Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I am returning to this abandoned project. Look for poems in Jacket and Word Without Borders sometime next month. There should also be an entire issue of Jacket, dedicated to contemporary Russian poetry, in the fall.
Here is a piece I translated the other day:
A Room

good-man. grew. and people
do the right thing for the wrong reasons. don’t follow someone
just because they have a good track record. the divine approach is so that every word is not the author’s i.e. the work excavated is placed inside the museum with no tag. thus it is not a recording of the past, but a reference inside the present. giving up the ghost. giving up whatever thrill the past had held. giving up being what it is. it is not our failure which strikes us as remarkable but our impunity. I say these things alone in a small crowded room full of books and other debris. I say these words into a small crowded room at 7 pm on a March morning. it is cold outside. my neighbor seems to have lost his mind. an odd thing to say. today I feel as if I am talking with other people’s words, that everything is an unknowing quotation from a book I probably wouldn’t read unless I was on a plane or a toilet. my neighbor seems to have lost his mind. he is riding circles around his house on a motorcycle, tearing up the brown muddy lawn, his lips moving something incomprehensible. now he circles around a leafless cherry tree in the backyard. I saw this through the chainlink fence, which replaced the old red wood fence that I loved as a kid. or did I hate it, because even then it was brittle, and threatened to break under my weight. I can see this through the chainlink fence, which replaced the red, wooden, fence that fell last year under the weight of a three day snow storm. that day in the snow, everything subsumed by it. Simon and I went to the park and found a mound of snow on a bench. the brilliant quiet air was so magic and still that for one of the only times in our time together we both walked attune and in silence. there was no one in the park, and our tracks meandered between trees as if we were Adam and Eve –good enough to see the transformation of the garden from life to peace. in this sublime mood we passed a bench with a large mound of snow, vaguely possessing the contours of a man on his side. we stopped, and I stuck the shape with a stick. it was indeed a man, and underneath the bench was an old yellow suitcase. we opened it. we opened it and it was full of clean linens. that was all. that day everything was magic and separate under the snow. we found a mound of snow on a bench in the park and when I hit it with a stick it was a man. the papers said he must have been there before the beginning of the storm—froze the night before—froze the night before the storm. they said that it was highly unusual for a man to have been left like that for nearly four days in such a public area. how little we see of death these days. even in the form of snowmen. I am thinking of the galleys now, or even the lack of proper medical facilities, when men and women died dying in the rooms of the house where everyone else did their living. it is almost impossible to think of children dying, because it is only morons who believe a boy of four years doesn’t understand death, or that while watching his dying sister he sees a little girl and not a woman. the papers said he was there for nearly four days. how little we see of death, and when we do see death we mistake it for sleep or something else entirely. I was thinking of the galleys just now, and what public execution must have taught small children, besides the obvious things not worth mentioning. or for instance consider the Indian practice of bride burning. what is all this? finding some connection and justification in some ancient text for the atrocity our souls still desire despite the façade of political progress usually referred to as “democracy.” take the books you like and burn them. it is best if the books you burn were written by someone you love –for instance a past lover, whose story involves words like “absconder” “timidity” “encumbrance” “bemused” “love” “magic” “mysticism” “child” “fear” “a loss of decency and growing heartache no one could have predicted.” these are your words soldier –that sun ain’t going anywhere. you abandon her for a chance at peace or a younger lover who waited for you night and day month after month year after year who loved you. take her letters, the clothes she wore, the pills she left in the cupboards, and burn them in the privacy of your own home, in the kitchen sink or the toilet. as the small fire grows take your own letters, the books you read, any money laying around the house, the photos in your late father’s desk, the cigarettes you only have the courage to smoke when drunk, the grey rhino hanging from a tree above the flood waters, the Bolshevik spy in the same tree with a camera in his shoe when the negro blind women walked the shores of Martinique thinking about her late husband who had always been faithful to her or so she thought, the words floating in the white space pinned to the wall with remarkable computerized precision, a trail of wagons headed for Treblinka, a trail of wagons headed for California, a dumb Jew walking from Moscow to Paris in 1937 during the height of Stalin’s terror, which he believed, and in a way was right to believe, believing to the day he died that it was essential for the survival of everything, officer after officer shooting themselves, or flying planes into buildings, while their families waited it out at home or in some mass grave on a Japanese island now claimed by the Russians who fought in Afghanistan and lost. who standing over the small fire feeding it pencils, receipts, holiday cards///eventually if you keep this up
who is that man
the lips he has
when was the last time
you remember
faster pig
hurry hog
who is he
you want it more
you want more
say it
who is he
who is the man responsible
look harder think better
the books burning in every room now
the sound of the motorcycle circling in the back as April crawls out again
from under winter that no longer can contain not knowing whether the circumstances or the recourse is to blame

By A.S. Pushkin