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


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.


All the king’s sweets (a song for overgrown children)

When you walk out into this night
You will find what you’re looking for
– Or maybe a little bit more.

Gunpowder on a stick
So sweet that it hurts to lick;
A border where lace confronts thigh
Patrolled by a a jealous eye;
A star in the forehead,
A golden sieve,
And all you can see
Is all you believe.

My darling, I took the rather bold step
Of stabbing the dragon
With a pen
In the back.
But nobody comes
And nobody cares,
I’m alone with the beast
I have not taken care.
He’s rather amused, giggling into his gold,
He’s not shy with his smile
Though his fangs smell like rot.

My darling, other heroes will come,
To fuck all the women, to drink all the rum;
I will not be among them, I was silly, it seems,
My bones will be toothpicks,
My memory will dim.
They’ll make armor from dragon scales
And wear it down to the pub
While my scattered molecules
Still demand all the credit.
(I told you, I’m silly,
I told you, it hurts)

You keep trying to reach me
Through other men
When they put their hands
On my exposed neck.
I wish you would fucking stop it,
But honey runs thicker than water.

This is my city, and I won’t share,
I’ll scrape the moonlight off the asphalt
I’ll pack away the flaxen air.
You’re only allowed
To exhale.

I told you, being a wife
I’m as dull as a butter knife,
Dull blades hurt so much more;
The last czar’s daughters would know.

Pearls of moisture
Gleam like satellites
In the spiderwebs
Between the trees at night.

Pearls of moisture
On my skin
Swiped by a burglar
As my years grew thin.

When we were young
We didn’t know
Our lover was night;
Night was the cream on the upper lip
Clotted to butter
From body heat;
Night was the watcher
On the cemetery wall;
Night was the angel
In the hospital hall;
Paint peeling off walls
Like silks off your mistress,
Tell me, who among us
Would dare take it all back?

very long engagement

A statement on the state of things

I dreamed that a former lover took me by the hair
Wrapped my hair around his wrist
Like a chain.
He beat the people he loved with me,
Beat them bloody
So that they could never hurt him again.
And in the melee
I wondered where he ended and I began.
I called my hairdresser and said,
“Pasha, why did you make my hair golden again,
So that it attracts the attention of thieves
And other people of questionable character?”
“Sanctions, my darling, sanctions,” Pasha said.
“We all have to invest our precious metals on the sly.”
I dreamed that my mother’s television
Detached itself from the wall as gracefully as it could
And volunteered to be my headstone.
My mother shook her head and said,
“Well, I can’t say I’m surprised by the situation,
As you know, someone is trying to steal our Arctic,
Just pack it away and steal it,
In a suitcase with a false bottom,
A man in aviator sunglasses and a rudely colored Hawaiian shirt,
Is trying to do it,
Just like that.”
People were dying.
In the kitchen of a khrushchyovka
That forever has bits flaking off of it, like another callus
On the groaning, unkempt body of the city,
Cigarettes were being crushed to death
And people shook their heads
At the horrific carnage and cruelty.
I dreamed that someone kept calling my number
And telling me that I could come home now,
But when I looked over my shoulder,
All I saw was the eternal return.
And I said to it, “That’s OK, that’s really OK,
We’ve been here before, you and I,
Come at me, bro.
Come the fuck at me, bro.”
But even then thermodynamic free energy
Was packing its bags and putting them on the sidewalk,
All aggrieved
Making a big show of checking the time,
Waiting for a cab.
It was getting so much colder.
Tears were already
Freezing at the corners of my eyes,
Like tiny icicles, like daggers for a mouse,
And I was too proud to say
That they were the only weapons
I could fuck shit up with
At this time.


time is a flat circle

Summer night Kiev blues

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I was young and running wild –
“Be a darling,” said the raven,
“Keep my beak inside your heart.”
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
Beak in heart and heart in throat,
Acid bubbling in the tear ducts,
Muscle in a Gordian knot.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Soldiers shivered in the ground
As the god of tits and wine
Put my fire out with his tongue.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
I am friends with rock and rye,
Candle flame and worm and lichen,
And the torture spikes of stars.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have seen the mirror crack,
I have seen the flaming sword
Buried in a templar’s back.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
I have knelt for the Red Sun,
Drank the moonlight from the river ,
Stroked a hussar’s shiny gun.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine,
In its hollow bones are caves,
In the caves the saints are sleeping,
In the saints the wormholes wait.
I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
Thank you, physics, thank you, fate,
Thank you, lindens, thank you, chestnuts,
Thank you, cemetery gate.

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine –
The fault lines in my face
Cry tears of happiness,
Cry tears of happiness.

With thanks to Solomia and the musicians who play at the Buena Vista Bar in downtown Kiev on Thursdays

Moonlight night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.

Moonlit night on the Dnepr. Arkhip Kuindzhi.