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On the Great Siberian Railway
The Kiakhta Tea-Trade Company
dispenses tea the entire length
of the Great Siberian Railway.
Their gold-edged blue boxes depict
tea transport by donkey-bundles,
slat-sailed Chinese junk, a camel
caravan, an ox cart, horse cart,
horse-sledge, fleet of steamers,
puffing locomotive. A dragon
in glorious red and gold flight climbs
the façade of a company shop
in St. Petersburg. Eleven outlets
in the capital, also two
in Odessa, one each in Riga,
Moscow, Warsaw, Kharkov, Vilna.
Sipping this dainty tea en route
to Irkutsk, I watch the hills,
steppes, and huge rivers pass.
The Alexander Bridge across
the Volga's a long through truss,
thirteen spans. The Belaya bridge
features six arched spans, the Ufá
only three. Passing the Minián
ironworks, I feel its output
of eight hundred thousand poods
of iron and two hundred thousand
of steel pour through me, warming
to the soles of my shoes. What sort
of measure is a pood? Next,
the Sákta Ironworks, output
unknown, but surely also
measured in poods. At Zlatoúst
the low but ornate station
with a dozen whitewashed chimneys
claws at the big white sky. Later,
the Tóból bridge, four spans,
then a long jolting sleep until
the six-span bridge over the Irtysh.
Siberia looks like the whole world
from this bridge, the curve of the earth
visible in all directions.
Four cups of tea later I'm standing
on the pebbly shore of Lake Baikal,
watching the water groom itself
in the wind. Three thousand feet deep,
it's surely more thoughtful than I am,
but it lies so flat and gray that
even the mountains edging it
fail to give it dimension. Maybe
I'll continue to Vladivostock,
or maybe I'll settle right here
with all that Kiakhta tea
running through me, rendering me
more Russian than Great-Grandpa,
who had to cross Siberia
on foot, years before the railway,
and never forgot or forgave it.
A Cover Story for Grandma
Chatting outside the wash house
we devise a cover story
for Grandma the KGB agent.
The mountains creak in the cold.
The wash house plumbing shudders.
Why should your granny's career,
terminated decades ago,
keep her out of the USA?
She'd enjoy the bleat of taxis
on Fifth Avenue, the yawn
of Bryce Canyon, lactation
of snowfall in the Rockies.
She'd shake hands with Republicans
and sample crab cakes and oysters
and taste a dozen Gallo wines
without blushing. But officially
she's excluded because the scars
of her victims glow in the dark
and her accent's rough with potholes
so deep they expose fossil bones.
But an alias will resolve her,
and the Russian government, eager
to expel her, will issue papers,
including a visa and green card
so gently forged they'll flatter
even the keenest official eye.
The cold today stands around
with both hands in its pockets.
We should drain the wash house plumbing
and close the camp for winter,
but I love the frown of mountains
as weather obsesses the summits,
don't you? Let's prepare our friends
to confront your granny's arrogance.
We'll claim she's really a Tsarist,
and like these eroded old mountains
has maintained her stance forever,
even if her fault lines show.
Living in Moscow
Because we don't speak Russian
the streets look too wide to cross
and the apartment blocks appear
forbidding as burial mounds.
Our two-room apartment loves us,
of course, with that tentative love
we associate with money.
And the women at the tea shop
speak in fuzzy gray English
in our presence so we can share
fragments of the massive gossip
that like a nuclear reaction
empowers their fuzzy gray lives.
In the expensive leather shop
a block off Red Square you wish
for a reindeer-hide briefcase.
But when I attempt to buy it
the proprietor informs me only
the stuffiest bureaucrats possess
this smut-colored accessory.
He wants a bribe, so I explain
that your lifelong blonde condition
descends from the royal family
of Argentina, and slip him
a sheaf of counterfeit Euros.
He brightens from every pore,
and I buy the briefcase with dollars
good enough to eat. Maybe later
he'll discover the Euros are fake,
but a fake bribe's good as a real one.
Strutting home with gleaming briefcase
you look like a candidate
for the Politburo. The long pink
summer day declines with regrets,
and as we crouch in our tiny rooms
traffic snores down frightening streets,
shaking the city as if something
huge were having boisterous sex.
The Necessary Café
In the Necessary Café
men brood and slouch in their seats
but women brighten like novas.
You, for instance, enlarge, enflame,
and shed twenty years of grief.
That red dress you abandoned
when your marriage to the count failed
returns to envelop and flatter
your girlish little figure.
Diamonds sprout all over you
and a pearly aura emanates
from the subatomic mesh
of your pores. I, however, sink
into myself like a boulder
in a marsh. The mud-taste thickens
my tongue, and the old waiter
with his stained apron resembles
a butcher hired to dismember
everything male about me.
Still, I remember my manners
and tip him for bring a last
round of cappuccinos, his smile
like a White Russian's in exile
between the wars. They're long dead,
though, Paris and Berlin too brisk
to tolerate such learned angst
in shadowy back-streets. We laugh
because you're so vibrant and I'm
so brittle and stale. We'll revert
to our late-life neutrality
when we leave this fetid café;
but let's enjoy our contrasts
for another hour or two,
the promise of your bold young ego,
the flash of diamonds, the drama
of my existential sneer,
the crowd plotting around us
like a hundred unwritten novels
bitter with grit of self-exile,
spiced with unrequited sex.
On a Nabokov Short Story
Lacking a sheet of paper
to feed my manual typewriter,
I have to step outside and scratch
my epic with a stick in snow
on the mountain behind your house.
Eventually it covers a slope
large enough for an Olympic
ski event. You're impressed but
preoccupied writing an essay
on a Nabokov short story
I've forgotten or never read.
The day whispers to itself, ruffling
hemlock fringe. Mice crackle beneath
snow cover, knuckling through tunnels.
My epic concerns the naissance
of our republic, barrels of rum
and beer, duels and adulteries.
Perhaps the Founding Fathers smoked
homemade cigars as thick as axe
handles. Perhaps those cigars
mixed pokeweed and marijuana
in the tobacco and stunned them
into writing a constitution
too eccentric for courts to parse.
You chuckle over your essay,
your prose burning with phrases
from Bakhtin. Your critical moves
dazzle like figure skating. But
when this essay appears in print
surly academics will scorn it
because you're not at Harvard.
The hillside gleams and my epic
solves entire worlds; but new snow
already fills my cursive scrawls,
so I step inside to shake off
the cold and read your essay,
product of an evolution
the rest of us haven't begun.
|© Copyright William Doreski|