The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by Katherine E. Young
I. Eight poems from Day of the Border Guards, finalist for the Miller Williams Prize (University of Arkansas Press, 2014):
When she saw the cat's ears, the vet blanched
Gololeditsa, naked ice. Nuts spill from cloth sacks
Mushrooms: forests to be gathered
casually, beside the burned-out tanks
In the early morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan
greeted by cheering delegations of workers and World War II veterans
women and children were thrown in the river
sleeves embroidered with seed pearls
Russian poetry died of self-consciousness in 1840
Wearing a stylish brown cloche in the sepia-toned photo
I take the trolley to the homeopathic pharmacy, clutching my
Fur hat? Genuine Red Army knife? Lacquer box?
Baidarka: two-man kayak
Machine-gunned, their bodies rolled down the ravine
black swans on a burdock-choked pond
So cold men's fingers froze
Blend almond oil with yellow dock root extract
I'm still unsure of instrumental plurals
The antechamber of learning is the knowledge of languages
the cat pays for my mistakes
The Parrot Flaubert
That spring she couldn't rid herself of him:
his essence lingered in the rows of boxwood,
the balky lawn mower, the wheelbarrow
with the flat tire he'd propped against the porch.
Magazines, bills kept coming in his name.
Ants still overran the pantry, bait
untouched, as if she'd never set it out.
She had to remind herself he'd really gone.
Those last months he'd sequestered himself
in the basement, flitting from channel to channel,
crowds of celluloid Welleses and Garbos
repelling all her efforts to engage him.
Unhappiness sprouted thorns, muscled in
among the end tables. The words of a Russian
cabaret song lodged in her brain, evoking
fine china, Chantilly spoons, hand-knotted rugs.
She recalled the stillness in which he'd sat—
he'd seemed impervious—while the final
verse played out around him: the once-plucky
heroine, driven to hysterics, smashing
plates; the old cat saucer-eyed beneath
the sofa; and the parrot Flaubert, sobbing
uncontrollably again en français.
after Mikhail BulgakovI buttoned my long black coat, settled
yellow flowers in my arms,
struck out along Tverskaya, scanning
the shop windows, the faces, the cars:
it was either that, or poison myself.
I'd never met you—I'd known you all
my life. I turned down an alley
the moment I saw you. You knew me, too:
we met, as if by chance, among
dumpsters and coal chutes. You liked
roses, you said, but not these flowers—
Yellow's an evil color, you said.
Love caught us suddenly, leaped
at us like a murderer. I tossed
my yellow signal in the gutter,
tucked my hand beneath your arm.
Names for Snow
There are hundreds of names for snow, you say,
unlatching the fortochka in morning light.
Let's name them all, love, along the way.
Last night snow danced its boreal ballet
of whorls and swirls, fine arabesques in white—
you know hundreds of names for snow, you say.
Down crystalline paths we slip and spin, surveying
ice falls, tall drifts, single flakes in flight—
my love and I count them along the way.
In my head, sparkling visions start to play:
once love's begun, who knows? Perhaps we might—
There are hundreds of names for snow, you say,
gently, their meanings subtle, hard to convey—
elusive as love's many meanings last night.
I wait. You walk—silent—along your way.
Feeling foolish, unschooled, I whisk away
a sudden, childish tear obscuring my sight.
You know hundreds of names for love, you say:
I'll learn them all, love, along my way.
Only the murmur of gathering snow,
and, far off, the squeal of teeth
shearing steel, and the ashy scent
of solder riding the air; only
the blue-hooded crow, scolding
from an archway at us below;
only the thin-lipped solstice sun,
glancing anxiously across
your shoulder as you turn away;
only your voice, too faint for an echo:
How fine you are! Only turnstile,
platform, tracks seaming sudden fractures
in the earth; only this seat astride
my suitcase, train hastening on.
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
But how little they resembled the gods
who wore winged crowns in allegorical paintings,
those dissidents who frowned through scotch-taped glasses
and shook their fingers at my naïveté.
No more than I resembled Icarus
falling from the sky, my failures even
more ordinary. What amazed me then:
the armies of the everyday who woke
each morning and set patiently about
making something of their lives, despite
every conceivable incentive to do
nothing. Onetime ploughmen throttled combines,
the torturer's chauffeur strained his back
changing a flat, printers inked metal plates
to print the newspapers office workers
used to wrap up fish. On the Koltso,
trucks belched smoke; and up in space men floated
in expensive delicate ships and watched
the earth in blue radiance whirling away.
Thirty Years Later
Evening and snow: the bus draws
a line feathered in lead, the forest
flickers with indifferent flakes.
The season feels fresh, forgiving.
Behind us, now, the stone-toothed hills,
the broken-back churches, convents
and stations where women were shorn:
all safely behind, all shriven.
Before us the city, white licking
the brick, the stone shoulders, lips
stiffened to bronze—and Volodya
Kornilov, back bent in sentence,
clearing snow from the pavement.
Why couldn't I see? All my life
I've plied the sidelines, doubting idols,
seeking out frauds: the fartsovchik
dealing icons for jeans, the girl
trading friendship for my winter
coat, the boy who flirted and smirked,
wanting to meet somewhere just
us two. I've believed in no one—
everyday saints were alien
to me. Volodya, you know better
than most how long it takes to nourish
a soul: seed languishing in wintry
soil, sprouting in secret, thrusting up
a new, green shoot when least expected.
Sometimes it takes thirty years:
snow spattering the windshield, shovel
scraping the curb, papery rasp
of a workman's song, crisp, visible,
suspended in the freezing air.
Vladimir Kornilov, in memoriam
The Percussive Quality of Light
June 1993The earth begins to breathe again.
Twilight mottles the hands of a woman
reclining in a book-lined alcove,
shelves crammed with photos, thick-spined journals,
African masks. Proffering tea
and homemade jam, she recollects
the time Nadezhda Mandelstam
brought her husband new, warm boots.
Back then we whispered forbidden verses—
that's how he wooed me, she confides.
Nights like this they'd walk and talk
along Patriarch's Pond—one met
everyone there. Imagine: click
and whistle of the mating call,
illicit rhythms masquerading
as footfalls, petty treasons concealed
by the crowds, leaves, the filaments
of pukh festooning the pebble path.
The more one loves, the more's to lose:
no wonder, then, in times of trouble
wise hearts slink down the nearest drain.
Those days, it seemed the hearts of Moscow
clustered like diamonds in metro tunnels,
waiting to be mined by the few
holy fools who weren't afraid
to smile at strangers riding the train.
Hearts flickered in the ring of gas
where a kettle steamed, tinkled against
the paper-thin rims of tea glasses,
dissolved into desire—if only,
if only—while their erstwhile possessors
shrugged their shoulders, shifting the load.
Later, the one who'd laughed loudest
dreamed of exploding suns, light
stabbing through keyholes, flinging open
long-closed cupboards, flushing its prey.
Nothing's turned out the way we'd hoped—
no lustration, no truth commission.
The old informants lounge in silk;
their girlfriends accessorize the bath.
The light that figured in all our dreams
proved puny, dull, its purifying
power just an old wives' tale.
Daylight fades across the relics,
testaments to a touching faith:
paintings eschewing official style,
books inscribed by vanished poets,
boots peeking out from beneath the coats.
The air burrs with the murmurings
of untamed minds. Scattered around
the room, spilling from ledges, tables,
the narrow sill: buds, sprays, bouquets
of dead flowers, left dangling in
their vases now the water's all gone.
Nadezhda Mirova, in memoriam
II. The Editor recently interviewed Katherine Young:
new book, Day of the Border Guards, arises from long periods over a number of
years spent in the Soviet Union, and then Russia, as a journalist, diplomat,
and businesswoman. What is the origin of your interest in Russia and in Russian
poetry? Which came first?
title poem describes the arrival of Mathias Rust, the young German aviator who
piloted his airplane unchallenged across much of European Russia and landed
near Red Square in 1987—on the very holiday devoted to celebrating the prowess
of the Soviet Border Guards (Soviet citizens enjoyed the irony even more than
the rest of us). I had been in Red
Square that morning—some friends of mine were there when Rust landed his plane. Of course, Rust’s flight came to symbolize
the fatal weakness of the Soviet Union, which fell apart four years later.
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