For Isaac Babel

Source: Slavic and East European Collections, The New York Public Library. “Vstupaite do Chervonoi Kynnoty!” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1917 – 1921. Photoshopped to restore color. The Ukrainian text translates as:

Join the Red Cavalry!
The Red Cavalry has destroyed Mamontov, Shkuro, Denikin.
It is beating the Poles and Petlyura.
Now the need is to destroy what is left of Wrangel.
Workers and peasants, join the ranks of the Red Cavalry.

And after more Photoshop surgery, the cavalryman looks like this.

Partial spectrum

There is no more sound. The archived document doesn’t include sound’s range of frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no more color, there is no more third dimension. The document’s way of being seen is only planar. There is no more motion, which means that the document can be seen in only one state of time, without a before or after.

There is still a Czar.

In the archive, a fraction of a second in time has been preserved as a record whose dimensions don’t include time. There, Stevensian order is reversed. In the archive, seem is finale of be.

Source: “A captain, Russian navy,” photographed in Newport News, Virginia, during the International Columbian Naval Rendezvous of 1893. Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

The poem by Wallace Stevens is “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”


From the city of Andrei Bely

There was a small public park on the north side of the square. In one of its linden trees an ear and a finger had been found one day – remnants of a terrorist whose hand had slipped while he was arranging a lethal parcel in his room on the other side of the square. Those same trees (a pattern of silver filigree in a mother-of-pearl mist out of which the bronze dome of St. Isaac’s arose in the background) had also seen children shot down at random from the branches into which they had climbed in a vain attempt to escape the mounted gendarmes who were quelling the First Revolution (1905-06). Quite a few little stories like these were attached to squares and streets in St. Petersburg.

— Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, chapter 9

Every few seconds for the last two days, a cyberentity in Russia has been attempting to break into this blog. According to several bloggers, this represents the activity of something called a brute-force password-guessing attack on WordPress’s XMLRPC function.

It claims to originate from an address in St. Petersburg. Of course that claim may be a mere act of literature – say, something like a May Day hommage to Andrei Bely, author of the great Modernist novel of terror and masquerade, Petersburg. In any case, the cyberentity claims to be headquartered not in St. Petersburg but in Moscow, where it calls itself the Super Professional Servers Network.

But its street address in Moscow is all Bely, all Petersburg. It is:

1st Magistralny Blind Alley, 30

And naturally, as a prudent reverence before literature’s power to blind and erase (the pseudonym Bely means “white”), I configured this blog long ago to reject all attempts at communication from Russia.


Verso separates from recto

Because it is now a part of the collection of a great library, this demotic little document wants to be read on the library’s terms. These terms include the bibliographical words “recto” and “verso”: words that weren’t part of the card’s language when it was, so to speak, a card. There were immediacies to those communications which are gone now, and reading the card under library discipline can’t bring them back. There can be no feeling left to revive in the recto’s image of the beneficent Czar or the verso’s words about a dreadful bad cough. But feeling’s literary history can grow from the tomb under the gentle rain of additional information.

Initial information, then: in 1920 the card was written by somebody named Clara Leavitt to an address in Maine, and its phrase “dreadful bad” in the verso text is a Maine idiom. Knowing that much, I can begin assembling data into a shadow biography of the woman who wrote “dreadful bad.” In 1920, say some of the data, a Clara L. Leavitt, aged 24, was living in the village of Waldo, Maine, at two addresses: one on Sheldon Road, the residence of her parents, and the other on Patterson Road, where she worked as a housekeeper for a man named Roy C. Fish. Clara the housekeeper’s spelling is a little shaky, but her handwriting is assured and her language is clear: perhaps a testimonial to New England’s high educational standards, perhaps also a sign of what Clara actually was. And Waldo adjoins the town of Belfast, so now I can guess that the word “Belfast” is what the card’s postmark was trying to say to the historical record at 5:30 PM on February 4, 1920.

In New England in the early twentieth century, villages too small for a post office were the bleak settings of ­Ethan Frome and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poems: something like orphanages for life, where life ended soon. In Waldo in 1920, for instance, Clara’s parents were also sheltering a seven-year-old granddaughter, Avis Leavitt, about whose parents the surviving records seem to retain no memory. She would live to the age of 56. As to Clara, she married Everett G. Payson of Waldo on March 18, 1929. Three years younger than Clara, he had been married previously to Margaret J. Gurney (1900 – ?), the mother of his daughter Anniebell Payson (1920-1923). To the 1930 census, he was a farm laborer who owned a house worth $200. Clara didn’t outlive him; she died in Belfast on April 7, 1967, probably around the time of her seventy-first birthday.

Half a century before then, the serious little Czar on the recto of her card had received his waiter’s salute. The card bearing that image was published in 1914 or 1915, but by the time Clara Leavitt wrote “dreadful bad” on its verso, the Czar had long since come to his own dreadful and well-deserved end. If that long-term change meant anything to Clara, it doesn’t show on her side of the cardboard. There on the verso, the communication seems to be only that the seasons went on – first in Mr. Fish’s home, then in Mr. Payson’s. The verso was only a blank space until Clara filled it, and when it was full she licked a stamp and brought that episode of her life to an end. But the recto wasn’t yet ready to end, because as of 1914 or 1915 it had five or six years of change to undergo. After 1914 or 1915 it never was blank, and then it kept itself busy signifying in new way after new way until the day it stopped signifying forever.

For the card, the five or six years began on the date when a courtier without a visible sense of irony wrote, “As the photo shows.”

Year by year from that moment on, people who looked at such photos actually saw less and less. Eventually they understood that the photos were going blank because they had no more to show, and then the Czar and his family were led down to the basement for their appointment with a firing squad. But what still does show amid the courtier’s now meaningless words is a trace of Clara’s pencil. Clara did some erasing before she mailed her card, but the Clara lines that remain are now going to remain forever, thanks to the immortalizing spirit of the archive. There will also remain a little segment of the card’s postmark: the black cancellation that came whamming down on the verso during the evening of February 4, 1920. That was what finally brought the change to a stop. From that moment, the card’s recto and verso would be divided between a before and an after, and the tailored little czar and the words “dreadful bad” would be separated from each other by a wall of time as opaque as a slip of cardboard.


Winokur-Munblit Collection of the Russian Empire Postcards, Library of Congress, Photoshopped.

Online sources of information about Clara Leavitt:

Rolling stock


This poster dates from 1915. In it, beside the artillery insigne on the boxcar belonging to Russia’s Northwest Railroad, a printed word says “Supplies,” and below that a chalk scrawl says “Due,” in the sense of a bill that has to be paid. In that picture and those words, the image illustrates the idea of a weapon being trundled through a snowy landscape toward the completion of its purpose. Like the picture on a banknote, it realizes one of the transactions which it is the business of a government to execute. Below the picture, a caption educationally adds: “War loan, 5½%. The more funds, the more munitions and supplies, the sooner the victory.”

Source: Photoshopped.

Not long after this edition rolled in its thousands out of a press, a different train delivered Lenin to the Finland Station, and then all those who had trusted that the Czar’s word was his 5½-percent bond lost their investment. Ironic interpretations followed. To the designers whose political labor brought this poster into existence, history was something toward which to roll. It was a future at the end of a line. A century later, we might read the poster differently — for instance, as an allegory of the term “wreck.” According to such an interpretation, wreckage may not be visible on the surface of the poster, but catastrophe always has been implicit in the design.


In Peconic, Long Island, New York, on March 3, 1942, a train collided with a car. At the site where I found this image of the aftermath, someone has taken care to note that the woman driving the car wasn’t injured.

However, matters of life and death aren’t the primary concerns of this page, because it is a picture history of the Long Island Rail Road. Asking us to read images as if we were not living men and women but creatures in a picture, this history deploys its picture archive only to direct our attention away from our lives and toward to a text. In turn, the text enters a strictly numeric register as it chronicles the beginning and end of the little station bearing the name “Peconic”: built, August 1876; torn down, April 1942, just a month after it was pictured with boarded-up windows across the tracks from the damaged automobile. For a moment during that interval, a train with a caboose passed down one of those tracks between the abandoned station and the wrecked car. For the duration of that time, someone in Peconic could have seen in the distance the smoke from the train’s steam engine. Both the caboose (an obsolete piece of rolling stock) and the steam engine (another obsolete piece of rolling stock) are gone now, of course. We’ll never see their like again. But the only thing in this image that can now matter to the text called history is the building’s unpicturable abstract hic jacet: 1876-1942.

Source: Photoshopped.


“Nothing beside remains,” as the traveler from an antique land reported to Shelley. But the antique land itself pleads:

Credit this photo: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,
(please include photographer’s name when noted).

The photographer’s name isn’t noted, so I can’t grant to his memory what is due. But as if my word were my bond, I can at least point at the anonymous text appended to a dateless image found in the archive and say:

“Look. The words printed above it say, ‘Woman and girl stand near the train wreck — Lloyd, Florida.’”

The words — either my words or the words I’m now writing about — mean almost nothing. Outside Lloyd, Florida, at some unspecified time during perhaps (to judge from the clothing) the 1940s, they are probably all but lost to the text of history. In the phrase “the train wreck,” the definite article the can’t be read now as anything but a symptom of delusion. The train wreck? What train wreck?

But in the interstices between what the text of history designates as events, it’s still possible for light to fall, and for sight and memory to account for that other, wordless event. So long as we remain near the wreck ourselves, we wordlessly know it.