Out of context, the grammar is ambiguous in the final line of Zbigniew Herbert’s "Mr. Cogito and Maria Rasputin--an Attempt at Contact" (trans. Alissa Valles, The Collected Poems 1956-1998, 2007). We know plenty of women named Laura, but Herbert is suggesting that the woman in his title, Matryona Grigorievna Rasputina (1898-1977), daughter of the odious Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin (1869-1916), will never be celebrated by a poet as Petrarch celebrated his Laura in the Canzoniere. In translation, the poem is written in thirty-nine stanzas of lengths varying from one line to eight. It begins:
a hot day
in far-off California --
The Voice of the Pacific
received the news
of the death of Maria Rasputin
daughter of Rasputin the Terrible”
Herbert taught briefly at the University of California. He tells us “the short notice / on the last page / touched him personally / moved him profoundly,” and we sense the specter of Herbertian irony. Maria Rasputin’s father was a mystical grifter with inordinate influence over the family of Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the imperial Romanovs, especially Tsarina Alexandra. He was enlisted to heal their only son, Alexei, who suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin had been a stránnik, a holy wanderer, whom some, particularly women, found charismatic. In December 1916, a group of Russian noblemen, disturbed by his growing influence over Alexandra, assassinated Rasputin. You’ve probably heard some version of the story.
After the October Revolution, Maria fled the Soviet Union and spent most of the rest of her life wandering on three continents. Herbert writes: “at the time / when the usurper Vladimir Ilyich / wiped out the anointed Nicholas / Maria hid away / across an ocean / swapped willows / for palm trees.” She joined the circus and performed in Europe and the United States, sometimes in a routine with actors playing her father, the “mad monk,” and his killers. Again, Herbert: “she won fame / in the circus act / Dance with the Bear / or Siberian Wedding.” She appeared in a silent film, Jimmie the Jolly Sailor, and acted in vaudeville. She had two failed marriages and declined an offer to publish a fictitious autobiography which, according to Herbert, was to be titled Daughter of Lucifer. Here comes Herbert’s best line: “she showed more tact / than a certain Svetlana.” That would be Svetlana Iosifovna Alliluyeva (1926-2011), Stalin’s youngest child and only daughter. Her first book, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967), became a minor American bestseller. The KGB gave her the nickname Kukushka, meaning “cuckoo bird.” Maria published three memoirs, all defending her father’s reputation.
Maria’s obituary is accompanied by a photograph of her holding “a leather object,” “something between / a lady’s necessaire / and a mailman’s bag.” Herbert wonders what it might be: “—Petersburg nights / --a Tula samovar / --an Old Church Slavonic songbook / --a stolen silver soup ladle / with the tsarina’s monogram / --a tooth of Saint Cyril / --war and peace / --a pearl dried in herbs / --a lump of frozen earth / --an icon.” What piece of Russia does she carry with her for almost sixty years?
Maria spent her final years in Los Angeles, an American citizen living on Social Security. She is buried in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery: “what is she doing / in such an unsuitable place / reminiscent of some picnic / a happy holiday of the dead / or the pale pink / final round of a pastry competition.” Then: “No one’s Laura.”
“Mr. Cogito and Maria Rasputin—an Attempt at Contact” is middling Herbert, but suggests his obsessive immersion in history and the barbed nature of his wit. He is a funny poet, not always solemn. Herbert, the Polish Petrarch, died on this date, July 28, in 1998 at age seventy-three.