Adelina

Thank God for the side streets
Exhaling fog this time of year
Letting me step off the boulevard
And giving me a place to drown
My memories of Adelina.

This landscape is like a video game
I interact with it
Pull mysteries from it
Like silver fish from the blue sea.
Beneath each tile, each rail, each snail
I suspect there is a chance
To trigger dialogue
That would lead me back.

Better the white
Better a blank
Hopeless and upright
All edges gone
Nothing to snag.

It was Adelina’s husband
Who turned out to be
The snake in the garden.
Husbands are awfully keen on me.

He was walking along the shore
Back from a war
A crushed hummingbird in his jacket pocket
On his chest a tarnished locket
Of Adelina’s soft red hair.
“Sweetheart, you better beware,”
He said in a voice as thick as winter jam,
As heavy as glaze ice on a wing.

“Ever want something other
Than a silver spoon in your mouth?”
He said. “You’ll be gone before the month is out.”
“I will not be your man, nor will I be your love.
Honey, you’re just butter to a knife.
Honey, you’re honey, and you stick to my fangs.
If I don’t hold you down, you are everywhere.”

I was on vacation,
I was daring and fierce
I was full of an angry joy
There was salt in my braid from the waves
That teased and bit the shore.
I said, “You’ve been gone a long time.
Do you think there are places on you not good enough for my tongue?
Do you think the back of my throat and you can’t be good friends?”

“Keep asking, keep asking those questions,” Adelina’s husband said.

So it went.
The barmen in the stone halls winked at me
I got in everywhere like smoke and read poems for free
I didn’t let love and her twin sister, pain,
Sit down at my table.
I was exceedingly well-paid
In trinkets and honey and beds.
The thin skin of rabbits hugged my fingers
Until the day I ran into Adelina
With her outstretched hand –
So fine that I took off my gloves
And almost by accident
Felt the pulse of her pale wrist.
“He says you’re a poet –
I came to see for myself.”
The smoothness of her face
Was mathematically impossible.
Free of the locket her hair
Burned like a sunset-dipped halo.
I wanted to say that I wasn’t a poet
Not until this very moment.

We met in bars and talked for hours
Talked until the stars dissolved
Until the weathercock gave us the side-eye and crowed.

Adelina loved books and freedom,
Stitching saints’ medals into collars
Drawing fate on espresso foam
Wearing a chain with bells on a thin ankle
Splashing her cheeks with champagne at dawn.

She took me riding in the forest
It was so quiet we heard bluebells ring.
We lay on the tombs of old kings
High above sea level
And told stories
And imagined the marrow of the old bones beneath us
Leaking, weeping with desire.
Wasn’t it good to be alive?

Adelina’s kisses plump and rich
Breasts to fill a good brandy glass
She tasted like syrup squeezed from moss
And laughed at my metaphors.
She twisted my braid around her neck
Said I was killing her.
Like a shadow I’d crouch at her feet
When it was time for her to go.

“Promise me, promise
That you will be good and famous.
It will be my reward
In this life of wearing yellowed lace.
I didn’t marry well
Though you might disagree
With that last bit.”

One day, Adelina’s husband came
Boots thudding, joints groaning in the evening cold.
He invited me to speak as adults.
He pressed bluebells into my palm
Shredded and melted from his body heat
These sorry gifts
He said Adelina made her choice
He said her curiosity was satisfied
Never come between a man and his wife
Be generous to beggars, pray at night.

I threw the petals into my drink
I got so drunk, but I could still think.
Only one remedy for that
I let him lead me by the hand
To the cellar.
He spat on his fingers and promised to be gentle.
Still I cried, my “no, no” very slowly giving ground
To my “yes, yes.”
He said I had an ass for tearing
Flesh for weighing, too expensive,
Like a stack of veils at a silk merchant’s.
I slapped him for it
But my hand trembled.

I pressed the trace of his mouth on my collarbone
Like a button buried beneath my skin.
Then ran to stand in the light of her windows
Just to stand in those pale, flat rectangles
Imagining they were a magic circle.
Adelina leaned out of the window once
Shook her head, made the sign of the cross
Shrugged. Her hair was like rays of a departing sun.
She turned away and soundlessly closed the shutters.
In my mind’s eye I saw her take down a book
And cross her legs by the fire.
I saw the way pleasure at beauty curved
The corners of her mouth upward.
I vowed that my words would find her.
I vowed to one day be in there with her
Invited in from the cold.

I took the speediest train going north
Tearing through the countryside too fast
To let my eyes focus. It was a mercy.
Still I felt the dead kings rise
To wave a bone-creaking goodbye.
I came under the stone arch of my home
My children rushed out, hugging my skirt
They said it had been too long.
I handed out rose wafers, seashells,
Salt crystals like crowns,
A song I took from the pulsing throat of a nightingale,
Drops of frozen dragon blood set in gold,
Blinking doll eyes, ticking clock hearts,
A rainbow soft as sorbet.
I bought my way out of their recriminations
Flossed their teeth with silver spiderwebs
And put them to bed.

I walked into our garden
My husband was grilling raw meat
Sprinkling lemon juice and cursing his hangnails.
He fed me with his own rough fingers
Traced the insides of my mouth
Undid my blouse
Listened to the irregularities of my heart
Asked me about the south.
I said, “Why does this heart stumble and burn?
Why do I feel as though
It was me you laid down on these coals?
When does it stop?”

“Never,” he said, and smiled into his beard.
“You’re an artist now. You belong to it.”

banya serebryakova

Banya by Zinaida Serebryakova. 1926

Complaints

I miss carbohydrates
I miss the conviction
That rotten floorboards beneath my feet
Will give in at some later date
When I’ve moved on to greater things
That are owed to me by fate.
I miss kissing him
Outside that restaurant
(See how I’m not addressing him?
It must prove that I am repentant).
I miss saying “no” as easily
As sliding hand into glove;
Come to think of it
I miss my good winter things
And how unlike other phenomena
They could always be counted on.
I miss staring contests with the bottom of the glass
And I equally miss losing them.
I don’t miss pouring my own wine,
But I do miss choosing it.
I miss when rebellion meant
A nothing that came of nothing
As worn beneath my coat
I miss taking for granted
My ability to rain down a bit of destruction
In an insignificant corner
Of an altogether backward
Permanently twilit
Part of the world.
I miss being nobody’s vassal
Unless you counted those pale moth wings
Like the evening’s fluttering eyelids
And I’m sure you didn’t.
I miss split ends cut off by that woman
Split ends like golden forks in the road
Either way beset by trouble
Either way portending love.
I miss not missing my handsome jailer
Feeling for keys on his belt
And saying “it’s over” to my friends
Like an apology
For a terrible screw-up
A disaster so immense
That they had to cancel
Important dinner plans.
While I’m at it, I miss real friends
Those who don’t mind putting a blanket
Over my shoulders and theirs
To go and watch meteorites
Tear through the dark seams of the sky.
“One undone, another undone,
They’ll say it about us someday –
They were lovely as they shone
Why couldn’t they stay.”
And I miss the force per unit area
We had from sitting next to each other
When it felt that should it get a little colder
We could pull down the sky together
Spread it over our touching knees
And I could quit worrying my caged predator teeth
And bite its soft corner.
I miss the men
Who’ll think it’s about them
But not all, not all.
I miss the dog paused on the stair
Gazing into the changing shadows of the hall
Waiting for whatever was next
And whatever was next was nothing at all –
And how lucky that was for us both.
I miss the Carolina spring
Beautiful like a woman in a bar with someone else
Beautiful like only that which cannot be possessed
Leaning against the fence
And describing the sun
To disbelieving gnomes and spiders beneath the leaves
See, I knew I was going to write
I didn’t know there’d be a price like this.
The snow is already busy concealing the footprints
Of boys who won’t return from war
Having hidden behind their broad backs
I have missed them all.

winter thaw kuindzhi

Winter. Thaw. By Arkhip Kuindzhi, 1895.

 

Nobody’s hopeless, everything is broken

I woke up today and immediately saw two bits of news:

The Russian Patriarch gave Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia’s top propagandist, a church award. I was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and, even though the church has always taken orders from the government in Russia (it was never the other way around, as many people think), such acts still somehow sadden me, especially because I still go to church, and still find it a powerful experience. Churches have always been horrifyingly imperfect – I suppose they’re forever making up for it with rhetoric about hell, and casting undesirables out, etc. – but there is something about this particular church, right now, that rubs its imperfection in your face so much that it tempts you to despair. When even your conservative, God-fearing relatives are bitterly saying that “the patriarch is a bad one,” it really makes you wonder, just how bad it’s all going to get in our lifetime.

On a related (yes, related) note, Russia’s Investigative Committee, the most loud and loyal of the oprichnina, has now opened a criminal investigation against the wife of an Alexey Navalny ally (Navalny is Russia’s most prominent anti-corruption crusader; the latest politically motivated case against him will see him go away for a decade if the prosecutor has his way), who organized literary festivals. The Investigative Committee’s statements and criminal investigations oftentimes seem deliberately farcical, but the farce involves real victims, people with families. Writers are often curious about what goes on in the heads of people who victimize others in the name of carrying out orders – but the truth is, compartmentalization is an awesome tool.

I have this idea that a lot of us should be grateful to be alive in this horrible time – and not because, as the constant refrain goes, “It can always get worse.” It can, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how this time has forced so many of us to turn mental corners we were too lazy or too scared to turn before. How this time has burrowed into our hearts like a worm, a reminder that the number of heartbeats is finite, always finite. And what will you do with your nearly imperceptible, finite heartbeats? And what will you do? Goodness, for example, can never attack, it can only defend itself. A lot of people have forgotten about that right now, but one day, they’ll remember.

Every day is a chance to turn it around. Every day that we are alive. Tick tock. Don’t despair. Don’t despair. You’ve no right.

Temporary shelters

The snow falls silently on the graves of the people I love
On the graves of the people I would have loved
If given half a chance
The sky above my house is made of remembrances of raven wings
And amethyst
The pear trees my dead grandfather planted
Offer their bark up to be kissed.

*****

I was in London recently and I was very happy – in a way that I’ve never been before while in London, my unattainable city, the place I’ve always loved and which had never loved me back. I think this happiness came from not caring.

“You’ll love an Englishman, of course,” my grandmother’s fierce cousin, the late Yevgeniya Andreyevna, told me once. “And loving him will be like cracking open a snail shell – that is to say slimy and cold.”

I was seventeen, had never had a boyfriend (yet alone loved anyone), and didn’t realize she was making a prophecy. She was very fond of making casual prophecies back then, as easily as she refilled my wine glass at dinner, and every one came true eventually.

I remembered her when I walked through Mayfair, when I couldn’t tell what it was that beat inside my chest – my heart or a pair of dark raven wings.

And I drank champagne in her memory when the city lay beneath my feet – a scattering of rare jewels, satisfyingly hard to the touch.

You cannot love London too much. You have to turn your back on it and scowl at it over your bare shoulder and then turn away again. Possibly for years. And London, being London, will be proud for a while, but then it will ask you back for a spell, and it will make you very happy during the whole of it. Only you must always say goodbye first and close the door very firmly behind you. Go under the cover of darkness, go, go, one boot in front of the other. Life is getting shorter, life is thinning out and chipping on the edges, all you can carry away with you is, as usual, God and love. Everything else will be too damn heavy and not worth the strain on your shoulder.

*****

Øystein Bogen and I gave a joint seminar on the Ukraine crisis & the propaganda war surrounding it in Oslo a few weeks ago. I think we did a good job – well, Øystein certainly did, I think I became too emotional in places – and I think it was that evening, in that beautiful city where candles burn on tables throughout the winter, that I accepted that the world has changed irrevocably, and there is nothing I can do about it, except tell the truth as I see it.

I associate a lot of pain with my background these days. These veins that run through me – Ukraine, the U.S., and Russia – they all bleed quite a startling red. For the obvious reasons.

I’ve struggled against the new normal, “You can’t be real,” I said. It was like arguing with weather. And it was Oslo that whispered about the futility of that into my willing ear. So dark it was and so lovely. I know now why they call Norway troll country. Or I almost know. (Will I come back? I seriously hope to come back)

*****

In Moscow, even before the ruble starting crashing, there was already electricity in the air. Static. Hands touched in ways that made you gasp.

I lit small lanterns and Christmas lights and listened to the wind lashing the khrushchyovka. Nothing says “temporary” like a khrushchyovka – nothing says “shadows and dust,” nothing says “only love and God.”

I went to the theater and saw my own work up on the stage – or a reflection of my work – and there was joy and outrage in the audience, and I was so grateful. My husband introduced me to the coat check ladies as “the author.” He would do that, of course. He would drag me backstage afterwards, too. If it wasn’t for him, I’d just leave anonymously – but he’s a different breed of person, not shy, and not ashamed of me. This is something I will also always be grateful for (I think I am now at that age when I can begin to use the word “always” and actually mean it).

I’ve been so bitterly disappointed with Moscow, but even so I have clutched its gifts to my chest. Would I have dared to become a mother anywhere else? It was the wildness of this place, the bones exposed through the supple flesh of civilization, that said “Jump!” Now Lev has gotten to be very tall for a toddler, and is mastering sarcasm. The top of his head smells like last night’s dreams. He seems to be growing so fast that I want to hit “pause” – already looking longingly at babies in prams and remembering when he was tiny.

And I am constantly saying “Oh Moscow” and it comes out differently each time.

*****

The book is going well so far. (What book? THE book. Or possibly A book. I don’t know right now)

*****

And I woke up again in my father’s house and the night was already dented in several places, losing out to one of those slow, scruffy winter dawns. And I said, “I am not prepared to go on this journey, but I am always going on it anyway, I’m not sure where the journey ends and where I begin. It feels like a dress rehearsal for death. Or life eternal. I can’t tell anymore.” And there was nothing anyone could say to that, but there was still good coffee in the offing, and sometimes, that’s the best that any of us can hope for.

For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

I woke up this morning to some people asking me if Vladimir Putin was “hitting on” the First Lady of China. He had been caught on camera wrapping a shawl/blanket around her shoulders at the APEC Summit. Cue hysteria!

I explained that if a woman looks cold, a Russian man will drop everything and immediately give her a blanket/his own jacket/whatever. It’s not a sex thing, it’s just seen as good manners in Russia. This doesn’t, of course, mean that this gesture can never ever be flirtatious – but honestly, if a Russian man is flirting with you, there will be other ways in which he’ll let you know.

Protecting a woman from the cold is PARTICULARLY seen as good manners in Russia because of the complex cultural ways in which Russians treat the whole idea of being cold. For example, they always assume that being cold can make you very, very sick. Most well-mannered Russian men don’t even *think* about it when they offer you their coat outside – for them, it’s an automatic gesture.

Inevitably a friend wrote in to tell me this,

But don’t you think that Russian “chivalry” is more than a little sexist? It basically assumes that women are too weak to take care of themselves.

OK. So. People are entitled to their views on chivalry. But once again, it has important cultural contexts in Russia.

For one thing, Russia is not a very friendly place. It’s a macho society, where men are forever obsessed with the question of who’s dominating whom, and aggression is seen as a necessary survival trait, even in social situations.

Russian chivalry is one of the few ways in which people who don’t know each other very well will treat each other with politeness and kindness. I think this is one of the main reasons why it’s important to preserve it.

Secondly, Russian women don’t find it degrading. If anything, it’s one of the few expressions of hypermasculinity that isn’t made at the expense of a woman. It’s never about assuming that she is helpless – helplessness in women, I would argue, is NOT prized in Russia – it’s about recognition of her femininity as deserving of special attention from a man who, in most other social situations, is expected to act a bit brutish.

Honestly, no Russian man draping a blanket over a woman’s shoulders is thinking, “Stupid bitch can’t do it herself, and I, therefore, shall prove my masculinity by doing it for her.” It’s more like, “We can share a gentle moment in what is essentially an adverse world.”

Russian life is still built on ideas of survival and Russian women are the classic survivalists. They are expected to have both careers and babies. They are expected to do all of the housework and look glamorous while at it. Russian chivalry is a slight nod of recognition to all that – and it doesn’t, I would argue, obscure the very real challenges women do indeed face.

Most Russian gender norms are all kinds of screwed up. I wouldn’t put Russian chivalry on that list, though. Russian chivalry is nice. It’s sweet. And it particularly makes for a good change of pace when you’re used to men who won’t even *think* of, say, helping you with a heavy parcel (because God forbid they make you look “helpless”).

It may not always be appropriate at a political summit, but neither is it the sleazy, “OMG HE DID NOT” moment some people are trying to make it out to be.

Of all the things to be angry about when it comes to Putin, this just isn’t it.

*shrug*