Jan. 20, 2005: MY KNOWLEDGE OF THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE (Ha Jin)

Dear folks,

Remember a few years ago when Ha Jin burst onto the American literary
scene with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Waiting?" Oh, come on, of
course you do. You, like me, asked yourself, who is this dude, where does
he come from, why does he write in his second language better than I can
write in my first?

Unbeknownst to me he’d been publishing for a while. A survivor of the
cultural revolutions in China, he came to the US to do graduate work in
literature at Brandeis (near Boston). The following poem comes from a book
published around this time. Later, a member of our own reading group had
him as a teacher!

Ha Jin–a pseudonym; his real name is Xuefei Jin–joined the Chinese Army
when he was not yet fourteen, in 1969. That experience informs a lot of
"Waiting," and the fact that he patrolled the Chinese-Russian border also
helps to explain the great ending of this poem, which begins with such coy
loveliness. I just really liked reading it.

The Verse will take a week off next week while I travel (reuning, in fact,
with two members) unless someone wants to step in. All you really have to
do is click "reply to all" and send a poem. –Matthew

MY KNOWLEDGE OF THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE

It was stupid to tell you
that I knew a little Russian.
You were so pleased,
as if I was a jar of the best caviar
which you found
while holding a glass of vodka.
You grasped my hand and your eyes looked wild.
You poured out some Russian words
that sounded like a flock of swans
flying out of a lake.

I could not answer you in Russian.
You must have thought I was a fake,
for you released my hand,
lowered your eyes,
and let silence prove my guilt.

But I do know a little Russian.
The first sentence I learned was:
"Put down your arms!"
The last sentence I could shout was:
"Hands Up! Follow Me!"

-1988

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