Katherine E. Young

Driving the M8


for John


There are bandits on this road, the kind

who years ago would’ve lurked on horseback here

at forest's eave where the highway narrows

obligingly at the edge of Vladimir oblast': 

good spot for an ambush.  I'm the one driving

in this dream, although in life you usually drive

the second-hand car with empty holes in the hood

and trunk where someone filched the BMW

emblems from right under the nose of the dvornik

who loiters all day in the parking lot, keeping

an eye on us foreigners (Whose eye?  Why?).

Our car's muscular, smooth, but not like what

the bandits drive:  tint-windowed Mercedes

purring along the road, stiff-arming Soviet

models that run on rubber bands and spit.

Every Russian fixes cars.  Sometimes

the BMW breaks down:  I pop the hood,

make a show of feminine helplessness

for ten, fifteen seconds, till the screech

of tires, sometimes two or three sets, as the drivers

of Ladas or Zhigulis or—once—a Chaika

spring from their seats, screwdrivers in hand, itching

to take a look beneath that foreign hood. 

They always manage to get it going again.


Now bandits broker the trade in beach towels—

a thousand miles from any ocean, Mickey

waves his mitts from every clothesline an hour's

drive on either side of Sergeyev Posad –

we ask ourselves what the profit is in that

but can't come up with a satisfactory answer. 

Oh, you're here—funny, I left alone. 

Look!  There's a bandit pulling off the road. 

Cigarette dangling, Ray Bans cocked, he's young,

smooth-shaven, with something slightly vulpine about

his cheek and nascent jowl.  The kind of man

who rarely looks at me, which is best

because one glance in those ferocious, needy

eyes and I'm a goner, I'm mom and whore

and Little Red Riding Hood all rolled into one. 

The bandit bends to flick mud from his shoe

as he shakes down the owners of beat-up cars

parked by the roadside, impromptu market

in enamel pans, patterned curtains, crystal

chandeliers:  opportunity knocking.


I take it back:  you're not in this dream, after all. 

You're never in my dreams anymore.  Twenty-

five years of tuna melts, nylon sheers,

utility bills, and suddenly you've vanished,

poof!  As if you'd never been.  As if

you hadn't dragged the mattress across the room

on our wedding night, although it was one hundred

and ten in the dark and the tiny window a/c

might as well have been broken.  As if

you hadn't cried next morning when you posed

among bouquets and empty champagne bottles

for the photograph still propped beside my bed: 

proof that joy exists, in spite of all

our dreary evidence to the contrary. 

No matter:  I'm following the wolf pack now,

I'm on the scent of danger.  I know full well

there's a dumpster in my future, only,

god, not today, oh, not today.  Today

I'm driving on what passes for a highway

in Russia and, instead of you, maybe

my passenger's a modern highwayman: 

yes.  Maybe I'm driving him along his rounds. 

You're beautiful, he says in his soulful Russian,

stroking my cheek and blowing smoke out the window.

Or maybe I'm the one who's saying it,

because it's true, he's beautiful as wild,

beautiful as feral, beautiful

as fear.  Soon we're stopping at a hamlet

composed of a dozen knock-kneed cottages.

My bandit's all business counting out

his cut from jars of fresh pickles, pails

of potatoes, buckets of cut daisies clustered

at the feet of an empty stool that leans

against a half-hinged gate.  I'm tasting one

of those pickles, feather-frond of dill

still clinging to its rind, swallowing

the brine and gall of being ornamental. 

Serviceable.  I've decided there's no

such thing as essential:  we're—all of us—

intimate strangers who'll disappear some morning:

tomorrow, or next month, or maybe twenty-

five years along the line, joy becoming

theoretical as it vanishes, unbelief

chafing fingers where rings once held sway.


With bandits, at least, I know what I'm getting. 

My passenger's eyes stray to the gate, where

a blonde, lipsticked siren accidentally

hooks her miniskirt as she hastens to meet us. 

Underwear flashes pink:  pattern of hearts.

This village lies at the end of the universe. 

I know what's coming next:  my tongue is

torn out.  I change myself to a nightingale. 

Now, too late, you come looking for me.

You recognize the place:  storks nesting in chimneys,

scrollwork edging the windows, scent of onions

and mushrooms infusing the air.  All

the cottages sag in unison toward a church

whose star-speckled dome has split in two.



Katherine E. Young's poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, Poetry Daily, and many others and have been featured in Spreading the Word:  Editors on Poetry and Don't Leave Hungry:  Fifty Years of Southern Poetry Review.  She is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Van Gogh in Moscow (Pudding House Press, 2008) and Gentling the Bones (Finishing Line Press, 2007). 

Editor's Note:  This poem first appeared in an earlier form in Innisfree 3:
http://www.authormark.com/article_767.shtml.  It reappears here in Innisfree 13 because of the substantial way the poem has since evolved and to show readers one way a relatively small poem, in skilled hands, can become a substantially larger poem in both length and scope. Also because it demonstrates, once again, the truth of Paul Valery's observation that "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."  And, in fact, that a single poem may experience more than one abandonment.



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