all poems are © copyright 1985-2003 Nina Kossman
HIS HAPPINESS The actual event was no longer of any interest. A destiny, exquisitely thought through, had folded into a life. So much for the fluctuating approximations of intelligent power, purposeful sky. He tested his strength in the essential instances when the life and the image flap their joined wings. Earth, to him, was a belligerent sphere that spewed forth, on occasion, almost perfectly rounded words. Yet it no longer mattered what he concocted the night before, what sonnet of leaves or loss. In the window he shifted his angle of vision onto a cloud that shifted its angle of flight. He thought: nothing sad in the death of contemporaries; they shift their angle of life into their thorough work. That he, too, was but a shifting reflection, not as a stone or grass, no, so much less real than they,-- this was an island of thought in an ocean of selfsame melancholy. Disguised as a graceless chrysalis, it proceeded to unfold its wings. Look at it!--Seize it!--shut it into your cage of ecstasies! The happiness unforeseen, the most singular secret of all.
SHAPE OF A WHISPER The shape of a whisper? What else do these bones promise? Lying in wait of some body's love, stretching thin arms, twitching thin nose, witholding kisses with a halting hum, why, they are growing instant shadows! They are developing twisty leaves! Here, in the ground beyond the world, they are dancing a rat dance, they are twinkling a beat! The shape of a whisper? The flesh of a kitten's sweetness? Here, in the ground beyond this world,-- breathing a fondness for sun-sung thingness, dream-calm, dew-pure, moons away.
WAKEFULNESS The left hand of darkness is light walking backward. The absolute is the runaway smell of an ancient rain. The mouth we kiss is not the mouth we stake our fate on. Look: the throb of light is the cool breeze of years to be. The shore of detachment is away from the sleeping seaweed. The fists are open for the air to smile them away. Nothing is less our own than the ashes the wind is keeping. Look: the sun and the body both rush to a destination of light. Wakefulness is a familiar dream of the dry face of canvas. Wakefulness: the longing so filled with the gestures of light, it no longer knows the border between word and silence and cuts through it calmly like a swimmer into a hypothetical wave.
IMAGINE TWO I have too clear a mind for dreaming, she said as she ordered her thoughts away from the distances they were meant to approach and surround with incantations of thought, with benedictions that carried cloudiness into the world of too much logic and fact-- to make the most prodigiously dancing statement, to make the most motionless music speak. As she said what she said, newer thoughts formed a tangible world of their own-- with the sky, and the grass, and the earth furiously alive, furiously real, peopled as if by mistake, by the same unidentified men who demanded their newly made lives be a story --differences seen, advantage of each admitted-- and that she be the one to tell: "In the definition of oneself, what is oneself but what the mind of another has one be? A stage of flux, a cycle of expression, a monad of breath, half-fish, half-bird, a human fully conscious of oneself, a story of a life not fully told yet imagined with all the colors one can see and sense in all four worlds susceptible to love and color?" She would be fair: she would define each through his honest love of her, that being an amorphous and hard to define thing not lending itself easily to scales or rulers, laurels of glory or medals of perfection, well-sharpened wits or post-scientific methods of finding the culprit by the manner of his deeds, the manner of his thoughts remaining doubly hidden. She would be fair; she would collect from each a love of just his size and shape of mind, no more than his imagination could contain and give-- a well-formed thought, an inchoate cry, a foppish praise not so much beautiful or kind but truthfully the shadow enshrouding his uninvented self which loved because it lived: not she-- the object of his love but he--love's origin and meaning. She would give back to each one his identity. Each would have a story so suited to his needs that every word would strike a memory in his not so newly hatched as newly defined love mimicked with new meanings yet as century old as himself. A story of his love would be her definition of what he was and what he would become, when all chimeras of his own making fly to the other side of consciousness, while the reality of clouds, snow, rain is brusquely shoved away from heaven, then poured into his lap as well imagined as only true things can be. Alive and moving, always turning back into himself, his mask of words glistening with newer definitions, he is himself at last. And he is hers. One of the many becomes the only one whose story grows to be punctuated by exclamations of her love of long ago, well before she made him up: her thought, an artifice in the artificial world, created him, a man, in the world of rain and snow, a man in the world of things that breathe and wonder at man's being one with trees, her as a tree whose branches sway to give him shade, repose.
LIFE WITHIN A MUSEUM To see faces of men, remote and deep, remote as in a listener singing without words, singing and seeing the processions of thousands waiting for the picture to drift and sing organize into prismatic perceptions the unkempt indifference of their wish. To see the wish grow ripe in the images darkly golden, darkly painted as the whole stands darkly seen; desire golden the aura of centuries painted real, recollected within the shadowy clearness of a mind within a sea of images, a sea of birds, a birth within a sea, foam like wings, new birth, new air. To see the images unravel life within life, fertile and thickening at the edges--a defense against life's awkward movements to dislodge its seed; to turn it limp, and damp, and swarming with images of the past again--a star, an axe, salt on the axe, and in the throat. Music will be salty, too: overwhelmed with images like sounds, shadows dissolving into song, shadows conversing in unreal tongues, unreal echoes, air drifting words in voiceless paraphrases, painted men under a painted star fishing for the future nestled in the sea like in a womb, the safest citadel of singing birds flapping wings imagining alarm: "The womb has lost its power to create!" without voice, without words, these golden faces sing of the past--the salt, the axe, the air drifting in while they stand frozen-- the guards, the public: a museum still.
DREAMER He dreams his way up to being, quietly, with unhurried breath, as though breath were a blossomed staircase leading to a perfect sky where kind-eyed gods themselves with slow, sinuous movements, ancient skin and immaculate hands would greet him kindly: "Friend!" As though the net to catch human souls were masterfully spun of poetry, and nothing but the sound of words, not even the sense--the color... Where are now the moon-lit woods standing up darkly and strictly in the soft, thick mist of his longing, now that he has constructed his perfect staircase and burst through his blooming sky.
THE FLOCK See how the black flock of quietly fallen birds stares, swallowing air, at the air staring down. Their minds become wings, their startled dreams of the sky insidiously sawed down to its very blueness-- the black flock falling, without a sound, into the soundless blades of grass: the alloy of the hundred-eyed earth and the seeing sky.
Look inside the face traced with the world's moist stone into the mirror of every kindness gentle bones and a hundred glories could neither imitate nor efface; see the white mingle with gold, the gold with dusty tracings, the foundation become weathered red, and the stone remain, alone, a salvaged monument to the faith shared by men delighting in stone's saraband to time.
Naked leaves sifted nightly, gathered, fondled, and stored in long sheets of black fire, nailed firm to stars, free of feelings' clatter, freed most of all from the earth whose fingertips touched fire, arms steeped in the sickness of its craving: the earth's love is persistence; rust; time spread over wide pastures; weeds perpetuate the difficult love; leaf over leaf, thuds of jealousy, black, over the shapeless earth.
SHADOW OVER THE TOWN Helen's shadow on Trojan rocks still threatens the Greeks, burdens them with the highest taxes the loved exacts from the lover: middle-class teashop warmth forsaken, adding machines count the killed, a scarce spring, a fruitless autumn, quiet markets and barren cribs: see the wretched pass for the mad, the mad for the licentious shoadows creeping after the main shadow over the town-- see her blank eyes washed clean of mercy, memory of the guilt reflecting future centuries' blood.
LINES (I) Stone words hard to wield, smooth as the moon washed of night, shape me into a weapon no man can see except with the eyes of his bones. Words tight as skin in a fleshless space, worn thin in a cage of a promise, design fast the leap into the air no man can follow, see nor stop with the scared silk of nightly kisses or daily prayers in his expectant hand.
See how nothing keeps out of Pluto's gorge, silently drifts towards it, waits, sinks into the thickening dark, the unreflecting water, grave made of mud and stones: this way--to hide lizard shadows, here--to rob of flesh; though mercy's an unprofitable profession, save me from too much death.
DAPHNE HERSELF I will grow myself quiet leaves in the diffiicult silence of chastity. I will hide in the immense namelessness though each tree murmurs to him my name. I am the bed of leaves he can never scorch, not even with his eyes of fire. I am the naked face of the flower; a cross. He cannot escape by reaching me. The god and the goal; the lover and the loved; the pursuit and the flight, entwined. Though a god, he will die in the depths of my bark. I will glisten his face on my leaves. Every eagle will have his eyelids. Every event--his speed. Each one of the thousand suns will pursue me as he has chased. Each one of the symbols of silence will learn his name I refuse to bear. I am he: the sun, its immense bowl pouring out selves as from a fount of chastity. He is I: the ever-green song in flight, the sun forever pursuing me.
"... he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it? Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.... He then having received the sop went out immediately out: and it was night." John 13:26-27 (King James Version) JUDAS' REPROACH Handing me the bread dipped in the dish-- not saying. It was your look. In your hand: my shame. Judas the faithless, Judas the weak, eternally. Forever to regret not saying "I will not touch this sop." (originally published in GOSPELS IN OUR IMAGE, a Harcourt Brace anthology edited by David Curzon)
EROS AND CHAOS Eros's castle of seven red stones (seven on either side, seven behind ) built for the Soul: she lives in the ring of flame. Four trees shot up after the stones fell. Four blue flames leapt up, their heads touching. The duplicity of love, daimon, you, who obscure the imagery, neither divine and human, Babel of our minds, Chaos of our loves, --I will step into the fire myself-- Tell Phanes, the light-bearer, Hermes, the envoy; when the fiery ring vanished, it disclosed Eros and Chaos, brothers.
"Wishing to gain Cassandra's favors, Apollo promised to teach her the art of prophecy; she learned the art but refused her favours; hence Apollo deprived her prophecy of power to persuade." Apollodorus, The Library, III.xii.5 (tr. J. G. Frazer) HOW CASSANDRA BECAME CLAIRVOYANT So. You are Apollo. Well, that's a new one. As good a line as any to get a girl. A godhead must be like a flowering tree, open in every pore. But you are closed in upon yourself. Devious god, I see right through you. You guard the image that protects the space in which you hide, aloof and conscious godhead. Grant you your desire? But I'm only an image in your dream, an inverse reflection of yourself, a bit of instinct, a bit of soil... Love you? Foolish god, I'm a mortal girl, I cannot love a consciousness, perfection of a mind that is god. Besides, I'm not a starry-eyed virgin from a story-book, although I may look like one to you as I stand here discoursing with an emptiness, the disembodied space that claims to be a god. We trade?... Lord of the lyre, master of song, lord of prophecy, king of praise and of timely whispers, prove now that you are you, and not an empty cloud begging for a shape. My wish? To have the future at my fingertips! To have the power of your priestesses, Apollo, but without the laurel-chewing nonsense, if you please: I'd get a headache from all the chewing. Measure the price of my body in prophecy: how many foresights am I worth? Ah! Now!... Grant you your desire? Now that I am a goddess as much as you are a god? Who do you think you are kidding, lover? The scales of the future are eloquent, delicate, quick. A kiss, only one, don't ask for more. I must go. To Troy, to tell them. I owe you nothing, lord of good manners, god of frost and diluted dreams. Back to your void, Apollo. (originally published in GODS AND MORTALS: MODERN POEMS ON CLASSICAL MYTHS, Oxford University Press, 2001)
IN HIS FINAL DREAM The stronger evidence of a cloud which carried him into the paper-strewn lot of a magnified dream no longer his own, no longer here, no longer alive, as it was when it used to entrap him. As it was, it was no longer a cloud that carried him. He, on a string of his dream, carried it, and no longer to a place of exact destination where purpose bloomed darkly, its petals lips to feed the desire of morning air, the final air in the final dream, where he himself was the cloud. Or, he was what he was. The desireless shadow, proudly calm, proudly insouciant at desire's death. He dropped it off like a coat, this second skin, this disease, this signifier of the serene and the feverish, the true and the false--the prevailing guile. His confusion resolved and his purpose realized: he in the sky, he sans his cloud, he sans his human shell.
"After Agamemnon returned to Mycenae with Cassandra, he was murdered by Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra; for she gave him a shirt without sleeves and without a neck, and while he was putting it on he was cut down....And they killed Cassandra also." Apollodorus, The Library, Epitome, vi. 23 (tr. J. G. Frazer) CASSANDRA TO AGAMEMNON I've warned you of the bloodbath: a bath, with your blood in it, literally. But there you go, blundering right in, no hand of fate can stop you, the hand that wants you dead. And I, who will be killed soon after you, why should I care--when, or of whose hand. So don't stall--go on, go in, step blindly into your matron's trap, hero of the great war, great murderer yourself. Before I die, I'll see you flounder, like a fat carp, in the fishnet of your queen. But what is this water in my eyes? My eyes that have seen my brothers killed, My city razed, before and after. Nobody here weeps for you, therefore I will, I, Cassandra.
A bomb said to a city: "I'm falling." The city asked: "Whose side are you on?" The bomb said: "I take no sides. I'm falling." The city said: "Look around you." The bomb said: "Too late." The city did not say anything.
Marina Tsvetaeva English translations copyright (c) 1998 Poem of the End (Ardis, 1998), 190 pp. ISBN: 0-87501-112-8 Marina Tsvetaeva Translated from the Russian by Nina Kossman The Lord has rewarded me With a light-filled and iron heart. With a gift of singing, a tearful gift. The Lord has protected me With a white flag. The Lord has passed me by With the carnal flame. Hold higher the flag! The Lord above us! Heavier than stone-- The carnal flame! May 1918 __________________________________________________________ Marina Tsvetaeva Translated from the Russian by Nina Kossman I said, and another heard, Whispered to a third, who understood, And the fourth, taking his oak staff, Went into the night--to a heroic deed. The world made a song of it, and with that Song on my lips--O life!--I meet my death. 6 July 1918 __________________________________________________________ Marina Tsvetaeva Translated from the Russian by Nina Kossman TO GENIUS They christened us in the same tub, They wed us with the same wreath, They tortured us in the same jail, They branded us with the same iron. They will build us the same house. They will cover us with the same mound. 5 August 1918 __________________________________________________________ Marina Tsvetaeva Translated from the Russian by Nina Kossman My light tread --A sign of clear conscience-- My light tread, My ringing song-- God placed me alone In the midst of the great world. --You are not a woman but a bird, Therefore--fly and sing. 19 October 1918