Out of the depths the Party said would
save the faithful, I rolled on thunder
toward the light of Leningrad
amid a forest of silent
colonels in their perfect
uniforms. How long it took us
to reach the top! Then my Cold War nightmares
stepped toward the green shacks bejeweled
and it was not Leningrad,
but Petersburg, and they fanned out
toward the cans marked "Gin"
and the bananas and backpacks hanging like traitors
in the March glare of a rare clear sky. "Pardon,"
said the one I'd blocked, and the world
was safe, reeling
SEVEN YEARS AFTER THE FALL
for Joe Knox
JUST OUT OF THE TAXI FROM THE TERMINAL
The Neva’s a snowfield.
Headline: a bombing in Jerusalem
near the main bus station. The poet Brodsky,
not a Russian? “No, no,” says Oleg, “Israeli.”
My brain’s a kind of slush, so it takes me
awhile to get that: a Jew.
Eight time zones away,
my wife’s mother’s intestines uncoil
in the gloved hands of a young surgeon.
The O.R.’s light is this
pale northern glow.
I’ve got a pocket full
of rubles, and the Metro stations
are named for poets. Still,
the ruble’s nearly worthless, and the city’s a
nightmare version of Venice, canals
all paved white, vistas,
paralyzed, a boreal de Chirico.
The golden spike of the Admiralty middlefingers
a lid of clouds. It’s 23 Farengate,
Natalia says. What’s that? I’ll never
write a single Russian stanza, but
I sure wish I had Gogol’s overcoat.
And yours, too, buddy. I’d even wear Anna’s
full-length fur, the blond one she claims
is Australian possum.
The place is holding its breath. White colonnades
at attention inspect the pants properly tucked into my boots.
Black smokestacks close in from the suburbs,
the Devil’s troops coming to mock, then annihilate
this classicism. Rumor has it
the warehouses on the hooped horizon
are crammed with nukes shipped here for dismantling
after the fall of the USSR.
Duma means thought, somebody said. Or thinking.
Duma, Duma, Duma, I say, on my way down
Graffiti in Svetlana's piss-stinking stairwell:
“A lot of milk, / but no stomach. /
“A brick, a head, / I want a cat.”
Lumps of ice everywhere like varnished rocks.
I fall down. I fall down again.
When mild, bald men put on
their fur hats they become beasts,
intimidating, some even demonic.
Hatless, they are affable, childlike, courteous.
When you photograph people—when you ask
if you can—it’s no, no, no, no, but
not convincingly, and then you snap them and they say,
DOSTOEVSKY’S LAST FLAT
Dmitri phones: Please come
on Saturday. Metro stop Dostoevsky,
walk past Dostoevsky’s last flat
on your right, on your left
through the archway, then left into
the courtyard, the door
near the corner.
We are so sorry for the smell. Here,
the hallway is part of the street,
not like the U.S.
JOHN REED STREET
When I got to Finland Station,
I was 47, same age as Lenin.
One thousand rubles were the same
as twenty cents. The Venice of the north
was frozen, even the Russians
said it was cold. Natalia stifled a laugh
when I fell on the ice, but she fell, too,
before we reached
John Reed Street.
NOT THERE YET
On a tiny, listing bus,
we tour St. Petersburg, but the windows
frost and blurs pass behind a scrim. The guide
Englishes a mush of syllables. Then we eat beets,
Crimean peaches, some kernels called Greek nuts,
foul dumplings, shredded carrots. Vodka, then cognac.
I wake from dreamless sleep
in a freezing room. Out the window, far below: Desolation
of hardpacked snow. A bulky man
leads a boy by the hand
from nowhere to nowhere. Or maybe a girl.
They have no faces.