, I almost hit a man. It would have been for a good reason, too. I have no idea why he picked me, but for about 15 minutes he kept yelling bitterly and spitting and pointing fingers at me. It was because of my kind, he claimed, that he could no longer buy bread or potatoes or sugar. That it didn’t used to be like that. That “bastards” like me would be brought to account, that the hour is nigh, and so on. The crowd, of course, nodded in sympathy, rolling their eyes, echoing his words, and sighing with fake sincerity: “See what people have been driven to; it didn’t used to be like this.”

LH A few weeks ago, a man walked into a crowded restaurant in Texas with an automatic rifle and killed 23 people, mostly women (he seemed to be aiming for women) and then he shot himself in the head.

A few days ago a postal worker who had been fired from his job the day before walked into a post office with an automatic rifle and opened fire—I don’t remember how many people he killed and how many others he wounded. Then he shot himself in the head.

AD It is quite possible that the man was enraged at his own impotence to change anything in this life, or was it my glasses—a dead giveaway that I was a Jew or a democrat or one of those who had caused all the trouble in the country—such reasoning is not hard to fathom. Meanwhile, the popular rage in the queue (mob) grew, too, and I realized that it irritated me as well. Finally, I could not hold back and told him, and those who wished to follow him, to go “fuck themselves” in the best Russian oral tradition, or else I would have to resort to bodily harm. At the final moment of my brief soliloquy, peace and quiet descended upon people’s souls. Everything around me grew touchingly calm, and then people again began talking about their everyday minor problems. The man vanished as well.

A few moments later, with a loaf under my arm, a newspaper in my hand, and a light heart, I strolled back home. I mused on the nature of violence and how I should describe it to you, Americans, when your every other phrase is addressed to this subject. For you it is, perhaps, one of the basic subjects in any contemplations on humanity. Indeed, whatever the subject—”feminism,” “sex,” “art”—sooner or later I begin to perceive an inevitable desire to at least mention violence, if not to get at the heart of it …

LH An hour or so ago a man knocked at the door. It was a homeless man named Terry. Over the course of last year, we gave him money when he came to the door. He’s a somewhat sweet man, I was never afraid of him. But as time went by it seemed that we had given him enough money, and as he came more and more often we gave him less each time. Then he began to come at night, some times very late, sometimes when I was home alone. The pounding on the door frightened me. I got angry and told him to stop coming at night. I think, to tell the truth, that he is either desperate or not intelligent enough to remember, but in any case he continued to come, until one night I begged him and then screamed at him and slammed the door. He didn’t return for several months. Now he is back, coming more and more often, and he seems less and less sweet. “Terry,” I say, “I can’t give you any more money.”

“Please,” he says, “just this time,—Please?” and he sweats.

AD Today is August 20th, 1991. Tuesday. Obviously the experience of these latest events in the country are not going by without a trace. They are reminiscent of a terrifying dream, or rather, of some kind of maniacal repetition or inescapability.

A week ago I was still serenely in Moscow, not suspecting a thing. People simply scintillated with projects, with plans and other insane hopes. I returned to Leningrad. Six days, as they say in novels, flashed by. On this Monday everything has changed.

LH At 5:30 in the morning, Paul telephoned from Washington DC, where it was three hours later and he was watching morning television news. “Mom, you’re not going to believe this. Mom, are you awake? Mom, Gorbachev’s been overthrown by Stalinists, Mom, you should try to call Arkadii.” I did. It was impossible to get through.

I tried to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t and instead I worried myself into a state of extreme agitation.

AD At 6:00 in the morning there was a phone call from Moscow, and I heard that Gorbachev had been arrested. It was like the appearance of a false memory. As if this had already happened to me before. Now it is night. The telephone connection has been cut by the Baltic military. In Moscow a curfew has been announced, today troops will make an assault on the “White House,” but tens of thousands of Moscovites, gathering around it, evidently will remain to the end. Yet a few more minutes, and from Moscow a new phone message—the “Vice President” has announced a warrant for the arrest of Yeltsin. The smell of blood is in the air and most likely exactly tonight the decision will be made.

Jacki Ochs 07

LH What will Moscow be like a year from now? Indeed, what is it like now? My sense has been that the past five or six years have been a period of ceaseless coming to an end (which is why the term perestroika, which suggests a beginning of something, was so comically and ironically inappropriate; “destroy-ka” would have been better). The demoralizing effect of living in a situation of endless ending was very obvious, even to me. Now, is there a possibility that a period of “beginning” has been initiated? I thought so at first—but now I begin to have my doubts.

AD August 24, 1991.

And so that’s all. It is all over. But as it seems, I have no strength left. I want, bluntly speaking, to sit and look at the wall, or to rent a hundred video films and, for one week running, not take myself away from the television screen.

And yet—it seems to me that even a few hours of war in an instant annihilated what could be called the sense of “privacy.” Each private, intimate thought—the intention of the gesture in a nod—became a public act, touching everyone. And this trauma is very persistent, and I think our consciousness requires a vast amount of time in order to get rid of it.

Forgive me, but I feel as a matter of fact a complete inability to talk about anything or, indeed, to write.

LH And now, as you say, it’s over. The pervasive feeling of overness, as a kind of death, was already so palpable when I was there the last few times, that I find myself hoping desperately that a sense of hope, of possibility, of desire informed by intention, of activity undertaken with a sense of agency, will replace all that is now over.

Your letter was written too soon after events to give any indication of whether that is the case. Your letter expressed, finally, absolute exhaustion.

AD There, I’ve received your final letter—I guess (it just occurred to me) I’m just as happy to see it as I once was to see the first one. It seems, however, quite impossible to imagine the times of the first letter: from today’s perspective, those times belong to the realm of fiction that has absolutely nothing to do with the real state of things. People here feel more and more that life consists of days and effort, while liberation—freedom—is endless exhausting labor. My own private life is simple and uncomplicated, like a railroad schedule posted at a small countryside station. I’m doing something … I don’t know what exactly, to tell the truth. I read a little. Then, of course, tea in the evening, like right now, and other things that make up the imperceptible tissue of our lives.

LH I have very little to say tonight, apart from this confession to having had a near obsession with news from your country. The obsession can now, it seems, pass. And I can turn my thoughts and cares to other things, like the voluptuous smell of jasmine blooms coming through the open window, and the almost solid dark of the night. No lights are on in the house next door, and except for the occasional darker dark of a branch moving into view as the trees outside move in the breeze, there is nothing to see.

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Originally published in

BOMB 49, Fall 1994

Featuring interviews with Kiki Smith, Arthur Miller, Steve Malkmus, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Noonan, Fiona Rae, John Edgar Wideman, Frank Pugliese, Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones, and David Bowes.

Read the issue
049 Fall 1994