The lieutenant in you

Growing older becomes repetitive. It would be great to break up the monotony of cells drying out like graying laundry on the line.

But nature is its own government, recycling soldiers into pulp. Inviolate, the only thing less compromising being the phantom limb of conscience (oh God, don’t get me started on how that thing feels, like sticky tape gone weak and fuzzy with the years).

Small comfort, then, that the bureaucracy is uncomplicated, the only law being death. The baby chick laid to rest in the proteins of its own egg and shiny ant confetti on the sidewalk – death’s bannermen marching on the child.

(You asked me once, not unkindly, if I could ever purge myself of military metaphors, and my revenge was telling you about the way my beloved generals smiled, their crow’s feet autumnal, the ridges of gracefully dying leaves, so you kissed me very thoroughly, taking over every little district of my mouth in your campaign, proving your own point, proving it, proving it)

War is in my blood, but I didn’t put it there.

War is in my son’s blood – did I put it there? Who can walk backward on the twisted slopes of DNA, untangle the threads from the spindle of the fates and the physicists’ strings, and give me the kind of answer that can be shared over medium-grade wine, abstract enough to not be too much to bear?

(I made up dramatic dilemmas and resolved them for your amusement. I walked in the snow to rid myself of the smell of your skin. I drank champagne from a plastic bottle on the corner of Pushkin Square, like an athlete stretching before a track meet.)

War is in my blood, but the casing is soft. It’s embarrassing to be this way, and it’s going to get more embarrassing with the years. My cells on the clothesline, being pummeled by a determined hag’s carpet beater. My casually murderous great-grandfathers, their flat gazes on me from across the distance – what would they say?

(Your eyes were a swamp and I didn’t have directions on how to get across, because there are paths between the dead trees and will-o’-the-wisps that only women can chart, and I’m not much of a woman, my education having too many gaps reinforced with steel in it.)

A lot in the past, a lot more to come to pass. A particular song will come on in the bar and the puddles on the way home will then be too deep to sail across, there will be floaters advancing across the eyes, a kettle boiling with a ding, financial indignities, Putin winking from the TV set in a way that only suggests a larger point, lovers and friends walking out of rooms they will not return to, and border towns shivering under tin roofs at night.

And through it all, the black thread of “what” and “where” and “when,” stitching incidents together like uneven, puckered flesh. Nobody wants to sleep with Hamlet, so I don’t blame you for excusing yourself early, ducking into an archway, your footprints disappearing in the blizzard made at least partially from the dreadful, alcoholic rheum of poets gone long before. Here handsome men say that you can’t take a piss anywhere without hitting a poet or two – and that does cheer me up.

(Everything that happened between us happened in parentheses and other extremely close spaces.)

We’re a transmission groping its way across the dark: the little hiccups radiating out toward the abdomen, the tall summer grass flattening under the young lieutenant’s broad shoulders, the meteor hissing in the waters of the Black Sea.

I am always dreaming that I am coming out of the bedroom. I am always coming out of the bedroom and the melted wax is running upward the old brass candlesticks. I am coming out of the bedroom and the summer wind is fizzing in the trees on the embankment and the lights are coming on though the northern twilight is typically coy and running late. I am coming to lean against the doorframe and listen to him play the piano whose broken insides have unscrambled themselves at his touch.

He’s playing a song that runs together a little, the tinkling of the fragile keys a bit close together from the champagne the air in that place is made of. He’s in uniform but his boots are already off and guarding the corner. He turns around to look at me spill out of my lace, and his gratitude and stillness gradually fill my chest and expand outward, until I can’t take it anymore and I walk toward him, not missing anyone, knowing the edges never fit, and letting it go.

War is in my blood, but at least, at last, I didn’t put it there.

10 thoughts on “The lieutenant in you

  1. “My cells on a clothesline, being pummeled by a determined hags carpet beater.”
    I love the imagery throughout. Left me wanting to read on

  2. I hope it’s not horribly impudent to say that I would love to be one of the guys you write about. I mean, they get to be immortal, right? And if you torture them well,, I’d still love to be tortured by a girl like you. At least for a day. 😉

    Sorry I know this is probably inappropriate. This is a great poem. Just thought I’d casually hit on the writer and see if I manage to get away with it. Feel free to delete.

  3. Hey Nat, you did good, kid. You did excellent. You’re kind of a rock star and one of these days, the world might realize it. At that point, I hope you don’t forget us.

    “Dave D.,” that’s real cute, buddy. Let me guess, you’re the kind of guy who stands around by himself at parties a lot, then goes home and rails about how women don’t like “nice guys” online. At the very least, that’s one pathetic vibe you’re giving off.

  4. As a long-time lurker, I just want to come out of the shadows and say that this is really powerful, and could be a sign that you finally need to choose between a media career and a creative career.

    Look at it this way, Anderson Cooper wouldn’t be caught dead writing poetry about dead soldiers on his blog. And as a woman in the media, I bet you have it that much tougher when it comes to being taken seriously. So… why not take yourself out of the game altogether? You clearly have enough talent to grow into the next Sylvia Plath (just don’t kill yourself, please). Why remain a journalist which is something that is obviously incompatible with who you are and – I am guessing – probably totally stifling to your creative talents……?

    Maybe I am missing something, but I think a writer can only be a writer. People only really have one image of you in their head, it’s true for all people. Like, I’ve always really enjoyed your articles about Russia, but after encountering your actual creative writing, I realized that it’s way better than anything you do as a journalist (I hope it’s ok for me to say that??). If I were you, I would just concentrate on that, it will bring more dividends down the road. Plus, you won’t be contributing to an image of women journalists as these over-emotional beings. In our culture writers have more freedom, I think this is very clear.

  5. Having been chastised, I was just going to apologize and slink away, but Miz Salaam’s comment is so shocking that I feel the need to respond. I hope that’s alright? Once again, feel free to delete.

    Anyway, assuming this is published, let me just say that, hey, Miz Salaam, you are coming from a position of utter ignorance. You might as well be telling the Guardian’s chief editor that he shouldn’t write about music, because that contributes to an overall image of journalists as dorks. Honestly, what is it with you? I guess if you were around in Chekhov’s time, you would have told him to choose between being a writer and a doctor.

    I also think it’s pretty moronic to suggest that someone drops what they’re doing and become a poet fulltime. Poetry isn’t exactly a money-maker, not even for poets who win awards and get published in anthologies. Natalia has a small child. Should he be living in the gutter because her work doesn’t conform to your stupid stereotypes about writing and creativity?

    Finally, you dragging Anderson Cooper into this is just hilarious.

  6. I love Natalia Antonova
    Because she recently became a redhead
    Because someone is kissing her on her banner
    Because she finds the time to run the Moscow News ANd be a fabulous writer
    Because she’s always really funny on her Twitter
    Because you don’t know if she’s American or Russian or Ukrainian or from the moon (I think she’s from the moon)
    Because she has these blue eyes that burn like a cold fire
    Because she’s the only interesting English language journalist left in Moscow (ok, Kevin Oflynn gets a mention too)
    Because she seems like a cool mom
    Because I’d risk getting beaten up by her husband just to pay her a compliment on her porcelain skin
    Because she has porcelain skin
    Because her poetry is really good or so I’ve just found out
    Because I KNOW that she will spend days wondering who wrote this (please NATALIA, wonder who wrote this)

  7. Well, I didn’t have to wonder long about who write this. Seeing as the IP address is exactly the same as Dave D.’s. Not that I know who Dave D. is.

    Also, Jesus Christ, what is up with you people today?

  8. (I am a poet too), there is something there, on your nose. Might want to wash that off. Also, may want to tone down the creepster factor.

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