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russian-american poet

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Last Sunday, my partner Sabrina and I embarked on our journey from elevated, compressed Washington Heights to the spaciousness of Cortelyou, Brooklyn. And as I walked, I saw many gardens. As we looked for the church, Sabrina remarked: it’s probably a house...where I see a house and read All Souls Bethlehem. And is that not what it is supposed to be….a home for those who are seeking. From the back of the worship space, I could see a homely staircase descend while people of different colors, ages, and genders entered and moved around.

Like the early church, we sang and we read scripture. And then something sacred began to emerge between all of us. Words began to rise, stories of disease and healing, murder and triumph. We sang and we greeted one another in one of the most non-awkward passing of peace. And then we raised the stories of a day that changed New York forever, that left tears on the eyes and lump in the throat for many in the room.

This July, looking over the Gri Gri lagoon in Rio San Juan, I managed to link to the Wi-Fi of our outdoor bar and a read news that forever changed my view of my homeland. I was visiting my partner’s relatives in the Dominican Republic, and as the power blinked in and out, the words of my uncle brought a weight I could not push away: I slowly read the news of the Russian “anti-terrorism” law that imposed an oppressive clutch of restrictions on the religious freedom, and really freedom of conscience, of my Russian people. “Religious activity” outside “designated places” is now illegal.

This is an incredibly weighty matter for me. I was nurtured by the courage of those who,  because of their religion, suffered Soviet persecution in Stalin’s labor camps or discrimination and brutality in their communities: my great-grandfather and grandfather spent ten and five years, respectively, in Stalin’s gulags; my father and mother challenged school and military authorities, facing discrimination and physical brutality. In fact, I witnessed this authoritarianism when my father’s visa back to the US was delayed for months in 2004.

That night, I poured tears for the people of my land and all peoples because we could not share this planet without the unjust structures of power and control. I poured tears for Latin Americans othered in their own lands, Haitians deported both from the United States and the Dominican Republic in a larger crushing of difference, of blackness. These were human issues, these were issues that emerged right here at All Souls Bethlehem Church.

The brutality, the fragmentation of relationships from the spiritual self to the family, local, religious, and national: the macrocosm. The weight, the pain, the immensity of it all. How could conversation, how could anything bring back those lost or take away the pain.  This ugliness, meaningless, this boredom of repressive cycles. The thorns in the flesh.  Perhaps, that ordinary, boring monotony of isolation, loss, and meaninglessness  that T.S. Elliot immortalized in his poem, the Hollow Men is real:  

his is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

But we have gathered here as followers of Christ, for us, it also unfolds within the Christian narrative. In fact, for the Israelites of the Hebrew bible, and really all religious folk, God is revealed in the vulnerable, in the absence, the silence. The Lord God says:, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for theLord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Maybe, as we spoke of the trauma and loss of 9 11, Shakespeare was right in calling tears holy water, maybe the silence and pain that resonated through the room was no longer isolated in the abyss of loneliness, but seeped, broke-through and made us more whole. After my partner and I were leaving church, we remarked how we appreciated feeling welcomed and listening to such intimate personal recollections and reflections. But we did not just listen, we also re-oriented ourselves to something beyond, we entrusted ourselves to that which we can not control. I felt lighter.

Yes, it was not solutions, but the most honest and helpless pleas that gripped us, that bound us in a holy sense of feeling.  Perhaps, this is because vulnerability allows us to confront that which is repressed or rejected, consciously or unconsciously from the whole. And this whole begins from our own hearts to the borders built around nations. From the person we sit beside on the train to our support of tyrannical dictators in the middle East. We, we just visitors are a part of the ministry of presence. We showed up. We held-up and resonated with each other’s incredibly different struggles.

After returning from the Dominican Republic, I was reading Angela Davis’ book, Freedom. My thoughts were on Russia and the encroachment of freedom that returned. Speaking of her understanding of Black politics, in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations Of Movement former black panther, academic, and activist, Angela Davis writes “the Black struggle in the US serves an emblem of the struggle for freedom. It’s emblematic of larger struggles for freedom.”

I came to realize that by claiming my personal vulnerabilities I was able to join the struggles of others and begin liberate myself from white supremacy.  I started from my vulnerability: my immigrant, religious minority, short, poet, experience. It was not male whiteness I had to defend or white guilt to absolve.  There is nothing to defend there: there is nothing good in domination.  I do not think whiteness as the Western, objective, absolute truth is real. It is the impersonal cultural and economic systems that continue to leave people of color disproportionatly invisibilzed, brutalized or killed that are real. And for me, that means there is only privilege to be shared within these systems of resources. I do not not have to invest time defending whiteness which was only a supremacist construct hurting us both on a social plane. This is taking our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as our starting points, not notions of supremacy. That means that there is something spiritually expensive, holy about tears. They have moved people towards insight and action.

Upon my return, I began to see wholeness, the repression of church communities in Russia as the same repression of alternate economies when people of color are harassed and even murdered by US police for “violations” like selling CD’s (Alton Sterling), loose cigarettes (Eric Garner). The wholeness of the global justice struggle began to uncover.  The Russian government’s attack on dissidents, LGBTQ, people of color, freethinkers, Muslims, and religious minorities is a crisis that to varying degrees joins the black struggle, the working class people’s struggle, the LGBTQ struggle, the feminist struggle across the world.

This fall will mark the first time I am not in school. Now I have loans. I am now in the world of adulthood. And I see how we become pulled apart by the gods of responsibility. Something has happened to the world of our daily life, especially in the screech and text vibration of the city. Job interviews and business pitches do not want vulnerability, but success, power.

Not only so, but constant attachment to solutions, the sound of verbal communication, to the certainty of light, digital connection, uncovers our deeper fear of silence, of darkness, of reality itself. It suggests that somehow, for us, words are superior to silence, light superior to darkness. And I think it is this kind of thinking, this orienation that allowed sexism, racism and neglect of nature and earth-spirituality.  It suggests an inner and outer world where something is rejected and unaddressed, controlled or kept at arms length. But when we approach the birth of Christ, we read of John the Baptist, strengthening his spirit through discipline in the steep desert terraces and blunt escarpments of the Judean desert (Luke 1:80). There is seclusion, stillness, and silence. And ultimately, we read of Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan River, compelled by the Holy Spirit to fast and be tested in that same strenuous terrain (Matthew 4:1).

How much energy, bodily and spiritual, is wasted on unresolved inner conflicts or what we call stress. I am afraid that unchecked, at their most tragic, these same energies can result in violence, whether individual, domestic or global. This energy could be channeled into finding our creaturehood through co-creation. We must begin to become whole and that takes just doing it, where even an instant counts:

confronting the challenge of confronting the real self, of resting in all our whole being, where prayer becomes resistance through self-surivival and expression. It takes reconnecting with all creation, especially what is most repressed, our bodies, sexuality, the earth, which feeds us. That is the place where vulnerability is home and renewed. We preserve our spirit from the thousands of needs that pull us apart. We may confront the thorn in the flesh; instead of being something we neglect and step on, hurting ourselves and then others, it teaches us. Then, right in our hand, the greatest thorn we hold in the greatest darkness, can become a match lighting the way to our calling: something powerful, a strength born within weakness.

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by  Pascal Dombis . Public Domain. Wikimedia. 

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by Pascal Dombis. Public Domain. Wikimedia. 


In a technoscientific age of near-cyborg-existence and capitalist social structure, we find ourselves pitted against each other and our own inner experience: whatever is not material, profitable, or logical is at best, distrusted, and at worst, banished: a very one-dimensional way to live. This has led to the abandonment of what spirituality is (derived from the Latin spiritus, to breathe)  and what it means to be human; and this abandonment is not only outside religion, but within it: the impulse to impose an absolute truth on diverse human experiences. Audre Lorde observed this when she alluded to post-Enlightenment thought on the world: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

For me, spirituality begins in the body and includes all inner (or “subjective”) experience, on its own terms. And at its healthiest, to be spiritual is to be open and in healthy tension to all experience: for example, it would view the findings of natural science, the Church Fathers, or the rituals of Haitian Vodou not as an opposition, not as a hierarchy of truth, but as different, different and equally legitimate dimensions. It may not be a dimension I enter or understand, but instead of being destroyed, it must be honored as still-unexplored and unknown. On this plane, the before-irrelevant beauty, wonder, hope, and love are able to emerge and continue to persist. Poetry, an embodied art because it is rooted in sensory perception and emotion, honores inner experience. As I write in the title poem of the book, "Excavating the Sky"

                                 In my room,
I punch in letters, mixing words

to bring-out sparks. And it is You, Yahweh. 

For me, poetry is spirituality and spirituality is poetry. Excavating the Sky is a spiritual experience and as such it is living and invites the reader to participate and shape that experience. 


Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Born into a Russian family, tongue, and country, beauty and curiosity as a spiritual sensibility seems implanted in me. My parents often remind of my first time attending an Eastern Orthodox Church service and the way I was transfixed by the dizzying chanting, candles, luminous icons, and incense. It was not until I read my Professor Mckguckin’s book Standing in God's Holy Fire The Byzantine Tradition: “The synonymity of beauty and holiness is something that resonates throughout all Byzantine religious philosophy, emerging time and time again, even into the present Orthodox world. Prince Myshkin's exclamation in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot catches the idea exactly: 'Beauty will save the World!'” Those sentences alone pushed me to claim my Russian identity and its spiritual sensibilities with dignity, a sensibility I had repressed in order to blend in, or what I now think was "assimilate" into the United States at all costs. I remember that only now, after coming to New York, did I begin to claim my Russian identity completely in all spheres. 

In the first poem of Excavating the Sky, “Perestroika” you get a glimpse of my roots for the beautiful, the seemingly different and sensual. Amidst the sterile and muddy economic rubble of the Soviet Union, I remember what would become my first retrievable memory of existence, an experience ushered-in by my mother in the poem "Perestroika," a word I heard often signaling Gorbachev's reforms. After the first line reads "In the sterile-white room, I would look-out / the window and lose count in the snow," I my mother finally arrives, bringing a colorful fruit that I did not see in an store-empty Russia:

She would carry a small aluminum can
and set it on the white table.

Slowly, she would tear open the metal.
Inside: a mango cut in halves, aglow (p. 12)


A description of my book, Excavating the Sky, reads that it seeks to “relate the inner spirituality of [my] Russian background to the fragmentation of a market-driven New World.” Living in an information age, experience is uprooted from its holistic, present-focus in order to fit systems of power and control. These systems of power and control (multinational corporate capitalism, white supremacy, anthropocentrism, patriarchy) have no concern of the whole and thus betray the spirituality, betray the breath, and betray all of life. The fragmentation created a tension that existed in and between religions, between the city and the country, and between races. 

A significant portion of the poems in Excavating the Sky were written during a very difficult spiritual crisis (“Excavating the Sky”) where everything I thought or every decision I made was subjected to the supreme authority of “natural” science and “secular reason.” This experience is dramatized in the poem of the same name as the book title, Excavating the Sky. Here, there is an emptiness and silence that is "absurd as wreckage" almost in a Camus-like manner:

Each morning, I rise like the
wrestling Jacob, running

through parking lots. I pray,
“Break open my counting brain;

make me your holiest fool.”
What blessed psych ward

must they leadeth me to


Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

From my wandering childhood starting in Russia, moving to the US, moving back to Russia, then to England, back to Russia, and multiple regions in the US, I have experienced exclusion. Thus, for me, beauty is connected to my commitment to heal chasms and put opposing forces into relation. During my now-failed Muslim-Christian relationship, I was able to survive through new ways of seeing because seeing leads to acting. Again, Audre Lorde's words are fitting: "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This opens up an important topic: the relationship between art and activism that I will explore in other posts. 

The fragmentation I lived under turned out to be ultimately destructive and you can feel these tensions in many of the poems. However, it was poetry, specifically the poetry of Excavating the Sky that honored, unearthed, and charged me; I touched the integrity of beauty. For me, just like Van Gogh's Starry Sky painting is a reflection of what Van Gogh felt, Excavating the Sky is an affirmation of my inner experience. But not only so, it is an experience that is participatory. In other words, it is there to be experienced and shaped by you:

There, above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens

rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets of gold,
hairless companions, and pearly gates.

I leave these thin wishes as words on a page. Here,
at my bedside, the Qur’an lies not far from the Bible.