Saturday, January 25, 2014

alpen glow

A breadth of  frosty fastnesses slashed my sight today,
Milk-glass skies, swirling shades of translucent amber
Deepening unto dusk, bleeding teal and myrtle--
These clipped nouns crumble to dust before them.

Above a winding road, Orion tightened his belt,
Dreaming a city of no fears in jeweled strands:
Topaz, lapis and pearls, throbbing, trembling--
Even tears fail to gain a purchase on this vision.

Once, in a small plane above the Wrangell mountains,
We swooped over the edge, a sudden drop-off,
A thousand chances to be swallowed in icy chasms--
Balanced by a preposterous antidote: lucid joy.


Behind this poem lurks a childhood memory: when my uncle decided to climb a 16,000 foot mountain, which he hoped would be an "easy ski" all the way back down -- and I helped my aunt bake batches of cookies, so that we could drop (literally) a package to him from the open window of a tiny airplane.

I remembered this day,  later on, when I found myself driving up a mountain early one evening, in 2014, and I found myself staring at the stars, questioning them and myself, and crying for what seemed like no reason at all.  All of the emotions in the world seemed to gathered themselves inside me ... and then I recalled how my aunt and I flew off home -- the other side of the 16,000-foot peak -- the vertiginous contrast of looking the side of a massive mountainous cliff straight in the eyes, then, a mere 10-15 minutes later, touching down on a gravel runway, safe and sound.

And then, somehow the stars (or I) stopped crying, and I discovered I was laughing instead.


Friday, January 24, 2014

We shared a ferry with Solzhenitsyn

"We shared the ferry with Solzhenitsyn," said my mother.  At the time, I was a moody teen, obsessed with Solzhenitsyn's books.

Her words sent me skittering back to age 5 1/2, when my twin sister and I were running back-and-forth across the deck of a rocking boat. This would have been our second journey north. Might he have been the tall, dark, glowering stranger with an accent who scolded us once,  when we clattered too closely, in his opinion, to the edge? 
This was long before I would have gained enough comprehension to blurt out, "Good morning, Alexander Isayevich."

In order to verify my sanity and memory, I located a news article from 1975, in The Gettysburg Times. Solzhenitsyn, it turns out, had been homesick for Russia.

My thoughts on Solzhenitsyn are still gathering, but here is an interesting recent blog post on the subject:
Josephina reads Solzhenitsyn

It is noteworthy that Solzhenitsyn did NOT end up in Alaska, but rather settled in Vermont. In 1975, Alaska may have been too much of an adventure, even for him.
"You burned the book!" exclaimed a resentful voice.

A sudden stench of scorched paper flickered in my nostrils, then all of the nerve-endings of the skin on my upper torso protested and registered pain, as if flames were licking at the flesh up to my shoulders.

"You were that book," continued the voice, "And you burned it."

Willow Mothers

During this season, night makes her presence known even during daylight, the electric air is infused with her twilight musk--even these streams of water now running along the road bear careful undulations of shadow along the elusive edges of each rivulet.

The willows are swaying and chanting a song in the mother-tongue--whisper--lean into them, let them gently tap you, remind you--healing begins at the place of the wound. We are the mothers of too-early awakenings--see! morning has already touched our soft silver tips. Listen, listen, daughter. The roar of the wind is kinder than your thoughts.

You who have been seeking since you emerged from the dark and detected the vast distance between self and Other--the first heart-break--come to us for comfort. We follow water, humbler than poplar, ever-sure and undeterred, unswerving. We are waiting for you here in the half-dark; Our Lady hovers above this thicket on the edge of the crescent moon.

Tenderest saplings know of your troubles; they read from your hands you why you gave up your voice. We have counted the hours you lay prostrate in prayer, in despair over your own frozen heart, before the Mother. Too many times have you been shattered, buried your anger, sunk beyond seeing.

So many years, you dreamt of dreaming: not yours, never yours, beloved and untouched. Never together and yet ever yearning. A voiceless seeking for a name, a question, a talisman--Sasha, Sashka. Alexander Nevsky, riding across the ice. And a ravenous hunger, trapped within silence, for words.

You thought you had traded in your voice for a cage, but look behind you, behold--it is safe here--we recognize the fearsome dragon-self in your shadow. It is you--but she burns you, sears you daily, though you do not know it. Time has made her into a torch--let her step away from the calendar and remain with the willows. She will wait here in silence until you have need of her.

Winter and ice are confused this year-- first thawing, melting, then freezing, and glaciating, but the kindness of the dark remains steady in us. Open your throat; make ready for the return of your voice, be unafraid of words. Our Lady is watching. Sense the strength of your roots, dear, let your cares go, be a wandering tree--but--watch your step along the path.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Anna Akhmatova

It is your lynx eyes, Asia,
That spied out something in me,
Teased out something hidden,
And born of the silence,
And tedious, and difficult,
Like the great noon heat in Termez.
Just as if forememory all flowed
Into consciousness like scorching lava,
Just as if I drank my own sobs
From someone else's  palms.


Anna Akhmatova

Amedeo Modigliani, portrait of Anna Akhmatova


When I read this translated poem as a teen, it seized me such an with utter delight, terror and longing, that I have never quite recovered.

A friend of mine once created this torn-paper portrait of Akhmatova. The original was ruined; all I have left is this photo.


For A.G.

Goroshek, how I miss
Our little games. No one
Was to blame. Our Lady
Covered us with her veil.

When I asked the ash tree,
Where was my beloved,
You came bearing oranges
And rusty henna roses.

You sipped a bitter cup to its dregs,
Bottomless Baikal eyes brewing
That book of anecdotes you're busy
Concocting to amuse the angels.

Through the mists, a glimpse,
But the noble white oak
Has gone. Forgive me, accept
These salt tears, and a prayer.

Moon Tree

Into a land divided: red, blue--
White stars drooping on flagpoles--
Two hundred turnings, marred
By spilling our brothers' blood,

Came a stale war, a fresh cause:
Rocket us to the moon, baby!
Apollo 14 held precious cargo:
Seeds hovering above La Luna.

The packet burst open, they say,
But a smoke jumper persisted, sent
Them out into dark for nurture,
Quietly scattering seedlings.

Planted near the Capitol steps,
A forgotten moon tree awaited
The executioner's blow, until
One gardener stood his ground.

A scribble inspired by a story I heard while living in Sacramento about the Moon Tree, planted next to the California Capitol in 1976, and then forgotten; was slated to be cut down during construction for a new entrance, until someone remembered that its seed had orbited the moon.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Glass Poet

A lonely falcon
Soaring over fire,
Dante in the studio.

His liquid addiction,
A hallow of desires
In a light garden,

Twirling inferno
Into fever of ice,
Untouchable flower.

Above is a sample of the work of the studio glass artist Paul Stankard. He also writes poems.


Be as moss along a braided river,
ever scrubbed from the pebbles,
earth's polished bones dis-lodged,

be as a drifting branch;
if you become entangled,
petition the west wind
to propel you downriver,

past the dwarf fire-weed,
past the salmon fry,
past the cattails in the salt marsh,

a shadow of longing
inhaled in gelid embrace
by the fierceness of waves
during a summer storm.


Gnank, Kara, gnank, Iren.

A dark cloth hung in the sparsely-furnished main room over the corner where the bed stood. Kara invited me into the kitchen, where we perched on low stools, and sipped tea. She began counting the stitches in her latest knitting project: a long, red sweater for her daughter, with the word, "Iren", in large, black, Cyrillic letters, embroidered on the back. Iren was named for a queen, which suited her; Kara was, in my eyes, close to royalty.

Watching Kara move was a lingering pleasure. Her long chestnut hair shimmered and shifted slightly while she fetched the kettle, and she lifted it behind her ears in a slow gesture. Her eyes were bright green with hazel flecks, in striking contrast to her creamy complexion, and the high-arching brows, which announced an Armenian heritage. "I am only half Armenian," Kara said apologetically, with an unusual intonation to her Russian, her curved lips pursing slightly. "Nowadays, it is not considered the 'thing'--most Armenian men want a full-blooded Armenian woman, so, being half-Russian, I was lucky to find a husband," she explained, while my eyes followed the aquiline line of her nose in profile, and I found it difficult to imagine her having trouble finding a spouse.

Kara told me many times, how difficult it had been to live in Yerevan, when Iren was a baby. "The electricity and hot water would come on for maybe an hour a day," she said. "We wore three or four sweaters. Winter in Yerevan is no joke. When the water came on, we would wash everything and ourselves until it ran out." When Iren was tiny, she told me, they had bundled her up like a mummy, so she wouldn't get sick.

Uncovering a large glass jar, Kara pushed it towards me across the table and asked if I had ever tried tkemali. "It is a green plum sauce, made from my relatives' plums. There are hardly any trees left in Yerevan, we burnt them all for fuel, but these were from the countryside," she said. The speckled eyes gleamed in a spurt of homesickness. She spoke to Iren in Armenian, and the little girl answered.

I tried the tkemali on some black bread. The color of it was mostly green; I tasted tart fruit, and sweetness, some spice, and the pungency of garlic, mint, and coriander. "I like it," I admitted to her. Kara ladled some of the sauce into a small jar as a gift for me. We discussed which stores were most likely to have milk, or sour cream, and what was new at the detsky mir (children's store) down the road. Kara asked me, as she often did, about life in the United States, and I tried to explain what things were like, how commercials should not be believed in, and that most people, such as myself, did not look like they had just stepped out of a Hollywood movie.

When I brought it home and opened the jar, I noticed the tkemali was nearly the same shade as Kara's eyes. While it lasted, I had the luxury of spreading it on a little bread, or on some hot noodles, and would close my own eyes and imagine that I was in an Armenian orchard, some time before the earthquake struck and the war with Azerbaijan began, and that Kara and I would be sitting, chatting contentedly under a plum tree, until I heard her soft voice saying, "Gnank..." "Let's go ..." and the illusion would dissipate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The scent of pineapple, fading

On the table before Iulia stood a pineapple. Practically speaking, it was an ordinary piece of fruit, but for her at that moment, it seemed to hold magical properties. She touched its rough scales, and tugged at one of the leaves in the center, which immediately gave way and popped out into her hand. The best part of it, though, was the smell. When she sniffed it, the warm and sweet odor seemed to envelop her. She closed her eyes and could see the rusty red soil of Hawaii.

Iulia decided to try the same thing with a sprig of cilantro. She rummaged in the fridge, and brought it to her lips. There it was, all crushed green leaves, tomatoes and peppers and verdant summer. Could there be anything lovelier?

The doorbell rang; it was Tanya. "My car is not working, I’m pulling up to your driveway to park it for a bit, devochka."

"That’s fine," murmured Iulia, still in her pineapple reverie. She tried to explain what she was feeling to Tanya. "See," she said, "This pineapple, I can smell it. Isn’t it wonderful." Tanya laughed raucously and slapped her on the back. "Just get me a cup of coffee, girl," she answered, "then you can make love to your pineapple all you want."

The two women sat, chatting, and Iulia got brave enough to bring out the poem that she wanted to share. "Tanya, " she said, "This is a poem about a leaf, let’s read it together."

"Devchonka," said Tanya, "I write poetry all the time. I can tell you that when a poet writes about leaves, he has ulterior motives in mind."

This was not what Iulia wanted to hear, at the moment. She held the poem protectively, and then there was a knock at the door. Tanya answered the door. Iulia heard the voice of a man.

At the sound, all of the occupants of the house scurried to their bedrooms, like a family of cockroaches when the light is turned on in the kitchen at midnight.

Iulia was sitting on the floor, rocking, when Tanya came to the door. "Come out," said her friend, laughing. But not only could Iulia not come out, her mouth would not form words. The pineapple lay on the floor beside her while she rocked. She tried to concentrate on the white lumps of texture on the wall, and to breathe through the panic. She knew that her behavior was not rational. But the waves of emotion that scalded her were real. She could not yet handle the presence of a man in the house.

Not yet, because of what had happened here.  Because she had allowed another man into her home, whose fractured mind had exploded into million tiny shards in her soul. And the results of the drama that had unfolded between the two of them, had altered dozens of lives.Hearing the voice of any man, evoked memories of the terror, the fear, the confusion, the madness. It was too near for her to bear, especially now that all of her senses were re-awakening. She could not hold the scent of fruit, and the thought of a man, in the same mind, all at one time.

She did not think about whose fault it was, but only how frightening it had been. How he had laughed, while he was twisting her arm and telling her how easy it would be to snap it. How angry he had been if he perceived any disobedience; but his anger had been almost easier to bear, than the laughter... It was just altogether too much for her to process at once, but she didn’t know how to express this to Tanya.

Iulia did not know how long she sat there, until she heard Tanya’s voice on the phone. "I’m sorry, devchonka," she said. "That was my mechanic, coming to fix my car. I thought maybe we could have dinner together. I told him that you are a good cook. I didn’t realize ... I won’t do it again."

It would be a while before Iulia was able to explain it all to Tanya, but in the meantime, the delicious idea of the pineapple had begun teasing her, drawing her onward, to a place inside of her that she did not yet know existed.

The W.G. Sebald Effect


like Kafka's essay
on Goethe's abominable nature.

--W.G. Sebald


While at Barnes & Noble, I opened a book of W.G. Sebald's poetry, and got stuck on this page. Sebald's words brought me back to my first interpreting job, with a photographer from Magadan, who had arrived in Anchorage on the first of many chartered flights with a suitcase of photographs. There is a black-and-white snapshot of me at age 18, looking young and bewildered, wrapped in the scarf he gave me, which I wore for years with a black wool coat. 

Many of the photographs--a mound of black-and-white prints--were of boots. Piled in mine shafts. Boots. Unimaginable numbers of boots. How could there be that many abandoned boots?

The photographs, said the photographer, were of many secret sites from the mines around Magadan, including Butugychag, where prisoners of the Gulag had endured terrible hardships to scrape gold from the ground. The estimates are that from 250,000 to one million prisoners died working in this area.

The photographer was feted by gentlemen who bought, especially for the occasion, thin-sliced, stale, expensive and odd-tasting "German" deli rye bread, and pickles, thinking it would impress the Russians. I heard the Russians say: "Where did this bread come from, it tastes like something they ate in Leningrad during the siege." And much vodka was imbibed. 

What they did with the photographs, I'm not sure. Money probably changed hands.

A glint of gold from the Kolyma flashed every time the photographer opened his mouth.

This is me, needing Sebald to write a poem about the boots.

Tanya's Poem

In life, there is a lot of fun,
The world is filled to the brim,
But when I do not see you,
It's empty and pointless.
To keep myself busy
When I do not see you
Silently I go out on the road
And suddenly I see you, and
for nothing would I trade this,
For no one would I trade this,
Your silhouette from emptiness.
Your sly glance, your gait.....

Perhaps I'm an idiot

--Tanya Kalashnikova and TB


Behind a wall, inaccessible,
Verse is a wave beyond silence.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Viktor Tsoi - philosopher - musician

War (between heaven and earth).

A very клёвая version.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

One of the fondest memories I from my family's sojourn in Sacramento, California is the recollection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2009. At my younger children's elementary school, they had had held a mock election days before--and the votes from the multi-cultural classrooms reflected the outcome of the actual election. My son, at age 7, was under the impression that he, personally, had elected Barack Obama to the presidency. When I discovered there was Martin Luther King Jr. march, I decided we HAD to attend. We pulled up to the college and stepped out into the crowd. Participating in the march were families, Scout groups, marching bands. We walked past older homes festooned with banners and flags, and friendly hands waved us along from balconies. My son made it the whole 2 1/2 miles downtown, whereupon we scrambled (along with everyone else) to find a shuttle bus--a bit of a chaotic process, but somehow, that day, democracy was working. It felt like we were all grabbing onto MLK's ideals together, and everyone was along for the ride.There was a glow of joy about the day.

With respect, I'm thinking of some of MLK's words today:

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

“Never succumb to the temptation of bitterness.”

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

the song of a shell sapphire melting inside jade a color unnamed Ofra Haza's version of this song defies categoriz...

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