for Irina

Little Irina Antonovna, six,
Took it upon herself to write to her aunt,
Laboriously addressing it to:
"Region of Petrograd, Max Heltz factory."

Why did she write this letter? Well, her father:
Ten years in the camps for being a scholar,
Dead by now. Her mother: dead. Neighborhood:
Wall fragments, smoke, equipment shards, Nazi bombs.
Grandfather: died of rickets while walking
Irina to safety. Grandmother: same.

The letter worked; Irina lived. Married
Dmitri, who never asked her opinions,
But did write Number Nine for her and maybe
Heard her when he wrote the gentle cello drone
That supports the opening. Or the polka--
Why couldn't that frenzied part be Irina?
Why assume she was always soft, helpful?

A young, diverse American quartet
Exhumes Dmitri and Irina for us,
His black notes crisp on their iPads, their bows
Vibrating like cicadas, their eyes flashing
Recognition, assent: one to the other.

They are pillowed in layers of safety.
A clean, bright stage, a tidy concert hall,
An audience that has heard it before
And knows just when to leap up for applause:
White-haired burghers of this college and town.

Irina's professor father would have fit
Right in, if he hadn't been starved or shot.
Little Irina would have liked to hide
Beneath that concert grand, so solidly framed.
A campus cop waits, unworried, outside.

This place is not real. What's real is in the notes.
They know starvation, midnight knocks on doors,
Cities murdered from the sky, orphans' fears,
They know, too, the terrors of the audience,
Shrunken in their seats, nervous to drive home.

Phones still ring with sad news; death sentences
Come in biopsy results. And beyond this room
A billion new Irinas plead to be spared.

See Stephen Harris, “Quartet Number Nine,” “Interview of Irina Shostakovich by Alexandre Brussilovsky,” and also “voices,” and “a poem should.”

translations from Kuruntokai

Kuruntokai (The Short Collection) is an anthology of classical Tamil verse collected by Pooriko Nachinarkiniyar in the sixth or the seventh century CE. The poems are lyrics of love and longing. Apparently they offer layers of religious symbolism. Here are two translations of #36, giving some sense of the original:

Poem from the purple-flowered hills
 Talaivi says to her friend—  He swore “my heart is true. I’ll never leave you.”  My lover from the hills, where the manai creepers sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants asleep among the boulders, promised this on that day when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.  Why cry, my dear friend?  Paranar, Kuruntokai, verse 36, translated by A. Anupama
She Said
 On his hills,  the ma:nai creeper that usually sprawls  on large round stones  sometimes takes to a sleeping elephant.  At parting,  his arms twined with mine  he gave me inviolable guarantees  that he would live in my heart  without parting.  Friends, why do you think   that is any reason for grieving?    Paranar (Kuruntokai
36), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

Or #46 …

Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees
 Talaivi says—  Don’t you think they have sparrows wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies, bathing in the dung dust in the village streets before pecking grain from the yards and returning to their chicks in the eaves, common as evening loneliness?  Mamalatan, Kuruntokai, verse 46, translated by A. Anupama
She Said
 Don't they really have in the land where he has gone such things as house sparrows  dense-feathered, the color of fading water lilies, pecking at grain drying on yards, playing with the scatter of the fine dust of the street's manure and living with their nestlings in the angles of the penthouse  and miserable evenings,  and loneliness?    Ma:mala:tan (Kuruntokai
46), translated by A.K. Ramanujan

I’ll try a reply:

We used to watch sparrows like this one. They'd look up at her, at me, hopeful, Head tilted: crumbs? fly away?  Now it's only me. This one flutters up To hunch under an eve and wait. When the rain stops, maybe it will find a bite.

See also: when the lotus bloomed, nostalgia for now, voices

Google Translate is not good at classical Greek

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, lines 19-35, in my amateur translation:

Prometheus, you will always suffer under 
One tyrant or another, uncomforted:
That’s the price of befriending people.
A god, you didn’t fear the rage of gods
When you gave mortals the forbidden gifts.
The penalty: you’ll always guard this rock,
This awful rock. No sleep, no rest; you can’t even
Move your leg. You just sing out your anguish
To no effect. Prometheus, it is a hard thing
To change the mind of the king of the gods.
For every new ruler is harsh and cruel.

And according to Google TranslateTM:

Arthovoulos Themidis absolutely, 
Nearby of dissolvable copper
I use human ice cream
It is neither the voice nor the brute form
Light, constant flame retardant
you have to pay for flowers. Tied up
lei a variety of hidden hides,
thunderstorms if the sun again:
This is a bad thing
bury you: à à à ù ù ù

this is what I give to the philanthropic way.
God forbid, not even for the balloons
Honorable Mention I Am Out Of Trial.
There are no stone guards here
Arthostadin, Cleft, the knee flexor:
a lot of good people and good people.
Type: Two grams of unpleasant brakes.
You left me alone in the new hold.

More Temperate

Most trees have leafed out for two or three days.
Each leaf unfolding in place to fill its space, green;
But the trees that flowered are wilting now,
Bold blooms shrinking to leave more space between,
Dwindling to stipples along each bough.
Superimposed: a lacy screen, damascened,
Patches on a slate background--the dripping sky--
Grey except at some hidden place where a break
Must let the sun flood up to certain high
Shingles, a wire, a spire that's a streak
Of brilliant white. All silent, a still sheen,
Sheer, stretched thin to fade or end in a blaze.

tangled beauty

Let us be glad for tangled things--
   For soiled fingers raking thick-stemmed grass;
     For matted fur on long, warm ears;
Or child's hair idly twisted in rings.
   A thatch of ganglia fires in the brain's wet mass:
     A thought--electric--splits, connects, adheres.

All things rooted, snarled, or tensed,
   Whatever needs some mesh to form its mass,
With loops, forks; twists, knots; ends, tears.
   Let's give thanks for things that are soft and dense. 

See also: for Gerard Manley Hopkins; and Pied Beauty, illustrated.

when the lotus bloomed

I was so distracted, tense, and busy
That I missed the lotus bloom.
Though preoccupied and hasty
I sensed something in the room—
Caught that subtle scent of longing,
That mute yearning to be still—
But I hadn’t yet an inkling
That the flower was my will.

(Answering Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali #20, “On the Day When the Lotus Bloomed,” which begins—in Tagore’s own English translation—“On the day when the lotus bloomed, alas, my mind was straying, and I knew it not. My basket was empty and the flower remained unheeded.”)

anxieties of influence

Emerson, Lowell, cummings, and Plath,
Stevens, Roethke, Frost, MacLeish, and Hall,
Ashbery, Bishop, Eliot and Rich–

I write them down in verse, shuffling their names
To fill my lines, making them my material,
They who took all the words I want to use.

(Longfellow, his house a federal shrine,
Is too “historic” to trouble me much.
Phyllis Wheatley, too, but all honor to her;
And grey Amherst is a world apart.)

My adopted city is still more theirs than mine,
Though they have settled into matte darkness
While I still walk the prosaic blocks,
Narrow sidewalks, double-decker homes,
Gingerbread, brutalism, and maple leaves,
And belligerent drunks who own their spots
Until the streetlights dim and the town stirs.

— Cambridge, MA, November 2018

self help: a short story

Political prisoner K. was sentenced to solitary, with only cement walls, a cot, a stinking bucket, and a food slot for company.

One day, on his way back from interrogation, he saw a tattered paperback on the floor. The guard let him take it with him. It turned out to be Letting Your Inner Boss Shout by Dr. Bradford P. Bradley, PhD.

K. was enraged at first by its solecisms, trivialities, cliches and lexical trespasses. Anything would be better than this! After reading it several times without finding any value in its Six Winning Strategies for Asserting Your True Needs in an Office Context, he began selecting fragments from the pages. The rule was to leave chosen words in place but hide the rest. For instance:

Another game: rearranging all the words of a sentence to say something better:

The Six remember. Strategies, always.

True, winners: their real minds speak.

These activities engaged K’s. attention for several days, but something kept intruding. Or rather, someone. Dr Bradley, PhD.–Brad Bradley–just Brad. Was he raggedly bearded and balding, with spots on his head and long speeches to give? Or a young guy, bored out of his mind, looking for new life though writing? A pseudonymous woman, quiet observer of her office culture? An ironist, chuckling as he typed?

K. couldn’t quite tell. Alternatives multiplied into a whole community of Brads.

The real author, whoever it might be, seemed to deserve the respect of attention. Maybe Brad really had only five strategies in mind, but the book was too short and he’d wracked his poor brain until he came up with a sixth to pad the pages. Or maybe Brad knew that eleven strategies were necessary for achieving your life goals, but the cheapskate publisher forced him to cut five of them, and now he was worried to death about his misinformed readers.

It was good, in any case, to have a companion. The six strategies had been meant as gifts; perhaps it would be better to accept them as such. With thanks, even.

Prisoner K. and Dr. B. Just the two of them, in solitary but not solitary. Shouting their inner bosses. Hearing the other’s shouts. Having someone to walk with blindfolded to the final wall.

(Chicago, Sept. 20)

The Anachronist in the Florida Review

(Korcula, Croatia) I am in Europe for a mixture of work–in Ukraine and Germany–and vacation. Meanwhile, the Florida Review has published The Anachronist as a multimedia feature. It begins:

The Argument

A woman is bound to the stake to be burned:
No hope of using the secrets she’s learned.
A sagacious doctor awaits his fate,
Captive in the Tower behind Traitor’s Gate.
His student could strike to make justice prevail.
Righteous is he, but his judgment may fail.
Over the sea comes a painter who sought—
Not the dark cellar in which he is caught.
In the midst of these four, a lady is torn.
She must choose just one, leave the rest forlorn.
Time’s arrow flies; let us find where it lies. 

A woman stands to her waist in a mound of logs and neatly bundled furze kindling. The split logs beneath her feet cut into her bare soles. A rope winds around her body from her thighs to a triple knot at her chest. The stray hairs on the knot’s surface shake in the wind.

She thinks: You watch small, harmless things like this every day of your life. If I were a child, I would play with this rope, pull its strands apart, or drag it behind me like a tail.

The words she hears in her head are Dutch, her native language. Although her body is trussed, she can turn her face. On her left she sees seated clergymen and dignitaries. The name “Thomas Lucy”—“Sir Thomas”—comes into her mind as she identifies a bearded, red-faced gentleman with a heavy gold chain over his furs. Look how calm he seems now, she thinks. Look at his fat hands, how relaxed they are, clasped over his fat belly. When he questioned me in the castle, those hands were always twitching, scratching, accusing ….

what it looks like to live

She’s all cheekbones, lashes, emotions
Conveyed in rapid succession, practiced.
Cut to his reaction, the impact on his famous
Face, bathed in a warm and flattering light.
Then they’re running athletically away,
Silhouettes diving before the fireball.
This is living. This is doing something.
It plays on long rows of screens suspended
Above the welded seats, the wall-to-wall,
The strewn paper bags and strewn human forms.
Slumped, plump, pursued by a slower fire,
None watch the screens deployed for our relief.
We find darkness in that old space behind our lids,
Or gaze out, or stare down at smaller screens
Where more looks and loves, kisses and missiles
Remind the living what it looks like to live.

(Dallas, June 4)