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Alicia Ostriker

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Alicia Ostriker
The Eighth and Thirteenth

The eighth of Shostakovich,
Music about the worst
Horror history offers,
They played on public radio
Again last night. In solitude
I sipped my wine, I drank
That somber symphony
To the vile lees. The composer
Draws out the minor thirds, the brass
Tumbles overhead like virgin logs
Felled from their forest, washing downriver
And the rivermen at song. Like ravens
Who know when meat is in the offing,
Oboes form a ring. An avalanche 
Of iron violins. At Leningrad
During the years of siege
Between bombardment, hunger, 
And three subfreezing winters,
Three million dead were born
Out of Christ's bloody side. Like icy
Fetuses. For months
One could not bury them, the earth
And they alike were adamant.
The dead were stacked like sticks until May's mud
When, of course, there was pestilence.
But the music continues. it has no other choice.
Peer in as far as you like, it stays
Exactly as bleak as now. The composer
Opens his notebook. Tyrants like to present themselves as
patrons of the arts. That's a well known fact. But tyrants
understand nothing about art. Why? because tyranny is a
perversion and a tyrant is a pervert. He is attracted by the
chance to crush people, to mock them, stepping over
corpses... And so, having satisfied his perverted desires,
the man becomes a leader, and now the perversions continue
because power has to be defended against madmen like
yourself. For even if there are no such enemies, you have
to invent them, because otherwise you can't flex your 
muscles completely, you can't oppress the people completely,
making the blood spurt. And without that, what pleasure is
there in power?
 The composer
Looks out the door of his dacha, it's April,
He watches farm children at play,
He forgets nothing. For the thirteenth -
I slip its cassette into my car
Radio - They made Kiev's jews undress
After a march to the suburb,
Shot the hesitant quickly,
Battered some of the lame,
And screamed at everyone.
Valises were taken, would
Not be needed, packed
So abruptly, tied with such
Frayed rope. Soldiers next
Killed a few more. The living ones,
Penises of the men like string,
Breasts of the women bobbling
As at athletics, were told to run
Through a copse, to where
Wet with saliva
The ravine opened her mouth.
Marksmen shot the remainder
Then, there, by the tens of thousands,
Cleverly, so that bodies toppled
In without lugging. An officer
Strode upon the dead,
Shot what stirred.
How it would feel, such uneasy
footing, even wearing boots
that caressed one's calves, leather
and lambswool, the soles thick rubber -
Such the music's patient inquiry.
What then is the essence of reality?
of the good? The mind's fuse sputters,
The heart aborts, it smells like wet ashes,
The hands lift to cover their eyes,
Only the music continues. We'll try,
For the first movement,
A full chorus.
The immediate reverse of Beethoven.
An axe between the shoulder blades
Of Herr Wagner. People knew about Babi Yar
before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when
they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys
silence. I know that many will not agree with me, and will
point out other, more noble aims of art. They'll talk about beauty,
grace, and other high qualities. But you won't catch 
me with that bait. I'm like Sobakevich in
Dead Souls: you can
sugarcoat a toad and I still won't put it in my mouth.

Most of my symphonies are tombstones
, said Shostakovich.

All poets are Yids, said Tsvetaeva.

The words never again
Clashing against the words
Again and again
That music.

Cosi Fan Tutte: Of Desire and Delight

I 1761-1769

                               I might here take the opportunity of entertaining the public with
                               a story such as probably appears but once in a century, and which
                               in the domain of music has perhaps never yet appeared in such a
                               degree of the miraculous; I might describe the wonderful
                               genius of my son.

                                                --Leopold Mozart, “Preliminary Notice” to the 2nd edition
                                                   of his Violinschule, 1769

Because Desire is a tomcat rubbing up
Against a cook’s leg, childhood a chemise
Unlaced to suckle you, boyhood a room

In which your hands discover a complete
Language to entertain yourself and them,
Whose lexicon and syntax seemingly

Lift through the wooden keys and offer touch
To fingertips you offer, let them come
To pleasure Papa too. What is it like

To reach and feel something reach in response,
Desiring your desire to seek and find?
Between your lessons, Papa wants to know.

So! It is like dream-walking in a wood, 
Aware that you yourself create stately 
Beeches and oaks ahead as you proceed:

You sniff the air, a cuckoo chirps, a leaf
Twirls silver, sunlight splashes between limbs,
An acorn drops, a gold ray strikes your shirt.

When you perceive you have produced that ray,
That oak and cuckoo, from the mind’s brown seed,
It humbles you and crams you with a pride

You cannot then forget, cannot reveal
But in the language, gold, articulate,
Already known for certain by your hands.

II 1789

                               Apart from the fact that at the moment I am not in a position
                               to pay you back this sum, my confidence in you is so boundless that I dare
                               to implore you to help me out with a hundred florins until next week…

                                                --Wolfgang Mozart to Michael Puchberg, 1788

Because Delight is a vessel upon a sea
Smoothed by a halcyon and immortal breath,
Whose passengers are young, do not know death,

Do not lack coin, manners, or a bright
Confidence in their own enlightenment,
Who love like figures in a gallant dance,

Rolling eyes upward if an elder prates 
Of God and duty, for do not the Estates
General proclaim the rights of man, and does not

Civilization without discontent
Prepare itself for fresh prosperity,
Fresh liberty? Wolfgang, my lad, because

Munich and Prague delight to honor you
Yet do not pay well, and because it’s true
Papa is dead and life’s a masquerade, 

Here’s a libretto lets you trumpet what
Fidelity and honor signify
Among the crumbling privileged: suspend

  Your horns and strings from heaven’s fulcrum like
A rope swing with a pretty woman on it
Pushed by a pretty man in hose and wig

Who is untroubled by a father, who
Need not beg florins from inferiors.
Let your drums beat and let your fiddles play

In strict obedience to the sacred laws
Of gravity, levity, of auburn curls
And skyblue slippers on the buxom girl

Who swings while singing to enchant her friend,
Architecture is frozen music, and
Music itself a palace of melting ice.

"Cosi Fan Tutte: Of Desire and Delight" (excluding the quotes by Leopold Mozart and Wolfgang Mozart, which are in the public domain) from No Heaven, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, © 2005. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
"The Eighth and Thirteenth" from The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, 1968-1998, by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, © 1998. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
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