Two Opera Arias
They put the fear in us:
if you don’t eat, you won’t grow, you’ll stay small forever,
everyone will make fun of you….
if you don’t listen, they’ll throw you in the cellar, with the mice,
gnawing away at your feet, you’ll become an invalid….
threatened us with the orphanage, you will live with the abandoned….
scared us with the policeman, the chimney sweep, the street sweep,
the alcoholic, the gypsy man, the robber man, the stranger….
they’ll kidnap you and put you to work,
you’ll be an orphan totally, without a home or name,
no one will need you and everyone will tease you
and you will be ashamed….
you will be a weakling and everyone will beat you,
you won’t be able to stand up for yourself….
you will ruin your eyes and have to wear glasses….
you will be a stickwoman, just skin and bones, no one will want to look at you…
you’ll be a fat woman, your cheeks out to here, and no one will want to look at you…
you’ll get run over by a car, lucky if you die,
because if you end up a cripple….
and if there’s a war, what will you do then….
and if you’re captured you’ll be tortured, then what….
if you read blacklisted books you’ll get locked up,
and you will never break free.… you stuff yourself with sweets you’ll get a rash,
and if you eat too many nuts – you’ll get an obstructed bowel….
you wanna be whipped.… this belt has your name on it.…
haven’t had birch switch porridge in a while… you’ll get sent to juvie,
they’ll take you away – the end, mother won’t be able to help you…
it will be the death of me, what will you do then.…
They come to the city and go to a museum.
The city itself is a museum, the pharmacy – a museum,
the public baths – a museum, the barn – a museum, especially a log one,
and if it has antique tools, then definitely – a museum,
and the prison – a museum, the market – a museum, and any apartment –
a museum-apartment, and every house – a museum of dwelling,
inside its wardrobes – museums of everyday life, of dishware and clothing,
technology of material production, weaving, needlework, craft.
Inside is mother’s clothing from the 50s, brother’s faddy threads from the 60s,
my first stiletto pumps bought at age sixteen
from a consignment store. Everything, I tell you, is a museum,
only it’s not possible to put on a museum show. Even the grocery stores
that stood empty, a genuine museum of time, anthropology, ethnography.
And the street, on which you walk daily or as a tourist,
and the bus – a museum of urban transportation and the metro,
the train station – it will be rebuilt, you’ll see, you’ll return,
and the former train station will be gone, together with its museum.
The church is long since like a museum, and the museum – a temple,
the aesthetic is spiritual, and time, although invisible,
is also a museum, a museum of air, of temperature, of weather.
Man discards everything, otherwise he cannot survive.
The best preserved is that which has been destroyed,
like Pompeii, or not quite completely in ruins – like The Propylaeum,
coliseums, sculptures of Psyche. Museums-cemeteries
of departed gods, people. Museum-beach, museum-forest,
and the meadow. You will see it soon in a museum.
I enter the café.
Seven men are seated in several booths.
Two with electronic readers
in opposite corners. A photographer
clad in black leather with two digital cameras
(I’m instantly jealous) shooting someone’s back and yellow scarf.
The man senses it and turns around. Asian face.
A young man in fur hat next to me
turns out to be a girl with a cellular phone.
Debating a bill from a dentist with the representative
of an insurance company. A nanny is feeding
a three-year-old person apple sauce.
The way he eats, it is apparent these two really
love each other. Another man is knitting
something complicated, dark green and bluish.
This is how we live in New York. It’s nothing extraordinary,
Same as everyone. I am reading Obama’s first book.
Two weeks to go before the inauguration.
Translated from the Russian by Mariya Gusev with Alex Cigale
“Böcklin,” he had just read and was paraphrasing,
“painted five versions of The Isle of the Dead.
His agent decided to mass produce one of them,
printed calendars, postcards, etchings, musical boxes,
and various other souvenir knick-knacks.
The painting replaced Millet’s The Ringing of the Bell,
ringing had been everywhere (listening, I consider why
the image of death had become so appealing to mankind,
for some reason necessary to hypochondriacs, symbolists,
those sick with tuberculosis, decadents, sadists.)
Freud wrote about it, that Böcklin, like the Greeks,
utilized the imagery of man-woman-beast.
Much later Max Ernst will paint an animal
with the torso of a woman and André Breton will buy it.
Lenin, composing the permanent revolution; on the wall
of his hotel room in Zurich, The Isle of the Dead.
His wife, Nadezhda Konstantinovna writes in her journal:
“He keeps staring into the face of the beast; this scares me.”
Hitler, enamored of Böcklin, purchases the original
at auction. In ’39 the painting hangs on the wall
of his office in the photograph that documents
Molotov signing the declaration of non-interference.
A copy hangs in the City Museum of Berlin.
The Isle of the Dead.
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale with Mariya Gusev
The garden’s shadow cradles me in her arms,
A hare frolics in the bath.
Seedlings for the yard, and something I forgot,
in the tin tub by the path.
The parrot listens to the radio at home
and, mimicking all the words,
struggles grandly with the Rs.
In the fountain the water swarms,
the green with the green.
A gray wolf guards our
By the porch mother in a summer
dress whispers with Aunty Olya.
The swings after a drizzle. I wait.
What is it you want, grampapa?
Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale
Originally composed in English by the Author
Old New Year Reading at the Poetry Bar
Genya is reading and I am looking at the mirror
on the opposite wall of the bar.
It shows a group of poetry listeners,
myself among the others. It could be a sepia photograph
of the 1920s, the 1930s, or the 1960s but it is an image
of the reading in this very bar. If I tried, I could see us young,
thirty years ago, my friends at one of the birthday gatherings
in our still post-Bolshevik communal apartments.
We had those types of faces, of poetry listeners,
those types of clothes. Genya moves over and I see him behind
the column in the center of the room. The game of reading
behind the column: here he is, here he is not. The walls
of old bricks, painted wooden windows, the mirror,
its multidimensional screen with fine young faces.
The girl near me covers her face under the hood
breast-feeding the baby. I am not to look but the mirror reflects.
I try to listen and not to think about a small Dutch prototype,
a painting with a similar pink baby’s coat. The girl is
probably a writer and the baby is probably a girl.
Genya reads his poems playing hide and seek with the column.
The silent film in the mirror turns into a time capsule.
I feel how quickly time is passing.
January 14, 2008
x x x
“I love you most when you’re asleep,”
my uncle used to say when I was five, six.
Was it a joke, exercise in irony mixed with sarcasm,
was it criticism, sign of un-acceptance,
disapproving unloving truth?
Why do I need to remember this?
Don’t I know he was a handsome shtetl crank,
Second World War paranoid veteran,
manic-depressive molester, sexual harasser?
His words should have meant nothing to me
but I was five-six and he bought me a piano.
x x x
I do not know how it happened
that half of the world’s population is now younger than me.
I was just growing up, maturing, developing,
even started to enjoy the process, and yesterday,
as if mocking me, at the gallery opening a friend asked me,
“How do you preserve your beauty?”
As if I am a mummy, a mammoth, an extinct species.