Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko spent the bulk of his last two decades in Tulsa, my hometown, and, this weekend, passed on in that fair city. Though he didn’t live in Tulsa until I’d moved away, he was one of the stars which, in my youth, I looked to for guidance. I’d like to share a few memories:
Me, 15, reading his poems of adolescent love: of teenagers blushing, of bare legs, of stealing things unabashed, and wondering: when will I finally steal, unabashed?
Let slander pursue me;
love isn’t for the feeble.
The odor of love is the scent
not of bought but of stolen apples.
What matters the watchman’s shout
when, wrapped in the sea’s far hiss,
I can cushion my head between
two salty apples I’ve filched.
Three years later, age 18, a gift:
“Stolen Apples; poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko,” and an inscription:
My favorite Russian poet
September 27, 1992”
I had just returned from a summer mission trip to Russia, where I insisted everyone call me by his nickname, “Jhenya,” and spent most of my time falling in love with a Ukrainian boy named Aleks.
That same year, my first in college, reading “A Precocious Autobiography,” which Yevgeny wrote at age 31, in 1963, in which he freely admitted his youthful love for communism. I saw in his past love for communism my own past love for Jesus: earnest, self-righteous, and daring the wolves to hurt the needy so I could beat them with a cross–or a hammer and sickle.
That same year, Yevtushenko, on my college campus reading his poems–“Babi Yar,” among others–I shook his hand. That same year, I memorized and read for a crowd of Russians “Окно выходит на белые деревья” or, “The window looks out on the white trees.” My performance was awful–I stuttered and stammered through it all–but, in retrospect, that stammering was prophetic. Years later, when I, like the poem’s subject, was a teacher getting a divorce from my wife, I would make mistakes on the chalkboard, too, and my own students would gasp and whisper as I exchanged the frumpy clothes I’d worn my entire adult life for shirts that said “I’m gay and I’m single and I’m ready to steal apples.”
After college, after a year in Germany, and a year in Connecticut, I was back on the University of Oklahoma campus. Yevtushenko was teaching a class. A friend was his TA, and let me sit in one day, and I brought my own copy of his out-of-print autobiography. And my own insolence: I raised my hand and asked him, as if we’d been having a 10-year-long conversation, if his film about the people crushed by their love for Stalin, “Stalin’s Funeral,” in which crowds were pressed so closely in their grief that they trampled each other, wasn’t a metaphor for his own love for communism? And: did he still love communism, or did that die, too? He frowned. He refused to answer; he refused to sign my book–“that book’s out of print for a reason!”–and I skulked out of the classroom.
Years later, reading David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb, in which Yevtushenko comes across as a sycophantic old fool; I read Yevtushenko’s book of essays, Fatal Half Measures, and came away with the same conclusion.
For the ten years which followed, I didn’t read him at all. Then, a few years ago, I channeled him in a piece for This Land Press in which I compared Oklahoma to Ukraine and wondered who would write Tulsa’s own “Babi Yar,” commemorating so many black bodies in so many unmarked graves from a “race riot” in 1921.
I think Yevtushenko was a little like me: we both spent too much of our lives pretending the crosses and the hammers we dreamed of employing in our youth were the same ones wielded by those in power–that we could take up that same cross, that same hammer, that same sickle, and end much misery. We could not. We cannot.
But: we are both Cancers, born one day apart in July, and, dammit, we at least know how to love. Like so:
Reason and rashness mixed-
A keen glance through us
and then again withdrawn-
All this is Masha-
a serious wide-eyed being
And the roof of my mouth goes dry
when her slender boyish legs
heedless of some grown-up’s opinion
bear her helplessly to me
And on the wet sand by an old boat
with growing confidence I kiss
all that Masha’s arms are- from elbow
to the rose petals of her nails
Randy R. Potts is a writer and photographer living and working in the Red State Confederacy. He recently completed what is likely the first longform piece on Instagram, "The Bible Went Down With The Birdie Jean," 80,000 words and 300 photos, found here, @thebirdiejean.