New Series No. 20 - 2002
To Await Arrival
in memory of Glina Straovoitova
That’s how it was: I turned my sickroom gazes
on the yard outside the ward, as though on groves
or open fields. I tried to write ‘quite simply’:
as it turned out, the impediment was this:
my mind was racked, tortured by constant fretting
about my mind, a tic I couldn’t curb:
my neck was weighed down with the convolutions,
the empty effort made me more disturbed,
my feeble gift – the speck I’m proud of sharing
with prophets – flagged; the inner sight was lost.
When you edge along a shelf above a sheer drop
you gasp and do not grasp. That’s not enough.
But I did feel a quick flash of foreboding –
a bubble from the deep rushed up and burst.
A dog’s instinctive knowledge gripped my body,
though consciously I tried to brush it off.
I brushed it off – it didn’t cloud that evening
when the motif long trapped inside my head
beat at my skull, but didn’t jolt me forward
in the pose you use when praying for the dead.
Then suddenly, the exiled television
opened its eye, into the world beyond.
St Petersburg, some stairs, a silenced bullet.
A death that made a splash, but not a sound.
The desert of the dark and of my pupils:
no tears could make this drought-struck landscape drink.
This child, this Joan of Arc, was my blood-brother.
An ellipsis of affection was our link.
Meetings were dotted. In June, was it, the last one?
Hiding from empty smalltalk and the rest,
like schoolgirls playing truant from our classes,
risking the ire of prefects, we embraced.
A handclasp, an embrace, puts one in contact
with good and bad. An answer not provoked
by any question raises skin in gooseflesh –
words know our lives are fragile, though we don’t.
How near what we desire in fact lies to us:
easy to grasp a shoulder, touch a palm:
(how often, too, we let affection blind us:
no rogue, we think, could offer us his hand.)
Spurning the sly-faced bankers and the banquet,
in that hall with its spread feast in time of plague,
she blurted, gauche as any girl of twenty,
‘You know I’m married!’ ‘Goodness! I’m so glad!’
Having choked the air with mindless social babble,
I sipped my glass of government champagne.
I should have yelled, ‘St George, leave fighting dragons,
take care of her!’ – for nearby hung his flag.
She let it out; aghast at her own frankness,
she bit her lip to hold in further words.
She had a young girl’s tense and radiant shyness.
A face like that suits flowerbeds, bandstands, parks.
The moment swelled. I felt a rising panic.
My mind gave way to nursery dreams of flight.
Give me a veil, four horses, and a carriage,
And let me gallop into a velvet night.
Was it just then a chink of foresight opened?
Seeing a soul stripped bare is ominous.
But there’s more horror in the revelation
that joy and sainthood very rarely fuse.
In any case, to stammer a faint suspicion
ahead of time won’t baulk the march of fate.
A hand wearing a wedding-ring is fragile
and cannot force a viper’s jaws apart.
Long in advance the count of years is reckoned:
The furies need fresh blood to slake their thirst.
Moths do not flee, but rather seek out, candles,
The target calls, the rifle cannot miss.
The calls for vengeance are no more than foolish:
talk of ‘reprisals’ leaves me feeling sad.
A life like this imposes its own duties.
In the face of it, revenge should be abjured.
So now I sit in iron and stone December
and think of June to warm my memory.
I wonder if she’ll hear me if I call her.
I miss her more with every passing day.
Death is the twin of triumph, its blood-brother.
A martyr’s fate can break the hold of time.
Even in draft, her life was virtuoso:
It reached perfection with its final line.
Translated by Catriona Kelly
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