There were two kingdoms only:
the first of them threw out both him and me.
The second we abandoned.
Under a bare sky
I for a long time soaked in the rain of my body,
he for a long time rotted in the rain of his.
Then like a poison he drank the fondness of the years.
He held my hand with a trembling hand.
“Come, let’s have a roof over our heads awhile.
Look, further on ahead, there
between truth and falsehood, a little empty space.”
Translated from the Punjabi by D.H. Tracy & Mohan Tracy
Yesterday, everything was possible. Today we’re good
as married. You don’t want to hear that,
do you, thinking I’m going to call you back
in from the rain to fight over the morning paper,
limning my deft and emotional promiscuities?
That we’ll sit in our sitting room,
watching the shaggy junipers twirl in winter wind
as a storm closes its throat around the city?
I’m thinking about how to ask God to be nicer.
I’m thinking about that fabled leper colony
where the last, solitary patient waited inside its unlocked tower
three years in the belief she could not step outside.
And how the local doctors visited only
to re-wrap her face, to brush out her last gold strands
of hair, wondering how to save anybody
so willing to kill herself with denial.
They wanted to talk about pain, the doctors, to say,
One day, you’ll be half asleep in the dark, listening to a radio
play in another room, and feel yourself
suddenly filling like a jug with the cold
awareness nothing more will ever happen, the disaster
of your old ambivalence, the familiarity
of desire’s wolfish teeth sinking into the body.
The body, as if it didn’t belong to you anymore.
The doctors said, Fear should never be elevated
to ritual. They told the woman, You must change your life!
One day, I’m on the steps of an office tower losing a shoe,
the next I’m screaming on a gurney, I’m stuffing a baby
into a diaper. I’m wondering the woods
in my scar-dark cape. Every story has an archetype, doesn’t it?
And if so, why aren’t we married? Why can’t we be
just like everyone else this fucking, fucking once? God, I hate
the way this tale is turning out: two aged strangers learning
to tuck in their blood, hiding the knives and bread crumbs
deep inside their pockets. Look, this time I swear,
I won’t run; really; I’ll come and go from my stone room
without a mirror, all my extremities taped in white.
I’ll learn to knit with three fingers. I’ll learn to read
into the deepening silences, to be nice to your step-sisters,
singing to drown out the tears of their ugliness.
I love you. Can I even say that? In this story,
I want to spend the rest of my life growing quietly bored with you,
locking away loom and spindle, sweeping out the piles
of rose petals and ash. For once, I plan to triumph
over smug experience. I marry you. Don’t hit me.
Please, just come in from the stars awhile, sit here
in this sitting room, let me find you another section of the paper
to argue over. The doctors said I get to wear a suit.
They said I’ll be released next Thursday. Listen:
even now, the junipers are whispering their dark good-byes,
thin limbs smocked in white. A riderless horse has appeared
on the horizon. And somewhere, out in the meretricious night,
somebody’s life is quietly changing.
"To Be Elsewhere"
We met in a coastal village
spent a lovely night without leaving an address
going separate ways. Three years later
we meet again by coincidence.
three years spun a novel
They fail to recognize themselves
as though meeting in another story
for an encounter.
One asks: Who are you, so cold and weary
The other says: I only know a thread is loose on my sweater
The more you pull it, the more it lengthens
until I completely vanish.
Translated from the Chinese by Karen An-hwei Lee
"A Brief History of My Life Part VII"
I can’t go to the east village anymore
because it is like going on a tour
of my worst dates. I get older, my heart
leaps at the sight of children
who don’t belong to me, I pronounce
everything like an Italian opera title.
I used to listen to songs and have someone
in mind for the you parts, now I just want
to be where the light is intense, I want
the kind of heat that kills you
if you drive into it unprepared. This
isn’t a metaphor for anything else.
When I speak of the light, I mean the light.
I go to church and sing along and feel
just as moved as if my faith were blind.
When I speak of the blind, I mean
the light. Truly the only things Lindsey Lohan and I
have in common are our preoccupations
with fame and weight loss, and yet I recognize
a kinship there, as if those two things mattered
more than anything. When I speak of
the darkness, I mean this living.
In a restaurant called Caracas,
I once spent fifteen minutes arguing
about an Ayn Rand book because
every time he said Anthem I thought
he meant We the Living and I said
what dystopia, what about the woman,
and he said what about the Home
of the Infants and I said what
Home of the Infants? What about
loving a man so much you’ll sleep
with another man in order to finance
the first man’s tuberculosis treatment?
Welcome to Russia, I said, and we
were looking at each other and then
not. I tried to picture Caracas, tried
to leave him for elsewhere, a fever.
"Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?"
If by real you mean as real as a shark tooth stuck
in your heel, the wetness of a finished lollipop stick,
the surprise of a thumbtack in your purse—
then Yes, every last page is true, every nuance,
bit, and bite. Wait. I have made them up—all of them—
and when I say I am married, it means I married
all of them, a whole neighborhood of past loves.
Can you imagine the number of bouquets, how many
slices of cake? Even now, my husbands plan a great meal
for us—one chops up some parsley, one stirs a bubbling pot
on the stove. One changes the baby, and one sleeps
in a fat chair. One flips through the newspaper, another
whistles while he shaves in the shower, and every single
one of them wonders what time I am coming home.
"For Pope John Paul II"
When I kissed your ring all those years ago,
I was one in a thousand there that morning
to see your smile and that half-wave for real.
Did you know I was tempted, peering up
from your hand, to ask, What about us?
I was only a boy. Inwardly, I did ask, staring
straight into your eyes with what you must
have dismissed as the usual awe and devotion.
Perhaps I believed you could be something
else that moment, a presence that would
at least register the fear and longing nestled
at the heart of that question. Ten years later,
watching the news about your death,
I would ask, What about you? This time,
I hurled the words with my mind to the view
of flats outside the window above the image
of your fans crying into cupped hands, not
caring if anybody would hear, let alone
hint at a reasonable reply. Your impossibly
round face bobbed up on the screen, smiling
to hide the grimace in your eyes. I looked
back out the window again, listening instead
to the man breathing beside me on the bed,
his hand like a buoy on the rise and fall
of my belly, nothing left now to ask you
that I had not already asked the sky, its small
congregation of stars, that whittled moon.
"Lost is the Farthest Place"
Even if they are lucky enough
to make it to a town
where someone else speaks English,
it could be one of those lost towns,
so small and short on pride
it has no written history, one of
those towns with a mountain
that shadows it all day long,
where shops are out of anything
indispensible, maps in English mostly.
Even if the place has a McDonald’s,
the help may only work there,
live outside of town,
be so young they don’t care about
museums, churches, health-food stores, dances,
or whether the town is on a map or if
the concrete complex
sprawling against the sky
is a university or a
flawed, forgotten nuclear reactor.
And yet if they stay on the roads,
go squealing around the sides of mountains, if
they press on up to sixty, seventy-five,
as if the road is theirs, put there
to try their untried courage and their
undying picture of themselves, if
they give no thought to
which exit is better for their lives, trusting
there will be a way out
when they are ready,
that the sign they will understand
is the one that’s meant for them to follow
and will definitely appear - this
is the sense of lordly luck
that being abroad and young can brew,
while all the time in fact
they will simply be getting lost
faster and faster.
If you are chomping at the bit to say lost
is generally in the mind, that I have given it too much,
listen to me: lost is more than losing your glasses
for a few hours, or your last twenty dollars
or your recollection of exactly how a compass
has anything to do with anything.
Lost is no fooling, lost is
the farthest place there is. Lost raises hell
with the mind, becomes a wretched boss.
Lost is where you begin to believe
no one can find you, not even yourself,
because you start to feel not worthy of being found,
given how lost you are guilty of getting.
True lost, I am trying to tell you, means
death, only its loneliness breathing.
Am I the only one who knows this?
"Северные элегии. Шестая."
Последний ключ - холодный ключ забвенья.
Он слаще всех жар сердца утолит.
Есть три эпохи у воспоминаний.
И первая - как бы вчерашний день.
Душа под сводом их благословенным,
И тело в их блаженствует тени.
Еще не замер смех, струятся слезы,
Пятно чернил не стерто со стола -
И, как печать на сердце, поцелуй,
Единственный, прощальный, незабвенный…
Но это продолжается недолго…
Уже не свод над головой, а где-то
В глухом предместье дом уединенный,
Где холодно зимой, а летом жарко,
Где есть паук и пыль на всем лежит,
Где истлевают пламенные письма,
Исподтишка меняются портреты,
Куда как на могилу ходят люди,
А возвратившись, моют руки мылом,
И стряхивают беглую слезинку
С усталых век - и тяжело вздыхают…
Но тикают часы, весна сменяет
Одна другую, розовеет небо,
Меняются названья городов,
И нет уже свидетелей событий,
И не с кем плакать, не с кем вспоминать.
И медленно от нас уходят тени,
Которых мы уже не призываем,
Возврат которых был бы страшен нам.
И, раз проснувшись, видим, что забыли
Мы даже путь в тот дом уединенный,
И, задыхаясь от стыда и гнева,
Бежим туда, но (как во сне бывает)
Там все другое: люди, вещи, стены,
И нас никто не знает - мы чужие.
Мы не туда попали… Боже мой!
И вот когда горчайшее приходит:
Мы сознаем, что не могли б вместить
То прошлое в границы нашей жизни,
И нам оно почти что так же чуждо,
Как нашему соседу по квартире,
Что тех, кто умер, мы бы не узнали,
А те, с кем нам разлуку Бог послал,
Прекрасно обошлись без нас - и даже
Всё к лучшему…
5 февраля 1945
Translated from the Russian
"Northern Elegies #6"
The last key - is the cold key of oblivion. It gives sweeter satisfaction than all the ardors of the heart.- Pushkin
There are three ages to memories,
And the first - is just like yesterday.
The soul is under their blissful arch,
And the body basks in their blissful shade.
Laughter has not yet died, tears flow,
The ink blot on the desk has not yet faded -
And, like a seal on the heart, the kiss,
Unique, valedictory, unforgettable …
But this does not long endure.
Already there is no arch overhead, but somewhere
In a remote suburb, a solitary house,
Where it is cold in winter, hot in summer,
Where there are spiders, and dust on everything,
Where ardent letters are decomposing,
Portraits are stealthily changing.
People walk to this house as if to their grave,
And wash their hands with soap - when they return,
And blink away a facile tear
From weary eyes - and breathe out heavy sighs …
But the clock ticks, one springtime is superseded
By another, the sky glows pink,
Names of cities change
And there are no remaining witnesses to the events,
And no one to weep with, no one to remember with.
And slowly the shades withdraw from us,
Shades we no longer call back,
Whose return would be too terrible for us.
And waking one morning we realize that we have forgotten
Even the path to that solitary house,
And, choking with anger and shame,
We run there but (as it happens in dreams),
Everything has changed: the people, the objects, the walls,
And nobody knows us - we are strangers.
We don’t find ourselves there. My God!
And then it is that the bitterness wells up:
We realize that we couldn’t have fit
That past into the boundaries of our life,
And that it is almost as foreign to us
As to our next-door-neighbor,
That those who died we wouldn’t recognize,
And those from whom God separated us
Got along perfectly without us - and even
That everything turned out for the best …
"The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose"
The smell of gasoline ascends in my nose.
Love, I’ll protect you and hold you close
like an etrog in soft wool, so carefully—
my dead father used to do it that way.
Look, the olive-tree no longer grieves—
it knows there are seasons and a man must leave,
stand by my side and dry your face now
and smile as if in a family photo.
I’ve packed my wrinkled shirts and my trouble.
I will never forget you, girl of my final
window in front of the deserts that are
empty of windows, filled with war.
You used to laugh but now you keep quiet,
the beloved country never cries out,
the wind will rustle in the dry leaves soon—
when will I sleep beside you again?
In the earth there are raw materials that, unlike us,
have not been taken out of the darkness,
the army jet makes peace in the heavens
upon us and upon all lovers in autumn.
Translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
"Couple at Coney Island"
It was early one Sunday morning,
So we put on our best rags
And went for a stroll along the boardwalk
Till we came to a kind of palace
With turrets and pennants flying.
It made me think of a wedding cake
In the window of a fancy bakery shop.
I was warm, so I took my jacket off
And put my arm round your waist
And drew you closer to me
While you leaned your head on my shoulder.
Anyone could see we’d made love
The night before and were still giddy on our feet.
We looked naked in our clothes
Staring at the red and white pennants
Whipped by the sea wind.
The rides and shooting galleries
With their ducks marching in line
Still boarded up and padlocked.
No one around yet to take our first dime.